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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Where Have All the Mansions Gone?

Andrew Carnegie's mansion (today the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum)

The news broke yesterday that the government of Qatar is purchasing the Wildenstein Gallery building at 19 East 64th Street for either $125 million (via the Post) or $90 million (via the Wall Street Journal). In either case, it's a spectacular amount of money to spend on an Upper East Side mansion.

However, while the price may be high, Qatar is following in the footsteps of nearly a century of others who've converted Gilded Age homes into museums, consulates, embassies, and schools.

The postcard above is a view, ca. 1910, of Andrew Carnegie's massive home that stretches the block from 90th to 91st Streets on Fifth Avenue. As we write in Inside the Apple:
In 1898, Carnegie acquired the lots on Fifth Avenue between 90th and 91st street—at that point much farther north than polite society deemed fashionable—so that he could build a large mansion in relatively isolated splendor. (In the rapidly growing city, the Carnegies were always concerned with light. When Carnegie’s widow, Louise, sold the lot next door to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in 1926, it was with the proviso that the Gothic towers have no north-facing windows and they be clipped so that no shadows would fall on her lawn.)

Carnegie reputedly told his architects, Babb, Cook & Willard that he wanted his retirement home to be modest, plain, and “roomy”; upon completion in 1901, the 64-room structure certainly had plenty of space. A grand first floor showcased the public rooms, including a conservatory and a music room featuring Carnegie’s gargantuan Aeolian organ. Above were the Carnegies’ private quarters on the second floor, guest rooms on the third, and servants’ quarters in the attic. Amenities included a passenger elevator (one of the first in a private home) and a prototype of central air conditioning.
Louise Carnegie lived in the house until her death in 1946; by that time, Fifth Avenue and the Upper East Side had undergone massive changes. Many mansions had been torn down (see Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.'s Empty Mansions for the tale of one of the largest homes to be destroyed), but those that remained had been sold at greatly reduced prices. One Astor home had been purchased by the government of India; a Vanderbilt house had become the headquarters of a non-profit. When the French government moved out of Rockefeller Center's Maison Francaise, they scooped up Stanford White's Payne Whitney house just south of the Metropolitan Museum--because a mansion on Fifth Avenue had become cheaper than an office in Midtown. (What a contrast to the price that Qatar is paying today!)

Soon after Louise Carnegie's death, the Carnegie Corporation leased the mansion to Columbia University, who used it as the headquarters for their Graduate School of Social Work. (A nearby mansion owned by James B. Duke had similarly become the home of NYU's art history program.) The social work students used the home for nearly 25 years before relocating to Columbia's Morningside Heights campus when the Carnegie Corporation gave the mansion to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the first branch of the Smithsonian to be located outside Washington, DC.

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Read more about the Carnegie Mansion in

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