Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Exterior

***Photos and text from Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan pseudo Earl Shinn - the Holland Edition published in 1883.*** 


THE residence which we are permitted to describe as a type of American household architecture, is placed in one of the finest situations of New York for good air, drainage, etc., to say nothing of social propinquity. The house of Mr. William H. Vanderbilt occupies a large part of the block or ilot of buildings defined by Fifth Avenue, on the east, and Fifty-first street on   the south, at a short distance below Central Park. Opposite rises the city Cathedral, - the last metropolitan Cathedral added by the Church of Rome to the historic series of its temples built in the chief cities of Christendom, at all possible dates, since the middle ages. As for the home which forms the subject of the present publication, its exterior can hardly be said to make any architectural pretension; one gets the impression that the external walls are simply destined to form the enclosure of the convenience and right luxury that modern appliances can furnish; they are not meant, it would seem, to sacrifice one iota of internal comfort to an architect's dream of originality or his learning in the five orders.   The edifice was finished in little more than two years, a surprisingly short time for a work which after all is colossal and elaborate, and was ready for occupancy in January, 1882. 

That warm-colored brown freestone whose healthy surface constitutes the armor of so many American homes, is the material of the building, which is three stories in height, besides an attic masked with a balustrade or enclosure forming a vertical facade for the roofs, and constituting a sort of cornice in harmony with the almost classical character of the exterior. The style, for those who are particular about a style, may be called Italian renaissance, and the edifice would not look out of place among the palazzi put up in Northern Italy, in Florence for instance, in the rich days of the old Florentine banker and Lombard merchant. A pleasant and 

very human touch, however, is added to the cold and stately classicism which generally prevails, in the thick embroideries of leafage, oak-leaves and the like, which hang from the string-course of the second floor and from the cornice; these organic ornaments, deeply cut in the stone, with an opulence rather Gothic than classic, make no show of springing from the structural order, but suggest those tapestries of woven verdures which Italians hang from their balconies on festivals, and which show the welcome and participation of the family; the suggestion which the architect here contrives to introduce is that the place is inhabited; the house can hardly look vacant or soulless while these heavy screens of realistic leafage, these lambrequins of stone foliage, hang between the Tuscan caps of the pilasters and beneath the heavy cornice moulding. Besides, the renaissance style throughout the facades is kept quite free enough to bear an introduction of Gothic exuberance and naturalism, now and then, without a shock, and a chance innovation of realistic treatment upon the classical framework is no bad preparation for the mixture of treasures from every earthly clime which must find place inside a civilized modern house.

The corner view shows a building of cubical simplicity, resting square on its base like a die, but having a salient relief on each face in the form of a projecting triple window or a massive balcony. Applied to the centre of the Fifth avenue facade, for instance, is a two-story balcony, very solid and very elegant, the ornament of which, as is right, concentrates on the upper story; here there is considerable show of decoration, in the Corinthian caps of the round central columns and of the external square ones which flank them, all supporting a carved frieze of geometric patterns in relief, glowing within with reflections from the roof-lining of gold mosaic, and railed with a beautiful grille of bronze tracery. This upper balcony hangs over upon its brackets, and is likewise supported by square pillars, springing from the base of the edifice and finished in the severe Tuscan style which characterizes the ground floor all around. The balcony rail, as well  as the surrounding rail which encloses the house at the pavement, is of partly classical design, each motif being enclosed in an oval line as with the common Greek palmetto ornament; these rails are bronzes, of sterling material and of the finish usually lavished on statuary. The rail at the pavement is spaced between square stone pedestals, of the same material as the building, on which are seen in high relief the figures of birds, squirrels, etc., hiding in the acanthus scrolls which play over the surface. 

The sculptural touch will be found very bold and free, as well on these low pedestals as in the various friezes which define the stories, and which range in design from geometric accuracy to forcible realism in the oak-leaf  trellises or the Roman  scrollwork. Every particle of work seen on the exterior is in fact at once conscientious and decided, and the constructive execution promises to resist weather and climate as long as technical perfection can insure such resistance.

The double building, occupied by the proprietor and certain branches of his family, includes a connecting link in the shape of a vestibule common to the two wings, and placed between them. This intermediary portion, being recessed and but one story in height, allows by its retirement that free play of light and shade which can make the most of the saliencies of each edifice, otherwise so frankly square, and gives the double pile so much more character than if massed together. It is towards this common vestibule that the approach is managed, so that the entrance to either mass of building must be made over a broad pavement of large flags separating the two structures, between the brilliant bronze railings and their pedestals, set with vases of growing flowers, and conducting by a few low, wide steps to the porch with its double doors. 


The facades thus linked together occupy the entire space between two streets, and a free circulation of healthful air is kept up quite around each of the twin buildings, and secured for future time by the open sward which surrounds the Cathedral opposite, as well as by the garden of a charitable institution also placed in front of the residence. The low court now spoken of, forming a hyphen between the members of a double structure, has not been neglected by the architect;  on the contrary, he has made it a feature of originality and elegance; it is applied with a kind of audacity between the square shoulders of its overhanging neighbor edifices, and relieves them with the airiness of its cornices fretted with light bronzework and flower-vases, and the transparency of its omnipresent glass. Inside, it is a treasury of costly magnificence, as we shall presently see on entering. Confining ourselves for the moment to the external effect, we approach it between pillar-lamps of original designs, and see a wall of glass formed into doors and windows, and lintels and cornice fretted against the sky with their light fringes of metal open work and the vibration of living plants springing from their urns. The roof is of patterned glass, the sides of crystal also, only enough stone appearing to secure the strength of this chapel-like structure. It is at the opening of this wall of glass that the hospitality of the house commences, and that the visiting-card is received; the pressure of an ivory button like the end of a pocket-pencil is sufficient to develop the powers of receptivity of two enormous houses at once, and has often filled them with delighted and welcome throngs. It is one of the proprieties, for a work like this, to assign the credit or responsibility of the several departments of construction to their proper authors. The plans for the building were ready in 1879, in the month of December, and the practical result was accepted by the proprietor only two years later, at the close of 1881. The architects, both for the external and internal work, including designs for most of the upholstery, were Herter Brothers, of New York, assisted for the building details by J. B. Snook, of the same city. The original designs by the Herters contemplated more variety of exterior coloring than is now found about the structure; the details were to have been of red and black marble on a face of pale Ohio freestone; the change to the brown-stone actually used was dictated by the owner, after the foundations were prepared, and no alteration of the details to harmonize with a mono-chrome treatment was allowed, the execution being strictly commanded for the date first limited. Sixty foreign sculptors and carvers were in employ for two years, under engagements made in Europe for the labor, followed by the bodily transfer of the artisans to America, their passage and return being presented them, and their rates of pay while in the United States reaching artists' prices rather than those of workmen. Upon the interior decorations were engaged between six hundred and seven hundred men, for a year and a half. The designs of everything attached to or forming a part of the building, as well as those of most of the furniture, carpets, mosaic and marquetry, etc., however foreign in appearance, were made in America, in the ateliers of the architects. The external bronze railings were cast by Bureau
Brothers and Heaton of Philadelphia. The internal wood-carving, which has received praise for its spirited sculptural touch, was executed by some two hundred and fifty workmen from the designs of Mr. Christian Herter.

The Plate showing the architect's Section will explain everything needful to be known about the structural arrangement of the house. It will explain, for instance, the apparent lightness of the square marble columns which we are to find forming the peristyle of the Atrium. These columns have no heavy walls to support, nor do they sustain rooms loaded with furniture or people; running upward to a gallery circumscribing the hall, they are continued by series of pillars in each story to the skylight. They are only charged with the weight of the successive galleries upon which open the chambers of the different stories. The sequence and arrangement of the various saloons are also exhibited in this Sectional View. 

The chief Drawing-Room, recognized by Galland's processional figures on its vaulted ceiling, is shown - what our various plates of the room will not show, - as having a front exposure, with illumination from the street The great Hall, or Atrium, on the contrary, is seen to be quite in the interior of the building, with lighting derived wholly from the glass roof; this kind of illumination is the best, indeed almost the essential, for statuary; and accordingly forms an effective showing for the statues placed here and there around the Hall - the busts in white marble by Palmer, Tony Noel's golden figure of a lamp-bearer at the stair-foot, the German bronze of a Female Falconer, the fine Japanese Neptune, as well as the chimney-supports by Germain Pilon, though these last are much in the shadow of the gallery, and depend upon night effect and artificial illumination to be well seen. 


The manner in which bed-rooms open upon corridors encircling this open hall is also conceivable from the Sectional View; abundantly demonstrated by the proportions of this accurate design, too, are the thickness of walls and solidity of floors. Kitchen and store-rooms are seen to be assigned, in the good old-fashioned way, to the basement, and to neighbor the cellarage, livery revelation made by this exceedingly candid dissection of a house betrays not merely opulence, but the absence of its excess, extravagance. There are no apartments introduced for show, no architect's caprices, no apings of foreign palaces with their theatres or bowling-alleys or menageries, nothing but what a reasonable and practical family may "live up to." In spite of the expression of careless and limitless wealth which we derive from a permission to visit this residence, we are tempted to be struck above all else with the self-restraint which has avoided any fantastic and showy novelties in building, and to declare that the abiding impression, at last, is simplicity. How many men would be so plain about it, if they were suddenly endowed with that wand of gold which could realize their chateaux in Spain and their Aladdin's palaces? How many would escape from committing some extravagance, some disproportion, some madness of castle-building, some architectural flight by no means growing out of their life or proper to it? Here all is candid, appropriate, applicable, and in daily use.  It is as sincere a Home as exists anywhere.

This candor of appropriateness also marks the outside. There are two ways of conceiving the exterior casing of a house. One theory is to make an external ostentation of brutal and castle-like plainness, which is jealous of public attention, and is determined to betray nothing of the delight and luxury inside; frowning homes of this kind are found often enough in Italy and Spain, all severity without, all pampering within; but it is a notion rather Oriental than Saxon, and will never obtain with our race. Some concession is surely to be made to the pleasure of the street-passengers. The opposite tendency, to which our architects would bind us, with great private sorrow to ourselves, if we did not rein them in, is to make the outside shell the be-all and end-all, and hide a perfect contempt of internal convenience behind a splendid and ornamental mask. Our own domestic architecture, the Fifth avenue architecture of thirty years ago, began with this showy fault, tempered only by a helpless ignorance of what architectural beauty really was. No more confectioners' temples of that kind will be henceforth put up. The house now under examination completely avoids this error, and if it shows any partiality at all, it is for the opposite and first-mentioned excess, the intention of not promising much and not telling much about its contents. This house is a box, if you will, but there is a finish and a style about it that shows it is a jewel-box. The outside ornament is mostly applied ornament. The purpose of the architecture is to define every door, and in many cases the division of the rooms, to which the sculpturing only calls attention by catching the sunlight and keeping its place. In this definition of the chambers, no architectural feature is so expressive and gratifying as the beautiful recessed balcony of the second story. It rises with emphasis and grace, its light acanthus pillars standing on the shoulders of those square undecorated ones which rest on the ground; it is crested with a cornice whose chained and festooned reliefs tie the whole forehead of the projecting mass as with a flexible crown. Vases of living plants stud the flowery bronze work which fences in this balcony. The enormous window behind it defines the room which it serves to mask, as the principal chamber of the floor. A little indication of the splendor within escapes, as it were, in the ceiling of the balcony, of that kind of gold-mosaic which casts such a glow on the floors of the Cathedral of Venice; this roof-lining of chequered gold, overhanging the street, and fully exposed, is an alms to the eye, warming the most casual passer-by with a little assurance of the cheer and hospitality within.
***Click HERE to view the introduction to this book.*** 

1 comment:

  1. Nice Information! I personally really appreciate your article. This is a great website. I will make sure that I stop back again!.