Gilded Ages Ago

Looking south along 7th Avenue. 12:45 AM. Photo: JH.
March 1. 2009. Snowing in New York as I write this in the early morning hour; really coming down as the weatherman predicted. Maybe this will be the big snow of the season.

I spent a quiet weekend in town going
through Michael C. Kathren's new book “Newport Villas; The Revival Styles, 1885-1935” (Norton, publishers). Mr. Kathrens is a scholar specializing in late-19th to early-20th century residential architecture and interior decoration of the American rich, particularly those in the northeastern United States. One of his earlier volumes: “American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer” (Acanthus Press) was reviewed somewhere in these pages quite some time ago. His next project, I’ve been told will be about the houses of architect and designer Ogden Codman Jr. who was written about in last week’s Diary because of the man’s villa La Leopolda on the French Riviera.
Looking south along East End Avenue from 83rd Street. 2:30 AM. Photos: DPC.
Looking north along East End Avenue from 83rd Street.
The first time I ever went to Newport was when I was a kid going with my family to visit a family friend. Coming from a small New England town I’m sure I can still remember being saucer-eyed on first seeing the palaces that run along Bellevue Avenue. Castles are an endless wonder to a child with imagination and Newport is a feast.

Many years later, by then living in New York, I used to go there on weekends to visit a friend who had a summer rental -- an apartment on the property of Clarendon Court which later became famous because of the tragic death of one of its later owners, Sunny Crawford von Bulow. That was fascinating to the grown-up but for other reasons and a story for another diary entry.

The Gold Room of Marble House -- shall we dance?
The entrance hall and staircase of Alva Vanderbilt's "cottage."
Mr. Kathren’s book is full of fantastic images of those “cottages,” especially those that were erected in the fifty year period outlined in the title, by the wealth of the American Gilded Age which in some ways makes this last “gilded” era of ours look like small potatoes.

The famous William K. Vanderbilt “Marble House” which Mr. Vanderbilt had built for his famously dynamic and temperamental wife Alva, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt with interiors by the French decorator of the day, Jules Allard. It went up between 1889 and 1892 at a final cost of about $11 million. That’s about $330 million in today’s (2009) currency. And it was a palace.

Alva, who was one of the great characters of her era both in terms of society and in terms of the women’s movement, loved building palaces and had no consciousness whatsoever about spending her husband’s huge fortune. While Marble House was under construction she had tall fences built all around it and made sure that most of the workers couldn’t speak English so that her nosey neighbors would know nothing and see nothing until the unveiling. She wanted to be around to see the jaws dropping.

And they did, of course. In fact on the night of the housewarming – August 18, 1892, guests in all their finery were made to wait outside the gates on Bellevue Avenue with the house in total darkness. Watch out world, here she comes! When everyone was there --- waiting – she had it arranged so that everything – the entire house inside and out – was illuminated all at once -- tada!

The New York Times
reported that “the grand portico was a blaze of light and dozens of liveried attendants were on hand to assist and escort the guests from carriage to cloakroom and finally to the tables with their gold-plated cutlery.

Such splendor, once achieved, didn’t hold Alva’s interest for long. Two years later, she divorced Willie K. in March 1895. The following August, the couple’s only daughter made her debut before 400 guests (her father was not invited) at Marble House and the following November, the 17-year-old was married off to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Richard Spencer-Churchill, about whom Consuelo’s little brother Harold remarked “he’s only marrying you for your money.”
Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom.
Alva herself remarried the next year, this time to Oliver Belmont, and moved down the avenue to his castle. Marble House was closed and Alva used it only for her laundry since she liked her laundresses better than his. In those pre-electric days where wash was done with washboard and handwringer, when the average Newport matron would have five to six changes of clothing per day, there had be a staff of laundresses to take care of the sometimes hundreds of pieces that needed cleaning (and pressing) daily.

Meanwhile, after only twelve years of marriage, Mr. Belmont died suddenly and the widow Alva moved back to Marble House. Always in a building mood (she built several palaces for herself in her lifetime), she hired the sons of the house’s (by then late) architect, Hunt & Hunt to design her a Tea House out behind the main house, overlooking the sea. (see NYSD 8.18.08) to be finished in time for the 1914 season for her “Chinese Ball.”
The dining room at Marble House.
Nine years later, Alva moved to France to be close to Consuelo who by that time had been legally separated from the duke (whom she divorced in 1921), and Marble House was dark and shuttered for good for her. In 1932, at the beginning of the Great Depression, only a year before her death at eighty, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont sold Marble House to the financier Frederick Prince of Chicago – with all of its contents for $100,000 or approximately 1% of its original cost forty years before.

Click image to order.
Mr. Prince and his family occupied the house for another thirty years after which it was acquired by the Preservation Society of Newport County, purchased with funds provided by Alva’s youngest son, Harold. It is now a museum.

Michael Kathren’s book is a treasure for those who are interested in the history and the architecture of the Gilded Age in Newport. It is especially curious considering that we are now in the process of finishing up a second Gilded Age of sorts in this country.

Newport is still flourishing in its way, and as you will see if you buy the book, many of the houses are still intact, some of which are still private and others are institutions or museums.

Their histories shed more than a little light on what can happen over a century of “change” in our world, a matter which seems especially pertinent at this time.
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