Tilden Mansion: Victorian facade and political scandal

Though Samuel Tilden failed to become an American president, he succeeded in creating a masterpiece of a home.

While working as an attorney in 1863, Samuel J. Tilden purchased a home in Gramercy—the most fashionable area in town at the time. When he became governor of New York in 1874, he bought a mansion at # 14 to compliment his original home at #15. While busy with his civic responsibilities and political career, Samuel J. Tilden resided in this double-mansion on Gramercy Park South.

When he ran for president in 1876, he nearly won. On election night, Tilden’s victory seemed clear—he held the national popular vote by a 51%-48% margin. A candidate at that time needed 185 electoral votes to win; Tilden had 184 by midnight, with several states still left undecided. By the next morning, the country was in absolute turmoil. Tilden’s opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes, had captured Florida, bringing his electoral total to 185 votes! Samuel Tilden refused to admit defeat and didn’t concede the 1876 presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes until June 1877.

His future political aspirations were furthermore cut short by an unfortunate misunderstanding. Tilden had had a telegraph machine installed in his house that counted the incoming votes. The press, however, ran a story that ruined his reputation and crushed any further political advancements: he was accused of using the machine to manipulate the ballot counters.

After the loss Tilden channeled his energies into a major remodeling of his Gramercy Park property. He hired Calvert Vaux—the famed architect known was his work on Central Park and Museum of Natural History—to “victorianize” his home. The two mansions, 14 and 15 Gramercy Park, were joined together by one facade in a High Victorian Gothic style, characterized by polychrome decoration, varying textures, asymmetry, and Gothic details.

Remodeling lasted for years and was finally finished in 1884, which sadly left very little time for Samuel J. Tilden to enjoy the house; he died in 1886. The stunning facade, with its busts of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Milton, and Benjamin Franklin, point to Tilden’s love of literature. His extensive library (along with donations from Astor and Lenox) served as the foundation for the New York Public Library. The entrance to Tilden’s library at 14 Gramercy is adorned by a bust of Michelangelo—perhaps as a nod to Michelangelo’s great Laurentian Library in Florence.

The Tilden Mansion found a new life at the beginning of the 20th century as the venerated National Arts Club.

  • Address: 15 Gramercy Park S
  • Built: c. 1840s; altered extensively 1884
  • Architect: Calvert Vaux
  • Opened: 1884

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