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Architects Delano & Aldrich: refined classicism for New York's moneyed set

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From cushy private clubs to sprawling mansions, they defined luxury

Kilgub: Flickr/Creative Commons

The great fortunes of America’s Gilded Age, built up by legendary families such as the Astors, Vanderbilts, and the Whitneys, helped pay for some incredibly fancy homes. Only one architectural duo, William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, can lay claim to designing an outsized number of these grand estates, and putting their mark on early 20th century ideas of luxury.

The Delano & Aldrich partnership owes much of its success to their refined take on classical styles, which moved beyond the Beaux Arts trend popularized at around the turn of the century and instead elevated detailed Neo-Georgian and Neo-Federal designs. They also owe quite a bit to their deep connections to New York city’s elite. They met while working the office of Carrère & Hastings, then a pre-eminent architecture firm, while helping to draft the partnership’s winning submission to redesign the New York City Library. They decided to strike out on their own, and after studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, they reunited and launched what would become a extensive and influential career.

Connections with friends and family often led to expensive commissions for private homes and fancy social clubs, many of which featured their signature exterior, brick with a limestone or white marble trim. From Manhattan residences to manor homes and even a renovated balcony at the White House, the duo aimed for glamorous, elevated, and welcoming design; not every firm publishes a guide for potential clients titled “For You to Decide.” Here’s a look at some of the duo’s best-known work.

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Walters Art Museum (Baltimore: 1909)

William Adams Delano’s first major commission, this elaborate gallery space was commissioned by Henry Walters, heir to his father’s substantial art collection. Delano incorporated a variety of French and Italian influences into this showcase for Renaissance and Baroque artwork, taking the Parisian Hotel Portales as a model for the exterior, while recreating the look of the Collegio dei Gesuiti in Genoa for the interior. A classical structure and fitting vessel for the artwork inside, the gallery space offered an early peek at Delano’s stylistic references.

Library of Congress

High Lawn (Lenox, Massachusetts: 1910)

A gift from furniture magnate William J. Sloane to his daughter, Lila Vanderbilt Stone, this colossal, French-influenced manse was one a number of grand estates in this Massachusetts city known as the “Inland Newport.” Delano went overboard on the interiors for this 32-room Georgian Revival home, designing rooms to resemble those of Parisian hotels, and carving skylights into some of the dressing closest to provide natural light. Guests would arrive via a wooded drive lined with elms, traveling past small pavilions to arrive at the grand entrance court, topped off with a High Lawn crest carved in limestone over the main door. Talk about an entrance.

Garrett Ziegler: Flickr/Creative Commons

Kykuit (Mount Pleasant, New York: 1913)

This National Treasure, located on the Westchester County estate of business titan John D. Rockefeller, was initially meant to be a steep-roofed three-story stone mansion, a design that was refined and reworked until Delano & Aldrich arrived at the current layout, a four-story Georgian masterpiece. Not surprisingly, one of the richest men in American history had the money to build a mansion twice. Named after the Dutch word for “lookout,” the home sits upon a sprawling estate that includes an Italian-inspired stone grotto and an orangerie modeled after the one at Versailles.

Eden, Janine and Jim: Flickr/Creative Commons

Knickerbocker Club (New York City: 1915)

Founded by members of the exclusive Union Club, who broke away because they felt that storied group of rich plutocrats has lowered its standards (formed before the Civil War, the conservative group refused to expel its Confederate members), this club has itself become a byword for a rich, established, and influential New Yorker. Its current home on 62nd Street, a simple neo-Georgian red brick building, broadcast a Colonial-era simplicity and clarity with its exterior.

Wikimedia Commons

Colony Club (New York City: 1916)

Delano & Aldrich didn’t just design clubs for wealthy men. They also designed the second clubhouse for this famed female-only social group, which held pro-suffrage marches outside their door. The duo’s design for the Colony Club’s second location, on the corner of Park Avenue and 62nd Street, had a tough act to follow, since the original was the work of the legendary Stanford White. Due to its odd proportions, this new location was presented a tricky design challenge, but the architects made the most of the opportunity with a red brick structure with marble trim and columns on the upper levels. Society figure and celebrity designer Elsie de Wolfe oversaw the stylish interiors, which included a basement swimming pool and spa, two-story ballroom, and even a kennel for member’s pets.

A/M Barash: Flickr/Creative Commons

Oheka Castle (Huntington, New York: 1919)

Otto Kahn, a wealthy financier, commissioned Delano & Aldrich to build this steel-and-concrete estate after his previous home was ruined in a fire. They responded with a 137-room paean to European architecture, blessed with a self-referential acronym (Otto HErman KAhn) befitting its ultra-wealthy owner. Considered an exemplar of Gilded Age excess—on pristine grounds designed by the Olmsted Brothers, Kahn would hold annual Easter Egg hunts featuring gold eggs concealing thousand-dollar bills—this is a truly Gatsbyesque manse on Long Island’s Gold Coast, situated on the highest point overlooking Cold Spring Harbor. Falling into disrepair after Kahn’s death, Oheka has cycled through a number of owners and failed renovations, and now operates as an historic hotel.

Risa Sampson54: Flickr/Creative Commons

Embassy of the United States (Paris: 1931)

A return of sorts to the city where they both studied, Delano & Aldrich’s work on this diplomatic project in the City of Light gave them much less freedom than they had been accustomed to in the past. A collaboration with French architect Victor Laloux, this four-story chancery building and its facade needed to blend in with the existing designs along the Place de la Concorde, one of the city’s main historic squares (consider it one of the more fitting historic district regulations in the world).

James Nevius

Union Club (New York City: 1933)

Opulent doesn’t do justice to this elite private club, which once contained five dining rooms and a 100,000-cigar humidor for its moneyed members. Boasting a bright limestone facade topped with a mansard roof, the structure is refined, elegant, and well-proportioned, at least until you get inside, where interiors are decorated with splendid exuberance. Delano’s famous design for the card room features a frieze of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs on the ceiling, with carved reliefs of Kings, Jacks, and Queens adorning the mantelpiece.

Eden, Janine and Jim: Flickr/Creative Commons

Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport (New York City: 1939)

Currently the oldest passenger facility in use, this Art Deco antique features a joke built into its facade: terracotta friezes featuring flying fish. It’s a fitting addition, since the first-generation building was once serviced by seaplanes. The two-story structure features artist James Brook’s massive 237-foot-long mural, which depicted the (then brief) history of flight. It was the largest mural created as part of the Depression-era WPA program.

JeffGamble: Flickr/Creative Commons

Truman Balcony (Washington, D.C.: 1948)

When Harry Truman proposed to build a balcony off the Yellow Oval room of the White House, he had no idea how controversial a simple addition could become. Even though he paid for the project, and the design by William Delano, out of his own household account, he was savaged in the press. The Commission of Fine Arts even dismissed the project. Truman, however, won the day. The simple design was heralded after completion, with many detractors reversing course in the years after it opened. The Obamas recently said it was their favorite place in the White House.