Madison Avenue & 72nd Street

18 Jul

It seems like a good week for staying indoors, ideally somewhere with a lot of windows offering a multitude of views of the windy, wet and slush filled street. I’m picturing a giant wooden dining room table covered with hardcover books and the only light that gray and muted color that is the sun diffused through layers and layers of cloud. It’s like a boat on the North Sea, dark and lonely in the daytime, though maybe not lonely so much as just outside the flood. The flood being time. And although snow and rain might feed the flood, as they’re falling they’re something else entirely: they’re the moment, “this life’s howling gale.” Or to quote W.G. Sebald, “Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?” I’m picturing a room that’s still and motionless; I’m picturing a room that floats.

Really I’m picturing the Rhinelander Mansion: the Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo Mansion, on 72nd Street and Madison. This place was basically constructed to be haunted, cut loose from time – a rock sticking out of the river, or else just bobbing round and round as in an eddy. It was commissioned in 1895, designed in a neo French Renaissance style that already made it seem much older than it was, and finished in 1898. Then for over twenty years it sat uninhabited.

It was commissioned by Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo (hence the name), of the very wealthy, land-owning Rhinelander family, their New York ancestry dating back to 1696. The Rhinelander’s were one of the big building families of the 19th century, especially on the far Upper East Side, and particularly on the 72 acres of land that had earlier made up their summer home. The mansion (west of those holdings) was built by the firm of Kimball & Thompson and was based on the Loire valley chateaux of the early French Renaissance. It’s size alone made it one of the more notable and imposing of the many palaces going up at the time for New York’s aristocracy. What made it even more notable was the widowed Mrs. Rhinelander Waldo’s decision not to move in when the building was completed. Instead she lived directly across the street with her unmarried sister, until her death in 1914. From there she could look out the window and watch her empty mansion slowly deteriorate. It was also burglarized a number of times; apparently she kept about $200,000 worth of art-work in the unused house – a mark that was too hard for some people to resist.

Just before Gertrude’s death the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn foreclosed on the mortgage and began court proceedings to allow the building to become a commercial property. They were successful and in 1921 it was finally occupied, though only partially and not as a residence, when an antique dealer leased out the ground floor. The top four floors were eventually turned into two separate residential apartments, though not for particularly long. In 1971 St. James Episcopal Church right next door bought the mansion to serve as their administrative offices. Then in 1983 Ralph Lauren acquired the lease (though not the deed) for the entire building and after a massive overhaul turned it into his Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store, which it remains today.

So there you go: the classic style of the old wealthy being sold in a mansion of the old wealthy, by a company that’s very wealthy (Forbes listed Ralph Lauren as the 224th richest person in the world in 2009 – that’s out of a world population of about 6.8 billion). So time marches on. The flood catches up with most things (well of course – this is the Upper East Side of Manhattan!) It looks like we’re not going to be able to stand here in the gray light after all, solitary and above the water, even if, right now, it’s snowing out.

(Originally posted Feb. 26th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

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