Monday, September 5, 2011
Mrs. White's Houses
This elegant group, photographed in the 1890s, is standing on the steps to a great glazed porch at Elm Court, the Lenox, MA summer home of Mr. & Mrs. William Douglas Sloane. Out of sight to the left is a view of the Berkshire Hills with Stockbridge Bowl - then called Lake Mahkeenac - smack in the center. The relaxed and elegant lady on the left seems the very apotheosis of Gilded Age society. I hope she was as calm and happy as she looks. The woman immediately to the right of her is the lady of the house, Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane, granddaughter of the famous Commodore. Her husband, furniture magnate W.D. Sloane is the man with the white mustaches standing third from right. The portly fellow on the far right is Joseph Hodges Choate, the famous lawyer who was, among other things, one time ambassador to The Court of St. James. Choate and his wife, who I believe is the woman in black standing in the absolute center of the group, had a house in nearby Stockbridge, which makes me think this was probably a lunch party. Choate was as famous for his wit as his legal prowess. Of England's King George, he once observed that "he does not reign, he only sprinkles." Concerning the construction of a fence around the so-called Sedgewick Pie, a family cemetery in Stockbridge, Choate noted that since nobody who was outside of it wanted to get in, and nobody who was in it could get out, there was little point to spend the money.
This view, looking north on Fifth Avenue in New York, was taken at about the same time as the luncheon above. The white chateau in the center, located on the northwest corner of Fifth and 51st St., belongs to Emily's brother, William (Willie) Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife Alva. The brownstone cube to the left of it was actually a double house. Emily and her husband lived with their family in half of it; her sister Margaret Shepard and her husband and family lived in the other half. Their father, William Henry Vanderbilt, lived in the house that is only partly visible at the far left. This stretch of Fifth Avenue was once colloquially known - at least in some quarters - as "Vanderbilt Row" or "Vanderbilt Alley." At one time thirteen family members all lived between here and 58th Street.
Emily Sloane's bid for architectural glory - a subjective term, admittedly, but I'll stick with it - was Elm Court. Would you just look at the size of this place. It grew in increments throughout the 1880s and '90s and right into the early 20th Century. The architects were Peabody and Stearns, a Boston firm less well known today than New York's McKim Mead and White, but once every bit as famous. Big houses like Elm Court were essentially private hotels with a clientele consisting of friends of the owners. A visit to a place like this wasn't free. Generous tips to a large staff were expected, and if your hostess fancied bridge, you might face hefty gambling losses.
Here's what you saw when you drove in to Elm Court - a maintenance monster, agreed, but a gorgeous one. This house when built would have been called a "modernized colonial" for reasons that are a little hard to grasp today. Architects back then were casting about for an authentic American architectural style. They essentially ransacked all the elements of early vernacular American building traditions - gables, gambrel roofs, bay windows, etc., etc. - then put them together in new and unusual combinations. Result (at least in its grandest incarnation): Elm Court
Elm Court couldn't seem to get big enough for the Sloanes. They never stopped renovating the interior even as they added to the footprint. Here's the dining room in its heydey, complete with classical moldings and European tapestries. W.D. Sloane died in 1915 and his widow, with surprising promptness, married a Lenox colony widower and diplomat named Henry White. He died in 1927, but she lasted until 1946, by which time the Lenox world she'd known was already crumbling.
Here's a shot from Dover Publications reprint of "Fifth Avenue From Start to Finish," published in 1911. At that time the white house in the middle of the block belonged to Mrs. Benjamin Thaw. Her late husband had the bad luck to be the half brother of Harry K. Thaw, the sadistic lunatic who murdered Stanford White. Mrs. Thaw was a restless sort, moving frequently between swank addresses in New York and Europe. After she left 854 Fifth, it was purchased by Henry and Emily White.
For a time after Emily White's death, Elm Court operated as a country inn. That didn't last too long, however. The house was closed, then horribly vandalized.
It's hard for me to understand the frenzy of violence that possesses (usually very young) intruders in big old abandoned houses. I remember as a boy taking a pal up to an abandoned mansion near where I grew up. I thought he'd be as excited as I was to discover it. We clambered through a useless plywood barricade on the front door, crossed a debris strewn double height stairwell, and entered a gloomy paneled library that was still pretty intact. I will never forget the evil glee in this kid's voice when he said, "Let's wreck this place!" Amazingly, Elm Court was rescued and almost totally restored by one of Emily White's descendants. It operated for a short time as a sort of uber-inn and conference center, before closing down again. I don't know what's happening to it now.
Mrs. White's Fifth Avenue house has survived - the only one on the 66th to 67th Street block - first as the Yugoslav UN Mission, now as the Serbian Mission.
When I was growing up there was a police kiosk on the sidewalk by the front door. That disappeared around the same time Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It would appear the Serbians are less concerned about aggressive street demonstrations.