With palatial interiors exuding luxury and opulence, the Edward J. Berwind historic landmark residence is a hallmark of America's Gilded Age and was perhaps a crowning achievement in the illustrious and celebrated career of decorator and bronzier Jules Allard. At a period when New York's aristocracy initiated a mass exodus from crowded downtown houses to lush, majestic mansions on the fashionable Upper East Side, the residence is one of many edifices which lined Fifth Avenue, standing the test of time and recalling an era of extraordinary architectural and decorative splendour.
Edward Julius Berwind, an ambitious entrepreneur, was born in Philadelphia in 1848 as one of five sons to John and Augusta Berwind. In 1865, Berwind was appointed personally by President Abraham Lincoln to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis where, after his graduation in 1869, he climbed the ranks to lieutenant, culminating in an appointment as United Stated Naval Aide to the Grant White House.
Following his return to Philadelphia, Berwind established and became the driving force behind Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, a firm he founded in 1886 just following his marriage to Herminie Torrey, the daughter of an American diplomat and member of the Philadelphia-based Strawbridge Department Store family. However, seeing that lucrative opportunities were readily available in New York, Berwind relocated his headquarters to Broadway in Manhattan in the late 1890s. The move was perhaps a testament to Berwind's commercial prowess and the Berwind-White Coal Mining Co. became one of the nation's leading coal suppliers at the end of the 19th century. His firm became the primary supplier of coal to steamships in the New York and Boston harbours and the United States Navy. His endless supply of naval connections allowed him to amass a modest fortune and effectively launched him into Manhattan's elitist circles. Other financial endeavours aided his social elevation and Berwind placed himself firmly on the boards of a number of respected institutions, including the Rapid Transit Company and the International Telephone and Telegraph Company.
Berwind's commercial exploits allowed him and his family more than a comfortable living situation. During the company's relocation to New York, he entered into contract with architect Nathan C. Mellen to design a Renaissance-inspired mansion which would be situated along Manhattan's affluent Fifth Avenue, overlooking the expansive greenery of Central Park and only blocks away from neighbors William K. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Mrs. William B. Astor. Hired to design the interiors was Jules Allard of the Paris-based atelier Allard et Fils.
Following a successful career in Paris studded with numerous awards and medals from various Expositions Universelles, Allard sought to direct production towards a wealthy American clientele, and in 1885 opened a large branch in Manahattan. Collaborating with the Gilded Age's leading architects, Mellen included, Allard & Fils' most important commissions included, among others, furnishings for the Vanderbilts' Newport mansions, Marble House and The Breakers. In 1899, following the completion of his New York home, Edward J. Berwind also approached Allard a second time to supply furnishings in his Newport residence, The Elms, a massive estate with vast gardens which Berwind referred to as his summer 'cottage'.
For Berwind's Manhattan residence, ultimately completed in 1896, the cooperative effort between Allard and architect Mellen resulted in an exquisitely and meticulously decorated interior in the Classical style. Anchoring the overall scheme was this sumptuous mantelpiece and overmantel bas-relief which consumed the East wall of the second floor entry hall. Having secured an order for many of the house's furnishings, including a magnificent replica of the Bureau de Roi (dated 1896), it is very likely that Allard was also commissioned to design and deliver mounts for the present fire-surround. For the bas-relief panels, Allard engaged Louis Ardisson, a respected Parisian artist who had exhibited superbly-executed allegorical bas-relief panels both in marble and wood at the Paris Salons during the last quarter of the 19th century.
Upon the death of his wife in 1922, Berwind asked his sister Julia to oversee caretaking of both the New York townhouse and The Elms in Newport. Following Berwind's own death in 1939, Julia sold the New York residence and placed many of the furnishings at auction with Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., including a large selection of bronze-mounted furniture, decorative clocks and objects and the aforementioned Bureau de Roi, which fetched $450.00. Upon Julia's death in 1961, the remnants of the Berwind estate were again sold at public auction at Parke-Bernet, including a Linke clock garniture based on a Denière model.
Interestingly, the celebrated Parisian ébéniste François Linke found it difficult to procure orders as successfully as Allard had for the Newport Mansions. However, Christopher Payne, his biographer, states that he was able to clinch an order for six pieces under Berwind's name in 1901, including a tea table (Index No. 610) for which Berwind paid $100.00 less Linke's asking price only a year earlier. Though thought to be intended for The Elms 'cottage' in Newport, completed only two years before Linke received the order, the invoice was delivered to Berwind's offices on Broadway in New York and Payne speculates that the pieces were sent to New York via Boston (see C. Payne, François Linke, 1855-1946 - The Belle Epoque of French Furniture, Woodbridge, 2003, p. 235).