Gilded Mansions

For those readers with a penchant for the decorative arts and architecture, it will be hard to resist peeking beyond the glossy cover of Wayne Craven’s Gilded Mansions. For those not so sure, each chapter of this book is prefaced by a quote so tantalizing, you can’t help but be pulled in. Take this little opinion, dressed up with fact: “New York ranks fourth in size among the cities of the earth. Architecturally it ranks nowhere. Fifth Avenue consists for the most part of innumerable brownstone platitudes, all depressingly alike. The incredible monotony is the only character this great street can boast,” published by LIFE in 1892. But the Gilded Age (1865-1918) changed all that. Craven, Winterthur Professor of Art History, Emeritus, shows and tells us how Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Astors alike strove to change the landscape by outdoing each other, one marvelous French château and Italian palazzo at a time. The well-researched text provides thorough historical context for a fascinating tale that begins when keeping up with the Joneses literally meant following Mary Mason Jones (aunt of Edith Wharton), who boldly moved “way uptown” to 55th Street’s Marble Row (constructed entirely from Ohio limestone, with nary a brown brick in sight). Copiously illustrated with 250 photographs, as well as delicious asides such as how the Vanderbilt children were viewed as “social climbing arrivistes” by the dowager Mrs. Astor, it documents how utterly America’s first millionaires rejected utilitarianism and all things bourgeois by snubbing each other and stuffing their lofty rooms with carved cabinetry, silk screens, and commissioned portraits. It’s a rich volume indeed, “its splendor akin to the gorgeous dreams of Oriental fantasy.”