Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue


Where the arts were concerned, the vulgarizers of Newport were a timid, unadventurous lot. They were willing, indeed eager, to spend vast sums from their fortunes on palaces and on all manner of arts, fine and applied, to furnish them; but where taste was concerned they wanted to be absolutely safe. Paul Bourget, the French novelist and critic, spoke of “the sincerity, almost the pathos, of this love of Americans for surrounding themselves with things around which there is an idea ol time and stability.” And he added, “It is almost a physical satisfaction of the eyes to meet here the faded colors of an ancient painting, the blurred stamp of an antique coin, the softened shades of a medieval tapestry. In this country, where everything is of yesterday, they hunger and thirst for the long ago.” But Bourget, though he may have satisfied himself with this explanation of the houses he visited, only half glimpsed the truth, and the half he saw was sentimental. The fact was that the rich were rich enough and lived enough apart from the world to be conservative; they could look to the only models of wealth and station that they could find that were comparable with their own—the great houses of Europe and the palaces of Renaissance princes, who had also made their money as traders and financiers. Americans have always been avid consumers of books of etiquette because American society is fluid and men and women are constantly moving from one social level to another and are eager not to offend or to appear boorish. There were no books of etiquette to which the rich could apply for instructions on how princes should live in this country, and so they turned to the only models available to them—to the standards of European elegance, and with the aid of architects they adapted those external trappings to their own extremely rigid, refined, and on the whole boring mode of life.

When Hunt came back from Europe in 1868 he reopened his New York office (he had been away all during the Civil War and returned to find the country in a state of boom prosperity), and he was kept busy with commissions. But his great opportunity and his great reputation did not come until the end of the Seventies when he was commissioned by William K. Vanderbilt and his socially ambitious wife Alva to build them a house on the corner of Fifty-second Street and Fifth Avenue.

“Formalized barbarism” it has been called by James Marsden Fitch, a critic of our own day, but to most of Hunt’s contemporaries it was a revelation of beauty, purity of design, delicacy of detail, and above all of elegance. It was a chateau in the manner of Blois, and not the least of its astonishing characteristics was the material of which it was made. New York millionaires had been quite content to live in almost identical brownstone mansions, and here suddenly was Mr. Vanderbilt blossoming forth in pinnacles and turrets built of a gray limestone and topped with a slate roof. Even Ward McAllister, the social arbiter of Newport and Mrs. William Astor’s confidant and attendant, was constrained to admit that Hunt’s building was sufficient justification to invite the Vanderbilts to the Patriarch Balls at Delmonico’s.

There was one dissenting voice amidst the general clamor of praise from the architects of Hunt’s day, a voice from the Middle West, from an architect far more intellectual and far more inventive than Hunt, and one of the pioneers of the architecture we now think of as modern. “Must I show you this French ch‚teau , this little Ch‚teau de Blois, on this street corner, here in New York, and still you do not laugh?” It was Louis Sullivan who asked the derisive question. “Must you wait until you see a gentleman in a silk hat come out of it before you laugh? Have you no sense of humor, no sense of pathos? Must I tell you that while the man may live in the house physically (for a man may live in any kind of house, physically), that he cannot possibly live in it morally, mentally or spiritually, that he and his home are a paradox, a contradiction, an absurdity, a characteristically New York absurdity; that he is no part of the house, and his house is no part of him?”

But to most men no such pertinent and impertinent questions occurred. By the Eighties the American Renaissance was well launched and a new Battle of the Styles was being waged. In Boston H. H. Richardson, who had followed Hunt at the …cole des Beaux Arts by several years, and who like his elder was abroad during the Civil War, was busy adapting the ponderous Romanesque architecture of Southern France to New England churches and libraries, to railroad stations and private homes, with astonishing ingenuity and effectiveness. In New York plans came rapidly off the drafting tables of McKim, Mead, and White and of CarrÀre and Hastings for country and city houses, for public buildings and offices in all sorts of styles. The wealthy could live in adaptations of Georgian, or French Renaissance, or Colonial, or, as the Henry Villards did, in a palace on Madison Avenue and Fiftieth Street in which the Medici would have been very much at home. Architectural offices were humming with activity all over the country. These were days when there were no income taxes and a man might make as much as several million dollars a year while the men who worked for him might with luck make as much as four or five hundred. For architects good, bad, and indifferent these were halcyon days.