NEW YORK — “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes made it exceedingly easy for devotees of his beloved British drama to explore the locations featured in the show. True “Downton” aficionados know that they can travel to the English countryside and explore Highclere Castle, which serves as the stand-in for the palatial home of the Crawley clan. It’s a very straightforward pilgrimage to get in touch with your inner Dowager Countess.
Don’t expect the same easy time travel experience with Fellowes’s latest offering, “The Gilded Age.” It’s challenging — if not impossible — for fans to fully immerse themselves in the over-the-top 19th century world of the soapy new HBO show. The sudsy drama is a billet-doux to Manhattan’s era of unbridled wealth. It’s like “Dynasty,” but with bustles, satin, and starched collars. I mean that as a compliment, of course.
The real-life Gilded Age, which took place from roughly 1870 to 1910, transformed the Upper East Side of Manhattan into a neighborhood brimming with lavish European-style mansions.
But unlike Highclere Castle and “Downton Abbey,” there are no real-life edifices to tour from “The Gilded Age.” If fans want to see George and Bertha Russell’s over-the-top limestone manse at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, they’re going to need a lot of imagination, or maybe a large bag of hallucinogens. The Russell house doesn’t exist (and never did). The same is true of the humble brownstone owned by Agnes van Rhijn and her sister Ada Brook across the street. I’m sorry, folks. These exteriors were created through the magic of CGI and location shoots in Troy, N.Y.
Sir Julian Fellowes, you are a cruel tease.
But if you’re a rabid fan — and I know you’re out there because HBO picked up the show for a second season — all is not lost. There are ways to get a feel for the grandeur of the era by putting on a comfortable, yet stylish, pair of shoes and heading to the stretch once known as Millionaire’s Row. It begins on Fifth Avenue, roughly starting at 60th Street, and stretches up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Finding the remaining Gilded Age mansions requires a bit of slowing down, looking up, and traversing side streets. Sadly, the majority of the grandest homes of the era were flattened in the name of progress.
“There was a change from building enormous mansions to building enormous luxury apartment buildings at the beginning of the early 1900s,” said Dr. Emma Guest-Consales, who leads Gilded Age architecture tours through the company Bowery Boys Walking History Tours. “The only thing guaranteed in New York City is that it’s always going to change, and that goes for these Gilded Age mansions as well. In the period right around World War I, and just after, it was no longer practical to sustain this kind of lifestyle and these kinds of houses. That’s when they started to disappear.”
Another gold-plated nail in the coffin of the Gilded Age came with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
“The Titanic was the beginning of the end,” said Gary Lawrence, an architect and author who created the Instagram account Mansions of the Gilded Age and the Facebook page of the same name. “The world of the very rich was shaken. With the Titanic, they realized that they faced the same dangers, hazards, and suffering of everyday life as the poor. The Titanic was symbolic in the sense that everyone was equal. That begins to erode this idea that money can solve any problem.”
As an ardent fan of “The Gilded Age” (both the show and the era), I wanted a glimpse of these architectural beauties. I couldn’t enter the fictional Russell mansion, but I could see some of the buildings that inspired it. On a miserably cold and wet afternoon, I met with guide Michele Gouveia from Context Travel at the Plaza New York. The Plaza hotel was built in 1907 near the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House at the southern edge of Central Park, and it claimed to be the most luxurious hotel in the country when it opened with rates of $2.75 a night.
“It was built in the French renaissance style,” Gouveia said as we walked through the Plaza’s Palm Court, where patrons were having afternoon tea. “One thing the rich loved to do during the Gilded Age was mimic French style. They tried to mimic the manners of the British upper class, but they loved French architecture, French art, French food, and French furniture.”
The Palm Court and the Plaza have been renovated multiple times since 1907, but they still have a very grand Gilded Age feel about them. Could I envision Bertha Russell sitting here looking fierce and wearing a hat the size of a wedding cake as she’s being ignored by old New York monied matrons? Very much so.
“Hotels like these were very important because they gave women a place to go and it was acceptable,” Gouveia said. “They could come for lunch or tea. They could use the ballroom for their events.”
While you can see the very obvious influence of French architecture in the Plaza and the mansions that sprouted up along Millionaire’s Row, Horatio Joyce, an architectural historian and director of public programs at the Garden Conservancy, said these structures shouldn’t be dismissed as shallow imitations.
“There was a great originality to some of those designs,” Joyce said. “People like [architect] Stanford White had a tremendous eye and an ability to work within the conventions of the Rococo style or the Baroque style. But he also had a great ability to reimagine those styles for an American audience. There was actually something quite sinister about it. The people they were building for really did imagine themselves as the new aristocracy.”
Sadly, the Gilded Age aristocracy didn’t stick around as long as their British equivalents. While the 19th-century generation of American moguls were focused on making money, their 20th-century heirs were intent on spending it and flushing the accompanying lifestyle down the commode. That makes finding the remaining mansions more challenging. But with an umbrella and a raincoat (I recommend you do this on a sunny day), I hit the sidewalks.
“If someone wanted to take a tour on their own of what’s left, they could easily do that by walking up Fifth Ave. and keeping an eye out on the side streets,” Consales said. “A lot of the buildings are now consulates, galleries, or very posh little restaurants. I think one of the best examples of what’s left of Gilded Age architecture is on what’s called the Cook Block. The Cook Block goes from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, from 78th Street to 79th Street.”
The former Henry F. Sinclair House on 79th Street is now the Ukrainian Institute of America. The grand exterior is one of the most beautiful remnants of the Gilded Age. It’s also another building that you can enter to see art and enjoy cultural programs. You can also go into the building that houses the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, which is located in the Payne Whitney Mansion. The shining star here (emphasis on shining) is the Venetian Room. The lavish space, which is dripping in gold and crystals, was created in 1906 by architect Stanford White. White was the very real (and very troubled) architect who designed the fictitious mansion for the Russells.
In addition to the Ukrainian and French diplomatic buildings, you can see (sadly, only the exterior of) the spectacular 1899 Beaux-Arts Fabbri Mansion, which is now the residence of the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations. It’s located at 11 East 62nd St., but it looks as if it was lifted out of Paris and wedged into Manhattan. The nearby American Irish Historical Society at 991 Fifth Ave. is another Gilded Age Beaux-Arts beauty. The Historical Society put the building on the market last year for $52 million. It’s been reduced to $44 million, so if you’re looking for a bargain on a Gilded Age mansion, get your checkbook ready.
Slightly more affordable than purchasing a mansion is admission to the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The museum is housed in what was Andrew Carnegie’s mansion at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue. Carnegie was a Gilded Age pioneer. When he purchased his land in 1898, it was a mile north of where his wealthy contemporaries were building. Also, unlike his contemporaries, he eschewed French design, opting instead for Georgian Revival.
Another mansion-turned-museum is the Frick Collection, which was the home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The museum is currently under renovation and the building closed, but when it reopens you will be able to get a good look at the structure’s French-inspired design, along with it’s impressive Gilded Age-era collection of art.
After three hours of walking, exploring, and trudging through puddles, I ended my tour at the Neue Galerie. It currently houses the Museum for German and Austrian Art, along with the insanely popular Café Sabarsky. I was here for the architecture, but I wouldn’t have minded an order of spätzle with wild mushrooms. Like the Frick mansion, the gallery was designed by Carrère and Hastings, the same architects who designed the New York Public Library. It was commissioned by industrialist William Starr Miller, but is fondly remembered as the residence of Grace Vanderbilt.
This is a place where you can look at art, dine, and chat with companions. Essentially you can do all of the things here that the upper crust of late 19th-century New York society would have done during an evening out. Perhaps, for a moment, you’ll even feel as if you’ve entered the Gilded Age — minus the bustles, starched collars, and, thankfully, the vicious gossip.
Context Travel offers private Gilded Age tours. Check the company’s website (www.contexttravel.com) or call 800-691-6036. Bowery Boys Walking History Tours is offering a Gilded Age tour on April 2 at 11 a.m. Check www.boweryboyswalks.com or call 844-426-9379. The company is also hosting a free, virtual event called “The Gilded City: An Insider’s Look at New York City 1870-1900″ on March 8 at 7 p.m.