Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, New York City (2)

The house at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 58th Street in New York City, around 1905-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Perhaps no family is more closely associated with the Gilded Age than the Vanderbilts, who rose to prominence in the mid-19th century. The family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) gained his wealth through dominance of first the steamboat and then the railroad industries, and he left nearly all of his fortune to his son, William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), who managed to double its value in just eight years before his death. At the time, he had a net worth of about $200 million, which was divided among his eight children.

While the first two Vanderbilt generations had grown the family fortune, the third generation primarily spent it. This included the construction of lavish mansions here on Fifth Avenue and summer homes in resort communities such as Newport. William Henry Vanderbilt had built homes a little south of here on Fifth Avenue in the early 1880s for himself and two of his daughters, but his children outdid him in their massive, costly houses.

One of his sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920) built the Petit Chateau on Fifth Avenue, along with Marble House in Newport, and his youngest child, George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914) built the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, the largest private home ever constructed in the United States. However, it was his eldest child, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899) who built two of the most memorable Gilded Age mansions, with The Breakers in Newport, and his primary residence here on Fifth Avenue, between West 57th and West 58th Streets.

After the death of his grandfather in 1877, the younger Cornelius had inherited over $5 million, and in 1883 he used some of this money to built this five-story home. It was designed by architect George  P. Post, featuring a Châteauesque design with a red brick exterior and limestone trim. It was completed in 1883, and it was intended to surpass his younger brother’s Petit Chateau, which had been built a year earlier. At the time, the house was situated at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 57th Street (a photo in an earlier post shows a better view of that side of the house), and it was considerably larger than that of his brother’s.

However, this house was not large enough for Cornelius. He inherited nearly $70 million from his father in 1885, and he soon set about expanding his home. In 1887 he purchased five houses along West 58th Street and demolished them, clearing the way for an addition that would extend his mansion along the length of the entire block. This $3 million project was done to prevent any other mansions from rivaling it in size, and it was evidently successful, because the 130-room house remains the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

The work on the house was finished in 1893, two years before The Breakers was completed in Newport. However, Vanderbilt did not get to enjoy either house for very long, because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896 and died three years later, at the age of 55. His wife Alice (1845-1934) outlived him by many years, though, and she continued to live here well into the 20th century, alternating her time between here and Newport. The first photo was taken sometime within about a decade after Cornelius Vanderbilt’s death, showing the northern side of the house from Grand Army Plaza, near the southeast corner of Central Park. The part of the house in the foreground is the 1893 addition, with the original house partially visible in the distance on the left.

By the early 20th century, this section of Fifth Avenue had become increasingly commercialized, and many of the Gilded Age mansions were being demolished and replaced with new skyscrapers as New York’s elite moved northward into the Upper East Side. However, Alice Vanderbilt resisted moving, remaining here in the house until she finally sold it in 1926 for $7 million. She then belatedly joined the northward migration, moving about ten blocks uptown to East 67th Street.

The new owners of the property had no intention of keeping the house here. It had never been a particularly practical residence to begin with, as it was built more for show than for comfort. It was also expensive to maintain, requiring more than 30 servants just to care for the house and its sole occupant. Adding to this was the fact that, by the 1920s, this land had become far more valuable as commercial property. So, the house was demolished later in 1926, and the flagship Bergdorf Goodman department store was built here in its place.

The department store, completed in 1928, is still standing here, and it is still the home of Bergdorf Goodman. However, almost nothing remains from the first photo, as all of the other low-rise 19th century buildings on the surrounding blocks have also long since been demolished. The only surviving building from the first photo is the present-day Peninsula New York hotel, visible a few blocks away on the far left side of the scene. Built in 1905 as the Gotham Hotel, it was one of the early skyscrapers along this section of Fifth Avenue, and it looms over the mansions as an ominous sign of the commercial development that was steadily making its way uptown.

Ochre Point Avenue Gates at The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The western entrance to the driveway of The Breakers, seen from Ochre Point Avenue at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Newport, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These imposing gates stand at the Ochre Point Avenue entrance of The Breakers, which was built as the summer residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Constructed over a two-year period from 1893 to 1895, at a cost of $7 million, it was the largest of the many Gilded Age homes that were built here in Newport as seaside “cottages” for some of the nation’s richest families. The house is situated at Ochre Point, on a 13-acre lot that is bordered on three sides by a 12-foot-high wrought iron and limestone fence. The fence is broken by two gates, one here and one on Shepard Avenue, that rise 30 feet above the driveway. They were manufactured by the William H. Jackson Company of New York, and are flanked on either side by smaller gates for pedestrian access to the property.

Together, these two main gates weigh more than seven tons, and feature intricate details, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initials in a monogram at the top of the gate. Other decorative features include acorns and oak leaves, both of which served as important symbols for the Vanderbilt family. Reflecting the saying that, “from little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” the symbols represented the life of Cornelius’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who rose from humble beginnings as a teenage Staten Island ferry operator to become the wealthiest man in America. As a result, acorns and oak leaves can be found throughout The Breakers, along with other Vanderbilt buildings such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

If the 1899 date for the first photo is accurate, it would have been taken sometime during Cornelius Vanderbilt’s last summer at The Breakers. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, only a year after the completion of the house, and he never fully recovered. He left The Breakers for the last time on September 11, 1899, to attend a railroad board meeting in New York, and he died the next morning from a cerebral hemorrhage. His widow Alice inherited both his mansion in New York and The Breakers, and she went on to own the latter until her death 35 years later.

The Breakers would remain in the Vanderbilt family until 1972, when it was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, and it is now open to the public as a museum. Very little has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now hide more of the property than the newly-planted ones did in the first photo. The house is now the centerpiece of the Preservation Society’s many historic properties in Newport, and it is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, drawing over 400,000 visitors through these gates each year.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, seen from the Cliff Walk in Newport, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is renowned for its many 19th and early 20th century summer “cottages,” which were built by many of the nation’s wealthiest families and represented some of the finest examples of residential architecture in this era. However, none could quite compare to The Breakers, which was completed in 1895 as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the prominent railroad tycoon who had inherited much of the Vanderbilt family fortune from his father William and grandfather Cornelius. With 70 rooms and over 125,000 square feet, it dwarfed all of the other Newport mansions, and it would go on to epitomize the luxury, grandeur, and excess of the Gilded Age.

The Breakers is situated on Ochre Point, a rocky promontory on Newport’s eastern shoreline, and was built on the site of a previous mansion of the same name. The original Breakers was a wooden, Queen Anne-style mansion that had been designed by the prominent architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns for tobacco merchant Pierre Lorillard IV. It was completed in 1878, but he owned the house for less than a decade before selling it to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885 for $450,000, in what was at the time the largest real estate transaction in Newport’s history.

As the favorite grandson and namesake of the family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had inherited $5 million after his grandfather’s death in 1877. Nearly all of the remaining family fortune, close to $100 million, had gone to Cornelius’s father, William H. Vanderbilt, who managed to double this amount in jut a few years. However, William died in 1885, just a few months after his son purchased The Breakers, and Cornelius inherited nearly $70 million from his estate, equivalent to nearly $2 billion today.

Cornelius’s younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt, had received a similar inheritance from their father, and he and his socially ambitious wife Alva soon set out to build Marble House nearby on Bellevue Avenue. This lavish mansion far exceeded the original Breakers in opulence, and its $11 million construction costs dwarfed the paltry $450,000 that Cornelius had spent to purchase his summer home. Marble House was completed in 1892, but later that year The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, providing Cornelius with the opportunity to eclipse his brother and sister-in-law in constructing a new summer home.

At the time of the fire here in Newport, Cornelius was just finishing a $3 million expansion of his massive Fifth Avenue mansion, making it the largest private home in New York City’s history. Despite this, he and his wife Alice spared no expense in rebuilding The Breakers. They hired Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who had designed Marble House, and within six weeks of the fire he had produced preliminary designs for the house. Cornelius and Alice ended up choosing his second design, though, which was inspired by Italian Renaissance-style architecture, and construction began in the spring of 1893.

The house was completed in just two years, thanks to the efforts of some 2,000 workers who worked in shifts, both day and night, to ensure that it was completed as soon as possible. It was much larger, and had been built in far less time than Marble House, but at $7 million it had actually cost significantly less to build, with William having spent $7 million just on marble alone. It would be Richard Morris Hunt’s magnum opus and, as it turned out, his last major commission, as he died in Newport while supervising the finishing touches in the summer of 1895. The house’s completion came none too soon for Cornelius Vanderbilt, though, who was only able to enjoy one summer at the house in good health before suffering a debilitating stroke in 1896.

Cornelius, Alice, and their children would continue to spend several more summers here at The Breakers, but Cornelius never fully recovered his health and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September 1899, a day after returning to New York City from Newport. Alice would outlive him by 35 years, and became known as “Alice of the Breakers” for her long ownership of the house. However, the Gilded Age was rapidly drawing to a close at the turn of the 20th century, as was the Vanderbilt family’s wealth and prominence. William H. Vanderbilt’s children, including Cornelius, had done little to grow the family fortune, but excelled at spending it, particularly on lavish mansions in New York and summer houses such as The Breakers, Marble House, and the Biltmore Estate.

By Alice’s death in 1934 at the age of 89, the family fortune had been squandered and divided among so many descendants that it was essentially gone. Most of the New York City mansions, including her own Fifth Avenue home, were gone, replaced by modern high-rises, and the many summer homes in Newport and elsewhere were already antiquated white elephants from a long-gone era. During Alice’s later years, taxes alone on The Breakers amounted to $83,000 per year, plus operating expenses that included paying nearly 60 servants and other employees, along with 150 tons of coal to heat the house each winter. She eventually took to alternating years spent in Newport and New York, so that both houses were never open simultaneously.

Of Alice’s seven children, she outlived all but three of them. Her first child, Alice, had died as a child in 1874, and she subsequently lost her oldest son William to typhoid fever in 1892 while he was in college. Alfred died aboard the RMS Lusitania, when it was sunk by a German submarine during World War I, and Alice’s youngest son, Reginald, was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic who died of cirrhosis in 1925, a year after the birth of his daughter, future fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Her only other son, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, was disinherited by his father for his unapproved marriage, and neither he nor his sister, the famous sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had much interest in acquiring The Breakers.

As a result, the mansion ultimately went to Alice’s youngest child, Gladys, who was 47 at the time and married to a Hungarian count, László Széchenyi. She owned the property for the rest of her life, until her death in 1965, but in 1948 she began leasing the house to the Preservation Society of Newport County, and for the first time it was opened to the public. She would continue to maintain an apartment on the third-floor, as would her daughter Sylvia, but otherwise the rest of the house was preserved as a museum. Sylvia ultimately sold The Breakers to the Preservation Society in 1972 for just $365,000, substantially less than what her grandfather had paid for the original house 87 years earlier, although the sale included a stipulation that she be allowed to continue to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

After Sylvia’s death in 1998, the third floor continued to be used by her children, Paul and Gladys Szápáry, for the next 20 years, but in early 2018 the Preservation Society asked them to leave, citing safety concerns. This move came shortly after the Szápárys voiced their opposition to the Preservation Society’s controversial decision to build a welcome center on the property, which many critics argued would mar its original landscape and historic appearance. Their departure ends four generations and nearly 123 years of the Vanderbilt family living here, but it also gives the Preservation Society the opportunity to restore the third floor and make it accessible to the public for the first time.

Today, The Breakers is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. Aside from the colonial-era Hunter House, all of these are Gilded Age mansions that represent some of the finest examples of residential architecture in 19th century America, including William and Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House. However, The Breakers remains, by far, the largest and most impressive of these homes, and has been well-preserved over the years, as these two photos show. Because of its architectural significance, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and it is now one of Rhode Island’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over 400,000 visitors per year.

Fifth Avenue from 57th Street, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 57th Street in New York City, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

These photos were taken just a block further up Fifth Avenue from the ones in the previous post, and they show Grand Avenue Plaza and the southeast corner of Central Park in the distance. On the far left side of the first photo is part of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, which was demolished in 1926 to build the present-day Bergdorf Goodman building. The ornate wrought-iron gates, though, were preserved, and Vanderbilt’s daughter Gertrude later donated them to Central Park, where they now stand at the Conservatory Garden. None of the other buildings in the foreground are still standing, and the only object that has remained the same is the golden equestrian statue of General Sherman, barely visible from here in the center of the Plaza.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 56th Street, with the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on the left side of the street, around 1907-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

As explained in an earlier post, this section of Fifth Avenue was once known as Vanderbilt Row because of the number of mansions that the family built here in the late 1800s. However, none of the other mansions rivaled that of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who was the eldest son of William Henry Vanderbilt and the grandson of family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt. When his grandfather died in 1877, the younger Cornelius received a $5 million inheritance, and soon after he set to work building a lavish mansion here at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 57th Street.

When it was completed in 1883, the house consisted of just the section closest to West 57th Street, which is the side facing the camera. However, his father died two years later, leaving him in charge of the New York Central Railroad and giving him an inheritance of nearly $70 million, or close to $1.8 billion in today’s dollars. He put some of this money to use a few years later, when he decided to expand his house and ensure that no other mansion could rival it. The $3 million expansion was completed in 1893, giving the house 130 rooms and making it the largest private residence ever built in the city.

Two years later, Vanderbilt’s other famous home, The Breakers, was completed. This 125,000 square foot summer “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island cost over $7 million, but Vanderbilt had little time to enjoy either of his two new houses. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1899 at the age of 55. His widow Alice continued to live here in this house until 1926, when she sold it to developers who demolished it and built the Bergdorf Goodman building that now stands there today.

With the exception of the Plaza Hotel in the distance on the far left, none of the other buildings from the first photo are still standing. Like the Vanderbilt mansion, all of the other private homes here were demolished in the early 1900s, when this area was redeveloped into a major retail district. However, while the Vanderbilts no longer call Fifth Avenue their home, this area is certainly not devoid of millionaires. The building on the far right of the 2016 photo is the Trump Tower, the primary residence of Donald Trump, whose father was a young child living in nearby Queens when the first photo was taken.

Vanderbilt Row, New York City (2)

Another view looking north on Fifth Avenue from 51st Street, taken around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

This view is very similar to the one in the previous post, just from a somewhat different angle. Here, it shows not just the Vanderbilt mansions on the left side, but also some of the important buildings to the right. When this photo was taken in 1908, the Gilded Age mansions of the Vanderbilt family were still standing, including the Triple Palace on the far left and William K. Vanderbilt’s Petit Chateau just beyond it. Both of these were built in the early 1880s, but in 1906 a matching house was built right next to the Petit Chateau. It is barely visible from this angle, and hard to distinguish from the original mansion, but it was the home of his son, William K. Vanderbilt II.

The houses on the right side of the first photo were much newer, with the most obvious being the Marble Twins, which have the long second-floor balcony. Completed in 1905, these two townhouses were built for George Washington Vanderbilt II, who is probably best known for his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which is still the largest private home in the country. Just beyond Vanderbilt’s two townhouses here, at the corner of 52nd Street, is the Morton F. Plant House. This was also completed in 1905, for railroad executive and businessman Morton Freeman Plant.

Although this area was home to some of the country’s wealthiest men at the time, the 1908 photo also shows some of the changes that were beginning to take place. In the distance, two large hotels loom over the mansions, reflecting a shift from residential to commercial development on Fifth Avenue. In 1904, John Jacob Astor IV opened the St. Regis Hotel on the right at the corner of 55th Street, and a year later the competing Gotham Hotel was built across from it. They were among the first of what would become a wave of hotels and retailers that would drastically change Fifth Avenue in the coming decades.

Most of the mansions on Vanderbilt Row were gone by the end of the 1920s, including the ones on the left here in this scene. There are a couple of survivors on the right side, although they are mostly hidden from view because of renovations in the 2016 scene. The Plant House is still standing, and is now owned by Cartier, a French jewelry and watch company. Right next to it is one of the two Marble Twins, which is the only remaining Vanderbilt house in the scene. The twin on the right was demolished in 1945, but the one on the left remains, and is now a Versace flagship store.

Today, despite all of the changes, there is a surprising number of buildings still standing from the first photo. Aside from the houses on the right, other buildings include both the Gotham Hotel, which is now The Peninsula New York, and the St. Regis Hotel, which still operates under its original name. Right next to The Peninsula, at the corner of 54th Street, is the University Club of New York, a private social club whose building dates back to 1899. There are also two churches on the left side of the street: Saint Thomas Church closer to the camera, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in the distance, barely visible beyond The Peninsula. The present Saint Thomas Church was built a few years after the first photo was taken, but Fifth Avenue Presbyterian is still standing. It was built in 1875, so it predated the Vanderbilt mansions by a few years and it has outlived most of them by close to a century.