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Be It Ever NOT SO Humble: Gilded Age Homes

The HBO (Home Box Office) TV series “The Gilded Age”

(aka “Mansion Box Office”) takes place on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during the late 19th century when the most taxing thing for the rich – since they rarely paid taxes — was climbing many of their grand staircases within their overly lavish homes – while climbing their way up the social ladder. Gilded Age Mansions come in essentially two categories – Gilded Age Mansion Museums where you can tour the mansion as well as its prominent art collection or the Gilded Mansion itself – just touring a completely furnished house. (And who better to write about Gilded Mansions dripping with gold – than a “Goldsmith”?)


I Gilded Age Mansion MUSEUMS in Manhattan

In the 21st century – besides seeing Gilded Age Mansions in their original location – on Fifth Avenue (or nearby) – you can actually visit them without a formal invitation from Andrew Carnegie, Felix Warburg, Henry Clay Frick or J. Pierpont Morgan since their homes have been turned into wonderful museums. 


Andrew Carnegie Mansion — Fifth Avenue at 91st Street — was designed by Babb, Cook and Willard and has something that was very rare – even for its time – an adjoining gated garden that still dominates Fifth Avenue today. Many people have heard of Andrew Carnegie through his eponymous concert hall, Carnegie Hall. Carnegie is also known as the man who endowed the New York Public Library system– so it’s only fitting that his home was turned into an intellectual institution — a museum – “Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum” — a fascinating branch of Washington’s Smithsonian.


Andrew Carnegie seems nothing like the ostentatious rich of TV’s “The Gilded Age” by actually asking his architects in 1898 to design a home that was “most modest and plain – and yet roomy.” The result was a Neoclassical red brick and accented stone building with coins (the building’s vertical edgings — lined in contrasting almost white stone). The mansion looks like it would blend in perfectly with its contemporary uptown new Columbia University campus’ Neo-Renaissance buildings. In 1972 (long after he was dead) – the Carnegie Corporation gave the home (posthumous generosity) to the Smithsonian. (Architecture comes full circle — It was remodeled by James Stewart Polshek, my Dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture.)


Two blocks away on Fifth Avenue is the Felix M. Warburg House from 1908 designed by C. P. H. Gilbert in the in the Renaissance Revival Style inspired by the Hotel de Cluny – today’s Musee Cluny Paris’ great Museum of Medieval Art (soon to open its new wing.) It’s the home of Felix Warburg – one of America’s leading Jewish financiers and philanthropists which very appropriately became New York’s Jewish Museum featuring many great exbibits enjoyed by all religions


Also, on Fifth Avenue (corner of East 86th Street) is the William Starr Miller House designed by Carrere & Hastings (the architects of New York’s Public Library also on Fifth Avenue) in an early 17th-Century Louis XIII Style. (It’s on the same block where Jackie Onassis lived.). The William Star Miller Home was once the home of Gertrude Vanderbilt bought by Ronald Lauder (Estee’s son and Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Austria) which he turned into the Neue Gallerie home to a magnificent collection of early 20th-century paintings including many famous Austrian works such as the most expensive painting ever sold at that time – Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer.” The intriguing and true story behind the portrait — which was stolen by the Nazis –was turned into the movie “The Woman In Gold” starring Helen Mirren playing Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece trying to recover the stolen painting,.


My favorite Gilded Age Mansion Museum is, by far, The Henry Clay Frick House—aka “The Frick Collection” again designed by the famous Gilded Age architects Carrere and Hastings in 1912 in a simple and elegant Neoclassical Style with its façade set back from Fifth Avenue also with a garden. It’s the home to dozens of well-known masterpieces by artists such as Rembrandt, Hals and Whistler and that most rare of Dutch Masters, Vermeer. The world’s greatest and largest museums are lucky to have just one Vermeer. The Frick has three. My two favorite Frick masterpieces, portraits, are by Holbein — Sir Thomas Moore facing the man who sentenced him to death, Thomas Cromwell. (Great sense of humor that Frick had.). In. fact, the Frick is so special that in the 12 years of this “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” column, I’ve described other great mansion small museums around the world as: “The Wallace Collection – London’s Frick;” “The Jacquemart Andre Museum – Paris’ Frick “and “The Doria Pamphiji Museum as Rome’s Frick.” In NYC you can’t miss that Fricking Museum!


While we’re still in Manhattan — a block from Fifth Avenue is The J. Pierpont Morgan Library which incorporates The Isaac Newton Phelps House– a pre-Gilded Age Mansion – or rather townhouse from 1854. And, yes, it’s in the East 30s which – which according to HBO’s “The Gilded Age “– was by then “declassee.” Our previous — already “visited” in this column) — Fifth Avenue Mansions (Museums) invokes how TV’s George Russell family lavishly lived. The Isaac Newton Phelps Mansion/Townhouse invokes how TV’s Ada Brook and Agnes Van Rhijn more lived more simply. (And if you want to see George Washington’s Life Mask and the original Guttenberg Bible you’ve come to right place.)


II Mansion Museums Around the US

There two types of Gilded Age Mansions open to visit. As you’ve already read – the first and most fascinating are Gilded Age Mansions turned into Museums where you can see great art in addition to touring the actual Manson. There are Glided Age Mansion Museums all over America such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — “The Frick of Boston” from 1901 designed along with Ms. Gardner by William T. Sears.


Isabella’s mansion is an interpretation of a Venetian palace with a glass-covered courtyard – one of the first in America. Just as I collect souvenirs on my many travels including Rembrandt, Raphael, and Botticelli paintings reproduced in refrigerator magnets – Isabella Stewart Gardner collected the real thing. Gardner also collected contemporary masterpieces – she was the first American to buy and display a Matisse. For those who like mysteries – and we’re not talking ghosts – in 1990 the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the scene of the biggest art theft in history in which a half billion dollars’ worth of paintings – which includes a rare Vermeer – were stolen. And more than 30 years later the theft remains unsolved. All that remains are empty frames where the paintings once hung – “Ghost Frames.” So, in addition to visiting a great art museum – you’ll be visiting a bit of 20th century history – scene of a still unsolved crime. 


Pittsburgh’s Clayton Mansion aka “The Frick Pittsburgh.” Yes, another Frick home and museum! It’s the original Gilded Age Mansion of Henry Clay Frick with its share of great paintings from famous artists such as Guardi, Rubens, and Millet. And like Compiegne Palace in France, it’s not just a magnificent art-filled home—it also has a collection of historic automobiles on display. The original house was built in the Italianate Style in the 1869s (architect unknown) and remodeled in 1892 by Frederick J. Osterling – a local Pittsburgh architect.


While New York City has its great Fifth Avenue Gilded Age Mansion Museums. California has its Gilded Age Mansion Museum. And like NY’s J Pierpont Morgan Library – The Huntington also has a Library as well as something that Manhattan’s Mansion Museums don’t have — extensive gardens – including Chinese, Japanese and Australian gardens. The first building, the home, was designed in 1909 by Hunt & Grey in a refined Neo-Georgian Style. Touring the home, you’ll see it retains much of its exquisite French furniture and tasteful décor – refraining from excess. However, as the site’s full title —“The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens” – suggests, there’s much more to see. 


The Huntington is in a town adjacent to beautiful Pasadena. Henry Huntington was a railroad tycoon who also built Southern California’s wonderful streetcar system which was a fast way of getting to his house — in his town – the town he also created, San Marino. (That is until after WWII when the car companies lobbied to remove Southern California’s streetcars.)


If you like 18th-century British Art – this is a Gilded Age Mansion Museum, you cannot miss. Its “colorful” collection includes many masterpieces such as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Lawrence’s “Pinkie.” It’s very “woke” to visit and tell your friends in 2022 that you saw “The “Blue Boy with the Pinkie.” 


Washington DC has a Gilded Age Mansion turned into a museum – The Duncan Phillips House aka The Phillips Collection – at Dupont Circle by Hornblower Marshall in the Neo-Georgian Style from 1897. Like Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it was designed with galleries built expressly for paintings which opened to the public as “The Phillips Collection” with paintings by great artists such as Goya, Delacroix, Van Gogh. Cezanne. However, its specialty is American and French Impressionists including and one of Renoir’s masterpieces, “Luncheon at the Boating Party.” 


III Gilded Age Mansions of the NOT AS RICH but Famous 

There are many Gilded Age Mansions with roomfuls of original furniture – mostly too much furniture and too ornate. If they also happen to contain paintings and sculptures, they’re likely not of world renown. And there are many open to the public.


Before we visit Gilded Age Mansions that are merely the grand homes of the untalented –whose greatest achievement in life was the making of money and the ostentatious display of it – let’s visit the homes of the famous who made a difference in their time – the Gifted Gilded Mansions. These are the homes that in Hollywood terms are places associated with the movies “The Prince and the Pauper” (Mark Twain), “The Age of Innocence” (Edith Wharton) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (Molly Brown).


The Mark Twain House – aka “The Samuel Clemens Home” (Twain’s real name). The Twain (and Clemens) house is in Hartford, Connecticut and was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter in 1871 in the “American Gothic Style” (aka “Victorian”). According to Twain’s biographer, the home actually reflects Twain’s life, “It is part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock.” It shows how a great home can reflect a great person’s life – in this case the great Mark Twain’s literary life.


The Mount – aka “The Edit Wharton House” — is a Gilded Age Mansion in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires which is unique in many ways – intentional and unintentional. And because it’s in the bucolic Berkshires – there’s plenty of room for its unique and beautiful French Formal Garden and Italian Walled Garden. It was created and designed by Ogden Codman Jr. and his associate – none other than Edith Wharton herself. In fact, Wharton was so knowledgeable about houses of the Gilded Age that she and Codman cowrote the book, “The Decoration of Houses.”


The Mount’s lack of pomposity is evident inside and out. The exterior is symmetrical in a white stucco finish with green shutters and the interior has a lived-in look. “The term “lived in “also applies to tourists who are allowed to actually sit on the furniture. The “unintentional” uniqueness” appears in reports that it is haunted by ghosts – reportedly seen by students when it later became a girl’s school and by actors when it was later used as a dormitory. Since visitors are allowed to sit on the furniture, here’s a word of caution: Make sure you don’t also sit on ghosts! For those familiar with Wharton’s writing — she also wrote ghost stories – so maybe those ghosts are either frustrated that they weren’t included in her books – or they’re auditioning somewhere else for another Travel Channel Haunted Homes episode.


The Molly Brown House aka “The Molly Brown House Museum”– in Denver 1887 designed by architect, William A. Lang. in the Victorian Style. The fascinating Molly Brown House and Museum showcases furnishings, clothes and photos belonging to Molly Brown – just about everything except the oars she used in the rowboat sailing back to the Titanic. Visiting the Molly Brown House offers many surprises. When looking at the old family photos, you’ll see for yourself if Molly Brown looked more like Debbie Reynolds in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” or Kathy Bates in “Titanic.” 


IV. The Gilded Age Homes of Presidents

The Molly Brown House is at 1340 Pennsylvania Street. Now let’s look at Gilded Age Mansions of some of the people who lived on Pennsylvania Avenue – American Presidents.


Teddy Roosevelt’s equestrian statue was just removed from the front New York’s Natural History Museum. You can still take a day trip to see many animals associated with Teddy Roosevelt in his home, Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island built in 1885 by Rich and Lamb (even one of its architects was an animal — “Lamb”) in the American Victorian Style where you’ll see heads of many animals Roosevelt hunted, stuffed and mounted on the walls. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s “Summer White House.” Instead of the usual American Victorian (yes, “Queen Anne”) exterior of heavy stone – the wood shingles give it a lighter and warmer feel. The home is furnished with family furniture and other mementos. 


The library on the first floor served as Teddy Roosevelt’s office. On the second floor — as in many Gilded Age Mansions — you’ll find the sewing room – perfect for sewing Teddy’s Bearskin Rugs. And on the top floor is “The Gun Room” – which was indirectly responsible for much of the décor.


It there’s one home that should NOT be “Haunted” — it’s Sagamore Hill. imagine if the ghosts of bears and tigers started haunting visitors — they’d be eating the ghosts — of people.


Springwood — aka just “Hyde Park” – is the official name of the home of another President and First Lady – a First Lady who actually slept at the home of TWO presidents. (Melania, eat your heart out!) It’s the home of Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor – Teddy Roosevelt’s niece. When Franklin was born in 1882 the home was an 1850s asymmetrical wooden shingle Victorian house known in a mid-19th-century style known as “Italianate” – (the cornices had protruding brackets). FDR got rid of his ugly shingles in 1915 by totally remodeling his house into the Neoclassical, Neocolonial Style with a symmetric stucco and stone exterior — the almost Federal Style building it is today. And like another president, Thomas Jefferson, FDR’s architectural sketches inspired its architects, Hoppin and Koen. (TIP: If you walk around to the West Façade – you can actually see remnants of the old wooden Victorian house.)


Hyde Park is not just another “Gilded Age Mansion” – it’s a home that tells the story of a great world leader – as well as stories of its great world visitors – including Queen Elizabeth’s parents (King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth) for the first American visit of a British Monarch.


There are the many personal touches – FDR’s stamp collection, his ship models (apropos for Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy) as well as he most moving (literally and figuratively) object – FDR’s wheelchair.


And one of the great advantages of being president is being buried in your own backyard – which is where you find the graves of FDR, Eleanor and even their adorable dog, Fala. (And unlike Teddy Roosevelt’s mounted animal trophies – you’ll find Fala’s entire body – including his attached head!)


V. “Gilded Age Mansions” as Over -the-Top Museums.

Just a few miles from the world-famous landmark Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt home, we return to the ostentation, pomposity, and vulgarity usually associated with the “Gilded Age” — and the Vanderbilt family in particular – the “Nouveau Riche” of their day. And if you’re at FDR’s home – it’s well worth a visit just to see, “How the other half lives.” At Hyde Park, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt hosted Winston Churchill, while at a Vanderbilt mansion they raised a Churchill – Consuelo Vanderbilt – The future Duchess of Marlborough.


As Vanderbilt homes go – the Frederick W. Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park from 1896 is quite restrained perhaps it’s because the architects were the Neoclassical masters, McKim, Mead and White who also worked on the interior decoration. (Stanford White is also the “architect “of the “Russell House” on HBO’s “The Gilded Age.”) 


The Frederick William Vanderbilt Mansion has something truly unique for a Vanderbilt home – its number of rooms is only two digits – 54. 


Even the interior first-floor plan is tastefully symmetric with a large center elliptical hall – years before the White House had a similar room called, “The Oval Office.” 


The poster boy (and poster girl) of all Gilded Age Mansions – and all homes in the history of America down to today -= is the Vanderbilt’s gigantic Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore Estate is in Western North Carolina city with great Art Deco architecture, Asheville. The Biltmore was designed by Richard Morris Hunt – the architect of choice for many Vanderbilt residences — in 1889 in a French Renaissance Style reminiscent of France’s Loire Valley’s Blois on steroids. It is the largest Private home in the US with over 250 rooms including 35 bedrooms 65 fireplaces and 43 bathrooms which means that at a capacity ball – if all the guests go to the bathroom and flush the toilets at the same time – Ashville would have its worse flood in history. 


Richard Morris Hunt designed a monument to the Vanderbilts – and to himself. While Gilded Age portraitist John Singer Sargent painted many Vanderbilts – on Biltmore’s second floor you’ll find John Singer Sergeant’s portrait of Richard Morris Hunt so for a change you’ll not only experience the work of an architect – you’ll get to see the architect, too. 


Give me a break – The Breakers – yet another Vanderbilt Mansion – this one in Newport, Rhode Island. To historians studying the 18th century – Newport is known for the Touro Synagogue whose congregation was reassured of freedom of religion in a letter from George Washington Now we change centuries and go from George Washington to George Washington Vanderbilt with the freedom to spend as much money as you can.


Newport was to the 19th century what the Hamptons is to the 21st – the summer haunt of the rich. The Breakers and other Newport Gilded Age Mansions were referred to as “Cottages.” I’m surprised that the period’s entertainment, Vaudeville, never came up with the expression, “Playing the Cottage.” 


The Breakers – yet another Vanderbilt Mansion also designed by Richard Morris Hunt — this time in an Italian Renaissance Style. with something new and literally unseen any house. The Breakers is more resistant to breaks – or at least fires — with its technologically advanced steel frame instead of wood – making the building much more fireproof. And there are more lives to be saved with 30 rooms just in the servant’s quarter alone.


The third floor is closed to tourists – 21st-century Vanderbilts live there even though they sold (not donated) the entire estate to the Newport Preservation Society in 1972. I hope at least they’re paying rent.


If you want to visit Gilded Age Mansions for free – you’re in luck. In Manhattan just stroll into one — starting with The Gertrude Rhinelander House at Madison Avenue and 72nd Street (a Ralph Lauren store). Then make you way to The Morton F Platt Mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (Cartier Jewelers) and then wind up at The Villard Houses – behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue where you can actually stay for days – it’s now part of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel.


How did The Gilded Age End? Was it the sudden development of good taste, the rise of Art Deco or other modern design movements that ended the Gilded Age? It was the passing of the 16th Amendment — THE INCOME TAX!

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