Neue Gallery—Grace Vanderbilt’s “Gardener’s Cottage”

The beautiful mansion that houses Neue Gallery was modeled on the 17th-century Place des Vosges in Paris. It was designed in 1914 by the architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, well-known for their Beaux-Arts masterpieces such as the New York Public Library. While most of the grand, single-family mansions of Fifth Avenue were destroyed in order to make way for other structures, this one was lucky to survive in the form of the Neue Gallery, a museum of Austrian art that opened in 2001.

The mansion belonged to William Starr Miller and his family from 1914 to 1944, when (upon the death of the original owners) it was sold to Grace Vanderbilt, who held court there until her final breath in 1953. After her death it was purchased by the Institute for Jewish Research and later on by two close friends: art dealer Serge Sabarsky and philanthropist/art collector Ronald S. Lauder, who turned it into Neue Galerie—a museum of early twentieth-century German and Austrian art.

Grace Vanderbilt was the youngest child of New York banker Richard Wilson. Aside from a great fortune, all the Wilson children inherited fine looks—a combination that allowed each and every one of them to marry into the best families of the Gilded Age such as the Goelets and even the Astors. In fact, they were known as “the marrying Wilsons.”

Grace Wilsons muscled her way into the Vanderbilt family by marrying the handsome Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the son of Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Young Neily, as he was affectionately known in the family, fell in love with Grace and married her against his parents wishes. The marriage caused a great deal of distress to his father, who soon fell ill and died without reconciling with his son. It took another 27 years for Neily to make peace with his mother. Even though Neily was cut out of the will, he eventually inherited some family money as well as the Vanderbilt mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue. It was a strange turn of fate that Neily and Grace were the last Vanderbilts to reside there.

Grace, like the rest of the Wilson children, was a beauty in her youth, but her looks withered as she grew older. What didn’t wither, however, was her drive to assume the coveted position of leader of polite society. Her determination paid off—she indeed became a leader of New York elite. Holding court from 640 Fifth Ave, she gave monthly balls and frequent elaborate dinners. She never missed an opening at the Met and was always bedecked in her famous diamond jewels and her signature silver fox wrap.

After Neily died in 1942, Grace was the very last Vanderbilt (oh, the irony!) to reside in the old family mansion. No longer standing next to the great mansions but rather among new commercial structures, the house was a relic from the by-gone era by that time. Having to finally relinquish the grand mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue in 1944, Grace—born and bred on Fifth Avenue—moved up the Avenue into the William Starr Miller House. Downsizing from 85 rooms to only 28, she lamented that she was forced to reside in “the gardener’s cottage.”

Though Grace Vanderbilt realized her ambition of becoming the next Mrs. Astor, she could not control the course of history. By the time she presided over the Gilded Age elite, the Gilded Age was long gone. Grace did her best to ignore the changing times and stubbornly continued carrying on with all the trappings of extravagant entertaining up until her death in 1953. Grace Vanderbilt thus was the last of the Gilded Era’s grand hostesses.

It was perhaps due to Grace’s very determination not to part with the Gilded Age traditions of her youth—and stubborn inclination to maintain a palatial residence well into the 20th century—that her mansion still stands today, and in no less form than as one of the City’s premier museums.

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