Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Mansions Along Fifth Avenue 1882

The principal material used in the construction of the buildings on the avenue is brown stone. This gives to the street a somber look, but of late years, white marble, brick, and the lighter-colored stones have been used to a great extent, and the upper portion of the avenue presents a much lighter and more attractive appearance than the regions below it. In spite of the general uniformity of the street, however, it is a grand sight upon which the eye rests from any point of view.

The interior of the houses is in keeping with their external grandeur. They are decorated in magnificent style by artists of ability and taste, and are furnished in the most superb and costly manner. Rare and valuable works of art abound in all, and everything that luxury can devise or wealth provide is here in abundance. The softest and richest carpets cover the floors and deaden every foot fall, the windows are draped with curtains the cost of which would provide an average family with a home in other cities, and which shut out the bright daylight and give to the apartments a soft, luxurious glow; costly chandeliers shed a flood of warm light through the elegantly furnished rooms, and through the half open doors you may catch a view of the library, with its rows of daintily bound books in elaborate cases, its works of art scattered about in tasteful negligence, and its rich and cozy furniture.

The "Library" forms quite a feature in a Fifth avenue mansion. Whether the books are read or not, it is the correct thing to have. The chambers and upper rooms are furnished with equal magnificence, the cost of fitting up one of these houses sometimes exceeding the amount paid for the building. Everything is perfect in its way, each appointment being the most sumptuous that wealth can purchase. Some of these mansions are furnished with rare taste and good judgment, but many, on the other hand, are simply vast collections of flashy and costly furniture and decorations, their owners lacking the culture necessary to make a proper disposition of their riches. There is no more attractive sight to the stranger in New York than a stroll along Fifth avenue about dusk on New Year's Day. It is the custom of those who receive calls on that day to leave window curtains partly drawn, and through these openings one can see the richly furnished, brightly lighted drawing rooms, with their elegantly dressed occupants, and can thus enjoy a succession of "pictures from life" unequaled in any part of the world.

The dwellers in the Fifth avenue mansions represent all the various phases of the wealthier class of New York. You will find here many persons whose fortunes are so secure and great that they can amply afford the style in which they live; and also many who are sacrificing everything in order to shine for awhile in such splendor. Men make money very quickly in New York. A Fifth avenue mansion is either purchased or rented, and then commences a life of fashion and dissipation to which neither they nor their families are accustomed. Everything is sacrificed to maintain their newly gained position; money flows like water; the recently gotten wealth vanishes, and in a few years the family disappears from the avenue, to begin life anew in an humbler sphere. The history of the street abounds in such cases. No wonder so many men living in these palaces have weary, careworn faces, restless glances, and quick, nervous ways. The strain they are living under to keep their places in the avenue is too great. They are not able to keep pace with those whose firmly-secured millions justify them in a lavish style of living, and they know it. They dread the day that must inevitably come, when they must leave all this luxury behind them and go out into the world again to begin life anew. Even if they maintain their places, they cannot resist the conviction that their splendor has been bought at too dear a price.

The avenue mansions contain many families of wealth and culture, many whose names have been household words in New York for generations. These live elegantly, and proportion to their means, but avoid show and vulgar display. They are courtly in manner, hospitable and warm-hearted, and constitute fine specimens of the cultured American. They do not make up the majority of the dwellers in the avenue, however. These latter represent mainly the newly rich families, that have risen to affluence through the lucky ventures of the husband and father, and have come to their new honors without the refinement or culture necessary to sustain them with dignity. You may know them by their loud voices, vulgar countenances, flashy dressing, and coarse ways. They plunge headlong into the dissipations of society with a recklessness unknown to persons accustomed to such pleasures, and their fast life soon tells upon them. The men go to their business heavy and jaded in the morning, after a night of fashionable dissipation, and the women sink into an indolence from which nothing can rouse them save a renewal of the excesses which caused their lassitude.

They greatly err who imagine that the possessor of a Fifth avenue mansion is, as a matter of course, to be envied. These splendid palaces hide many aching hearts, and could tell many a tale of sorrow, and even of shame, could they speak. The master of the house goes often to his business in the morning with knit brows and a tragedy lurking in his heart, and returns with reluctant steps to his splendid palace in the evening; and Madame, for all her gorgeous surroundings, fails to wear a happy or contented look, and sighs as she thinks of the price she has paid for such luxury. Generally the skeleton is kept securely within the closet, but sometimes it will break forth, and then Fifth avenue is startled for a moment by its revelations. Sometimes the scandal is hushed up, but frequently the divorce courts are called in to straighten matters out.

One does not see home life in its truest sense in the avenue. The demands of fashion are too exacting to permit an indulgence in this richest of pleasures. Day and night are spent in a ceaseless whirl of gayety, and in many cases the only times husband and wife are really in their home for more than a few hours at a time, is when their parlors are crowded with guests in attendance upon some grand entertainment given by them. Thus it happens that they lead different lives, with but little common interest between them. The husband has his "affinity," and seeks in her society the pleasures his wife will not share with him; and Madame has her "lovers," who are as much of a grief as a happiness to her, as she lives in constant terror of being compromised. Fortunately, children are scarce in the avenue; the necessities of fashion forbid large families.

Such as come receive little of a mother's care until they are old enough to be put on exhibition, to accompany "mamma" in a drive through the Park, or to occupy the front seats of the opera-box, when they should be soundly sleeping in their beds. They are dressed to death, are always in charge of a maid when out for a walk, and know little of the pure, free joys of childhood. So they grow up to be premature men and women, fitted only to imitate the follies, and, alas, too often to repeat the bitter experience of their parents.

After all, in spite of its splendor, in spite of its wealth, and its mad round of pleasures, Fifth avenue does not hold the happiest homes in New York. You can see the glare and the glitter of the false metal all around you; but if you would find the pure gold of domestic happiness, you must seek it in more modest sections of the great city.
Article Name: The Mansions Along Fifth Avenue 1882
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina
Source:New York by Sunlight and Gaslight James D. McCabe, Jr. Philadelphia, Pa: Hubbard Brothers, 1882

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