Alva Smith Vanderbilt (Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt) as she appeared at her 1883 costumed ball. (Online)

The leader of this next generation of New York’s elites was Alva Vanderbilt, wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, the second son of the Commodore’s eldest son, William H.  William K. had married Alva Erskine Smith in 1875, the ambitious daughter of a New York commissions merchant who had business contacts in Europe.  While living in England during the Civil War, Mr. Smith had his daughter educated in a private school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a northwestern suburb of Paris.  The new Mrs. Vanderbilt was not a person to cross swords with, as we shall she, and had set her sights on achieving the social status for the Vanderbilt clan among New York’s old money, knickerbocker social circles that she felt her family’s money and influence merited. The Commodore had died on January 4, 1877, leaving his son, William H., a rail empire that controlled virtually all of the traffic between Chicago and the Northeast.  The Commodore’s estate had finally been settled in April 1879, after which the Commodore’s son and his two eldest grandsons, Cornelius II and William K., took little time in spending a portion of their inheritances in erecting for each of themselves a spectacular mansion along Fifth Avenue just south of Central Park, eventually creating what was known as “Vanderbilt Row.”  (See Vol. 2, Sec. 5.17)

Vanderbilt Row: Fifth Avenue and 51st, looking north. At the far left is the dual mansion of William H. Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius), designed by John Snook. Across 52nd street stands Hunt’s chateau for Alva and William K. Vanderbilt. (Online)

Once her husband’s share of the Commodore’s estate had been finalized, Mrs. Vanderbilt hired New York’s leading architect, Richard Morris Hunt, who also had very strong ties to France and was already engaged in the construction of her family’s new home on Long Island, Idle Hour, to design for her family the most luxurious of all New York mansions to sit directly across 52nd from the house that her father-in-law was building for his two daughters, in order to make sure the Vanderbilts could no longer be ignored by the city’s Knickerbocker social elite.  Mrs. Vanderbilt had not only chosen Hunt to design it, but also worked very closely with him during the design and construction of the mansion.  Mrs. Vanderbilt, as I noted earlier, had been educated in France, and, therefore, it is quite apparent that she had no interest in building an “American”-styled house, but wanted to emulate the taste of the French Aristocracy (pre-1789 of course). First announced in December 1879 and completed in late 1882 with a final price tag of $3 million (Potter Palmer had spent $3.2 million only eight years earlier building the entire Palmer House. One wonders what influence Alva’s new house had had on Bertha Palmer’s decision to build a new house?), it was renown as being the most expensive house ever built in the U.S. up to this time.

Richard Morris Hunt, William K. and Alva Vanderbilt House, New York, NW corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd, 1879. (Online)

Hunt used this blank check to produce an academically rigorous version of a French chateau whose style would soon be referred to as Francois I, that was not the typical nouveau riche overuse of decoration (a lá the Palmer House-hotel), but was still ostentatious while also being so historically accurate and well-designed that it immediately became the epitome of “good taste.” Francois I was Hunt’s favorite style, and the turret or tourelle with a conical roof, that he placed on Fifth Avenue, near the corner of the building, was his favorite detail:

“Hunt’s motive for using the corner tower was not practical; he did not seek to provide extra daylight.  His impetus was aesthetic.  A towerlike corner treatment tied his often disparate elevations together, emphasized the three-dimensional quality of the house, and served to “detach” the building from all-too-close neighboring buildings.  Not incidentally, it also served to draw attention to the building.”

Critics Montgomery Schuyler praised Hunt’s design as “brilliantly successful,” and Royal Cortissoz  pronounced it to be “an isolated triumph of lightness and vivacious beauty… It stands alone in all America.”  Overnight it became the model for countless other buildings during the decade.

To introduce New York society to its new self-appointed fashion-setter, Mrs. Vanderbilt held a costume ball in her just-completed mansion on March 26, 1883.  An apocryphal story relates that she consciously did not invite Caroline Astor, the youngest daughter of Mrs. William Astor, Jr., (Caroline Schermerhorn Astor) the recognized queen of New York’s old social elite, “The 400,” who had snubbed the Vanderbilts up to this point as mere nouveau riche in the past, in order to force Mrs. Astor to first call upon her at her new house in order to secure an invite and not be left out of THE social event of the year. Whether true or not, Mrs. Astor had called on Mrs. Vanderbilt before the ball, and did attend, with her daughter, the ball that the New York Herald described the following morning as “probably never rivaled in republican America and never outdone by the gayest court of Europe.”  Continuing the parallel with France, it was as if the Empress Eugénie, Napoléon III’s wife and consort, had simply transplanted herself in the New World following the fall of the Second Empire.  New York City’s new fashion leader had only just begun her long career and influence.

Richard Morris Hunt as costumed to be “Cimabue” for the Vanderbilt costume party, 1883. (Baker, Hunt)


Josiah Cleveland Cady, Metropolitan Opera House, 1881. (Siry, Auditorium)

Mapleson’s second New York Opera Festival was scheduled for November/December 1879.  Alva Vanderbilt’s husband had just received his share of his grandfather’s estate back in April and she was about to announce Hunt’s design for their new house, planned to be the most expensive house in the country.  Yet she could not buy her way into one of those eighteen private boxes in the Academy of Music for the Opera Festival so that she could also show off her new wealth among New York’s elite.  So be it!  Together with similarly stymied nouveau riche families, they banded together to establish an entirely new opera organization and to build an appropriate building to house it.  Thus, New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera was born in April 1880.  This spat among New York’s upper society had paralleled a similar power struggle in Cincinnati, (1880) where Theodore Thomas had taken his charge to develop the Cincinnati College of Music very seriously, but had run into a brick wall as his vision of an elite school on the European model funded by an endowment, conflicted with that of the College’s Board of Directors, led by Maria Longworth Nichols’ husband, George Ward Nichols, who planned to run it on the American model of charging tuition to all that could afford it.  After a year and a half of building the best music program in the country, Thomas was disillusioned by the CCM Board’s lack of vision, resigned in March 1880, one month before the organization of the Metropolitan Opera, and returned to New York to pick up the baton of the New York Philharmonic once again.  Thus ended Cincinnati’s chance to become the music capital of the United States, and just maybe, the world as well (to Chicago’s good fortune as we will soon see):

“[The college] was nevertheless rapidly being developed on university lines, and it is reasonable to suppose that the man who could achieve such important results in the short period of eighteen months, would eventually have carried it to its logical conclusion, had time, money, and authority been given him.  Unfortunately, none of these essentials were at this command in the Cincinnati College of Music.  But, in spite of the handicap under which he worked, the close of the first season of the College, found it a thoroughly organized school, possessing, in addition to the customary departments of such institutions, a chorus of three hundred thoroughly trained voices, a fine string quartette for chamber music, and a symphony orchestra [not to mention the largest Music Hall in the country].  In short, with these advantages, and the biennial May Festivals already established, Cincinnati had only to go on as it had begun and it would soon have become, in very truth, the leading musical center of America and one of the foremost in the world.”

Thus, by April 1880, New York had taken the needed steps to establish both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic that would become the premiere American musical organizations that they are today.


Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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