With so much going on, so much frenetic energy, life in New York City takes the utmost focus. The senses are overwhelmed with stimuli—people, dogs in sweaters, neon advertisements, new construction, bleating traffic—and amidst all that, there is work, board meetings, family; personal lives and the responsibilities of day-to-day life. In some ways, like carriage horses in Central Park, we all have to put our blinders on sometimes, and in a bustling city like this, it is no wonder that as the present moves forward, some relics of the past—buildings, landmarks, even whole neighborhoods, are largely forgotten.
Buildings – The Vanderbilt Houses
Although the Vanderbilts are not likely to be forgotten any time soon, the Fifth Avenue of today, has changed greatly from the area formerly populated by immense and opulent mansions. Today, the mansions of tycoons have given way to luxury apartment buildings and world-renowned shopping, and upper crust folks have predominantly moved further uptown to apartments bordering Central Park, and even Hamilton Heights. But in 1898, the Fifth Avenue area between 46th and 72nd Streets was “an almost uninterrupted mile and a half of palazzi, chateaux and fortresses…a staggering parade of wealth,” according to Nathan Silver’s book, Lost New York. Of all these homeowners, “the Vanderbilt fortune was the greatest ever amassed in America” and unsurprisingly, two of the most impressive houses of late 1800s Fifth Avenue were the Vanderbilt Houses, built for William H. Vanderbilt in 1879-82.
W.H. Vanderbilt purchased the block between 51st and 52nd Streets in 1879, and the brownstones he built there were divided by an atrium that separated his residence from that of his two sons-in-law, Elliot F. Shepard and William D. Sloane. The twin houses came to be known as the “Vanderbilt Twins” or the “Triple Palace,” because the northern house was a double unit. W.H. Vanderbilt’s residence, (which he hoped would outshine Alexander T. Stewart’s extravagant, white marble palazzo on 34th Street,) showcased his art collection, which he opened to public viewing on Thursdays via invitation.
William Kissam Vanderbilt, W.H.’s son, bought the next building site up Fifth Avenue at the northwest corner of 52nd Street, where he built his house designed by Richard Morris Hunt between the years of 1879-1883. William K. Vanderbilt’s home was considered an exquisite architectural work, and at the time, was considered behind only the U.S. Capitol and Boston’s Trinity Church, as one of the best buildings in the country. On nearby 57th Street, stood the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, (also W.H.’s son,) which began in 1880 and was later enlarged in 1894 after designs by George B. Post. In addition, at 680 and 684 Fifth Avenue, were the homes of W.H. Vanderbilt’s other two married daughters, Mrs. William Seward Webb and Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly.
According to Silver, “it was said that $15 million was expended on the building, decorations and furnishing of the Vanderbilt houses.” However, nothing lasts forever and everything is subject to change, and by 1947, all of the Vanderbilt houses had been torn down, resigning “Vanderbilt Row” to memories and books.