The Carnegie Mansion—the plainest house in New York?

All Andrew Carnegie wanted for his home was “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York.” While the 64-room Georgian Revival house succeeded in being roomy, it failed at being plain.

The mansion is adorned by a private garden—a rarity in New York city. Andrew Carnegie, the great philanthropic industrialist and one of the Gilded Age’s wealthiest people, didn’t care for the flashy trappings of the Gilded Age elite. Having grown up poor and in cramped conditions, he appreciated roomy spaces filled with light. In 1898 he quietly acquired land along 5th Avenue at 91st Street—far north of where the Vanderbilts were building their magnificent palaces—to build a family house with enough space for a garden. The house was meant to be a home in which to raise his young daughter as well as a place for Carnegie to retire and oversee his philanthropic projects.

Though Carnegie owned quite a few homes all over the US and Scotland, this particular house was the one where he spent his last happy years enjoying his small family (a wife and a daughter) and conducting his philanthropic endeavors—with Mrs. Carnegie all the while attending to her beloved garden. From his private office, Carnegie generously donated money to build free public libraries throughout the United States and improve cultural and educational facilities in Scotland and the US.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Carnegies’ family life in the mansion better than the following detail. Every morning, the family would wake up to the sound of live music. Those were the sounds of the renowned church organist Walter C. Gale, who would arrive every morning to play the massive organ in the main hallway. The music would gently wake the members of the Carnegie household and announce the beginning of a new day.

Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, by which time the area—now known as Carnegie Hill—became a prime location for other grandiose mansions. Mrs. Carnegie continued to live in her Fifth Avenue home until her death in 1946. She left the mansion to the Carnegie Corporation, which in turn donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Carnegie mansion now houses the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Founded in 1897 by the granddaughters of the industrialist Peter Cooper as part of the venerable Cooper Union College, the museum is devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design.

The Carnegie Mansion – now the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

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