That photo is looking up Fifth Avenue from 56th Street. The mansion in the center is the house of Cornelius Vanderbilt II[efn_note] That’s not a particularly pretentious way of saying “Junior”, but rather he was the grandson of the Cornelius Vanderbuilt who made the New York Central Railroad into the monster that it was. [/efn_note], just below the Grand Army Plaza and then Central Park. The double-decker bus with the fancy helical stair is blocking our view of the statue of General Sherman in the plaza. This picture was probably taken in the summer of 1908 or 1909.
The tall white building behind Vanderbilt’s humble abode is the second Plaza Hotel, finished in the fall of 1907. It may not be Henry Hardenburgh’s best work, but it’s arguably the most famous. It’s also huge. What I like about this angle is how it one-ups Vanderbilt’s mansion. There are a lot of stylistic similarities except that the hotel is twice as wide and four times the height. If the mansion’s appeal was purely about the beauty of its architecture that wouldn’t matter much, but the mansion was big and was meant to look big and was meant to awe you, at least in part, by being big. Having the Plaza looming over it kills that feeling; the Plaza was also open to the public and therefore was better known to more people. It’s not often that I feel the need to say “hoist with his own petard” but this is one of them.
This picture also shows, accidentally, why Manhattan mansions were problematic for wealthy New Yorkers. The nature of our street grid – narrow closely-spaced side streets, wide and widely-spaced avenues – meant that the best sites for showing off were on the avenues, but that meant your site was exposed to the march of commercial development. The three large houses we see in this picture would all be replaced in a few years by much bigger commercial buildings. Side-street sites were better protected, and in fact there are still many rowhouses and slightly bigger mini-mansions on the side streets of the Upper East Side, but were they worth it from the self-promotion viewpoint? If your mansion isn’t immediately visible to everyone, does it really exist? In the long run, most of the New Yorkers who would have, in a low-rise city, built very large houses ended up moving into very large apartments in the high-rises that replaced houses along Fifth and other avenues.