Alva Vanderbilt’s “Petit Chateau”

Completed 1882
Demolished in 1926
Architect Richard Morris Hunt
660 5th Ave at W 52nd Street

If you found yourself back in the 1880s and were standing at the corner of West 52nd Street and Fifth Ave, you’d be in awe of the massive castle-like white limestone structure modestly referred to as “Petit Chateau.” The mansion was built as the home of William Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife Alva.

Residence of William K. and Alva Vanderbilt at 660 5th Avenue, New York
Residence of William K. and Alva Vanderbilt at 660 5th Avenue, New York

The Vanderbilt dynasty started with Cornelious Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore, and was passed on to his son William H. Vanderbilt. One of William H.’s sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt, had the distinction of marrying Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith) – a woman of such an enormous will and ambition that it was she who put the name Vanderbilt on the same plane as that of the venerable Astors.

The social structure of the Gilded Age was very rigid – old families mostly tracing their roots to the old Dutch first-comers belonged to the social set of Mrs. Astor, the undisputed leader of polite society. Mrs. Astor circle was small – 400, and well guarded against upstarts like the Vanderbilts.

The Vanderbilts, despite their enormous wealth, owing to the crudeness of the dynasty founder and the very contrived notion of old vs new money, were snubbed by the Society of 400. Alva Vanderbilt, armed with immense wealth, even bigger ambition, a uniquely fearless personality, and a mission to break into the society, devised a plan which included constructing a house (a palace? a mansion? a Chateau!) which would pave the way from mere wealth to social status.

The William K. and Alva Vanderbilt mansion was located at 660 5th Ave. It was an enormous edifice in a French-Renaissance and Gothic style designed by one of the leading architects of the time – Richard Morris Hunt, whose other works included the 1902 entrance façade to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

William K. Vanderbilt Residence, New York City
William K. Vanderbilt Residence, New York City. Architect: Richard Morris Hunt

The “Petite Chateau” was by no means of imagination ‘petit.’ In fact, it was a grandiose castle-like structure lined with gleaming white limestone which stood far apart from the traditional New York brownstone mansions. Alva Vanderbilt was highly involved in the four-year project, considering herself not just an employer but a collaborator. The interiors matched the exterior – no money was spared and the mansion was decorated with items brought from in European palaces. The Petite Chateau easily accommodated more than a thousand guests.

William K. and Alva Vanderbilt mansion, 660 Fifth Avenue, New York City. Interior details
Interior detail of William K. and Alva Vanderbilt mansion, 660 Fifth Avenue

As unique as the mansion was, so was its housewarming. Alva’s masked ball of 1883 went down in history as the party of the century. 1,200 guests showed up in elaborate costumes to partake in one spectacular party which, due to unlimited resources, unstoppable ambition and her masterful trickery, finally granted her the rightful place in the New York’s Gilded Age elite society.

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

The mansion was demolished in 1926 to be replaced by the most uninspired, boring buildings. Today, you’ll find a Zara occupying the retail floor.

Sources:

PETIT CHATEAU (https://househistree.com/houses/petit-chateau-fifth-avenue)

The Lost Wm. K. Vanderbilt Mansion — 660 5th Avenue (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-lost-wm-k-vanderbilt-mansion-660.html)

William K. Vanderbilt House (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Morris_Hunt#Houses)

Details of the Petit Chateau: 660 Fifth Avenue (http://dosesofhistory.blogspot.com/2017/07/details-of-petit-chateau-660-fifth.html)

Then & Now: Remnants of the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York City (https://untappedcities.com/2012/02/01/remnants-of-the-vanderbilt-mansion-in-new-york-city/)

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 Age 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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