January 17: happy birthday, Vanderbilt style

2012/01/17 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1892, Alva Vanderbilt celebrated her thirty-ninth birthday.

Most ladies enjoy a splash-out on this particular red-letter day in their lives.  But Mrs. V. (Alva Erskine Belmont, née Alva Erskine Smith, 1853-1933) was not most ladies.  Prezzies like a trip to the spa day, a Tiffany’s bauble, a spray of Fosteriana tulips or a bottle of No. 5*, all of which would delight most ladies, would have constituted, well, maybe an average Tuesday for Mrs. V.  For her big birthday, she wanted a big present.  How big?  How about 40,000 tons of marble big?  How about $11 million big?  (That’s $11 million in 1890s dollars, or a bit over $263,000,000 in 2010 dollars–and although inflation calculators are never quite precise, you understand, that is absolutely a gigantically expensive pile of marble.)  In other words, how about Vander-big?

Mrs. V’s birthday “present,” funded by her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt, was the Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island.  It was her third architectural acquisition, following the château-style mansion on Fifth Avenue and Long Island estate Idle Hour.  All three list Richard Morris Hunt as the architect, but historical records and family tradition relate the extent to which Mrs. V was a collaborator–often at the architect’s side, relishing an opportuniity to get “knee-deep in mortar.”  Mrs. V and Mr. H were a team, and their joint efforts exemplify significant developments in late nineteenth-century American architecture, and the upward grasp of this rarefied class of American patron.  No one reached higher than Mrs. V, whose ultimate grab nabbed Blenheim Palace as the abode for her daughter, Consuelo, married off to the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

*not invented for thirty more years, but you get the point.

image: party on the steps of the Marble House (from this source)

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