How the Upper East Side Garnered its Prestigious Reputation: Mrs. Astor's House

Daniella Gross Schlisser
Oct 8th 2019
Manhattan’s Upper East Side and its mansions and townhouses have a long and storied history, dating back to Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor's mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue. With so many well-heeled residents, the neighborhood was known as the silk-stocking district in times past. But how and why did the UES attract so many of New York City’s gilded age elite? We'll take a look back on what was before many of the prewar buildings that shape the Upper East Side we know today!

The history of New York City is recorded in its bricks just as much as it is written in books. The structures and buildings throughout NYC tell the story of past and present in the span of a block, from prewar stonework to new development glass and steel. As the city’s skyline transforms, many of us find security in the knowledge that our city’s landmark laws protect certain enclaves, specifically along Fifth Avenue and Central Park in the Upper East Side Historic District.

Those living within this distinguished and historic neighborhood enjoy the feelings of heritage that accompany residing on the Upper East Side today. After all, the residences here are some of the oldest and most notable in the city, allowing us to actively live New York’s history amidst prewar structures while we craft its present and future.

Yet still, the face of the Upper East Side has changed more than most realize, particularly the stretch of Fifth Avenue along the southern portion of Central Park. Here, the Gilded Age was epitomized, and the mansions of notable families earned this area the name “The Gold Coast.” These private homes predated the majority of apartment buildings in the area and were the predecessors to even the oldest condos and co-ops on the Upper East Side. Despite the demolition of many of these residences, this illustrious history is the reason many of New York City’s most prestigious buildings and homes exist in this area of Manhattan in the present day.

Background

By the late-1800s, Manhattan’s elite were already leaving their former enclave centered around 34th Street in what is today Midtown Manhattan. The changing cityscape had brought an influx of commerce into the area, and their once quiet neighborhood began to foreshadow the frenzy that Midtown Manhattan would eventually embody. With the completion of Central Park in 1858, New York City’s upper echelon was drawn northward, and the upper portion of Fifth Avenue from 57th Street onward became laden with their mansions.

Family Feud- Who would be the next "Mrs. Astor"

How better to start a history of the Upper East Side than with the story of how the matriarch of Gilded Age society herself, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, became the Mrs. Astor. 

The setting for this tale was at the heart of the former enclave of New York City’s elite, a monumental address: 350 Fifth Avenue. At what would later become the site of the Empire State Building, Caroline Astor’s brownstone mansion at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was the centerpiece of New York City high society. It was here that “The 400,” a social roster including only the most influential old-money names in New York City, congregated in the massive ballroom for Caroline’s fabled parties.

Next door, however, the air was far less jovial. By 1893, Caroline’s relationship with her nephew William had soured entirely. As the most senior living Astor wife, Caroline had proclaimed herself “Mrs. Astor.” William, on the other hand, felt that his wife deserved the title as he was the male head of the family. After a series of social blows, William had finally had it and could no longer suffer his petty aunt. He knocked down his brownstone mansion next door to Caroline’s and started construction on the original Waldorf Hotel (pictured below), meant to both physically and symbolically tower over Caroline’s home at 350 Fifth Avenue (standing in the foreground).

840 & 841 Fifth Avenue: Mrs. Astor’s House

The insufferable noise from the construction and now increasingly busy neighborhood inevitably wore Caroline down, and by 1896, this Mrs. Astor and her son John Jacob Astor IV had left their brownstone in Midtown (which was going out of fashion anyway) and taken up residence in their newly completed dual mansion designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

The new residence sat on the northeast corner of 65th Street facing Central Park and consisted of two separate homes adjoined by a glass-dome entrance hall. From the outside, the structures appeared to be one colossal French Renaissance chateau, rivaling all of the other large mansions of the era. Caroline lived at number 841, and her son John Jacob lived at 840.

When Caroline died in 1908, and her son inherited the entire property. The mansion would then change hands within the family one last time before being demolished.

John Jacob’s second wife Madeline remarried after his death aboard the Titanic in 1912, relinquishing her claim on the Astor residence. As was customary, the property passed to his firstborn son Vincent in 1916. By 1926 Vincent decided he did not want the extravagant expense of a Fifth Avenue mansion any longer, and the property was sold, and later demolished. Before selling the property, Vincent had his father’s bedroom removed and reinstalled in his new, downsized townhouse at 130 East 80th Street as a tribute to his father. Before being torn down, the doors to 840 Fifth Avenue were opened to the public for an auction on April 20 and 21, 1926. All the contents of the home were for sale, from wood carvings to Mrs. Astor's china and silverware, as you can see in the auction catalog.

Although Mrs. Astor remains a figure with which many of us are familiar, only pictures and historical accounts provide evidence that her mansion ever stood in the first place. In a twist of irony which you will come to see is so prevalent in the history of this neighborhood in particular, today Temple Emanu-El sits in place of Mrs. Astor’s mansion. Mrs. Astor would likely not have allowed an individual of Jewish heritage to attend one of her parties, and yet now Temple Emanu-El serves as a flagship congregation of the Reform branch of Judaism on the very site of her lavish ballroom!

About the Author

For the last 20 years, Daniella Schlisser has been recognized as an industry expert representing some of the most exceptional properties in New York City luxury real estate. Migrating her business to Brown Harris Stevens in 2014, Daniella continues to enhance her reputation for success, consistently earning recognitions such as "Most Deals of the Month" and ranking within the top 15 agents at the firm. Daniella's breadth of industry knowledge and sophisticated style of practice have earned her media attention both locally in The New York Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, CBS, and internationally on television networks such as Austria's ORF and Germany's RTL.

You can connect with Daniella on LinkedIn or follow her adventures on Instagram.