Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.
There are few periods of history that conjure more romantic notions of architecture than the Gilded Age, that stretch of time from the late 19th- to the early-20th century notorious for its extravagance in almost every corner of life, but especially the home.
The term "Gilded Age" was actually coined by author Mark Twain in his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which satirized post-Civil War life and called out its materialistic obsessions.
The most well-known symbols of this opulent era might be its grand mansions—from summer homes often referred to as "cottages," to stately city houses—built by prominent families of the day as a way to assert their social prominence. These estates varied in architectural style, from Colonial Revival and Shingle Style to Queen Anne and Romanesque.
While some were eventually transformed into museums (like the famous Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island, The Breakers), others continued their lives as private homes, going through all the phases of a normal home: restoration, remodel, and sale. From a sprawling estate in Newport to an opulent home in Manhattan, here are some of the grandest Gilded Age mansions up for grabs right now.
There is perhaps no location more synonymous with the Gilded Age than Newport, Rhode Island. This coastal town became a summer destination for wealthy New Yorkers due in part to its proximity to Manhattan: Newport-goers would take a night boat on Friday and arrive for the weekend early Saturday morning.
The grandest mansions—like The Breakers—were built in the last decade of the 19th century, which is also when this house, called the “Harold Brown Villa,” was completed by architect Dudley Newton for Harold Carter Brown and Georgette Sherman Brown. (Brown hailed from the family that gave Brown University its name.)
The interior scheme was originally designed by Ogden Codman, who teamed up with Edith Wharton to pen The Decoration of Houses, a treatise on aesthetics. The interior draws inspiration from French design and includes intricate woodwork, and no shortage of marble and glass.
The house was most recently the home of society doyenne Eileen G. Slocum, who acquired the house from Georgette Sherman Brown—one of the original owners of the mansion—and her aunt. The listing, held by Lila Delman Real Estate International president Melanie Delman, represents the first time the house has been on the market since it was built.
Slocum, who at one point was engaged to John Jacob Astor V (his mother was pregnant with him when she survived the RMS Titanic disaster), made a name for herself as a fervent supporter of the Republican party, hosting many fundraisers at this Villa.
Not every refuge of the Gilded Age was by the ocean. Another popular destination was Tuxedo Park, a planned community of houses arranged around a network of lakes just north of New York City.
The Tudor Revival mansion, completed in 1899 by Charles H. Coster, a Morgan partner who was very involved in railroad organization, has been in the Coster family since it was built. According to the late John Foreman—the historic-home obsessive behind the blog Big Old Houses—this house is the last in Tuxedo Park still inhabited by the family who built it.
As a result, the house is remarkably preserved. Often, these houses become altered over time, with updates to their finishes and floorplans as lifestyles change and things like staff quarters are no longer needed. That’s not the case with this house—everything down to the bathroom fixtures and old icebox refrigerators are intact.
While that may mean some light updating might await the next owner of the house, this is as close as you can get to opening a door and returning to the early 20th century.
While many Gilded Age country escapes have survived the 20th century, the same cannot generally be said of city houses—especially in New York. The grandest mansions by the likes of the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families were sold and demolished just a few decades after they were completed. High-rise office buildings or fancy department stores now occupy their old plots of land.
That’s why intact city mansions—like this one at 854 Fifth Avenue—are so rare (and expensive). Completed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore, the architectural force behind Grand Central Terminal, the mansion was originally built for R. Livingston Beeckman. Beeckman would later go on to become the Governor of Rhode Island.
The house then sold to Emily White née Vanderbilt, who purchased the house when she and her husband, Henry White—a former ambassador to Germany—were selling one of the grand Vanderbilt mansions on 5th Avenue and East 51st Street. The house most recently served as the office for Serbia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
The interiors are shockingly opulent, and derived inspiration from France—specifically, the style of Louis XV. The grand central hall and staircase is, reportedly, an architectural nod to Versailles, and the delicate wall decorations hark back to Classical Roman frescoes.