We are now in the midst of contentious political rivalries clamoring to secure delegate votes for this year’s Presidential election. Don’t worry, this is not going to be a post about that. However, one of the main candidate themes is the battle against the “one percenters” who control the lion’s share of wealth and power. It is said we are in the midst of another “Gilded Age.” This is nothing new.
The phrase had been used by Mark Twain in his 1873 satire “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.” Twain called the late 19th century the “Gilded Age” as the glitter on the surface just hid the corruption underneath. It was a period of greed, Robber Barons,* unscrupulous and shady business practices and scandal-plagued politics. Wealth was concentrated amongst a few. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380. From 1860 to 1900 the wealthiest 2% of Americans controlled more than a third of the nation’s wealth and the wealthiest 1% owned 51% of the nation’s property. Sound familiar?
*”Robber Baron” was first coined as a term to describe feudal landowners that filled their coffers by nefarious means, protected by their feud’s legal status. In this post I am referring to the term used as a derogatory metaphor of social criticism against late 19th-century American businessmen who used unscrupulous methods to get rich.
Of course the wealthy were not shy about their riches and spent scads of money on jewels, cars, parties and of course, “homes.” Some of these structures still exist today although a scant few are still private residences.
Recently on a walking tour of Manhattan I got to view some of these structures so let me share some of them with you including the scandals that surrounded their owners.
HENRY CLAY FRICK HOUSE (THE FRICK COLLECTION)
American industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) worked closely with steel baron Andrew Carnegie to steer Carnegie Steel Company into the largest such enterprise in the world and eventually creating the United States Steel Company. Frick and Carnegie were ruthless businessmen, but later in life Carnegie made attempts to rehabilitate his character. Frick, remaining ruthless (he was known as the “most hated man in America,” and once targeted for assassination) had a falling out with Carnegie over the price of coke (baked coal deposits, not the drug).
Around the same time, Frick’s visit to the art-laden mansion of William H. Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue spurred Frick to begin collecting . The Vanderbilt mansion, made such an impression on Frick, that according to biographer (and great-granddaughter) Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Frick said, “It is all I shall ever want. Later on, Frick rented the Vanderbilt mansion and began to collect paintings that “reflected the high society into which he was moving.”
Then in 1906 Frick took a step to ensure his ever-growing art collection would be preserved for future generations: he purchased the lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street so that he could move out of the Vanderbilt house into a grand mansion of his own.
There was only one problem – the Lenox Library, a rare book and manuscript collection founded by philanthropist James Lenox housed on the block of Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st streets barred his progress. After protracted negotiations Frick gained ownership of the property, demolished the Lenox Library and built his mansion with the goal to make it greater than his rival’s (Carnegie) mansion (which is now the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum). Frick wanted to build a magnificent home that would become a public art museum after death of his wife and himself. What now stands is a spectacular world-class collection of masterpieces.
5 EAST 64TH STREET
This French Renaissance styled mansion with heavy wooden doors, scrolled ironwork and stonework detail was built in 1900 as a belated wedding gift for Maria Shepard, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt, and her husband William Jay Schieffelin, who were married in 1891. Schieffelin came from an old and well-respected family and was the grandson of the first Chief Justice, John Jay. The Schieffelin’s owned a wholesale drug firm and the members of the family were liberal philanthropists.
9 EAST 72ND STREET THE SLOANE MANSION (LYCE’E FRANCAIS)
Henry T. Sloane ‘s family owned a carpet company that decorated the White House. He also had a hard-drinking, wild wife, who a mere five hours after being divorced by Sloane, married her lover. Sloane commissioned one of New York’s greatest homes at 18 E. 68th St., between Madison and Fifth Aves. Thirty-six feet wide, 19,350 square feet big, with a ballroom as large as a small hotel, 30 rooms, 17 baths, 11 fireplaces, 14-foot ceilings, three terraces, a garden and a stunning limestone facade. And that refers only to the columned portion above.
In 1964, the Lyce’e Francais purchased the French mansion next door and when both buildings were sold in 2010 for $26 million to the emir of Qatar they were combined into the single residence shown above. Oh, and he added an in-ground indoor pool.
There are other mansions still standing today – some turned into museums or housing upscale clothing establishments. Many of the great mansions of the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and other multi-millionaires of the Gilded Age have been demolished and I am somewhat ambivalent about this. The artist in me would love to see in person the spectacular architecture of these edifices. The cynical side however knows that these were in actuality standing monuments to the unending greed, egotism and selfishness of a small enclave of entitled people who would view me as riffraff.
I will leave you with this quote:
“America’s industrial success produced a roll call of financial magnificence: Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Mellons, Fricks, Carnegies, Goulds, du Ponts, Belmonts, Harrimans, Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, and many more based in dynastic wealth of essentially inexhaustible proportions. John D. Rockefeller made $1 billion a year, measured in today’s money, and paid no income tax. No one did, for income tax did not yet exist in America. Congress tried to introduce an income tax of 2 percent on earnings of $4,000 in 1894, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Income tax wouldn’t become a regular part of American Life until 1914.
― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life
But the one percenters still manage to avoid paying their fair due – sorry I did just get a little political.
Some things never change.