A McKim, Mead and White town house on 5th Avenue and a Carrère and Hastings estate in the New Jersey hunt country...
They sound like settings from an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel, a Merchant-Ivory location scout's dream, but these two splendid properties are, in fact, rare and uncompromised survivors from a different age. For a steel or copper magnate, financier or railroad baron, this Town & Country life would have been perfectly normal, even expected. In conscious imitation of the merchant princes of the Renaissance, these early 20th century princes of commerce (or 'Robber Barons') built city palaces and country houses and filled them with pictures and decorative arts to rival those of European nobility.
The collection being sold at Christie's on June 21st includes furniture, tapestries, old master paintings and drawings, silver and porcelain from two such residences: The Henry Cook mansion at 973 Fifth Avenue, designed by McKim, Mead and White; and the country estate of Blairsden in Peapack, New Jersey by Carrère and Hastings. If American architecture in general seems to have a terribly short life span, this is all the more true of elegant giants of the Gilded Age. So it is extraordinary that these buildings still survive, and more extraordinary still, that they remain preserved as private residences and furnished in a style befitting their history. This sale is a chance to participate in America's Gilded Age.
973 Fifth Avenue is dead-center on one of the most glamorous blocks of urban real-estate in the world. Steps from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with The Glade and Cedar Hill of Central Park as a front lawn, it is sandwiched between the C. P. H. Gilbert's fanciful High-Gothic Fletcher-Sinclair mansion and Horace Trumbauer's severe Louis XVI Ihôtel particulier built for the tobacco titan James B. Duke. When Helen Hay married Payne Whitney in 1902, the uncle of the groom, the financier Oliver Payne, offered as a wedding present the choice of any architect and building lot in Manhattan. Both Hay and Whitney were children of immense privilege. Hay's father was President Cleveland's Secretary of the Navy and Whitney's father was Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and each family benefitted from vast industrial fortunes. At the time, the entire block was owned by the speculator Henry Cook. After Cook sold the lot for 972 Fifth Avenue to Oliver Payne, he then also hired the Whitney's preferred architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White to design himself a house at 973 Fifth, the last remaining lot on his block. As Cook died before construction on 973 Fifth was finished, his favorite daughter, Georgie, inherited the house where she lived until World War I with her husband Count Carlos de Heredia. The Whitney's were then able to purchase 973 Fifth, allowing them to enjoy both 972 and 973 Fifth Avenue as a combined single residence until 1949.
White's marble and Vermont granite facades for each house are distinct - but designed to blend harmoniously. The interiors of 973 Fifth are almost miraculously intact considering New York City's penchant for architectural reinvention (or less kindly, destruction). At 973 Fifth, presented as a private house, period rooms still largely fulfill their original functions. The Louis XVI drawing room, supplied by the iconic Gilded Age interior decorating firm Allard & Fils to White's design, and the dining room on the piano nobile are still dazzling entertaining spaces. And the spectacular oval staircase leads up to the paneled library, originally Carlos de Heredia's private sitting room, and now a cozy, book-lined retreat for more intimate gatherings. All the rooms are beautifully complemented by the furniture and decorations collected over so many years by the historic preservation-minded owners and the great house remains a Gilded Age oasis.
Built by Carrère and Hastings for Mr. and Mrs. C. Ledyard Blair and their four daughters, Blairsden was, and remains, one of America's grandest Gilded Age country houses. A third generation railroad man, Blair had his own tracks installed leading to his newly purchased hills and valleys in the village of Peapack-Gladstone and construction lasted from 1898-1903. Everything about Blairsden was on an exceptional scale. Hilltops were leveled, dams built and lakes created, full-grown trees created instant forests. And then there is the house itself. ,
The scale and architectural drama of Carrère and Hastings' masterpiece is as astonishing to the modern visitor as it would have been even to a jaded Morgan, Vanderbilt, Auchincloss or Schley, all of which names stud the archival guest book liberally.
Large-scale country estates have almost entirely vanished from the American landscape - replaced by a seemingly endless and fractured suburbia -- but the fields and forests of Blairsden have barely changed. While the enormous gardens have been simplified, their grand architectural bones remain everywhere: in the carved limestone fountains and canals for the water gardens and reflecting pools, the scrolling iron gates leading to the former rose gardens and tennis courts and the series of the first twelve Roman emperors - of colossal size - that still line the entrance courtyard to welcome visitors, perhaps a bit severely, to Blairsden. Inside, as well, little has changed from the dazzling and deluxe lighting fixtures by the celebrated firm of E.F. Caldwell & Co. that still serve to illuminate the grand galleries and reception rooms down to the squash courts and original washing machines - the newest technology then available -- in the cellars. The fine and decorative arts, like those at 973 Fifth, are perfectly suited to their surroundings. Only one owner separates the present owners from C. Ledyard Blair himself, and although most of the collection was sold in a series of auctions in 1949, they have accomplished a masterful job of filling the great house with the collection it deserves. Its spirit remains intact.
In the ever-changing whirlwind that is New York life and real-estate, 973 Fifth Avenue and Blairsden remain elegant reminders of the early 20th century and of the great families and fortunes - as well as the great architects -- that built them.