All right people, I think I’m actually going to stick with my regimen, as promised, and see where a tangent from my last post might take us. Who knows what nuanced, layered connections we may find; what dives into the depths of meditative fancy; what skittering flights along the wild byways of the past (hey, I’m just like Sebald!) Although in truth I’m inevitably just gonna write about a building – it’ll be made of stone or brick or metal, maybe have a copper cornice or something, no bigs. It’s still exciting isn’t it?
We know the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore built Grand Central Station (their masterpiece) as well as Chelsea Piers, the Con Ed tower on 14th Street and the New York Yacht Club. But what else did they build? I have to warn you, the answer is going to involve a lot of rich people, and the slightly less rich people that worked for them. That’s okay; that’s largely the story of New York’s development….this shit costs money, ya know?
And if you’re speaking about money the Astor family is a good place to start. We still hear about these guys today. The founder of this dynasty, John Jacob Astor goes back a ways – even further back than Vanderbilt; in fact he was the first millionaire in the United States, making his money in the fur trade (specifically beaver fur) back when that was all the rage. The family fortune and bloodline was carried on by Astor’s second son, William Backhouse Astor, who himself had two sons: John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor Jr. (I’m picking up on a theme of recurring names here). John Jacob Astor III would go on to be the wealthiest family member of his generation – actively involved in growing his fortune. William Jr. was more content to just enjoy the good life, apparently spending a lot of time aboard his private yacht (considered the largest in the world at the time) and standing mostly aside while his wife reigned supreme over New York’s high society.
His wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (who I’ve mentioned before), came from an old-money New York Dutch family herself, and was known in her time simply as “the Mrs. Astor.” Her first home (with her husband) was on the present site of the Empire State Building, though it was initially torn down to build the Astoria Hotel, at which point Mrs. Astor moved to Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, in a house designed by Richard Morris Hunt (today the site of Temple Emanu-El) .
A few years later a house was constructed for her daughter Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (again with the recurring names) and son-in-law, Marshall Orme Wilson, just around the corner on 64th and Fifth Avenue, and designed by none other than Warren & Wetmore. The house, finished in 1903, is massive (by my apartment’s standards at least): 65 feet wide and 5 stories tall, with an amazing blue slate mansard roof replete with five perfectly ornate occuli (them little round windows). Since 1950 it’s been known as the New India House: the current seat of the Consulate General of India. Now were the Astors connected to India itself in anyway? There’s a good chance, given that enough money tends to make you connected with everything, in a certain sense. And Marshall Orme Wilson’s son may have been a diplomat himself, to Haiti, so that’s a little bit of a connection I guess. It seems like once you start on this kind of thing, there’s a connection everywhere; it can even get a little tiring. We don’t have to keep doing it, do we? I mean, even Sebald probably took a break sometimes, I’d guess; you know: just took a little walk or something, watching the leaves change, thinking about the past.