By Alexander Berki
What was once considered uptown, Washington Square still holds many of its characteristics from the days when New York’s upper crust first began to build their modest, simple, but large, townhomes on its boarders. With the beginning of the industrial boom and the immigration populations growing everyday, the slums and rift raft of old New York’s downtown was swiftly moving uptown. To escape the crowded streets and those people who were considered to be, for a lack of a better term, “common,” society began to look for refuge in the uncharted wilderness above 14th Street. At the time few people lived above 14th street and the undeveloped land was then considered to be the country, consisting of mostly farmers. A change would come with the woman Edith Wharton believed had, “characteristic independents.”
Mary Mason Jones, who was fictionalized as, “Old New York’s Dowager Empress, Catherine Manson Mingott,” in the “ The Age of Innocence,” was the first of her set to develop a fashionable home in the “inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.”
Known as Marble Row, Jones commissioned architect Robert Mook to erect an elaborate collection of adjoining houses in the French Renaissance style on an inherited plot of property along Fifth Avenue between 58th and 57th Streets. In Edith Wharton’s immortalization of Jones and her “Marble Row,” she wrote, “It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting–room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equaled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one–story saloons, the wooden green–houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble–stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris.”
As the grid of Manhattan laid itself out northward, Old New York, steeped in its tradition, never veered far from the Washington Square branches of Fifth and Madison Avenues. The newly fashionable style of the Brownstone began to cover the city in a cold chocolate hue. First in the high teens, then up to the east 20’s where the residential tide had reached Madison Square. The area became an aristocratic one and mostly consisted of Brownstone row houses with the exception of Leonard Jerome’s Mansion on the Corner of 26th and Madison. Built in 1859, the mansion featured a mansard roof, in the Second Empire style, a private ballroom and a unique feature of a 600 seat private theater.
Once the fashionable flow of the Gilded Age reached the East 30’s the farmland now known, as Murray Hill, became the start of architectural one-upsmanship. Starting the trend of the 5th Avenue palaces was A.T. Stewart. On a plot of land on 5th Avenue and 34th street, directly across from the reigning queen of society Mrs. Astor, the department store mogul commissioned architect John Kellum to build a mansion in the Second Empire style, the fashionable style of the day. Built to suit the Stewart’s newly established wealth, the mansion received such a buzz that crowds would gather in front of the home and gossip about its “unapologetically pretentious” exterior with its excessive use of marble and collection of styles. Few had seen the interior but it was said to be, “ plain, cold and, severe.” It wasn’t until society reached the area near the central park, as Mary Mason Jones predicted that the Palaces became architecturally significant.
Today the Vanderbilt family is immersed in NYC history, but during the beginning of the Gilded Age they were seen as “new money,” and Caroline Astor was not going to entertain the likes of company so close to their humble beginnings. So to prove that it was time for the Vanderbilts to be welcomed into society Alva Vanderbilt collaborated with Richard Morris Hunt and created the Petit Chateau at 660 5th Avenue, as the proper house of her branch of the Vanderbilt family. The home was built in the French Renaissance style and created an architectural frenzy. Because of Alva’s love for architecture (she would later own 9 mansions) the Petite Chateau was seen as the great swan song of the great New York City mansions. It was well balanced, had the perfect blend of historical influence and decorative restraint. To open her house Alva threw a great ball in honor of her best friend Consuelo Yznaga, the Duchess of Manchester. The party was the most anticipated party of the day and the greatest social coup ever to take place in New York. In planning her great party Alva purposely did not invite Mrs. Astor, because of social customs Alva was not allowed to call on New York’s queen because she had not yet called on Alva. This forced Caroline into a wall. Because her daughter so wanted to attend the party Caroline Astor sent her footman to the Petit Chateau with her calling card. This small piece of paper that read nothing more than “Mrs. Astor” said that the Vanderbilt’s were now part of society. The erecting of the Petit Chateau was so successful that 5th Avenue in the East 50’s would come to be known as Vanderbilt Row.
William Henry Vanderbilt would build the Twin Palace at 640 5th Avenue. Two adjacent mansions in the Italianate style housed the heir to the Commodore’s fortune and the other housed two of his married daughters. The mansions would later be torn down and become the home of Rockefeller Plaza. Further up 5th avenue, the enormous chateau built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II dominated the street. The home was not significant in its style however it was the largest of kind with 130 rooms and took up almost the entire block. The home would later be tore down and its décor donated to the Met Museum.
The palaces of 5th Avenue would continue to rise along the grid and with the commercial rift raft of NYC swiftly moving uptown they would then fall. Few of the homes still stand today but, remnants of them are sprinkled about, breaking from the tradition of the glass high rises of today, as they broke from the tradition of brownstones of their day.•
Various pictures of Marble Row
A portrait of Mary Mason Jones