The Gilded Age Billionaires, Part I

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A pigeon surveys the city from atop a gargoyle on the Fletcher mansion, now the Ukrainian Institute, on 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Sunny and warm around, some humidity but expected. And no rain. For awhile, that’s nice. But New York is still on the quiet side. Driving up Park Avenue last night about 8 o’clock, starting at 71st looking north, much of the three lanes stretches all the way into the 90s, were empty. It’s kind of a pleasure to see. It gives you a chance to look at the architectural world around these parts. There are several major apartment towers going up just in my neighborhood.

What for years was a real neighborhood of three and four story buildings and neighborhood retail shops along with restaurants and food markets (a neighborhood) is moving up to another kind of neighbor. The rentals in these buildings if they’re not intended as privately owned now run in the thousands. The son of friends of mine just rented his first apartment with a roommate, two bedrooms: $8,000. Their post-grad boys but with jobs, but still …

I’m reminded again and again that this is New York. Today we’re running the first of two parts about the mansions that New Yorkers built for themselves a century and more ago. There were lots of them as the 19th moved into the 20th. And many were spectacular, like small palaces. And like every house, there were the owners, the occupants, whose lives drew similar curiosity to the rest of onlookers and passersby. They were the billionaires of that new century. And actually their choices were much more noticeable and grander. Along with the dramas therein of every family.

We took a walk Sunday afternoon down the avenue and stopped at the block between 78th and 79th where three mansions built a century and more ago at the end of the Gilded Age, as prime residential real estate. These mammoth city houses were designed by the great architects of the day to decorate the image (and egos) of these princes and barons of great American wealth of the late 19th century. It is a tribute to one man, however, who developed the block in the 1870s, that these houses still command their portion of the grand boulevard, overlooking Central Park.

Looking south at the the block between 79th and 78th streets (l. to r.): The Isaac Fletcher mansion, completed in 1899; Two Stanford White-designed houses completed in 1906 for Col. Oliver Payne and his nephew Payne Whitney; James B. Duke house, completed in 1912.

The Gilded Age billionaires lived much more grandly than today’s billionaires. Their multiple residences were often bigger and far grander monuments of acquisitiveness than today’s new palaces. The Breakers, the Cornelius Vanderbilt II house in Newport, which cost $7 million to build (the approximate equivalent of more than $200 million in today’s dollars) had 70 rooms, 33 of which were used for servants, and was used basically for a few weeks in July and August.

Their heirs began to stop using those houses in the third decade of the 20th century when the upkeep became too much for most. Although this was not anticipated, it was always, according to history, inevitable.

The block between 78th and 79th on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is an excellent architectural specimen of the late Gilded Age when the billionaires lived much more sumptuously than today’s billionaires. They owned weekend houses, summer houses, ski lodges, hunting lodges, fishing lodges, winter retreats, New York residences and often London and Paris residences. They had larger staffs ($50 a month with room and board was good money) maintaining mansions, even palaces in some cases, and they moved frequently from place to place by private railroad car or private yacht (which was also used for global vacations).

The entrance and elegant double wooden front doors of 973 Fifth Avenue.

This block on Fifth Avenue was developed in the late 1870s, early 1880s by a man named Henry Cook who owned all the land from Fifth to Madison. He had it written into the deed so that it remains a block of townhouses (some commercialized), the “lowest block on Fifth Avenue.” He built the first house for himself on the northeast corner of Fifth and 78th in 1883, and lived there until his death in 1905.

When Cook died his executors sold the house to James B. Duke, one of the founding partners of American Tobacco and the owner of Duke Power. His fame a century later comes through his daughter Doris Duke. Duke’s purchase price of $1.25 million was very big money in those days (approximately 30 times in today’s currency), although probably market value in today’s real estate market.

Henry H. Cook’s stone mansion at 78th Street and Fifth Avenue was supplanted by the James B. Duke house in 1912. American Architect and Building News

Mr. Duke was going to remodel but then decided to tear it down and replace it with a chateau designed by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. Nanaline and James B. Duke moved into the new house, finished at the cost of approximately $1 million in 1912, the year their only child, Doris Duke was born.

The girl was only 13 when her father died in 1925, making her the richest child in the world. According to the 1915 New York State Census records Mr. Duke lived in the eight bedroom house with his wife, his two-year-old daughter Doris, two relatives and thirteen servants (three men and ten women) most of whom were immigrants from Scandinavia. The daughter and her mother remained in residence (part time of course) until the late 1950s when they gave it to New York University.

James B. Duke house at 4 East 78th Street, the childhood home of Doris Duke, who gave the house to NYU in 1958.

The second house to be built on the Fifth Avenue side of the block, two plots up from the Cook house, was designed in the French Renaissance style by CHP Gilbert for a wealthy businessman and stockbroker Isaac Fletcher and his wife Mary, and completed in 1899. Gilbert, who also designed the Felix Warburg mansion (now the Jewish Museum) further up the avenue, created the citified image of a rural chateau on the edge of a wood (Central Park), complete with a moat-like surround and wide front steps suggesting a bridge. The carved detail is still considered outstanding including a winged monster on the chimney and a pair of dolphins on either side of the entrance.

Mr. Fletcher died in 1917 and the house was acquired by oilman Harry Sinclair who was deeply implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s, the greatest American political scandal until Watergate. After Mr. Sinclair it was bought by Augustus van Horn Stuyvesant and his sister Ann. Brother and sister were descended from Peter Stuyvesant who purchased Manhattan Island from its native inhabitants for the equivalent of $24 in stuff. In 1955, it was purchased by a wealthy inventor, William Dzus who gave it to the Ukrainian Institute in 1955 in whose hands it remains today, often used for public forums and exhibitions.

Right next door to the Fletchers (and eventually the Dukes who came later), is the house that has the most interesting family history — the Payne and Helen Whitney residence, now the Cultural Services building of the Embassy of France, at 972 Fifth. The five-story mansion was commissioned in 1902, a wedding gift from Mr. Whitney’s maternal uncle Col. Oliver Payne, designed by Stanford White.

The doorway of the Payne Whitney mansion, now the Cultural Services building of the Embassy of France at 972 Fifth.

Work on the Italian Renaissance palazzo-style house was begun in 1903 and completed after White’s murder in June 1906. Right next door was a narrower house, also designed by White and originally contracted by Henry Cook who died before it was completed. It was eventually owned by Col. Payne although he rarely used it. It remains one of the two or three private mansions still standing on Fifth Avenue.

At the time of the building of these houses, the Whitneys were one of the richest families in the country thanks to Payne Whitney’s father, William C. Whitney, and most especially thanks to his uncle Col. Payne. However, the building of these houses was a milestone in a pronounced family estrangement between Whitney and Payne. The break had occurred less than a decade before after the death of Whitney’s wife (who was also Payne’s sister). It involved what has remained in the past century, one of the largest 19th century American fortunes, and one of the few to last into the 21st century. The breach between brothers-in-law was never repaired.

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