Category Archives: Savage Girl

Saying It in Silver

Do you like sparkle? I do.

I’ve been happy lately to usher Savage Girl into the world, delighted to see people get ahold of the book and resonate to the story. There’s nothing like a fresh book out there reaching people to make you feel good — after all, isn’t reaching people a big part of why we do this crazy thing called writing?

And yet my head is partly somewhere else, where my next novel is coming into being. And that’s a little dicey territory sometimes, a dark place where I have to feel my way along rather blindly. It can be a challenge, figuring out voice and plot and characterization, all the basic ingredients in a novelistic stew.

And I’ll say it again, it’s sometimes the kind of dark where you need a heavy duty flashlight.

So I went and got some silver to lighten things up. Give my brain a break, and use my hands to knit a slithery sparkly something.
silver sparkleThe outlook seems brighter already.

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Savage Girl on the Today Show

Savage Girl was featured on this morning’s Today Showcheck out the segment, Bill’s Books, hosted by David Ushery with book reviewer Bill Goldstein!

 

 

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Savage Girl’s Central Park

[Here is another post that I am also putting up under the Savage Girl tab.]

The Central Park, as it was known in the nineteenth century, had only been officially open for two years when Savage Girl arrives at the Delegate Mansion in 1875. The scrupulously landscaped plot of 843 acres, designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was set in the middle of the island of Manhattan with the idea that the creeping city would eventually reach far enough uptown to surround it, even though the locus of mid-1800s New York was much farther downtown.

centralparkmap1863

The Park came about as the brainchild of a group of well-heeled Manhattanites who wanted the city to emulate the great parks of Europe, the Bois de Boulogne, Hyde Park and other green urban spaces. Robert Minturn, his wife Anna, William Cullen Bryant and others, classic progressives all, took the lead in advocating the need for a large, verdant playground  for both rich and poor, a place that would improve public health and provide jobs in its construction. According to Olmsted, the park was “of great importance as the first real Park made in this country—a democratic development of the highest significance.”

olmsted

In 1853, when the Park was born by legislative fiat, the land between 59th and 110th Streets was occupied largely by poor squatters who according to one observer “lived off the refuse of the city, which they daily conveyed in smalll carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.”

centralparksquatters1855

German gardeners and Irish pig farmers occupied shanty towns known as Dutch Hill, Dublin Corners, and the Piggery, and a well-established African-American community called Seneca Village stood at what is now Columbus Avenue and 82nd Street — all of whom were displaced when the Park came in.

NY shantytown

Among the more arcane activities of denizens was the nineteenth-century trade of “bone boiling,” which produced a byproduct used in sugar refining. The area encompassed swamps and bluffs, wooded areas, and massive rock outcroppings.

The Greensward Plan of Olmsted and Vaux was eight feet long and three feet wide, covered with stipple points designating vegetation, rock accents, footpaths and carriageways. A topographical tool and work of art all at once, the map specified structures that still exist today. The three and a half million square foot plot of land has remained remarkably the same, despite ideas that have been floated over time for such new things as stadiums, new athletic fields, model farms and airplane landing strips. The Park has 250 acres of lawns, seven bodies of water and 80 acres of woodlands. The Greensward plan called for some 36 bridges, all designed by Vaux, ranging from rugged spans of schist or granite to neo-gothic cast iron. The Mall’s doubled allées of elms comes to a stop at the Bethesda Terrace, whose centerpiece is the Bethesda Fountain. When Calvert Vaux designed the romantic Belvedere Castle in 1869, it was as one of the Park’s many whimsical structures, intended as a lookout to the reservoir to the north and the Ramble to the south.

belvederecastle

The charms of the Park’s landscaping are largely man-made; during construction, 1800 cubic yards of top soil were carted in from New Jersey to establish plantings. Laborers planted more than four million trees, shrubs and plants. More gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used at the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War.

workers building central park

Some elements we associate today with Central Park didn’t exist. The Metropolitan Museum, now sited at the east side of the Park between 83rd and 87th Streets, wouldn’t relocate until 1880 from a townhouse on 14th Street to a red-brick Victorian Gothic building (still part of the museum complex) at the edge of the greensward on the site of a meadow that the city had formerly fenced in as a deer park.

Central Park is a place that is quintessentially public, open to all, and yet offers individuals many sites that become personal favorites. The Dene (a term meaning valley) is one of those. A long stretch of pastoral landscape that exemplifies both the features and the intended effect of Olmsted’s designs runs along the east side from the Conservatory Water and the verdant meadow known as the East Green to the north and the Zoo to the south, it features gently rolling lawns and shaded walks.

the dene

In 2007 the Dene’s rustic summerhouse atop a rock outcropping was restored, and a charming map to the feature was created. You can enter the park at 67th Street and Fifth, just adjacent to where the Delegates house would have stood, to get to the Dene and the historic structure.

A-TREEHOUSE-FOR-DREAMING

From the start, leisure activities reigned in the Park. There was ice-skating on the Pond at 59th street and Fifth Avenue, in front of a much earlier version of the Plaza Hotel.

carriages central park

Elite New Yorkers flew in their coaches down the winding drives. They strolled in the Ramble. They enjoyed such novelties as goat carts, here portrayed in a 1870 lithograph.

goatcart 1870 litho central park

Children sailed toy boats on the Reservoir Pond at 72nd Street. The Central Park Zoo was chartered in 1875, and depended largely on the exotic gifts of wealthy benefactors. General Custer gave the zoo a rattlesnake, and General Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo, one of the spoils of his march through Georgia. One of the zoo’s most exotic donations was Charles the tigon, the offspring of a female African lion and a male Siberian tiger, that was donated to the City in 1938.

Charles Tigon

The Carousel went up when the Park opened. Mules beneath the flooring provided the horsepower to pull the decorated wooded horses above, as pictured here in 1872 in Applebee’s Journal.

1872 carousel appleton's journalA flock of pedigree Southdown and Dorset sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow from 1860s until 1934. I wonder what they’d make of a tigon escaped from Central Park Zoo.

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Savage Girl at the Bookstore

It’s funny. As an author you work and work on a new book, you write, revise, get copyedited, read galleys, proofread again and again. You see the finished product, it arrives at your doorstep in a box of 20 advance copies for you to do with what you will. On publication day you know the book is out in the world. And yet until you walk until a store and see it with your own eyes you don’t know it for real.

books

So I had a little time to kill in Pleasantville, New York before going to see The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. My favorite local indie outfit, The Village Bookstore, lies just across the street.

You go first, I said to Gil. See if it’s there.

Then I thought that was lame. Screw your courage to the sticking place, I told myself, and ventured in. There my book lay, and it was displayed in good neighborly company, alongside Donna Tartt, Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen and Isabel Allende.

I mildly asked the store clerk if he’d like me to sign some copies while I was there. He seemed delighted, found me a pen, and when I said I hoped people would be interested in Savage Girl he had an answer that made me blush, glow, beam.

Well, he said, I think so. All those people who learned to love your writing in The Orphanmaster.

Now that’s what I call a night at the movies.

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The Larky Life

[This post will be saved on the site under the Savage Girl tab.]

Cross dressing permeates the world of Savage Girl. Tahktoo, also known as the berdache, goes about in women’s dress a good portion of the time. He is brawny and manly but feels more comfortable as a rule in a gown. (That doesn’t mean he can’t clean up well in a suit of men’s tails, white tie if the occasion calls for it.) Bronwyn employs boys’ duds as an essential disguise. No one guesses she’s a girl until she removes her bowler hat and shakes out her long ebony thresses.

How true is all this costume-foolery to the late nineteenth century, when the story unfolds? Was sexual role reversal fact or fiction? How commonplace was it?

Tahktoo, first of all, walks straight out of the history books. There is a well-documented, honorable tradition of the Zuni Man-Woman, an artist-priest who dresses at least in part in women’s clothes. Perhaps the most famous berdache at the end of the nineteenth century, who combined the work and traits of both men and women, was We’wha.

berdache

But Native Americans weren’t the only Victorian males who got in touch with their feminine side from time to time.

Teeny tycoons started off their lives dressed just like their sisters. Boys only got their pants at the age we now associate with kindergarten.

bouguereau

They didn’t all ditch the lace and frills as they matured. During the Gilded Age, the rage for upperten society was the fancy dress ball — which didn’t strictly mean, as it sounds, elegant gowns for the ladies and stiff black tails for the gents. Fancy dress meant a masquerade, an opportunity for the well-heeled to inject their real life with fantasy. A lot of very pricey role-playing could be seen on display in the Manhattan ballrooms where the Delegate family would have spent their time. Frequently, men went gowned as women. (Not that Hugo ever would!) There were other famous parties, too, where men came in frocks — at the Bal des Quat’z’Arts, for instance, which took place in Paris every year, artists and architects partied hearty in the name of everything aesthetic and bohemian.

We have photographic evidence that the straitlaced Victorian males sometimes loosened those laces.

cross dressing man

Of course all sorts of costumes were welcome, not just human ones.

costume for ball

We think of Victorian women as feminine to a fault, swathed in silk and lace, with cinched waists, dripping petticoats and fanned-out skirt trains. But some ladies chose to reject the girly role when it suited them.

ednamay

Female burlesque performers during the Gilded Age embraced male roles onstage.

verona jarbeau

Their androgyny gave them the liberty to not necessarily imitate men but adopt some of the markers of masculinity – voice, posture – that must have been a thrill for tightly corseted audiences.

Off stage, female cross dressing was more private. America’s first notable woman photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston captured images of New England mill women, sailors getting shipboard tattoos, coal and iron workers and peace treaty signings. She herself posed in a more masculine “new woman” style, holding a cigarette and beer stein.

johnston 1896

Yet another crusading photographer, Alice Austen, captured some gender bending games with her friends, living what she called the “larky life.”

Alice Austen drag kings

For all these historical figures, and for the characters in Savage Girl, seemingly silly costume-foolery offers something dead-serious: freedom from social constraints.

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The Victorian Debut

The process of achieving a societal debut in the late nineteenth century was one in which eighteen-year-olds got their first taste of all the splendour that money could buy.

1894 deb

Yet at the same time, the coming out process was one that was as constricting as it was exhilarating. The art of coming out was demanding, an experience that was rigorous to a degree the privileged debutante had not previously experienced. The world of the “fashionables” might be exceedingly comfortable, but it was also fraught with potential dangers of social missteps, especially when it comes to expectations for adolescent girls as they approached maturity.

1851 deb

The culture of the a debutante first originated in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the second half of the 16th century, when she began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria created the ritual we think of today, with girls dressed in white and the official bow called a “curtsey.” It soon spread to America.

In Victorian days, young girls were kept closely guarded at home throughout their adolescence.

minturn girls

Their debut indicated that they were now officially allowed to come out from under their parents’ close guardianship and begin the rituals of courtship. Not only that, though, they were being ushered into a new status as ladies, on a par with some of the notable creatures of the age.

adelaide frick

The grand dames of society banded together when a girl reached what was considered a marriagable age to help usher her into a new social status. The rituals of this transition were female-centric, self-absorbed.

the-metropolitan-museum-of-art-denise-at-her-dressing-table-1368331598_b

There was certainly some power in the process for women, as they created and enforced the rules. But the learning curve for the debutante was steep and it was easy to make mistakes.

There was shopping for a proper wardrobe, to begin with. Godey’s magazine was the Vogue of the day; girls and women perused it to order items to suit their more grown-up status.

Godey's 1867New dresses were a requisite.

1873 NY Fashions

Not only fancy gowns, but “everyday” items.

1870 everyday dresses

New hats were a vital fashion component.

1883

Dance lessons ensured that the debutante would be able to hold her own with the worthies of the day when she was “out” and socializing. Complex steps posed difficulties and required hours of practice, usually at special schools.

Late afternoon teas  and luncheons in private dwellings brought the debutante together with society ladies she was meant to impress. Throughout, lessons were imparted from mothers to daughters, warnings about indecorous behavior, inappropriate dress. It was all about learning the proper way to act.

A crucial part of the process was the ritualized social visit known as calling. Everyone knew that formal calls were to take place for precisely 15 minutes between 3 and 5:00. One woman would drop her card at another’s house to let her know when she would be at home to receive visitors. The card had her name inscribed upon it, and the debutante’s name would be added to it. It wasn’t unknown to keep a visiting list of over 500 names.

frog-case

Then came the ball. A grand reception that brought together a group of debutantes with young men their age and other, more mature members of high society, it took place at some point over the winter months. The coming out ball was commonly held in a public venue like Delmonico’s restaurant, the most swellegant spot of the age, located on 26th Street opposite Madison Park, which had the facilities to accomodate a large number of guests.

Delmonicos_Fifth_14th

The fashions were extraordinary. The finest gowns came from Worth in Paris.

1861 Worth and Bobergh gown

A French manual from the 1880s described societal expectations for women’s formal dress:

For the ladies, a light-coloured gown with a décolleté revealing the shoulders and arms, very long gloves and light pumps. They must carry in one hand a fan made from ivory or mother-of-pearl and also have their dance card. Many ladies prefer, as do I, a bodice in a shallow square-cut or heart-shape to a very décolleté gown . Sometimes the exposed neckline and tops of the arms are covered with gauze or tulle.

tissot

The hair must be put up, preferably with jewels.

????????

The fan was indispensable element of ladies’ finery– closed, open or fluttering, it could reveal a refusal, interest or excitement.

Photograph1880

While married women could dress themselves in brightly colored gowns, lavish hairdos and gaudy accessories, young ladies being presented to society had to dress modestly. White symbolized their purity.

deb

One former debutante recalled the gown she wore, made of

white chiffon over white satin and with the huge puffed sleeves of the period. From the left shoulder to the right side of the waist there was a white velvet ribbon about three inches wide, ending in a knot at the shoulder. There was a bunch of white heather by the knot and some more around the skirt, about half way up. The skirt was down on the floor, was very full and had a small train, enough to have to be held up when dancing, and enough to make a modern dancer wild.

In terms of their attire, men were the backdrop to the ladies’ finery. They were to wear a black tailcoat with white tie, black trousers and polished shoes. It was both exciting and terrifying for girls to experience the male gaze in the pressure cooker of the ballroom.

Brooding guy

It could be uncomfortable.  Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciusness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her

the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.

At the ball, ladies awaited the invitation of a gentleman to dance, but he was supposed to note her recognition before approaching her. The chaperone, usually the mother, hovered nearby. Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.

ball 1860s

Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.

Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.

ballroom

The cotillion, or german, was a regular feature, and involved a kind of parade of set figures, gestures and steps, all well rehearsed in advanced. Dancing would take place until midnight, when a supper would be served, then the cotillion would resume.

The debutante’s symbolic responsibilities crescendoed at the ball. She stood to the side of her mother as guests entered so that she could be presented to her elders. Here she was, finally, the product of her culture’s teachings. She stood at the precipice of a new role, one that was the inherent goal of the coming out process: to marry brilliantly and embark upon a lovely family.

gilded age family

She was moving from the societal constrictions of her father’s house to her husband’s house, with a brief, glorious moment in between as a model debutante.

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The Mansions of Fifth Avenue

[I will be adding essays in upcoming days under the Savage Girl tab on this site. Here is the first.]

It took two hundred years for the well to do of Manhattan to migrate uptown from the foot of the island to frontier of 59th Street, and even then they weren’t completely sure that living so far uptown was the proper thing to do.

In the beginning, in the mid-seventeenth century, when settlement began, wealthy residents of New Amsterdam kept neat homes of brick and wood.

nieuw amsterdam

The only residence approaching grandeur was White Hall, the English name for the house Peter Stuyvesant built at the southern tip of the island, with its stunning view of New York Harbor.

White Hall

In those early days, before Fifth Avenue had been laid out, a fashionable address for the wealthy meant Bowling Green, after which people who could afford it moved up Broadway through Murray and Chambers Streets, on to Washington Square.

Until the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 cut regular streets through the city (155 cross streets and 12 Avenues) the start of Fifth Avenue was farmland, as was almost almost all the property north of Canal Street. The name Fifth Avenue appeared for the first time on the Commissioners’ map. No one imagined that the thoroughfare would one day stretch six-and-a-half miles up the island. But the street was spacious and straight, and Manhattanites began to build townhouses along it; within two decades church steeples rose on either side of the street, Belgian blocks were laid for paving, and New Yorkers had begun to promenade along its length. In 1828, the city opened Washington Square at Eighth street at the base of Fifth Avenue, a tract that had been used since 1797 as a potter’s field. Gracious homes went up around the square.

washingtonsquare1880s

In 1825 the new gas lamps came in south of 14th street; by 1847 they extended up to 18th street. Now lower Fifth Avenue became the fashionable locus of New York. One of the first of the home builders was Henry Brevoort, who inherited all the farmland around from his father and built a luxurious five-bedroom house with iconic columns and lilacs and rose of sharon blooming in the front yard behind an iron fence. The house stood until 1925.

brevoort house april 1925 nypl

Other fine homes followed, surrounded with yards and gardens, backed by stables. The ambience was quietly fancy, unprepossessing.

fifthavenue22ndst1889

In 1851 a study found that below 23rd Street on Fifth there were still 32 vacant lots, and fifteen others were described as “now building” No matter. When Delmonico’s, New York’s premier restaurant, opened in a shipowner’s home at 14th and 5th it was clear the neighborhood had arrived.

Delmonico's

The custom of the leisurely promenade continued, and with it the practice of making calls. Fifth Avenue was a social place.

1872 fifth avenue promenade 1872

The move of peoples’ homes uptown was unstoppable if somewhat slow paced. For one thing, the street was still being built. Fifth Avenue did not cut through to 23rd St  until 1837, and it was still surrounded largely by countryside, crisscrossed with streams and studded by ponds. Fifth Avenue was surprisingly rural. Stagecoaches stopped at a tavern on 23 Street called Madison Cottage. Cows wandered in front of that day’s incarnation of Grand Central Station.

grandcentralcows 18702

The city’s livestock market took place nearby, and cowboys drove herds of cattle through what we think of now as midtown.

Then handsome houses, some sheathed in brownstone, began to rise. The New York Herald named 200 of the city’s most important men in 1851, and half of them lived north of 14 Street. Madison Square was now becoming the center of the city’s professional class. Fashionable clubs opened there, the Union in 1855, followed by the Athanaeum, the Manhattan, the Lotos and others, along with refined academies for young ladies.

The first tycoons to make the move were William B. Astor, Jr. and his brother John Jacob III. Thirty-fourth street was a good distance uptown from where the family had traditionally settled, down around Lafayette Street. The Astor houses, separated by a garden, were relatively modest, brickfaced, with rustic columns. Nearby stood the mansion of Samuel B. Townsend, “the Sarsparilla King,” and on the same site after his death the grandiose, 55-room marble palace of Alexander Turney Stewart and his wife Cornelia, built in the late 1860s.

Stewart

Stewart’s department store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets landed him among the wealthiest Americans, and ushered in a new age of lavish consumption.

The die was cast. In the next two decades Fifth Avenue up to 42nd Street became an almost unbroken parade of handsome brownstone mansions on 25×100 foot lots, not as large as the Stewart house but occupied by well-to-do, successful New Yorkers and incorporating all the trimmings, from gas lights to running water to fully equipped bathrooms. Chocolate in color, brownstone was quarried in New Jersey and cut into sheets that were applied as a façade to wood, for a uniform appearance that some found grand and others dull.

fifthavenusnday1898

Strolling along the avenue was extended upwards when James Renwick designed the gargantuan Croton Reservoir (also referred to as the Murray Hilll Distributing Reservoir) at 42nd Street in 1842, and ran a promenade along the top rim of its forty-one- and-a-half foot high slanted walls. The walkway became a hit society destination. You could get an ice cream afterward across the street at Croton Cottage.

currier & ives print of croton reservoir

North of the reservoir stretched the undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863,  facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.

valentine's manuel 1858, 5 ave s from 63 st

Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.

To give an idea what the surroundings were like, consider Madison Avenue, a block over from Fifth, as it made its way north from 55th Street around this time.

ne from mad and 55

A thirty-acre farm owned by the prosperous Lenox family dominated the neighborhood, with a stolid white tenant farmhouse located between 71 and 72 near Fifth Avenue. Cows grazed nearby and market crops grew in rows. Lying on the outskirts of town this far north were slaughterhouses, stockyards and tanneries, enterprises fashionable downtown did not want near their homes. The Lenox Library, a handsome block-long structure designed by star-architect Richard Morris Hunt, went up in 1875 at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street, an outpost of civilization.

As of 1865, the city was moving uptown.

NYC1865

New Yorkers took the air on Fifth Avenue, promenading as always with vigor. The Easter Parade was only one opportunity to admire and be admired.

1870 fifth-avenue-new-york-in-c-1870-from-american-pictures-published-by-the-religious-tract

But while the upper tens (the equivalent of today’s “one percent”) of New York built their urban villas and stolid townhouses to the south, wide open stretches of the boulevard north of 60th Street still seemed off limits for luxury development. At the time of Savage Girl, 1875, more than 340 private residences had been constructed up to 59th Street but none above.

The lack of elegant homes didn’t mean people didn’t live there. Those precincts had long been settled by African Americans and German and Irish squatters who occupied shanty towns where the principle businesses were bone boiling, glue, soap and candlemaking. Eventually they were  eliminated from the area both by the development of Central Park and rising real estate prices.

 by Ralph Albert Blakelock

Edith Wharton remembered the area as dominated at that time by “the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene.” North of the site I gave the Delegate house, it was still this old, bucolic, rough-hewn New York landscape, unrefined, undeveloped, not yet buried in the smooth cement of the new. Central Park, built in the 1860s and opened officially in 1873, made inroads in “civilizing” the neighborhood; but it still seemed too much like a savage wilderness for the upper crust to build there.

There were a few exceptions, wealthy home builders that for their own reasons decided to go above 42nd Street. Robber baron Jay Gould built a residence on the corner of 47th and Fifth in 1870. The infamous Madame Restell and her husband moved in at the northeast corner of 52nd and Fifth in 1864. But mansions towered over shacks.

Mary Mason Jones, a distant relation of Edith Wharton’s – personified in The Age of Innocence by Mrs. Manson Mingott — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had had the first bathtub in New York installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. Five homes were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

Marble Row, built 58th and 5th 1870

By the time the fictional Delegates settled into their house in the early 1870s, the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street was still quiet, devoid of built structures, undiscovered by Knickerbocker Society. The Delegates were pioneers. I decided to situate them there because the choice makes them outliers, risk takers, iconoclasts in a society they see as conformist. I wanted to show them as the first to build a grand residence there, one that would outshine all the others in the city.

Eventually, Fifth Avenue upwards of 59th Street would be lined with mansions that were even more extravagant than the homes built in the avenue’s lower reaches. When people passed, they would gape at at the welter of materials and styles, the polished marble, dramatic gables and steep-hipped roofs, puncuated by balustrades and moats and massive chimney stacks. Whether architects hewed to the gleaming white symmetries of the Beaux-Arts or the swagger of the Moorish fortress or the period’s beloved French Renaissance design idiom, their creations lorded it over the somber-faced brownstones of the cross streets.

I couldn’t resist borrowing from some of the later residential masterworks to design the Delegate house, even though they would not be erected for a few more years. The various Vanderbilt homes offered the kind of opulence I felt the Delegates would emulate. After inheriting an estate of nearly 100 million dollars from their shipping-and-railroad-magnate father, the Vanderbilt descendents put on a grand architectural show. William Henry Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s eldest son, built triple houses for himself and his daughters between Fifty First and Fifty third Streets. William K. Vanderbuilt, William Henry’s son, had Richard Morris Hunt design him the mansion at the northwest corner of 52nd Street that was the setting for a famous fancy-dress ball of 1883.

Wm K. Vanderbilt House-the Petit Chateau

I was especially impressed by the mansion Cornelius Vanderbilt II put up at 58th Street and 5th Avenue in 1883,  the largest private residence ever built in New York City. A full block long, designed by George B. Post, it stood sentry until 1927, as one mansion after another followed it up the avenue.

corneliusvanderbiltiimansion

Actually, I’m being slightly inaccurate. For the record, in the early 1870s one house did stand on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street, above the 59th Street divide, just across the street from the still forbidding Park. A narrow townhouse circa 1871, it was built speculatively built by one Runyon Martin, hardly a mogul. It didn’t last long.

The Delegates knocked it down to put up their turreted, mulberry-colored, block-long twin palaces.

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