One of Central Park’s grandest entrances, the ornate Vanderbilt Gate at the Conservatory Garden, has borne witness to the rapid rise and fall of not only the Vanderbilt family dynasty, but of the entire Gilded Age.
In the era dubbed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, New York’s old-money Knickerbocker families — Astors, Stuyvesants, Schermerhorns, Beekmans, and so on — looked down on upstart industrialists with palpable disdain — the so-called “robber barons” Vanderbilt, Morgan, Carnegie and Rockefeller, chief among them. Society’s most elite members were known as The 400, supposedly the number that could be accommodated in Caroline Astor’s vast ballroom, and Caroline, in particular, took great care to bar those not deemed worthy.
In an effort to pry themselves into the era’s social register, the descendants of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt I began building immensely grand homes along Fifth Avenue. Between 1878 and 1882 alone, six Vanderbilt mansions sprang up between 51st and 58th streets, each more elaborate than the last. The grandest of all, without doubt, was the extravagant French Renaissance chateau at the northwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue built by Cornelius II — Commodore’s favorite grandson and namesake
Cornelius II’s residence, prior to expansion, looking northeast at the 57th Street entrance (Image: A.D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library)
In an era of brownstone construction, 1 West 57th set itself boldly apart with a red brick and limestone exterior ornamented by ornate turrets, dormers and archways. A mere eight years after its completion, spurred by the encroachment of ever-grander neighboring manses, Cornelius II bought up five brownstones along 58th Street and began an unprecedented expansion of the chateau.
Cornelius II’s residence after expansion looking southwest at the corner of 58th and Fifth Avenue. Vanderbilt Gate in the foreground. (Image: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)
The vast addition was completed in 1893 with great fanfare. The New York Times called it, “The finest private residence in America,” and most sources refer to it to this day as the largest single-family home to have ever been built in New York City. Soaring four stories and spanning a full city block, the chateau included more than 130 rooms, each decorated with the finest furnishings and artwork money could buy.
Not even an Astor could reject such grandeur, and the majestic carriage gates at the corner of 58th and Fifth soon welcomed New York’s elite to extravagant social functions. Designed by the home’s architect George B. Post and forged in Paris, the 20-foot-tall iron and bronze gates were opened only for social occasions, guiding guest carriages to the chateau’s stately porte corchere via an elegant circular drive.
Sadly, Cornelius II enjoyed his Fifth Avenue masterpiece for only a short time before his death in 1899. Grief-stricken, it was said that Alice opened the grand gates at the Vanderbilt chateau only a few times after her husband’s death, most notably for the funerals of her sons Alfred in 1915 and Reginald in 1925.
Just 18 days after Cornelius II’s death, an enormous parade in honor of Admiral George Dewey’s return from the Spanish-American war proceeded down Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt Gates and the home’s porte corchere in the foreground. (Image: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library).
In a blink of an eye, the country’s largest private home was markedly overshadowed by commercial development in the area, including the second, larger iteration of the Plaza Hotel, erected in 1907, and the Heckscher (now Crown) Building in 1921. Alice sold the chateau to a real estate developer in 1926 for $7 million (roughly $95 million in today’s dollars). Before she vacated, she held a public open house, charging visitors the sum of 50 cents to tour the family estate and donating the proceeds to charity. Within a week, the residence was razed. Bergdorf Goodman’s flagship department store quickly took its place and stands in the location to this day.
Looking south at the Vanderbilt chateau with the Crown Building behind and the Plaza in the foreground.
That one of the grandest homes in the world survived a mere 44 years is testament to the unfathomable changes that occurred immediately before and after the turn of the 20th century. Just as massive shifts in industry and infrastructure following the Civil War had spurred the meteoric rise of new-money wealth, economic and political upheaval — not to mention unbridled spending — brought the era and much of its dynastic family wealth to a swift end. Within 70 years of Commodore Vanderbilt’s death, all of the Vanderbilt homes along Fifth Avenue had been sold or leveled.
Few artifacts from Cornelius II’s chateau remain in New York City. A fireplace mantel resides in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and two of the entry hall’s bas reliefs can be found in the lobby of the nearby Sherry-Netherland Hotel. But the most impressive remnant of the estate now stands nearly 50 blocks up Fifth Avenue, between 104th and 105th streets. The 123-year old carriage gates that once welcomed New York’s wealthiest families, now welcome New Yorkers and tourists seeking solace in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden.
The Vanderbilt Gate situated at the Conservatory Garden, was gifted to Central Park by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Cornelius II and Alice’s daughter, in 1939. (Image: Central Park Conservancy)