The end of the 19th century marked the rise of the great American industrial fortunes and essentially ushered in the 'Gilded Age' in its full glory. Although the elite businessmen of the time were referred to as 'Robber Barons' for their sometimes unscrupulous business practices, it is largely for their philanthropy that America's early captains of industry are remembered. Few art collections rivaled those of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (d. 1899), the infamous New York socialite, philanthropist and heir to the New York Central Railroad fortune. With palatial interiors exuding luxury and opulence, the Vanderbilt residence was a hallmark of America's Gilded Age and marked the unparalleled collaborative genius of architects George Browne Post, Richard Morris Hunt and noted bronzier and interior designer, Jules Allard.
The Vanderbilt Mansion, described as an 'early French Renaissance style château', was located at the northwest corner of West 57th Street and grew out of the demolished remnants of three brownstone buildings which Cornelius acquired after his grandfather's death in 1877. The first phase of the home was completed under the direction of Post in 1882, though by the early 1890s Vanderbilt launched an ambitious renovation which encompassed a massive addition to increase the size of the residence to over 130 rooms. The renovations to the interior equaled that of the exterior and Vanderbilt commissioned designs from the leading American and Parisian firms of the era; including Louis Comfort Tiffany for a Moorish smoking room, Jules Allard for the Petit Salon and fellow Parisian Gilbert Cuel for the splendid Grand Salon.
Through close partnerships with both Cuel and Allard, Beurdeley was commissioned to complete various objects and furnishings for both the Manhattan renovation and Vanderbilt's Newport 'cottage', The Breakers. Archival images of the Petit Salon prominently showcase a Japanese lacquer worktable after Weisweiler's example for Marie Antoinette (identical to the example in The Cornwall Collection, lot 25), which was almost certainly supplied by Beurdeley. However, Cuel's vastly superior Grand Salon evoked the opulence and splendor which became synonymous with The Gilded Age and the designer chose to punctuate one end the cavernous salon with the present fire-surround.
Beurdeley's increasing popularity with America's industrialists was only underscored by his participation in the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893, where the ébéniste exhibited a large and impressive stand of wares, including a mantel corresponding with the present lot. The timing of the renovations at the 57th Street mansion, which were not completed until 1894, would have coincided with Chicago's World Fair and the lure of international exhibitions was an intoxicating attraction for East Coast millionaires. While Vanderbilt had lobbied publicly to hold the fair in New York, it is almost certain that he, among other Manhattan socialites at the time, would have visited the fairgrounds between May and October of 1893. His attendance is perhaps further corroborated by various accounts of the fair, including that of the Gazette des Beaux Arts, which published an engraving of Beurdeley's magnificent mantel design (see inset illustration, also illustrated C. Mestdagh, p. 128) and reported that the piece was made for 'un richissime Americain' (Gazette des Beaux Arts, 1894, pp. 151-153).
Few historically important architectural elements from New York's greatest homes have survived - the present lot astonishingly survived the 1927 demolition of the Vandebilt Mansion unscathed. Another impressive fire-surround by Jules Allard and Louis Ardisson removed from the Edward J. Berwind residence sold Christie's, New York, 11 April 2007, lot 150 ($528,000).