Vanderbilt’s 5th Ave Triple Palace

Completed 1881
Demolished 1945

A stretch of Fifth Ave from 52nd to 58th street has the moniker of Vanderbilt Row. Although now mostly gone and forgotten, it was once upon a time lined with glorious mansions which belonged to the Vanderbilt family.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, the dynasty founder, was crude, uneducated and pretty cruel to all, including his own offspring. Starting with meager $100 loan from his mother, he died the richest man in America, possessing a fortune of $100 million. Although blessed with many children, a doting father he was not. Putting business interests first, he left the bulk of his fortune to just one of his sons – William H. Vanderbilt, who took over the business, expanded the family’s railroad empire and doubled the fortune. By the way, at his death in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt, just like his father, was the richest American. However, unlike his father, he was a good parent who made sure to provide for his many children with cash and housing. Palatial housing…

Fifth Avenue, the most important and expensive thoroughfare in the city, was the place of choice for the city’s wealthy to build homes, and that, of course, was where Vanderbilts were “wonder building.”

The Vanderbilt Row starts with the Vanderbilt Triple Palace: 640 and 642 Fifth Avenue and 2 West 52nd Street, occupying the entire block between 51st and 52nd Street.

640 & 642 5th Avenue and 2 West 52nd Street, New York
The “Triple Palace” at 640 & 642 5th Avenue and 2 West 52nd Street, New York, NY, by John Butler Snook, Architect

The Triple Palace was built in 1881 as the residence of William H. Vanderbilt with two adjoining palaces for his daughters Margaret and Emily. Architecturally, the Triple Palace was restrained and not very attention-grabbing but it housed an incredible art gallery of more than 200 paintings by old masters acquired by William H. The most unusual feature of the Triple Palace was its single enormous ballroom which was designed in such a way that the drawing rooms in each palace opened up to create one single space the length of the whole city block.

Mr. William H. Vanderbilt's Drawing-Room
Mr. William H. Vanderbilt’s Drawing-Room at 640 5th Ave (between 1883 and 1884)
Console from the drawing room of the William H. Vanderbilt House
Console from the drawing room of the William H. Vanderbilt House

By a strange feat of fate, mixed with a family scandal, 640 5th Ave ended up to be the last standing of all the Vanderbilt’s mansions. After William H. Vanderbilt’s death, the house was inherited by his son George. Since George Vanderbilt died without a son, 640 Fifth Avenue passed to his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt III, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Since most of the male Vanderbilts were called either William or Cornelius, some had identifying nicknames.

The handsome Cornelius Vanderbilt III was known as Neily. Young Neily fell in love and married Grace Wilson, a woman whose ambition was to become THE Mrs. Vanderbilt – the head of the clan and the leader of society.

She came from the family of Wilsons known as marrying Wilsons. All of their fine-looking children were married into the best families. However, the Vanderbilts were so much opposed to the marriage of Neily to Grace that they disinherited Neily.

Cornelius Vanderbilt III, his wife Grace Graham Wilson Vanderbilt and their daughter Grace Vanderbilt on Fifth Avenue on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1915
Cornelius Vanderbilt III (Neily), his wife Grace Graham Wilson Vanderbilt and their daughter Grace Vanderbilt on Fifth Avenue on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1915

The couple stayed married, although not very happily. Grace got her way and became a leader of a select group Gilded Age elites. She held court from 640 Fifth Ave giving monthly balls and frequent dinners, as well as attending Opera premiers wearing her best diamonds. She was at the right place but, alas, not at the right time. By the 1920s the Gilded Age was over, being replaced by the Jazz Age, with its completely different values and social dynamics. Grace did her best to hold on to the Gilded Age style well into the 20th century. Neily died in 1942 leaving Grace to stay in 640 for another two years. By that time the house was a relic from the by-gone era, standing among new commercial structures. Grace did her best to ignore the circumstance and continued to entertain until the early 1940s when she rolled out her red carpet in front of the mansion one last time for her last ball. Grace Vanderbilt was forced to move out of her massive Fifth Avenue mansion and reluctantly moved into a much smaller house at 1048 Fifth Avenue which still stands today as the Neue Galerie.

In 1945 640 5th Ave – the last of the Vanderbilt’s mansions – was demolished. The furnishings were sold through a public auction of the rooms and interior decorations. Some of the expensive mementos were bought by Paramount Pictures.

The last of the great Vanderbilt houses on Vanderbilt Row was gone, being replaced by the most banal, nondescript commercial structures.

Fifth Avenue and the Vanderbilt Mansions seen from St.Patrick's Cathedral, New York 1890
Fifth Avenue and the Vanderbilt Mansions seen from St.Patrick’s Cathedral, New York 1890

 

Sources:

  • What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age  by Cecelia Tichi 
  • Top Drawer: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties by Mary Cable
  • The Gilded Age by Milton Rugoff
  • Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded by Mackenzie Stuart
  • The Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour and Tragedy by Clarice Stasz
  • Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Vanderbilt II, Arthur T 
  • Vanderbilt: Life Changing Lessons! Cornelius Vanderbilt On Money, Success & Life by William Wyatt

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