March 22, 2010

Despite the pain of the past year and a half, will the signs of what smacks of a second Gilded Age “€œcontinue on their merry way,”€ as one Vanity Fair editor recently proposed? Indeed, as the rich keep getting richer and the poor struggle to rebound, there are signs”€”at least in the very visible domain of residential real estate”€”that this new generation of robber barons has learned little from their defunct predecessors. In fact, some seem to be ignoring history’s lessons so blatantly that they are literally moving in to palatial homes that were surrendered decades ago, often having been occupied by only a generation or less. The lesson being ignored is not that great wealth can”€™t be achieved or preserved, but that throughout history previous public displays have signaled the beginning of the end.

While not quite an official outbreak, I”€™ve come across enough examples of this sort of presumption to raise an eyebrow. And in some instances the beaux-arts villas of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, not long ago unimaginable as private residences and converted into public or commercial space, have actually found their way back into private hands.

Of course, this has long been a pastime in Europe and the UK, where the nouveau riche, quite often American, have bought back the great homes of the Empire. The impetus there, however, is different. Despite a few owners who may be looking for the opportunity to carry out some sort of Jane Austen fantasies, the majority of these projects are driven largely by restoration or preservation interests. In many cases these homes are partially opened to the public, or even available for bookings. New owners have no doubt saved many of these architectural treasures from ruin or decay.

“Imagine Ronald Lauder converting the former mansion of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III into his own home instead of establishing it as the Neue Gallerie.”

It’s a different story in the United States. One of the most glaring distinctions is that instead of buying from the fatigued descendants of original aristocratic owners, these hungry buyers are looking to the public realm for inventory. Schools, museums, and sovereign consulates that were all once residences are the new target, especially in urban areas where there is not a blank slate from which to build one’s own Xanadu or Palladian McMansion.

As a result, these new owners are now occupying the very rooms in which those who went before them faced the harsh realities of giving up a way of living no longer compatible with the liberation of a newly empowered working class and an increase in labor costs. One of the most compelling examples is the future home of the Emir of Qatar. He recently bought two adjacent townhouses, built in 1896 and 1899 respectively, on East 72nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. For several decades, the combined 43,000 square feet space was occupied by the Lycee Francais. When the lower school relocated eight years ago, the sprawling pair was bought by the Emir for approximately $26 million. (Imagine Ronald Lauder converting the former mansion of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III into his own home instead of establishing it as the Neue Gallerie.) Although the project seems to be taking its time, passersby on 72nd Street can watch through the windows as the home’s original glory returns.

The irony has not been restricted to single residences. Developers too are taking advantage of this renewed interest. Look at the conversion of The Apthorp”€”an iconic apartment building on the Upper West Side built by William Waldorf Astor in 1908″€”into condominiums. The project, which I recently toured and can claim is beautifully executed, was heavily marketed with references to its original glory. Its website boasts, “€œthis masterpiece of the Gilded Age seamlessly integrates modern, cosmopolitan living with the grandeur of the Old World.”€

Then there are the developers of other more misguided projects, like the recent conversion of the Plaza Hotel into condominiums, who tried to recall the same period without doing their homework. In an attempt to apply modern demands to a historic building they marketed the former staff apartments on the top floor as a Penthouse”€”despite low ceilings and restricted views. The messy legal battles that followed, brought on by a duped Russian oligarch, show that whatever the intent the message was clearly lost.

Even new residential towers like Robert A. M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West are bringing back amenities that suggest a long forgotten way of living. Among other decadent perks, the new tower features separate apartments for staff that are priced well above the $1 million mark.

Indeed, the interest is not confined to Manhattan. Boston’s Back Bay was recently shocked when a wealthy financier bought back what was originally a private home overlooking the Boston Common. The building had been converted into a convent in the early twentieth century, but he is now restoring it as a private residence.

Granted, there is a fine line between pretension and preservation, and it has been wonderful to see life breathed back in to so many architectural treasures. The only hope is that this appreciation for times past is met with a recognition of where to draw the line”€”and that, in doing so, the men behind this newfound appreciation do not meet the same ill fate as those before them


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