And drafty means dust and that means hordes of maids dusting but not the kind of maids you'd like to have dusting, oh no.
No, Mrs. Climateer wants the kind of maids that can beat you in arm-wrestling and jump up on the little shelf on the wainscotting and...where was I?
Expense. The cost of running the big old places is large-by-large.
TL;DR: They were expensive—even for the super rich
Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.Grand mansions are emblematic, if not entirely synonymous, with the Gilded Age.And that’s no coincidence: The Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers—just to name a few—used their homes, whether in the country or city, to assert their social dominance, establish a legacy, and generate prestige.Built largely between 1890 and 1915, the houses were often designed by popular architects of the time, most notably McKim, Mead, & White, Richard Morris Hunt, and Horace Trumbauer. As the years marched on, the homes ballooned in size—the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, for example, has 70 rooms—setting new standards for opulence by drawing from European palaces to inspire their dazzling interiors.But the halcyon days of the Gilded Age home didn’t last long. By the 1920s, many of the Fifth Avenue mansions of New York City were being torn down. In the 1940s, it was not uncommon to read about Newport mansions being auctioned off.
Today, the vast majority of Gilded Age mansions aren’t being used as family homes, and very few are still owned by the original family. If they’ve survived the wrecking ball, many have opened as museums. But why? When did they cease to be private residences and start opening to the public?Between 1910 and 1920, two big taxes were imposed for the first time. In 1913, income tax was introduced, and 1916 brought on the modern estate tax. These two taxes seriously curtailed the previously unlimited funds from which many of the wealthiest families of the Gilded Age were drawing.“These houses were really like hotels,” says Gary Lawrance, architect and founder of the Mansions of the Gilded Age Facebook group and Instagram account. “They had a complete staff running around doing every little thing that needed to be done. When the money ran out, these places started to fall apart due to the lack of funds for maintenance.”Lifestyles also changed following World War I. “After the ’20s, domestic service started to decline,” says Lawrance. “You could make comparisons with Downton Abbey! WWI changed things greatly—the whole worldview changed.”
And in some places—like New York City—real estate landscapes started to shift. Fifth Avenue, once a residential street replete with Gilded Age mansions, was being eyed by real estate developers as it was transitioning into a commercial thoroughfare.A New York Times article from 1928 features an interview with the developer Benjamin Winter, and explains his multi-million-dollar deals with the Vanderbilts and Astors like this:“A home now worth $4,000,000 at its present land value is obviously costing $240,000 a year if capitalized at 6 percent,” Winter explains. “Add to this taxes, servants, and other items and the annual upkeep reaches $400,000, which explains why the wealthiest families are content to sell their mansions.”For the record: $400,000 in 1928 money would be over $5.5 million when adjusted for inflation. As Winter’s interview suggests, we start seeing these houses sell in the 1920s.Alice Vanderbilt sold 1 West 57th street—the grand chateau-like mansion lauded as the largest house in Manhattan—for $6.1M ($83.2M adjusted for inflation) in 1925, citing how expensive the taxes were on the property. The mansion was demolished—the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman occupies the site where the mansion once stood....MORE