Vanderbilt Console

MAKER:
Maker

Herter Brothers ( American, 1864 - 1906 )

DATE:
c. 1881–1882
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General Description

Commissioned for the ground floor atrium of the William H. Vanderbilt residence at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, this console is one of the finest aesthetic creations of the Herter Brothers, the most popular and prestigious American design firm of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One of a pair (the whereabouts of the other now unknown), the Vanderbilt console was designed as an integral part of the interior architecture, employing decorative elements that echoed similar motifs throughout the house.

When installed in the atrium in 1882, the console related aesthetically to the decor of every room adjoining that space. The massive slab top was made of the same rosso antico marble used to fabricate the great central fireplace and clad the eight square pillars framing the atrium. The central cupboard section, with its grill of wrought-iron scrollwork and silver stylized chrysanthemums, reflected the Oriental design of the adjoining "Japanese Parlour" as well as the stair rail leading upwards from the atrium. Below the grill, large carved oak swags ending in silvered loop pulls on the face of a drawer could also be found incorporated into the architectural frieze of the atrium and adorning other furniture there and in the library. Finally, the legs at each end of the console with their carved masques and representations of human feet clad in sandals relayed the overall "Greek Renaissance" design of the interior as well as the specific Egyptian and Grecian elements of the drawing room just off the atrium. Such a combination of decorative iconography, rich materials, and mammoth scale conveyed to any visitor the power and wealth of the owner, Mr. Vanderbilt.

William H. Vanderbilt (1821-1885) inherited a fortune of $90,000,000 in 1877 from his father, "The Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family's empire of steamships and railroads. In 1879-80, he began construction on the house at 640 Fifth Avenue which was to be not only the costliest but largest house on "Vanderbilt Row," the section of Fifth Avenue that stretched from Fifty-first Street to Central Park. It was reported to have cost almost $2,000,000 to construct and employed over six hundred workmen. Although Mr. Vanderbilt lived to see his palace completed in 1882, he died only a few years later in the library in 1885. The house and contents then passed to his heirs and was leased to Henry Clay Frick for ten years before he built his own house further up the Avenue. By 1915 when Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife Grace moved in, the stylish Herter Brothers interiors were hopelessly out of date. They decided to embark on a complete redecoration, and it was at this point that the home was completely gutted and the earlier furnishings dispersed. Very few of the original pieces are known to have survived, and most of these are now in museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Ultimately, the house was razed in 1946 -- by then a crumbling relic of its glorious past.

Adapted from

  • DMA unpublished material, 2004.
  • Stephen Harrison, "Vanderbilt console," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 237.

Web Resources

  • InCollect.com
    Read "Artistic Furniture Of The Gilded Age: Herter Brothers And The William H. Vanderbilt House."
  • MET
    See a the Vanderbilt residence, 640 Fifth Avenue, New York.