Once upon a time, toward the beginning of the 20th century, wealthy citizens of New York City build mansions. Before apartment buildings came into vogue, Fifth Avenue above 59th Street was lined with opulent free-standing homes, built by industrialists, bootleggers and bankers, interrupted only by the occasional hotel or private club.
Most of these sensational mansions were destroyed to make way for apartment buildings, but some survived by becoming museums or cultural institutions. Today, anyone can visit these converted former homes, a few still sporting their original decor, and imagine what life was like during the Gilded Age.
I’ve shot a few pinholes of these beautiful buildings. We’ll travel north to south down Fifth Avenue.
This is the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, at 2 East 91st Street, now home to the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, a fantastic place. It has a beautiful entry way. The mansion was built in 1903, intended as a “modest house” and was the first American home to have a steel frame.
Here’s a photo taken just after it was built in. Modest indeed!
At 2 East 79th Street you’ll find the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, now home to the Ukrainian Institute of America. The house was completed in 1902 and sports all sorts of fantastic gargoyles and mythical creatures carved in stone.
Here it is after its construction.
At 1 East 78th Street sits the James Duke House, a 40,000 square foot limestone mansion completed in 1912. It was donated in 1952 to New York University to serve as its Institute of Fine Arts.
Just after construction.
Between 70th and 71st Street lies the former Henry Clay Frick House, now housing one of the preeminent small art museums in the U.S., The Frick Collection. The mansion was built in 1913-14 and was one of the most opulent homes on the Avenue. Below is a pinhole photo of its private garden on 71st Street.
In this photo, shot after construction was completed, you can see that the house runs the whole length of the block along Fifth Avenue,
Although this mansion isn’t on Fifth Avenue, it’s a big favorite, so I’m including it. It’s the Pierpont Morgan Library at 33 East 36th Street, built in 1906 to house the library of JP Morgan, who had a townhouse next door. This gorgeous building was designed by McKim, Mead and White.
All sorts of modifications have been made to the building and its adjacent spaces, but the original Library is intact, and if you’re an art lover, it’s a jaw-dropping place. Not only does the Library contain a large collection of drawings by artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, it also holds three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, one of Henry David Thoreau’s journals, original scores by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and others, not to mention the original sketches for one of my all-time favorite books, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s unbelievable that so many incredible works are under one roof. Plus they hold fantastic exhibits of works on paper.
The library just after construction.
Two beautiful Fifth Avenue mansions that I haven’t photographed yet have become museums. One is the 1914 William Starr Miller House, on the corner of 86th Street, which is now the Neue Galerie, a petite museum with a stunning collection of early 20th century German and Austrian art and design. If you’re a fan of Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele, this is the place to go. Here’s the house just after it was built.
Many of the mansions that once lined Fifth Avenue led short lives, despite the vast sums spent on their construction. I’ll finish with old photos of a few of these palatial beauties, built to showcase the wealth of their proud owners.
The Vanderbilt house, completed in 1882, was demolished in 1926. It was known as the “Petit Chateau.”
The William A. Clark House, built in 1908, was torn down in 1925. It was known as “Clark’s Folly” for its over-the-top design, which included 121 rooms and its own private underground rail line to bring in coal for heat.
The Elbridge T. Gerry Mansion was completed in 1895 and destroyed in 1929. Its occupants enjoyed a central heating system and a library that housed 30,000 books.
Sometimes when I walk along Fifth Avenue, I imagine what it was once like, the streets filled with horse-drawn carriages and the avenue lined with one lavish house after another.