Mansions of the Gilded Age: A Display of Wealth, Power & Prestige

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In honour of The Great Gatsby and the sumptuous visual feast of Architectural and Design marvels recreated in the film; I thought we would take a tour of some of the most palatial Gilded Age castles and estates.  The Gilded Age was the era of the “Robber Baron” … a time when massive fortunes were made (and lost) running from 1877 to 1900 and then followed by the Progressive era and the roaring twenties (All of this screeching to a complete stop with the Great Depression).  The term “Gilded Age” was actually coined by Mark Twain and was meant to satirize what he believed to be “an era of serious social problems hidden by a thin layer of gold”.  It was also a time of seemingly endless and enormous growth throughout North America, that in turn attracted countless millions of people to migrate from Europe and around the World, which in turn fueled the constant growth (see the pattern there).  Railroads became almost a religion, and were one of the major industries, as was the increasing industrial factory system, mining, and the exportation of finished products.  While the “gilded few” wore diamonds, many, many wore rags.  In 1890, 11.5 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group the average annual income was $380 (below the poverty line, meaning over 60% of the nation lived below the poverty line).  Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas and the NEW concept of tenements spread across city landscapes.  It was the age of industrial boom and “progress”, Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, cameras, public transport, skyscrapers, and electric lights… all the while that the majority lived in the shadow of poverty, watching the fabled and unbelievable antics/excess of the “Gilded Few”.  However it must be said that this was a time that EVERY man believed he could become a millionaire as well… an era that everyone looked to the future and the possibilities of life and not the shackles of the past.  A few of my favourite of “Gilded Palaces” include:


Biltmore front facade

The Front facade of Biltmore

Biltmore Dining HallThe Great Hall of Biltmore, ready for an imperial feast or simply to re-enact your favourite scenes from Citizen Kane…”pass the salt”

Any discussion of the palaces of the Gilded Age must begin with the titanic creation that is Biltmore.  In fact, Biltmore is the largest private estate/home in all of North America (a MUST see in Asheville, North Carolina).  Described as being in the Châteauesque style, the mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II (The 8th son of the financial titan William Vanderbilt) between 1889 and 1895.  Vanderbilt had prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt design the house in the Châteauesque style using the Loire Valley, French Renaissance Chateau de Blois as his inspiration.  Biltmore had its own village built to house staff, trades and services (aptly named Biltmore Village) and a church known as the Cathedral of All Souls.  The main house contains 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) and contains 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 85 fireplaces, 3 kitchens, an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley (Biltmore is still owned by the Vanderbilt family).  An odd bit of historic trivia, George and Edith Vanderbilt had booked passage on the Titanic but changed their plans before departure due to “a premonition” of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister, Susan Dresser.

To say that the interior of Biltmore is a dramatic stage of epic proportions is an understatement.  The ceilings on the first floor are 20′ tall, 14′ tall on the 2nd floor, 12′ tall on the 3rd floor and 10′ tall on the 4th floor. The main elevators (unheard of in a private home at the time) rise to these levels as well as down to the dramatic walk out level basement that houses the pool, bowling alley and a maze of work rooms. Floors three and four are all within the roof excepting the rear towers (which include the rooms over the owner’s suite which has 18′ ceilings).  On a side note, the stone walls are over two feet thick and are exquisitely carved on the interior.

1. The library pavilion is 26′ tall on the first floor to accommodate the balcony level of the library, and contains over 10,000 rare volumes as well as wall to wall hand carved walnut paneling.  Anyone who has ever had a fantasy of owning a library would find this room exceptional.  The exquisite ceiling mural is the Chariot of Aurora by Pellegrini.

2. The winter garden (conservatory) is an epic space that unites the indoors and outdoors in an architectural flourish.  The ceiling height is approx. 34′  at the peak of the undulating glass ceiling. This spectacular circular shaped garden room was often used for impromptu family feasts and small intimate banquets for intimate friends and family. The central fountain sculpture, titled Boy Stealing Geese, is by renowned sculptor Karl Bitter.

3. Probably the most famous room of Biltmore is the epic Banquet Hall, with its cavernous MGM style proportions and extravagant attention to detail… everything about this room is larger than life.  Measuring 40′ wide and 70′ long with a ceiling height of 70′ the room is designed to astonish, intimidate and ensure that all guests know they are at the home of a Vanderbilt.  The “great table” seats 64 guests, while the walls are covered in rare Flemish tapestries.  The focal point of the room is the massive, hand carved triple fireplace that spans one end of the hall.

Biltomore interior from the balcony

Looking at the dining table from an upper balcony in the Great Hall… I would want to re-enact the dining table scene from Citizen Kane and make guests sit at the opposite side of the table and speak very quietly…

Biltmore library

 The epic 2 story Library with its hand carved walls and magnificent hand painted ceiling… a “study” in restraint.  I don’t think I could watch “The Haunting” in this room.

Biltmore first floor

Biltmore Floorplan 1st floor

1 – Entrance Hall; 2 – Winter Garden; 3 – Billard Room; 4 – Banquet Hall; 5 – Breakfast Room; 6 – Salon; 7 – Music Room; 8, 10 – Tapestry Gallery; 9 – Library; 53 – Smoking Room; 54 – Gun Room; 55 – Bachelor’s Wing Hallway; 65 – Butler’s Pantry; 66 – China Room; 67 – Dishwashing Room (Modern floral workshop)

Biltmore 2nd floor

Biltmore 2nd floor plan

11 – Second Floor Living Hall; 12 – Mr. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom; 13 – Oak Sitting Room; 14 – Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom; (4 – Banquet Hall below); 29 – Damask Room; 30 – Claude Room; 31 – Tyrolean Chimney Room; 32 – Louis XV Room; 33 – Louis XV Hallway; 34 – Grand Staircase; 56 – Sheraton Room; 57 – Chippendale Room; 58 – Old English Room; 59 – Louis XVI Room; 60 – Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Dressing Area, Closets and Bathroom; 61 – Mrs. Vanderbilt’s “Personal Maid” Bedroom; 62 – Sewing Room; 63 – Outside Veranda; 64 – Open Roof Area above Winter Garden; 70 – Bachelor’s Wing Hall (1.5 Floor); 71 – Bachelor’s Wing Hall w/ Balcony (2nd Floor); 72 – Organ Service; 73, 74 – Bedrooms; 75 – Cecil Living Room; 76 – Mrs. Cecil’s (Cornelia Vanderbilt) Bedroom; 77 – Mr. John Cecil’s Bedroom; 78 – Mr. and Mrs. Cecil’s Bathrooms

Biltmore 3rd floor

Biltmore 3rd floor plan

15 – Third Floor Living Room; 16 – Bathroom; 17 – South Tower Room; 18 – Raphael Room; 19 – Earlom Room; 20 – North Tower Room; (4 – Banquet Hall below); 25 – Watson Room; 26 – Van Dyck Room; 27 – Morland Room; 28 – Madonna Room; 68 – Mrs. King’s Bedroom/Office; 69 – Several Unknown Rooms* 79 – Hoppner Room; 80 – Walnut Room; 81 – Gainsborough Room; 82 – Balcony Room; 83-88 – Bedrooms; 89 – “Dormitory Style” Bathrooms; 90 – Storage Room; 91 – Bachelor’s Wing Hall (2.5 Floor); 92 – Bachelor’s Wing Hall (3rd Floor)

Biltmore 4th floor

Biltmore 4th Floor Plan

21 – Servant’s Bedrooms; 22 – Servant’s Hall; 23 – Architectural Model Room; 24 – Observatory

Biltmore basement floor plan

Biltmore Walk out Garden Level

35 – Stone Hallway; 36 – Halloween Room; 37 – Bowling Alley; 38 – Dressing Rooms; 39 – Swimming Pool; 40 – Gymnasium; 41 – Vegetable Pantry; 42 – Walk-in Refrigerators; 43 – Kitchen Maid’s Bedrooms; 44 – Pastry Kitchen; 45 – Rotisserie Kitchen; 46 – Main Kitchen; 47 – Kitchen Pantry (Dumbwaiters) 48 – Servant’s Dining Room; 49 – Service Entrance; 50 – Work Rooms; 51 – Brown Laundry; 52 – Main Laundry and Drying Room;


Oheka Castle

Oheka Castle

 Courtyard Facade of Oheka Castle… Oheka served as a partial inspiration for Gatsby’s estate in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Oheka under construction

 Oheka during construction

Oheka Castle (also known as the Otto Kahn Estate) is located on the “Gold Coast” of Long Island in Huntington New York, and was built by financier and philanthropist Otto Kahn.  Built between 1914 and 1919, Oheka is the second largest private home in the United States and contains 127 rooms, 109,000 square feet (10,100 m2) and a floor-plan that is almost labyrinthian in its complexity.  Oheka is now a historic hotel with 32 guest suites on the upper floors of the mansion, as well as a wildly popular wedding venue often used by socialites, celebrities, and foreign dignitaries.  Kahn’s previous country home (Cedar Court) had been destroyed in a tragic fire, so Kahn was determined to build a fireproof building.  This led to the then unheard of solution of building the entire castle out of poured concrete and steel and then dressing it with blocks of stone.  The Architectural firm Delano and Aldrich designed the castle and its unique separate wings to be THE setting for massive parties and social events.  An interesting fact about Oheka is that in constructing the home, two entire years were spent building an artificial hill on which to place it!  Kahn commissioned the Olmsted Brothers to design the estate’s grounds, centered on a formal axial sunken garden in the French manner while also including an 18-hole golf course designed by golf architect Seth Raynor.  The estate is used in MANY photoshoots and film productions including Citizen Kane.

Oheka was saved from destruction in 1984 by Gary Melius (a Long Island developer) who undertook the largest private residential renovation project in the United States (Melius would devote the next 20+ years restoring Oheka).  The castle had fallen into a state of total disrepair but was painstakingly restored to its original splendor with the usage of the original floor plans and detailed historic photographs (costing an estimated 30+ Million dollars in the process).  The restoration also included the recreation of the magnificent formal gardens from the original Olmsted plans which had been bulldozed over in the 1970’s.

Oheka Castle main floor - floor plan

 The central block of Oheka castle, not including the massive side wings or the separate (not attached) guest wings or conservatory.

Oheka historic photo of courtyard garden

The central sunken garden terrace as it appeared in the 1920’s

Oheka staircase

The front entrance hall stairs that lead guests to the main floor… perfect to greet your guests at the top landing whilst making royal hand gestures/waves…

Oheka under Restoration - Saving a national landmark

Oheka at the begining of the massive 30+ million dollar restoration and renewal


Arden House Estate

Arden House Estate

 Aerial view of Arden House and its complex network of wings

Arden House view of Wing

A side wing of Arden House

Arden House was the creation and passion of railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Averell Harriman outside Harriman (you see a pattern here right), New York. The sprawling mansion (100,000 sq. ft.) is located at the top of a mountain east of the village, reachable by Arden House Road.  The Architectural firm Carrère and Hastings were hired to Design the castle which began in 1905 and completed in 1909, a few months before Harriman’s death.  The “house” features a sprawling array of rooms, including an infamous music room (modeled after a medieval great hall) and countless installation Artworks by renowned Artists of the day including James Earle FraserMalvina Hoffman and Charles Cary Rumsey.  Harriman’s widow gave the house to her son W. Averell Harriman upon his wedding in 1915, although she continued to live in the west wing of the building until her death in 1932 and its donation to the US Navy, followed by an endless line of ownership by businesses and agencies.

Arden House main floor - floor plan

The central block floor plan of Arden House not including the wings or guest structures

Arden House Music Room

 The famous Music room of Arden House

Arden House layout on property

 The various wings and guest structures in relation to the main house


The Breakers

The Breakers from the Ocean

The Ocean facade of the Gilded Age palace, The Breakers

The Breakers street facade

The street facade of The Breakers

Without doubt, The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s “summer cottages” (the summer homes of the Gilded Ages Who’s Who) and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence at the turn of the century in America.  As mentioned earlier, “The Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation in the 19th century. The Breakers was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and is built in a style often described as Goût Rothschild (meaning an homage to the SUPER wealthy and important European Rothschild family and their penchant for insanely over the top historically inspired palaces) and was Designed by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt.  The 70-room mansion has approximately 65,000 sq ft (6,000 m2) of living space and was constructed between 1893 and 1895 at a cost of more than $12 million (approximately $340 million in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation). The front entrance is marked by sculpted iron gates and the 30-foot (9.1 m) high walkway gate posts are part of a 12-foot-high limestone and iron fence that borders the entire property except for the ocean side. The 250 ft × 120 ft (76 m × 37 m) dimensions of the five-story mansion are aligned symmetrically around a central Great Hall….if the great hall looks familiar it’s because it was used in the film, The Witches of Eastwick (and countless other films).

The Breakers Dining Room

 The Dining Hall at The Breakers

The Breakers Entrance Hall 2

 The grand central Hall

The Breakers music room

 The famous Music Room of The Breakers which was hand carved and painted in France and then shipped to Newport.

The Breakers Main staircase

 A view from an upper landing looking down towards the Main Hall

The Breakers Interior barrel vault ceiling

 The finest of materials were used by the greatest craftsmen of the era in The Breakers

The Breakers main floor plan

The Floor Plan of The Breakers ground floor

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  1. HelenHelen01-06-2013

    I was born in the wrong time! I just know I was meant to live in one of these mansions and NOT as the help :). One of my greatest vacation memories is touring The Biltmore.

  2. Addy SaeedAddy Saeed01-18-2013

    Robin… Such a cool piece…

    Great insight… Thanks for writing this and sharing it… 🙂

    on a side note, you could’ve made this into three blog posts… I have to work extra hard now to catch up after my slightly longer break 🙂