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CORNELIA M. STEWART HOUSE
Cornelia M. Clinch (October 20, 1803–October 25, 1886), the daughter of an established ship chandler in New York, married Alexander Turney Stewart (October 12, 1803–April 10, 1876) in 1825. Their three children all predeceased their father. Born in Ireland, Stewart had emigrated to the United States when he was 16. In his early twenties, Stewart inherited about $5000, purchased Irish laces, and sold them at a small shop in New York City. In 1846 he moved into a new five-story dry-goods store at the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. Because business prospered, in 1862 he commissioned a second store, which became known as the Uptown Store. Designed by John Kellum (1807–1871), it contained eight floors and was a wonderfully equipped, popular and extremely profitable operation on Broadway between East 9th and 10th Streets. Stewart's success may have marked the apogee of the influence of the merchant class in the United States before it was superseded by industrialists and bankers.
In the late 1850s the Stewarts purchased, for $225,000, the splendid town house of Dr. Samuel P. Townsend, the largest brownstone in the city, which had been built recently on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. Initially, Stewart intended to strip the interior to the floor joists but reconsidered and ordered all vestiges of the original mansion, even the foundation stones, removed. However, his vaunted business efficiency was not evident in the building process. The project, also designed by Kellum, required 500 workers, who labored in fits and starts over a five-year period, and ultimately cost more than $1.5 million. Completed in 1869, the mansion commanded the attention and encouraged the wagging tongues of New Yorkers. Its dimensions, 120' along 34th Street and 72½' along Fifth Avenue, were huge for a city house of its day. Despite its mixture of Greek, Renaissance and modern French elements, the Stewarts' "Marble Palace" was an orderly composition. Compared to its discreet but costly dignity, the William B. Astor II brownstone, directly across 34th Street, now looked decidedly second-class.
Inside, the brick walls of many of the Stewart house's 55 rooms were finished in Carrara marble or painted panels. The floors of major rooms were covered with either marble or tile resting on brick-arch construction spanning iron girders. The main floor, entered from the wide steps on West 34th Street, led to the principal social rooms: hall, reception, dining, music, drawing and picture gallery. The floor above was also divided into eight rooms with 18'9? ceilings; the plans of these two floors varied little because of the weight of the brick-and-iron construction.
Beside the Stewart house, the finest brownstones of the city would have looked drab and unrefined on their exteriors, and though they might have been comfortable and even elegant within, they were neither as opulent nor as commanding. The drawing room in particular (no. 3), expressed the grandeur, scale, artistic fashion and cultural sophistication that distinguished this house from its New York contemporaries. Yet some observers argued that the house did not look like a home. According to Harper's Weekly (August 14, 1869):
The building, with scarcely an alteration in the arrangement of its rooms, could be transformed into a magnificent art-gallery. It almost astonishes us to hear the architect speak of this as a reception room, of that as a breakfast room, and of another as the parlor. The beautiful wardrobe and bath rooms are the only portions of the house which distinctively suggest the idea of a private residence.
After Mrs. Stewart's death in 1886, the Times asserted that there was no question but that the mansion's grand staircase, spacious halls and picture gallery suited it ideally for club use. In 1891 it was leased to the Manhattan Club, which occupied the structure until 1899, when the club was unable to meet its costs. The house was demolished early in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The Stewarts and their architect had conceived a unique residence and executed the idea, apparently with little self-doubt. The "Marble Palace" was immediately noticed but not immediately loved. Before it was finished Appleton's Illustrated Guide claimed, "of all the famous buildings on Fifth Avenue, none will ever be so famous. Words are absolutely inadequate to describe its beauty and unique grandeur." The New York Sun praised Stewart for a private act with handsome public results. But architect P. B. Wight, acknowledging the cost, wondered how "any one surrounded by works of art, as was Mr. Stewart, could have had so little understanding of what constituted a work of architecture" (American Architect and Building News, May 6, 1876). Despite such reservations, Jay Cantor, in his thorough account of the Stewart house (Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 10), contended that subsequent New York mansion builders were profoundly affected by its challenge.
New Yorkers were intrigued by the anomaly of two relatively plain people living in this conspicuous, palatial house. A contemporary biographer noted Stewart's abstemious personal habits and his unwillingness to wear diamond pins, watch chains or glittering rings. Obituaries praised his "thrift" and "plain dealing." Living in a house ideal for social events, he and his wife shunned society. In his last years only close friends and selected art authorities were invited inside.
When Cornelia M. Stewart died in 1886, the New York Times gave her death front-page coverage, but not because she had been a social, political or intellectual force in the life of the city. She had few friends and spent summers quietly in Saratoga and winters in the "Marble Palace." The coverage reflected local curiosity about the size of the Stewart fortune, estimated in 1876 to be at least $35 million, and her will. She left $15 million less than she had inherited, the difference being attributed to her gifts to charities and relatives and the transfer of property to Judge Henry Hilton (nos. 78 & 79), her financial adviser and confidant of her husband for 30 years. Of the remaining fortune, approximately half went to Hilton in trust and half to the members of her family.
1. Hall, Cornelia M. Stewart house, 1 West 34th Street, New York, New York; John Kellum, architect, 1864–69; demolished ca. 1901. The main hall ran north-south through the middle of the main part of the house. Visitors were dwarfed by the lofty ceiling, silenced by the ghostly statues and paced by the obtrusive but dry Corinthian columns. Although the sculptures chosen by Stewart were in vogue when the house was completed, most would have been considered old-fashioned by the New York art establishment when Artistic Houses was published. The first pair in this photograph was created by Italian sculptors. On the left was the Water Nymph, by Antonio Tantardini (1829–1879), and on the right was the Fisher Girl by Scipione Tadolini (1822–1892). Behind these, respectively, were Demosthenes by Thomas Crawford (1813?–1857) and Zenobia by Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), both Americans. Behind Zenobia, was a clock, 14' high, from the Eugène Cornu factory of Paris. At the end of the hall on the right was one of the scores of copies of Nydia, by Randolph Rogers (1825–1892).
The hall also served as an introduction to the picture gallery beyond. We can see the canvas of Beatrice and Benedict by French artist Hugues Merle (1823–1881).
2. Reception room, Cornelia M. Stewart house. This room linked the hall with the drawing room, which can be seen through the doorway. Sheldon noted the costliness of objects and surfaces not only here but throughout the house: "Money flowed abundantly during the seven [five] years when this white marble palace was building for a merchant prince. "
The rosewood table in the center was covered with a slab of Mexican onyx. The bronze and gilt panels of the rosewood cabinets in the corners were decorated with figures in relief. Complementing the design of the ceiling was a commissioned Aubusson carpet. Stewart paid an Italian painter more than $15,000 to beautify the walls and ceilings. Here the decorative panels compete with the paintings. On the left of the doorway was a portrait of a lady by G. J. Jacquet (1846–1909); on the right Marguerite, by G. J. Ferrier (1847– 1914). Carved casings of Carrara marble framed the doors and windows. Blue silk covered the chairs and sofas and was also used for the hangings.
3. Drawing room, Cornelia M. Stewart house. The left wall contained three enormous windows that faced Fifth Avenue. Between them were two equally impressive mirrors. This sequence of A-B-A-B-A was repeated on the opposite side of the room, where three entrances—from the music room, side hall and reception room—were separated by two cabinets, each 9' long and 4' high. The pattern of the carpet was also divided into three bays and reflected the ceiling's design, painted in encaustic. Reinforcing the axis were gasoliers and tables below. The drawing room was also divided into three parts vertically: the first contained the gilded whitewood furniture covered with pale yellow satin, the second the mirrors, windows, doorways and gold-toned wall panels and the third the cornice and ceiling decoration.
There were no paintings in this room, but sculptures were carefully placed to maintain the insistent balance: First Love, by American-born R. H. Park (1832-after 1890), stood before the central window and was flanked by two $10,000 Sevres vases. In front of the 34th Street window was Maternal Love by Salvatore Albano (1841–1893).
4. Music room, Cornelia M. Stewart house. Rooms designed solely for music were not common in American domestic architecture in these years, but were included in some of the larger and more pretentious houses. The ideal music room was expected to have a high and coved ceiling, a minimum of draperies to insure satisfactory sound, and a varied decor that was neither too heavy nor too fanciful.
The major pieces of furniture in this room were of rosewood. The table in the center was highlighted at regular intervals on its skirt by bronze reliefs symbolizing the seasons. This room also contained three cabinets, the panels of which were decorated in silver and bronze high reliefs. The frames of the doorways and windows, as well as the mantel (not visible here), were finished in white marble. In general, the color scheme was quiet but not somber. The cream of the Aubusson carpet, the white marble and the light green that covered the darker portions of the walls and ceiling provided an effective background for the heavier colors of the paintings. However, the Stewart house was so extensively decorated that pictures could not be hung well. Further-more, the metallic rod-and-chain system of support did not blend easily with the marble and faux-marbre walls. The most satisfactory solution to this problem, rarely employed in other interiors of this series, was the curtained niche at the left, a formal and imposing means of displaying a work of art.
Through the doorway can be seen the end of the main hall and the newel post and first steps of the curving marble staircase, called by an anonymous observer the "most beautiful specimen of architecture of that kind" in the United States.
5. Library, Cornelia M. Stewart house. We know surprisingly little about Stewart's personal life. He apparently enjoyed books and admitted to friends that he read selections from the Aeneid in Latin before work each morning. His collection of books, however, was less impressive and celebrated than his collection of paintings. The highest prices paid for titles at the sale of his library in March 1887 were $ 1350 for an original edition of Audubon's Birds of America, issued in four volumes 1827–38, and $252 for a first edition of the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by Audubon and Backman. The books were kept in eight black-walnut cases placed around the room, while the larger portfolios were stored in the drawers of the two 10' tables.
Although her husband had died approximately seven years before this photograph was taken, Mrs. Stewart had probably made few changes in this room. She commissioned the posthumous portrait of Stewart by Thomas Le Clear (1818–1882), on the easel to the right, and placed her own portrait, by Jeannette Loop (1840–1909), opposite it. Above each, like patron saints from a royal past, were portraits of Elizabeth I of England and Alexander II of Russia. Compared to other libraries in this series, the Stewart's was larger, less intimate and more formal.
6. Mrs. Stewart's bedroom, Cornelia M. Stewart house. The main bedrooms were on the second floor in addition to the sitting and billiard rooms and the library. Above the library was the principal guest room, known as the "General Grant Room." Because the floor dimensions and ceiling height of the family rooms on the second floor were identical to those of the social or public rooms below, and because the decorative character of these rooms was coordinated, form certainly did not follow function in the Stewart palace. Specific activities were claimed from generalized spaces largely through the impact of the furniture, which, in this room, does not blend well with the exuberant curves of the gasolier or with the repeated catenaries of the draperies. Without closets, the bedroom was essentially a marble-and-plaster box, a very expensively finished box. After the plaster was laid on the iron furring, four layers of underground paint were applied before the application of the final design.
7. Picture gallery, Cornelia M. Stewart house. At the end of the main hall was the entrance to the picture gallery, a windowless space approximately 75' long, 30' wide and 50' high. Built as a block on the north side of the house, it was illuminated during the day by natural light that came through the skylight of glass and iron. Evening viewing was made possible by three gasoliers that hung from the skylight. The gallery's wall was obscured by the tightly fitted frames, a system that enabled the Stewarts to display about 150 works in this space. When Earl Shinn itemized and discussed the Stewart collection in The Art Treasures of America (ca. 1879–82), he listed 179 paintings and 19 pieces of sculpture.
Because these works of art were collected between 1846 and 1875, they constituted a collection older than most featured in Artistic Houses and did not reflect post-Centennial New York art trends. Nevertheless, it contained paintings by several French artists who were still popular in the United States in the early 1880s: three by Jean-Léon Gérome (1824–1904), three by A. D. Bouguereau, and four by Jean-Louis Meissonier. But the didactic and chromatically conservative character of the Stewart paintings appealed less to later critics. The Art Amateur of November 1879 declared that it was "not exactly the shrine of a poet-painter. You do not go thither to see examples of Delacroix, Descamps, Millet, Corot, Rousseau. "
The sculpture in the immediate foreground is Proserpine by Marshall Wood (d. 1882) and behind it to the left is a seated Flora by Chauncey B. Ives (1810–1894). To the right of Flora were two works by Hiram Powers (1805–1873): Eve Tempted, with apple in hand, and one of the six copies of his Greek Slave of 1843. "Ghosts of connoisseurs of 40 years ago," was the verdict by a critic of the early 1880s of Stewart's sculpture collection.
Excerpted from The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age by Arnold Lewis, James Turner. Copyright © 1987 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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