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Whitney Mansion

Manhattan, New York

Completed in 1902, for the twice widowed William C. Whitney (1841-1904). The original house at 871 Fifth Avenue - the Stuart Mansion - had been built in 1883 but when Whitney acquired it in 1896 he employed Stanford White to completely transform it into a Beaux-Arts "palace of art". Including the basement and servants quarters, it occupied 54,000 square feet of living space but while the Second World War raged across there were no takers for a house of such opulence and it was demolished in 1942. Today, the site is occupied by the apartments at 870 Fifth Avenue.
In 1896, Whitney bought the Stuart Mansion at 871 Fifth Avenue for his newly married second wife, Edith Sybil May (1854-1899), formerly Mrs Randolph. They liked the size and the location, but although it was then only 13 years old, the Second Empire style in which it was built was already outdated. Hiring McKim, Mead & White - who would also complete their country home, The Manse, during the same period - the house underwent a major renovation project that would take six years to complete.

The cost of the renovations amounted to a staggering $3.5 million. In contrast to other mansions, Whitney's ballroom was just that, a ballroom. It did not double as an art gallery or another reception room when not in use. In order to incorporate the 63 foot long and 45 foot high ballroom an entire new wing was added on to the mansion. It was originally constructed for the chateau near Tours of César Phoebus d'Albret (1614-1676) before being moved to Paris in the early 19th century. After that of Mrs Astor's at 840 Fifth Avenue, Whitney's French ballroom was then reputed to be the largest in New York City.

Though not quite finished, by way of a house-warming and to celebrate the coming-of-age of Whitney's eldest niece, Helen Tracy Barney (1882-1922), Whitney held a triumphant dance and dinner for 700 guests in January, 1901. Guests entered via the new entrance on 68th Street through wrought iron and bronze gates from the Doria Palace in Italy.

The mansion was completed in 1902 after Whitney won an appeal over a court decision allowing him to retrofit three "exquisitely painted" 14th century ceilings that had been removed from the Barberini Palace in Florence: Berlin's Museum of Art had first attempted to buy them, but Whitney's pockets had proved deeper.

The reception hall at Whitney's "Palace of Art" featured 16th century stained glass windows and walls draped in antique tapestries, including the "The Drowning of Britomartis" that hung at the foot of the marble stairs - today scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These 16th century Brussels tapestries were so desirable that they were borrowed for the Coronation of the British King Edward VII in 1901. 

Aside from Whitney's library replete with his own collection of books from Paris, there was art, murals, Persian rugs and collected antique treasures throughout the mansion. The walls and ceilings were adorned with panelling from European palaces, marbles from Italy and medieval carvings from various cathedrals, all of which Stanford White succeeded in bringing together masterfully. 

At the end of 1903, Whitney held another ball for his next niece's coming-of-age entree into society, Katherine Lansing Barney (1885-1958). A contemporary account reported that, "the walls and ceiling of the wide lower hall were trellised with vines in which were myriads of electric bulbs... Red velvet carpets were thrown on the marble floor, and the stairways were filled in with plants and made into a big picturesque cosy corner.”

The "Silent" Smiths (1904-1910)

Three months later, Whitney was dead. He left an estate valued at $21 million, but despite having spent $3.5 million refurbishing his Fifth Avenue mansion, it was valued at just $1.4 million. That same year, the mansion and all its contents were swiftly bought up by James Henry "Silent" Smith (1855-1907) for a reported $2 million. Smith was a millionaire stockbroker whose fortune (reputed to be twice that of Whitney's) was for the most part inherited from his uncle, the banker George "Chicago" Smith (1808-1899).

Two-and-a-half years later, "Silent" Smith - whose entertainments at No. 871 had been anything but silent - was dead, while on honeymoon in Japan. The widowed Mrs Smith returned to New York and took up residence at her husband's townhouse. In the meantime, her only son by her first marriage, William Rhinelander Stewart, Jr. (1888-1945), agreed with Whitney's eldest son, Harry Payne Whitney (1872-1930), that should his mother ever decide to sell, he would give Harry first refusal on the house.   

In 1910, a sales catalogue for the mansions and its "decorations (that) are structurally an integral part to the mansion" was put together by Mr Thomas E. Kirby of the American Art Association. However, rather than hitting the open market, it appears that William Stewart was good to his word, selling the mansion and all its contents to Harry Payne Whitney (1872-1930) for $2.5 million. It had barely changed since his father had owned it.

Harry & Gertrude (Vanderbilt) Whitney (1910-1942)

Harry and his wife, Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875-1942), maintained the mansion as their townhouse for the next twenty years.  After Harry died in 1930, Gertrude - a talented and well-known sculptress in her own right - spent increasingly more time down at The Manse, their estate in Long Island where she kept her studio. By 1942, the world was at war, the Gilded Age was over and Fifth Avenue was no longer what it had been. Gertrude put the house and its contents up for sale just days before she died.

The auction - which in many ways represented the close of the Gilded Age era - was a well-publicised event that saw the contents of the house once again dispersed far and wide. The house itself was demolished and the apartment block at 870 Fifth Avenue now occupies the site where the "palace of art" once stood. 




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