William Collins Whitney, 1841-1904.
Surely, it must have been a criticism directed at William Collins Whitney, the excerpt below from Munsey's Magazine of November 1901:
It would be discouraging to national pride, if America considered originality in architectural and decorative matters of moment, to realize how complete is our dependence upon the old world whenever we wish to make a brave show or to erect a worthy and enduring building. It is better, of course, to copy the good than to achieve originality only through atrocities; but there are times when one not necessarily a jingo could wish to hear that Mr. Croesus was putting up an American house instead of reproducing a Venetian palace; or that some decorative artist had made a mantel so beautiful and so perfect that it was not necessary for the latest millionaire to ransack an old French chateau to discover something to his liking.
Whitney is said to have inspired Henry James' Adam Verver, from the psychological masterpiece The Golden Bowl. Ververis a fabulously wealthy widower American industrialist and art collector, living abroad with his devoted daughter, systematically amassing treasures. As methodical, as complicated and as dashing as Verver, Whitney was also widely regarded as wickedly clever, quite charming and terribly attractive. Yet according to some, these attributes only made the prominent American political leader and financier, an all-the-more accomplished rake and rogue. When he died in 1904, a few even speculated that Whitney was murdered, knowing as they did, of his former friend, Yale-roommate and brother-in-law, Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne’s threat to ruin him!
In 1875 millionaire Frederick W. Stevens commissioned architect George Harney to design the city residence for his family at number 2 East 57th Street. Filled with European spoils and antiques, after Stevens died his widow remarried and sold the property to Oliver Payne. Most generously, Col. Payne presented the turreted pile to his sister Flora and her husband William C. Whitney. The Whitneys commissioned Stanford White to remodel their house. This was a commission executed with such lavishness and care, that it was imagined that the fastidious owner would never wish to move. Yet, in 1893 Flora Whitney died from a heart attack. After her husband remarried and moved to 871 Fifth Avenue, another staid Victorian mansion entrusted to White for renovation, he gave his former townhouse to his son Harry Payne Whitney and his wife Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Mrs. Harry Whitney was the girl next door as it were, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, II, lived across the street.
On the left, the Whitney mansion, and to the right, the magnificent abode of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, II.
Harry and Gertrude Whitney contentedly lived near her widowed mother for some time. In addition they lived at "The Reefs" their cottage in Newport, had a plantation for hunting at Aiken, South Carolina, and a sizable country estate at Old Westbury. Saddened at the thought of the all the splendors his father had created in coolaboration with Stanford White being dispersed, in 1907 the Harry Whitneys moved to William whitney's 'palace of art'. Developers made quick work of demolishing their previous home, replacing it with a massive skyscraper that towered over Gertrude Whitney's childhood home across the way, which in a short dozen years or so, was razed as well.
Secretary of the Navy in the first Grover Cleveland administration, William Collns Whitney primarily made his fortune as a streetcar magnate. Expertly manipulative, his stock-watering, it is said, would make today’s colossal mortgage-backed derivatives, seem by comparison, like an amateurish undertaking. That he had married his roommate-friend’s sister, Miss Flora Payne, of Cleveland, daughter of Senator Henry B. Payne of Ohio, certainly proved to be useful. A brilliant academician interested in science, if no beauty, the first Mrs. Whitney was very rich! Her devoted brother, who was named treasurer of the Standard Oil Company, was richer still. The Whitneys had five children.
Social leaders in New York as well as in Washington, the couple lived at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Across the intersection stood the imposing winter residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt, II. Following two years spent mourning after Flora Whitney's death in 1893, Whitney was married to an elegant widow named Edith Sibyl Randolph. Out to impress the world with his ever-increasing riches, Whitney turned again to his friend Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White, challenging White to fashion a magnificent residence in the Italian Renaissance style out of the mundane Stuart house at Fifth Avenue and 68th Street.
William Collins Whitney, 1841-1904
Edith Sibyl Whitney
William Schickel's conventional brownstone mansion for the sugar magnate Robert L. Stuart, was utterly transformed for William Whitney into a 'palace of art'.
As so often was the case with Robert Adam, many of Stanford White’s most brilliant successes resulted from the remodeling of an existing house. Between 1896 and 1902, White moved heaven and earth to transform the enormous, but ordinary four-story brownstone mansion, designed in 1884 by William Schickel for the sugar magnate Robert L. Stuart, into a palace, a ‘palace of art’!
Employing such extraordinary antique elements as the gilt-iron and bronze gates from the Palazzo Doria in Rome in the Whitney’s porte cochère and Louis XVI boiserie from a château near Bordeaux in their second floor ballroom, then the largest private ballroom in New York, it’s estimated that White spent $4,000,000 converting 871 5th Avenue. Alas, before she had a chance to enjoy these splendors, on May 6, 1899, Edith Whitney died. Grievously injured in a riding accident in the south, she been brought home, never to regain consciousness.
Whitney's reworking of the Stuart house was only sedate outside.
Coinciding with his loss was the blow of estrangement from Col. Payne. Beyond vowing to cause Whitney’s financial and social ruin for insulting his sister’s memory by remarrying, Payne had brought his considerable wealth to bear, to divide him from two of his children.
Harry Payne Whitney, the traction king’s eldest offspring remained loyal to his father. He had married Cornelius Vanderbilt's daughter, Gertrude, the girl next door, sort off.
A rather conventional multi-millionaire-industrialist-sportsman, in time Harry Payne Whitney grew apart from his wife, who was as unusually gifted as his mother had been. More and more, as time passed, the pair lived apart, leading distinctly separate lives. If money was ever a bit tight between Uncle Oliver’s efforts of retribution and William Whitney’s prodigal extravagance, soon enough, money was again no serious barrier to infinite gratifications. With William Whitney’s death his palatial city house had been sold furnished. When the new owner, James Henry ‘Silent’ Smith unexpectedly expired age 56 on his honeymoon trip in Japan, out of sentiment the family house was re-acquired by the Whitneys.
Harry Payne Whitney.
A distinguished sculptor of great sensitivity who had trained with Rodin, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney increasingly lived in a converted Greenwich Village mews, where she had a studio. When the occasion demanded, she dutifully put in an appearance at Fifth Avenue, but drag balls and night clubs in Paris and Harlem came to offer far more appeal for her than staid society functions. She is all but notorious today, for the hard role she played in having her sister-in-law declared an unfit mother and thereafter taking charge to raise her young niece, Gloria Vanderbilt. Courtroom intimations that little Gloria’s mother engaged in lesbian relationships seem cruelly ironic as, since girlhood, whispers of Gertrude Whitney’s varied passions for men and women had swirled all around among bon ton New York and Newport.
Ca. 1912: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney adorned by a good portion of her extensive collection of jeweled ornaments, was the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Ca. 1892: Cornelius Vanderbilt's daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt who married her neighbor on 57th street Harry Whitney.
Gertrude and Harry Payne Whitney's Newport cottage.
1897: Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney and son Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.
1902: Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney by Howard G. Cushing.
Ca. 1912: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bedecked in a good portion of her extensive collection of jeweled ornaments.
1920: Three generations of Vanderbilt women.
1940: Anderson Cooper's mother, Gloria Vanderbilt with her Aunt Gertrude. Scars from her custody trial and separation from her mother, have never faded. Mrs. Cooper is one of the few New Yorkers today who experienced Willam Whitney's 'Palace of Art'.
Gilt-iron and bronze gates from the Palazzo Doria in Rome.
Antique Venetian lanterns lighted the iron and glass vestibule.
The marble Entrance Hall had Chinese carpets.
An Entrance Hall view made durring the extensive renovations.
The first of many antique marble mantelpieces stood in the low-ceilinged ground-floor Hall.
One of Stanford Whites favorite conceits was to adapt antique sarcophagi as receptacles for palms and ferns.
Mirrored panels in Whitney's Louis XV Reception Room en-framed skillful copies of royal portraits. Nothing here however hinted of the array of riches in store upstairs. For the cost of such reproductions, one might have had Monets instead.
Whitney and White operated under the notion that "more, is more!" Where one sarcophagus is grand, many are deluxe!
Antique fragments supplied the design of the intricately carved and pierced foliated stair balustrade.
The stairway to paradise perhaps?
An unrivaled assemblage of 17th-century Flemish stained glass contributed to the celestial atmosphere of William Whitney's white marble staircase.
A bay window.
Mr. William Whitney's superlative Hall!
The marble floor, interlaced with colored tesserae, was covered both with remarkable Persian carpets and by lion skins with mounted heads.
In the Hall, as in the other principal reception rooms, the ceiling was salvaged from a Renaissance villa.
WilliamWhitney's carved limestone fireplace in the Hall was made in the time of Henri II for a chateau at Aigues-Mortes.
Much as in the Drawing Room, tapestry was used as drapery at the Hall's openings.
Open log fires, made superfluous by an industrial scaled central heating plant, added greatly to the ambiance of earlier times that White and Whitney were after.
A Mannerist masterpice!
Has any other architect or decorator ever displayed the most stumptuous tapestry obtainable, with such sure nonchelance and effective eclat as White did? Today on view at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, the glorious "The Drowning of Britomartis" is the first tapestry up the stairscase.
Diana, at the center of the tapestry, a crescent above her fair brow saves the day, sort of. In the middle distance, Minos, king of Crete, stands looking with astonishment. Young and lovely Britomartis, disdaining his ardent blandishments and hot pursuit, preferring to perish in the depths of the sea, raises one Lilly-like hand as she drowns.
To make the poor maid's memory immortal, the goddess Diana invented fishnets and snares, with which her lifeless and unsullied body was was retrieved to be brought to a holy place. Ever after the Greeks and other fishermen have referred to the unfortunate girl who's death so benefited humankind as Dictynna, meaning "fishnet".
Somewhat divergent from the most authoritative classical accounts, primarily this refined wall handing was meant toglorify the woman who commissioned it, the legendary Diane de Poitiers, portrayed in the guise of her goddess namesake. She was the mistress to King Henri II of France. Even the elaborate tapestry borders are emblazoned by the Greek character delta and other symbols of Diane. Part of a set of richly colored and beautifully designed tapestries, originally it likely decorated the main halls of the Château at Anet, built for the royal favorite from 1557 onward.
Furnishings represented every epoch...
And many modes.
There were cassone in abundance.
And many large palms.
There were cartouches bearing noble arms.
The Library hung with crimson velvet ducal banners embroidered in gold.
Another fine Renaissance marble mantle.
A silver oil lamp.
William C. Whitney's Fifth Avenue Drawing Room French tapestries and English portraits..
Sir Anthony van Dyke's superlative portrait of the dashing Henri II de Lorraine, who not long after he was painted became 5th duc de Guise in 1640. When William Whitney aquired it in 1900 for a record price, it was thought to portray William Villiers, Viscount Grandison. In 1947 Harry and Gertrude Whitney's son Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney presented it to the National Gallery.
In William C. Whitney's damask-hung, art-filled Drawing Room, tassels hanging from the ceiling concealed light bulbs used to illuminate paintings.
Ca. 1901: Installation of the great Franco-Flemish 16thcentury chimneypiece in Whitney's commodious Dining Room. The wonderful trio of escutcheons Stanford White married to the overmantle to give it the greater scale demanded of the space has not yet gone into place.
White’s treasures collected for William Whitney were legendary. So it’s not unexpected to learn that even objects with an indefinite lineage, like the handsome Franco-Flemish 16thcentury chimneypiece from the dining room, found good homes when New York’s finest Renaissance palace was destroyed. Rid of embellishing flourishes so typical of White, it landed at Harvard’s venerable Fogg Museum. But not for long.
William Whitney's baronial Dining Room.
When I discovered that Darryl Pinckney and James Fenton were selling a lovely old farm near Oxford, in order to buy and restore Harlem’s old John Dwight house, I was pleased. ‘At last, the unimaginable, restoration of a great landmark, will actually happen!’ I thought. Long Leys farm, where James has made a garden of enchantment, is the real estate agent’s pictures reveal online, quite a pretty place, of just the sort where one might like to retire. A wreck when they bought it, in addition to the great garden, it was augmented by a wing with a great room of two stories.
Lined with dark canvases teeming with people, Whitney's Dining Room stood at odds with the 'home-like quality' he insisted to the Times in 1904, that had so recommended Italian Renaissance decoration and architecture to him.
Difficulte to make out in the image above, the center the sliding door of the Dining Room, featured the marquetry panel shown below. A representation of the Last Supper, it had been made by Fra Damiano da Bergamo for a 16-century altarpiece.
Fra Damiano da Bergamo's Last Supper, is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I knew at once that their antique mantelpiece seemed strangely familiar. Because the William Whitney house was razed so long ago, an ocean away, it seemed unlikely that it had somehow supplied this stunning souvenir of Stanford White’s weakness for old-world grandeur. But of course, by the oblique route of the saleroom, as a cautionary testament to impermanence, the vagaries of tastes and the fecklessness of museum collections, it was.
The massive Whitney fireplace in the Great Room of Long Leys Farm.
Currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Franceso Orlandini's marquetry panels were originally made in 1547 for the Chateau de la Bastie d'Urfe. Notwithstanding their religious imagery, Stanford White utilized them for William Whitney's Ballroom Passage, seen below.
Supremely beautiful, the mirrored screen overlain in ormolu in William Whitney’s ballroom, had started life as two, of a set four doors, ordered by Giacomo Filippo Carrega for the Galleria Dorata, Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi, in Genoa. Sublimely shimmering, they were designed by Lorenzo de' Ferrari 1680-1744, a painter. Devising all the gallery’s appointments; paneling, mirrors, consoles and seat furniture, between 1743 and 1744, Ferrari adopted an aquatic theme, replete with mermaids, scallop shells and dolphins, devices which typify the decorative repertoire of the exuberant Genoese rococo style.
William C. Whitney's splendid Ballroom, measuring 63 feet x 45 feet.
Stanford White evidently lengthened Giacomo Filippo Carrega settees from the Galleria Dorata in the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi, in Genoa. The ravishing pair, offerd for sale at auctin in london by Sotheby's on July 6, 2011, handsomely realized 1,721,205 GBP, or $2,763,639. This was a record at auction for Italian seating furniture, over three times the pre-sale high estimate of 400,000-500,000 GBP.
Whitney's chairs by Giacomo Filippo Carrega from the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi, were latter owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
The WhitneyBallroom utilized as a banqueting hall. The oval table is banked with palms, and Bosten ferns. Befor the party rosese and orchids were added, according to the Times.
Acquired directly from the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi by Stanford White, Ferrari's ‘screen’ from the Galleria Dorata, joined by settees from the same source, were exported to New York expressly for William Whitney’s showplace. Following Gertrude Whitney’s death in 1942, the golden screen was sold to Baron Cassel and Baroness Cassel van Doorn. They, in turn, sold it in 1954, in Paris, to the dealers Serge Roche & J. Rotil, and it remained in their stock until at least 1956. Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, who summered at lovely Bois Doré in Newport, must have acquired the screen about then, for it was sold from among her effects at Christie's September 27-28, 1977 house sale, for $14,500, to Miss Doris Duke. At nearby Rough Point, where it remains, divided into two sections, of two panels each, it seems almost unbelievable that these one-time doors were not there always.
Stanford White's mirrored screen by Lorenzo de' Ferrari 1680-1744.
Almost as difficult to fathom, is that there are any additional, identical, mirrored and gilt-bronze doors. These second two pairs were retained by Stanford White for himself and incorporated into the opulent decoration of his own city house at 121 East 21st Street, facing Gramercy Park. I have always so admired that White felt entitled to the same splendors he afforded for his much, much richer clients.
Panels from Lorenzo de' Ferrari mirrored screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sold for $1,250 in 1907, upon the architect’s sordid murder, the screen was obtained by shipping heir Frederick E. Guest, of Old Templeton on Long Island. For the same price, at the time one could have gotten a nice Rolls Royce. Sold to Whitney Warren, Jr. by the Guests' son, Winston Guest, the panels realized $11,000. An acclaimed and discretely gay host and aesthete, after forming a magical backdrop for parties in his Nob Hill apartment, the panels were bequeathed by Warren to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Beyond this unparalleled screen, for Whitney’s ballroom, White also amassed a far more eclectic, yet still related assemblage, one which even included a Victorian rococo revival sofa of the 1840s. Yet much like Ferrari, he intended to rival other magnificent spaces, both great historic European interiors of the past and the grandest rooms of his own time, too. The perfect finishing touch, the group of rock crystal-hung 18th century chandeliers White located for this space were finally hung just in time for New York's first cotillion of the new century, early in 1901.
William Whitney had chosen to open the ill-fated house that was to have been a shrine to his new wife, with a debutante ball. The honoree was Whitney's niece, Miss Helen Tracy Barney. Some 700 invitations were issued. On the snowy night of January 4 1901 society danced the night away in a splendid space lined with genuine Louis XV carved oak boiserie, highlighted in gold. They partook of a delectable supper of canvas-back duck and terrapin, not only in Whitney's baronial dining room, but at little tables set all about the rooms of the piano nobile. Among those who enjoyed the festivities in what was described as Whitney's Venetian Palace' that night were Mr. and Mrs. Stanford White, Charles Follen McKim, "ablaze with diamonds" Mrs. William B. Astor, Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mackay, Mr. and Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, Mrs. Herman Oelrichs, her sister Virginia Fair and her husband William Vanderbilt Jr., Willie Jr.'s father William Vanderbilt, Baron and Baronesse Raymonde de Seillière, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Prince Trobetskoy, and Prince Ruspoli. Edith Wharton with her husband were also among the glittering throng that crowded the great house not in the least.
Among the guests favored to attend the Whitney house-warming- debutante ball was the Baronesse Raymonde de Seillière. She was connected by marriage with the wealthy Talleyrand-Périgord family, whose fortune was derived from truffles. Stepdaughter of the New York banker John O’Brien, the Baronesse married banker Charles Livermore, who left her a widow with two children. She then married the Baron de Seillière, the son of a Frenchman who had been ennobled by Napoléon III. A tall distinguished looking woman with snow white hair, the had a handsome Hôtel in Paris, and entertained the fashionable world of Europe and America combined, her guests being not only Duchesses and Princesses, but such well-known women as her Newport neighbors Mrs. Potter Palmer and Mrs. Astor.
New York's first ball of the new century, January 4, 1901, featured a cotillion with three jockeys who distributed riding crops as favors. They were 'mounted' on toy steeds representing the high-stake-wining champions of William Whitney's famed Greentree Stable.
A well-cushioned tapertried recess.
For sitting out dances removed from the chaparones' gazes, a conservatory was de rigueur.
Plants in profussion...
Were essenctial to the conservatory's charm.
William Whitney's Sitting Room.
At least this bedroom proves that there were opportunities to escape granduer at the 'palace of art'.