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Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue

May 2024
18min read

George Washington Vanderbilt II inherited scarcely more than a fraction of his father’s estate. When the railroad magnate, William H. Vanderbilt, dropped dead of an apoplectic fit in his library at 640 Fifth Avenue late in the afternoon of November 28, 1885, he left a fortune the size of which astonished even those who knew him well. It was double the value of the $90,000,000 that he had inherited from his father, the old Commodore, and as a broker of the day noted, the estate “if converted into gold…would have weighed five hundred tons, and it would have taken five hundred strong horses to draw it from the Grand Central Depot to the Sub-Treasury in Wall Street.” Of this massive sum young George, who was twenty-three when his father died, received only $ 10,000,000 and the house at 640 Fifth Avenue. It was little enough compared with what fell to his brothers: $67,000,000 to Cornelius II and $65,000,000 to William K., but George, very soon after his father had died, put his fortune to what he thought was good use. He built the most palatial mansion that America has ever seen, and he built it at a time when palaces of surpassing splendor were the order of the day for such families as the Astors, the Goelets, and the Belmonts.

George Vanderbilt’s house, if a massive limestone chateau can be called by such a homely name, was “Biltmore.” From its leaded-glass windows its young owner surveyed his princely domain of 130,000 acres of North Carolina woodlands. In its library he sat beneath a magnificent ceiling, painted by the ebullient Venetian master, Tiepolo, a work of art that he had acquired in Europe on the condition that he keep secret where he had got it and what it had cost him. Around him (he was a studious young man) were twenty thousand richly bound volumes on his favorite subjects—forestry, art, and ancient and modern languages. In his banqueting hall, whose ceiling was seventy-five feet above its highly polished floor, he dined with friends surrounded by Gobelin tapestries and warmed by a triple fireplace. In his print room he examined his collection of DÆrer engravings or a chess set that had once belonged to Napoleon I. There were forty masters’ bedrooms in the house and the steep roof that covered it was the largest, whether for a public or private building, anywhere in the country.

To plan his gardens young Vanderbilt had secured the services of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park; to manage his forests he employed Gifford Pinchot, who was then, like Vanderbilt, still in his twenties. It was the first experimental forest in America, and J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of Agriculture of the day, noted somewhat wistfully, “He employs more men than I have in my charge. He is also spending more money than Congress appropriates for this department.” The hundreds of employees who worked the farms and forests lived in a village, complete with church and hospital, that Vanderbilt had constructed for them; they provided him with a choir for his private chapel.

When George Vanderbilt conceived his plan to live in a palace and devote his fortune to experimental forestry, it is not surprising that he should have chosen as his architect a man well known to the family. Richard Morris Hunt had not only built William K.’s house at Fifty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, the very model of a French chateau that had made its designer famous, as one of his contemporaries noted, “almost before it was completed,” but who had also built the family mausoleum on Staten Island. There in a $300,000 version of the Romanesque chapel of Saint-Gilles at Arles, his father was entombed, and for fear of body snatchers was guarded by watchmen who were required to punch a time clock every fifteen minutes. It had been the magnificence of Hunt’s house for William K. that (according to legend) had made Mrs. Astor, the mentor of New York society in the Seventies, accept the Vanderbilts into her fold; it had been the quality of its design that had caused Charles F. McKim, of the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, to say that he often walked up Fifth Avenue late at night to look at the house because he slept better after feasting his eyes on it. But there were other reasons as well. Mr. Hunt was the most amiable of men and an architect rare in his capacity to get along with his clients. “The first thing you’ve got to remember,” he once said to his son, “is that it’s your client’s money you’re spending. Your business is to get the best results you can following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down standing on its chimney, it’s up to you to do it, and still get the best possible results.” With such an attitude toward his profession, there is no wonder that he found so many friends or that George Vanderbilt should have been happy to turn to him for the realization of his dream.

Biltmore was, and still is (it is now open to the public), a massive structure of Indiana limestone based on the Ch‚teau de Blois, with pinnacles and steep roofs, and a forest of chimneys and gables. When George Vanderbilt saw Hunt’s plans for the house he was so pleased that he had a spur of railroad built to the site from Asheville to expedite the construction, and he imported hundreds of artisans from France to lay the walls and apply the ornament. Accounts of its cost vary by several millions of dollars; some say $3,000,000, some say $5,000,000; whatever the figure, it evidently mattered little to George Vanderbilt or, indeed, to Richard Morris Hunt.

To most critics of architecture today Hunt is anathema. Though he may have been a more expert designer and a man of more refined tastes and greater knowledge than most of his contemporaries, his influence on American building is looked upon darkly. It is not that his own buildings are considered to be any more ridiculous than those of his fellow architects, but the style that he played so large a part in setting has, in many expert opinions, been a disastrous backwater in the progress of our architecture.

Actually Hunt was in no sense an innovator; he was a sail that caught the ambitious breeze that blew off the great fortunes of the Seventies and Eighties and drove the ship of taste into luxurious and splendid harbors. He was the artistic conscience of men and women of great wealth to whom display and ostentation were a highly competitive game. For the most part his clients were the scions of the men who established the great fortunes; it was the second, third, and even fourth generations of wealth who represented a new leisure class such as America had never known before. The founders of the fortunes were too interested in amassing wealth, too occupied with playing the great industrial game, to devote the same ingenuity and inventiveness that their sons and daughters did to spending their fortunes. There is no easier or more pretentious way to spend money than on building palaces.

More than any architect of his time, more than MrKim, or Mead, or White, and more than H. H. Richardson, the designer of Trinity Church in Boston and one of America’s most inspired architects, Hunt epitomizes the rich and official taste of the decades following the Centennial. It will pay us to consider the career of this handsome, humorous, hard-working man upon whom wealth was heaped by the wealthy and to whom honors were accorded by the world.

Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1827, the year Mrs. Trollope came to America. His father, who was a prominent jurist and a congressman, died in Washington when Richard was only five, and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother and by his mother. Mrs. Hunt was woman of somewhat uncommon talents as a painter and, according to Henry Van Brunt, one of Hunt’s first pupils, was “fortunately for the future of Art in America ... a woman of high spirit, great force of character, and of accomplishments far in advance of her time.” In her two sons (Richard’s brother was William Morris Hunt, who became one of America’s most distinguished painters and was the man who introduced a taste for French painting to Boston) Mrs. Hunt realized the artistic ambitions that it was almost impossible for a woman in her day to attain for herself. She took her sons to Europe in 1843, and while William pursued the art of painting in the studios in Munich and Paris, Richard, who had thought that he wanted to be a soldier, went to work in the atelier of a prominent Parisian architect named Hector Martin Lefuel. In 1846, when he was nineteen, Richard enrolled at the …cole des Beaux Arts. He was the first American architect ever to get his training there, and he was the first of hundreds; it was largely through his influence that later in the century it was the ambition of every young American architect to study at the Beaux Arts, and a great many of them realized their ambition. Eight years later, he went to work for his first architectural instructor, Lefuel, who had quite recently been appointed to the august position of supervising the design and construction of the additions to the Louvre by which Napoleon III intended to memorialize his reign. Young Hunt, who was by this time, to all outward appearances—in speech, mannerisms, and dress—a complete Frenchman, was put in charge of the construction of the Pavillon de la BibliothÀque. “There is a certain picturesque surprise,” one of his contemporaries recalled many years later, “in the spectacle of a Yankee lad giving form and character to one of the imperial monuments of France.”

The Frenchified Yankee lad decided, however, that though Lefuel assured him that a great career lay before him in France his responsibility and his future were in America. “It has been represented to me,” he wrote to his mother at Christmas time in 1855, “that America was not ready for the Fine Arts, but I think they are mistaken. There is no place in the world where they are more needed, or where they should be more encouraged. Why, there are more luxurious houses put up in New York than in Paris! At any rate the desire is evinced and the money spent and if the object is not attained, it is the fault of the architects.…There are no greater fools in America than in any other part of the world; the only thing is that the professional man has got to make his own standing.”

When Hunt arrived in New York, a tall young man of twenty-seven, with deep-set eyes and a splendid mustache (he had been called “the handsomest American in Paris”), the profession of architecture was scarcely considered a profession at all. But Hunt brought with him the most extensive training that any American architect had ever received, an intensely industrious temperament, a devotion to academic detail, and—almost as important as any of these—a considerable architectural library. He had collected it at some sacrifice of the expensive pleasures of Parisian gaiety, and it was an investment that paid him rich returns, for as the architect Henry Ives Cobb, Jr., has observed, “Those were the days when to be original meant having an architectural book that none of the other fellows had.” Shortly after he reached New York he was offered a job by Thomas U. Walter, who was in charge of the dome that was being added to the Capitol in Washington. He was gratified to receive a salary of $50 a week, which, next to that received by Mr. Walter himself, was the largest paid to anyone on the project.

Hunt was a natural teacher—demanding, enthusiastic, generous, and concerned. Shortly after he had set himself up in practice in New York he was approached by three young men who aspired to be architects. They pleaded with him to take one of the studios in the Tenth Street Studio Building, which he had just completed, and instruct them in the manner of the Beaux Arts; there was no university in America at that time that thought architecture worth teaching. Henry Van Brunt, George B. Post, and Charles D. Gambrill were his first pupils, and they were joined later by Frank Furness and William R. Ware, who became one of the founders of the school of architecture at Columbia University. the first in this country. Hunt was a taskmaster, insistent on “plans on rigidly scholastic lines” and “strict classic forms” and a proper study of all styles of all ages. His criticisms were, Van Brunt says, “pungent and severe…genial and picturesque” and given with “inexhaustible humor.” The pupils worked at a long table in a large room whose walls were covered with plaster casts, and Hunt encouraged them to “draw, draw, draw, sketch, sketch, sketch!” “If you can’t draw anything else,” Furness recalls his exhorting them, “draw your boots, it doesn’t matter, it will ultimately give you control of your pencil so that you can more readily express on paper your thoughts in designing.”

In the early Sixties Hunt went back to Europe, where he stayed for several years. If he had done no important work, built no splendid buildings before he left, he had accomplished something more important. He had implanted in a group of young architects an enthusiasm for what were considered in those days sound classic architectural principles. He had, indeed, laid the foundations of what was later in the century to be hailed with almost euphoric self-adulation by the architects as the American Renaissance.

Without patrons, which means without a great deal of wealth seeking to be used for personal gratification, there could be no Renaissance. No one, not even the Astors or the Belmonts, was as rich as the Vanderbilts with their vast railroad holdings, but all across the land were millionaires. In Chicago the Potter Palmers had made a fortune in real estate and hotelkeeping, in San Francisco the Crockers and the Huntingtons and the Floods and the Leland Stanfords had amassed fortunes in railroads and real estate and other bonanzas of the Gold Rush. Social competition was acute among the rich, and standing was determined, to some extent, not only by the lavishness with which one entertained but by the size and magnificence of one’s house and by the richness of its collections of paintings and tapestries and tiger rugs and chandeliers and by the number of such houses one owned and where they were situated. The most spectacular cluster of palaces (they were called “cottages” by their owners) was, of course, at fashionable Newport, a resort that Bostonians had looked upon as their own until New Yorkers such as the Astors and the Belmonts and the Vanderbilts had spotted it with their ostentatious summer homes. “There comes back to me a phrase uttered by Charles Eliot Norton…” wrote Van Wyck Brooks in speaking of the man who introduced the History of Art to Harvard. “It was to the effect that the picture of heaven in the Book of Revelation—with its excess of precious stones—was such as might have been conceived ‘by a New York woman.’ What a phrase was that for expressing how Boston and Cambridge felt about the gaudy New York splendor that had vulgarized their beloved Newport.”

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.

Hunt’s fortunes increased. He built town houses for the Elbridge T. Gerrys and the John Jacob Astors on Fifth Avenue and “cottages” for the Ogden Goelets, several for the O. H. P. Belmonts and for the Vanderbilts at Newport. If they inspired awe and envy by the massiveness of their fa¡ades, they bedazzled by the glitter and sumptuousness of their interiors. Entrance halls were two or three stories high, layer upon rich layer of balconies and balustrades, of carving and wrought iron, of chandeliers and sculptured nymphs and graces, of tremendous allegorical ceiling paintings and friezes. With a lavish hand he used white marble and pink marble and green marble and gold and still more gold. Hunt gave his clients Moorish rooms and Byzantine rooms and Palm Courts and Jacobean suites; bowls of orchids ornamented the marble-topped tables he helped his clients to select, exotic birds sang in Oriental cages he had suggested for their solariums, and the grand staircases would have been fit setting for a princess in train and coronet to descend to meet her courtiers. No wonder Hunt was the trusted darling of the New York rich. He was their taste and their sense of fitness.

By 1890 there was no question that Hunt, now sixty-three, was to most of his contemporaries the grand old master of American architecture. He had designed the base for the Statue of Liberty on Bedloes Island; he had put a new fa¡ade on the Metropolitan Museum and had built the Astor Library. He was at work on the plans for Biltmore and was soon to remodel Cornelius Vanderbilt’s cottage at Newport, “The Breakers,” a matter of alteration that cost its owner $3,000,000. There were those, to be sure, who preferred the kind of elegance that McKim, Mead, and White produced; their eclecticism was somehow less archaeological than Hunt’s and seemed fresher and less ponderous. There were those who thought that Richardson was the greatest architectural genius that America had produced, but by the Nineties he was dead at a tragically early age, his great promise only half-fulfilled. In the Middle West Louis Sullivan was immersed in the new aesthetic suggested to him by the use of steel construction and plate glass and there was a promising young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright working in his Chicago office. But when the Columbian Exposition was planned it was Hunt who was given the Administration Hall, the most prominent of all the buildings, to design.

“It was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” wrote Henry Stcele Commager in The American Mind just a few years ago, “that condemned American architecture to the imitative and the derivative for another generation.” But to the architects who planned it and the sculptors and painters who ornamented it, nothing so glorious had ever been offered to the American people. It was “The White City,” gleaming with plaster of Paris. Every one of its tremendous structures was bedecked by heroic sculpture and fluttering flags and was reflected in Lake Michigan or in the lagoons or in the artificial pools. “As a scenic display,” wrote Henry Adams, “Paris has never approached it,” and no wonder. Frederick Law Olmsted and his young assistant Henry Codman had chosen the site and brought order out of a chaos of wasteland along the lake shore. The Chicago architects John Wellborn Root and Daniel H. Burnham, the most famous practitioners in the city, were given supervision over the architectural plans, but they felt that the exposition should represent the architects not merely of the Middle West but of the whole nation. Hunt’s old pupil Henry Van Brunt and his partner, Frank M. Howe, were summoned from Kansas City; McKim, Mead, and White from New York; Peabody and Stearns from Boston. “When…in 1893,” wrote Van Brunt in his eulogy of Hunt, “several of us were summoned to act together again with him on the great national arena at Chicago, the natural dominance of the master again asserted itself without pretension, and we once more became his willing and happy pupils.”

The result of this was an array of Beaux Arts classicism as white and richly ornamented as a congregation of royal brides. The hundreds of thousands of mustachioed men in bowlers and women in leg-ofmutton sleeves who wandered on foot, or were pushed in wicker “rolling chairs,” or were wafted in the gondolas on the lagoons and reflecting pools, gazed up at domes and lofty columns capped with acanthus leaves, at ranked arches and sculptures symbolizing every virtue known to man. Taller than all the rest was Daniel Chester French’s colossal statue of The Republic, sixty-five feet from the hem of her dress to the laurel wreath that crowned her tresses.

“In the choice of the classic style,” wrote Talbot Hamlin, a devoted admirer of the American Rennaissance, “the consulting architects only symbolized popular taste; in the actual creation of the tremendously impressive group of buildings…they did more; they astonished, delighted, and fixed popular taste.” To him the Exposition was “the symbol of the arrival at full birth of that which may be called modern American architecture.”

Another observer was less sure of what the White City meant to America. “One sat down to ponder on the steps beneath Richard Hunt’s dome,” wrote Henry Adams in his autobiography, “almost as deeply as on the steps of Ara Coeli and much to the same purpose. Here was a breach of continuity—a rupture in historical sequence! Was it real, or only apparent? One’s personal universe hung on the answer for, if the rupture was real and the new American world could take this sharp and conscious twist towards ideals, one’s personal friends would come in, at last, as winners in the great American chariot-race for fame. If the people of the Northwest actually knew what was good when they saw it, they would some day talk about Hunt and Richardson, LaFarge and Saint-Gaudens, Burnham and McKim, and Stanford White when their politicians and millionaires were otherwise forgotten. The artists and architects who had done the work offered little encouragement to hope it; they talked freely enough, but not in terms that one cared to quote; and to them the Northwest refused to look artistic. They talked as though they worked only for themselves; as though art, to the Western people, was a stage decoration; a diamond shirt-stud; a paper collar; but possibly the architects of Paestum and Girgenti had talked in the same way, and the Greek had said the same thing of Semitic Carthage two thousand years ago.”

In Hunt’s mind there could have been little of the kind of concern that we now associate with the idea of an architecture for the people. Architecture to him meant grandeur in the classic tradition, something to look upon with awe and, if possible, with reverence, as one looked upon the possessors of vast fortunes with awe, even if reverence for most Americans was impossible to summon. Hunt’s career, his artistic ambitions, and his aesthetic creed were inextricably interwoven with the emergence of a new aristocracy in this country, an aristocracy of wealth which, like Hunt’s architecture, was ephemeral. A few of the houses he built for the rich still stand but the spirit that inspired them like the fortunes that built them has dwindled. Some, like Biltmore and The Breakers, are now open to tourists; some, like the William K. Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue, have disappeared; others stand empty with their lawns gone to hay and their gardens to brambles. The American Renaissance, the age of elegant eclecticism, passed from Private Taste to Public Taste and then to limbo.

Hunt was readying The Breakers for the arrival of the Vanderbilts at Newport when he died. “Upon his deathbed,” his first pupil, Henry Van Brunt, told a gathering of the members of the American Institute of Architects in a final tribute to the most distinguished of its founders, “he was seen to raise his hand and, with the fine gesture of the artist, to trace as with a pencil in the air a line of beauty, delicately but firmly fitting the act of grace to the unconscious study of his imagination.”

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