Monday, November 5, 2012

A City House of Distinction

The armory in the Belmont home presents the aspects of  a baronial hall in feudal times.

HE student of architecture in America or anyone who follows the changes in tendencies in home-building cannot but be impressed with the growing fondness upon the part of architects, as well as their clients, for the manner of building which was in vogue during the days of the Italian Renaissance. The past ten years have seen the building of many great American homes  in this most sumptuous of architectural styles, some of them being in the city and others in surroundings more or less rural. In either case there is a consistent following of tradition, for ancient precedents are not lacking for the building of a great Renaissance palace close to the curbstone of a city street, where its area is necessarily circumscribed, while the old Renaissance country villa, with its formal gardens, its marble fountains, and its general atmosphere of magnificent rusticity, fascinates all who journey to that land of romance and olive groves.

The great gallery in the residence of Mrs. O. H. P.  Belmont, New York, is filled with a priceless collection of antique armor. 

 The Italian palace or villa was built as a setting for life during a glorious and ceremonious age, and its splendid formality of existence is expressed quite as eloquently in the architecture of the period as in the pages of history which record the romance of the age.
But equally beautiful, and perhaps in a way more interesting to Americans, is the form of architecture known as the Georgian style, from which our own Colonial architecture is directly descended. The great masters of English building during the eighteenth century planned their houses as settings for a life somewhat more domestic than that which obtained during the days of the Renaissance; great apartments and entire suites of formal and stately rooms were still the rule, but their grandeur was somewhat  softened  and their stateliness much modified by the demands of English social customs.

The marble entrance-hall.

 Georgian architecture became so identified with English domestic life and responded so exactly to its requirements that it has always held its place in popular favor; many old homes which were built by the great Georgian architects themselves are yet existing to bear witness to their skill. In England, in the cities as well as in the country, there has never been the incessant tearing down and building up and the consequent obliteration of old localities which goes on so unceasingly in New York. A great English family will for generations occupy the same London residence and possess intact the same country estates, and therefore one may wander through entire urban or rural districts which are full of the architecture of centuries ago. In London, particularly, there are many localities, old squares or streets, entirely built up with residences in the graceful and usually unaffected style which the name of Georgian immediately calls to mind. It is therefore something more than a mere suggestion of Belgravia, Mayfair, Hyde Park or some other of the many fashionable localities of old-world London which one receives at the sight of the New York residence of Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont, at Fifty-first Street and Madison Avenue. Its correctly Georgian facade of white stone, with its tall pilasters extending from the lower floor through the height of the two upper stories and supporting a balustrade of stone are true to precedent and suggest English reserve and reticence, hinting only vaguely at the richness and magnificence which one feels sure must be hidden behind an exterior so dignified.

The Gothic Room in the Belmont house contains remarkable tapestries and many other treasures of medieval art
 The residence covers the area of two city lots. The greater dimension is therefore upon the Madison Avenue side of the property, and upon this side is placed the entrance to the house, the main doorway being within a vestibule the opening into which corresponds with the other doorways and the windows of the lower or entrance floor, the main floor being just above. At the very threshold one may realize the possibilities of the Georgian architecture, in which many of the rooms, as well as the exterior, are carried out, for the vestibule opens directly into a large and lofty entrance-hall, paved with stone and walled with beautifully veined marble. Tall columns and pilasters with Corinthian capitals support a ceiling of plaster in geometrical design, and upon one side a marble stairway leads to the drawing-room floor above. Upon the right as one enters the residence is a small reception-room, which is also an informal drawing-room. The walls are adorned with panels and frieze in high relief, and bookcases are built into the embrasures formed by the chimney-piece, while, as an overmantel, two columns support a broken pediment wherein an eagle stands with wings extended. Several of the windows of the reception-room are placed within the slightly curved or "bowed" extension, which is characteristically Georgian.
At the north end of the lofty marble entrance-hall wide doorways lead into the great dining-room. The walls are faced with cream-colored marble upon which is applied decoration in high relief, wrought of bronze and colored verde antique. In this very rich combination of materials and color is the overmantel with its columns supporting an entablature over the chimney-piece. The ceiling is covered with a great circular allegorical painting framed by a wide band of relief in dull gold. The furniture is of old Italian design and the chairs are covered with velvet, while deep Italian lace is used to adorn the sideboard and various small buffets.
A large part of the lower floor is taken up by the most beautiful and sumptuous of libraries. The room is of unusual size, being fifty-four feet in length, and is ceiled and paneled with richly carved wood with cases for books recessed within the panels upon both sides of the room. At one end of the library are doors opening into a stair-hall which repeats the elaborate Gothic architecture of the library and which is lighted by stained-glass windows.

This view of the Gothic room well exhibits the possibility of producing graceful interiors in this style

 Upon the floor just above are arranged the drawing-room and the other apartments of a formal nature required in a large and important city residence. The available floor space has been used to provide a few very large and spacious, rather than a greater number of smaller rooms, and these various apartments open into one another in a way which makes the entire floor available upon formal occasions. The walls of the "Gothic Room" are faced with stone which is carved with the same linen-fold pattern which appears upon the panels of the old doors of carved wood that open into the rooms adjoining.  A great Gothic hooded mantel is the chief ornament of this room, and about the fireplace are many chairs covered with old tapestry. A beautiful panel of antique Flemish tapestry hangs upon the wall over a great carved chest, upon which are arranged several old ecclesiastical statues, old vestments and fragments of embroidery and other relics of centuries ago. Four old lighting fixtures of iron hang at the corners of the room, and with their electric candles add to the quaintness of the effect. The drawing-room has its walls hung with green and gold brocade, with a richly gilded cornice and caryatid brackets. The woodwork and much of the furniture of the drawing-room is gilt; the lighting is supplied from old French gilt sconces hung upon the wall and from candelabra upon the mantel. Between the Gothic Room and the drawing-room there is placed a small foyer, which is really another drawing-room. Here the walls are paneled with wood and slender pilasters support the ceiling. Several old portraits are upon the walls and at the center of the room is hung an old French chandelier of crystal and ormolu.

A corner of the great armory in the Belmont house.
The great stone stairway which leads upward from the long Gothic library ends in what is the most wonderful and beautiful part of a very interesting and unusual residence. In the armory are arranged the large and priceless collections of medieval armor, battle-flags, banners and trophies of various kinds, which were formed during many years by the late Mr. Belmont, and which were removed from "Belcourt", the beautiful and very picturesque residence of the Belmonts at Newport. To prepare fitting surroundings for this great array of antique treasures, the architects of Mrs. Belmont's city home, Messrs. Hunt & Hunt, have built what suggests the armory of a medieval castle upon the banks of the Rhine or the Danube, from which a feudal lord and his mailed retainers might have sallied forth to battle. The ceiling of this large and impressive room is groined and vaulted in stone in the manner of the great Gothic halls of Germany and from the "bosses" or rosettes of ornament where the ribs of the roof converge are hung old chandeliers of wrought-iron, while candelabra, also of iron, are fixed to the walls. At the north end of the armory, and heightening the ecclesiastical or medieval effect which one is apt to associate with a Gothic interior, is a group of five pointed windows filled with stained glass, which shed a subdued and mellow light upon the long gallery, where, upon old tables, are spread many wonderful pieces of armor, trophies of war, the chase, or perhaps of tournaments centuries ago. Here, too, are several old statuettes of wood or of metal, some of men who were warriors as well as saints, and who battled with men as well as fought for heaven. Against the walls of this quaint and medieval room are placed old carved Gothic cabinets or cupboards of oak now dark with age, and several old paintings and tapestries lend a glow of color to the stone walls upon which they are hung.

The smaller of the drawing-rooms.

In the armory there are also several complete suits of armor, and within a few of them are effigies so skillfully arranged and so lifelike in appearance that one half expects to be saluted by an armed retainer of the castle. A magnificent and entirely complete set of equestrian armor is mounted upon the effigy of a horse which is almost covered by the velvet and embroidered trappings, the making of which, history and romance lead us to believe, occupied much of the time of the mistress of a castle and her maidens. From the appearance of the horse, fully covered and armed, and ridden by an effigy of his master, also armed and spurred and with vizor drawn down over the face, and with the bird of victory perched upon the helmet, one may gather a fair idea of the dignity and impressive grandeur of the castle's lord when in the full panoply of battle he led his warriors forth.

The reception-room with its Georgian chimney-piece.

 Overhead, hung from the vaulted ceiling, are many battle flags—banners stained and tattered and marked with the arms of medieval knights and of half-forgotten principalities, which bear a mute but eloquent testimony to the days of service in camp or upon the battlefield which they have seen.
 Aside from the value of the armor as aiding to create a highly picturesque and decorative setting for the life of a great city residence the collection possesses a high importance to the student of history or to anyone interested in the metal smiths of the middle ages and their work. The armorer, a pastmaster in the intricacies of his craft, was a personage of much consequence at any court or castle of medieval days. His glowing furnaces and the well-directed blows upon the anvil of his trained workers produced the trusty swords and the heavy armor in which the castle's defenders were almost invulnerable to attack. The working of iron into steel and the welding and forging of steel into arms, tested and tempered, was an art of practical necessity in earlier days, and the armor which came from their forges is the treasure of museums to-day.
At one side of the armory is a great Gothic chimney-piece of stone, and the light from its deep fireplace illumines what is a strange assemblage of the fragments of the life of other centuries and ages ago, and what seems to be a chapter from the history of romance and chivalry set forth upon a spot which was all but unknown when the armor and the battleflags which are here brought together saw their days of glory upon the field, or about old battlemented portals.

Dining-room of the Belmont house, showing the painted ceiling.

***In 1899, Oliver H. P. Belmont purchased a large lot on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 51st Street, and hired two sons of Richard Morris Hunt, Alva's favored architect, to design a townhouse that would hold his growing collections and accommodate his wife's large-scale social events. Oliver Belmont died suddenly in 1908, following complications from an appendectomy, leaving Alva to complete the unfinished townhouse. 

477 Madison Avenue - Mrs. O. H. P Belmont Residence

The three-story townhouse had a pilastered limestone facade reminiscent of London's Lindsey House, and the interior rooms were an eclectic mix of styles decorated by leading firms of the day. While construction was underway, Alva announced that she would build an addition known as "The Armory," an exact reproduction of the Gothic Room in Belcourt Castle, to house her late husband's large collection of medieval and early Renaissance armor. The Armory, which measured 85 by 24 feet, was the largest room in the house and would also be used as a lecture hall for women's suffragists. A branching marble staircase led from the large library on the main floor to the two visible entrances of the Armory. On the north wall of the stair hall was set a stained glass window 23 feet by 18 that depicted Joan of Arc with crusader figures about her. Alva and her youngest son, Harold, took possession of the townhouse in 1909.*** The New York City Organ Project


In 1923, Alva sold her New York townhouse, and the next year she moved to France to be near her daughter, Consuelo.

A modern twenty-three story building replaced 477 Madison Aventine in 1952. Click HERE to see building. 

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