Of all the mansions
remaining in Manhattan, this is perhaps the most enchanting, a
deliriously detailed chateau with a myriad of deeply inset windows,
arched windows, balconies, statues, and great tall chimneys.
Designed by Kimball &
Thompson, it was commissioned in 1895 in 16th Century French chateau
style for Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo as one of the largest private
residences in the city, but she never moved into it and Andrew
S. Dolkart has written, in his book, "Touring The Upper East
Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts" (The New York Landmarks
Conservancy, 1995), "evidence suggests that she ran out of
money before being able to complete the building."
"Mimicking its French
prototypes," Dolkart continued, "the Waldo house combines
late Gothic and early Renaissance motifs, including statues of
a monk, a knight, and other medieval personnages ensconced in
second-story niches, and a roofline that bristles with projecting
dormers, finials, and chimneys. The house remained unoccupied
until 1920 when it received its first commercial tenant. It was
transformed into the flagship Polo/Ralph Lauren shop in the mid-1980s."
In his fine book, "Beaux-Arts
Architecture in New York" (Dover Publications Inc., 1988),
which has fine photographs by Edmund V. Gillon Jr., Henry Hope
Reed provides the following commentary:
"The fortress heritage
of the rural, royal residences of the Loire was not lost in the
transfer to New York. The roofline is very fine....The Gothic
is found in the high-pitched roof of slate, the high, ornate dormers
and the tall chimneys. The enrichment is early Renaissance, especially
at the center dormers on both facades of the building, which boast
colonnettes, broken entablatures, finials on high bases, finials
in relief and volutes. In fact, although the dormers are ebullient,
ornamentation is everywhere, even in the diamond-shaped pattern
in relief on the chimneys (traceable to Chambord)."
In his superb book, "Elegant
New York, The Builders and Their Buildings, 1885-1915" (Abbeville
Press, 1985), John Tauranac provides the following commentary:
Waldo was a direct descendant of Philip Jacob Rhinelander, who
settled in New Rochelle in 1696 and was the progenitor of one
of the land-owningest families in Manhattan (an Upper East Side
telephone exchange was RHinelander)....During its construction,
the Waldos toured Europe again, where Mrs. Waldo purchased accessories
for the house, but Mrs. Waldo never moved into her house, and
most of the treasures she had collected in Europe remained in
their cartons. By the time the house was finished, Francis Waldo
[her husband] was dead, and Mrs. Waldo chose to live with her
sister, Mriss Laura L. Rhindlander, whose house at 31 East 72nd
Street overlooked Mrs. Waldo's dream turned sour. In 1908, a 'For
Sale' sign hung in front of the building, but there was no sale,
as much because of Mrs. Waldo's price tag as her impetuosity.
One broker had practically consummated a sale, but while the papers
were being drawn up Mrs. Waldo calmly said, 'I don't think I'll
sell,' and walked out. By 1909, the Waldo mansion was dilapidated,
its stonework discolored, its interior fittings damaged by the
rain that leaked through the roof. Despite the ostensible protection
of a high iron fence around the house, the $200,000 worth of bronzes,
paintings, and tapestries that were stored in it became an easy
mark, and four times within as many months the houses was burglarized.
Two years later, Mrs. Waldo died, with $9,221 owed in upaid taxes
and a $150,000 mortage on the house. The Dime Savings Bank came
into ownership by default and tried to sell the plot with the
assurance that an apartment house could be erected on the site.
A restrictive clause covered the block, but the bank claimed that
an apartment house was tantamount to a series of private houses
within a multifamily dwelling and was well within the definition
of a private house. The restrictive clause held, and the house
stood vacant until 1921, when the first floor was converted for
stores and two apartments were created in the still luxurious
quarters above. It was the first time that anyone had ever lived
in the place."
Before Lauren took it over, the building was subdivided into a
variety of spaces and at one time had some apartments on the upper
floors and its lower floors were used at various times by Olivetti,
the Italian company, Christie's, the auction house, and Zabar's,
the gourmet food store, among others.
Rhinelander Waldo was a
hero of the Spanish-American War and also Police Commissioner
of the City of New York and was a character in the novel, "Ragtime."
Lauren's conversion of the entire building into a flagship store
was very handsomely done and several years later he took over
the two-story building across Madison Avenue and converted it
into a stunning flagship store for Polo, one of his fashion lines,
and that building was highlighted by a double-story space with
a working fireplace. The building is on land that slopes down
towards the north and it has a midblock entrance and one at the
My mother briefly had an
apartment in this building.
In his October 7, 2010 "Streetscapes"
column in The New York Times, Christopher Gray wrote that
"Gertrude Rhinelander was born about 1837 into a family that
had lived in New York since the 17th century, and in 1876 she
married Francis Waldo, a stockbroker who had been ruined in the
Panic of 1873. Her lifestyle, however, was never less than genteel;
at her death in 1914, The New York Sun said she had inherited
$2 million. Mr. Waldo died in 1878, and in 1882 Mrs. Waldo bought
the southeast corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, which
despite its horsecar line was dotted with the mansions of those
who eschewed the show of Fifth. The Real Estate Record and
Guide reported that Mrs. Waldo was going to erect a mansion
quite unique in design. She did not go ahead, but five years later
bought the inside lot on the side street. Mrs. Waldo still did
not build, and lived with her sister, Laura, in a row house across
72nd from the site. According to The Oswego Daily Palladium
in 1889, Mrs. Waldo was a very pretty woman, and by some accounts
she was keeping company with Charles Schieffelin, a lawyer. But
in 1889 she sued him for stealing $12,000 she had given him to
invest. Mr. Schieffelin, a Union Club member separated from his
wife, counterclaimed that he and Mrs. Waldo were to be married,
and that he had invested the money as directed. She protested
that marrying a divorced man would have been too dreadful to contemplate.
The disposition of the case is not clear."
"It was not until 1894 that Mrs. Waldo,
then living at the old Hotel Savoy, began to build an impressive
limestone mansion, along with a smaller house on the inside lot,"
the article continued, adding that "In the French Renaissance
style, it would have fit in just fine with those on Fifth. In
any event, it had elegant company on Madison Avenue, which north
of 59th attracted perhaps a dozen mansions. Consuelo Vanderbilt
was living in one on the southwest corner of 72nd when she married
the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. Kimball & Thompson received
design credit in architectural periodicals, but a photograph of
the mansion published at or near the end of construction included
the notation that it was designed by Alexander Mackintosh, an
obscure local practitioner. With delicate, lacy Loire Valley trim,
it has so many windows, it looks as if somebody had taken a shotgun
to it. There was said to be a top-floor ballroom and 2,000 electric
lights, but only two bedrooms for servants. The New York Times
opined that such a house would require a staff of at least a dozen.
Mrs. Waldo's overwrought dwelling was completed
by 1898. One directory lists her as residing there, but that is
probably an error. All other period sources say she remained in
her sister's much more modest row house across the street, and
never moved in. At her death in 1914, The
New York Sun described Mrs. Waldo as of forceful manner and
some unusual views on art, dress and society, and said that she
had vowed to leave the United States several times....Mrs. Waldo
resigned from a club in indignation in 1909 when another member
criticized her dress. And in 1912 The Sun reported that
she was sued for illegally transferring assets to her sister to
avoid payment of a debt. The outcome of most of these complaints
is hazy. At the same time, Mrs. Waldo personally
collected rents in her twin apartment buildings, the Kaiser and
the Rhine, at Second Avenue and 89th Street; in 1904, when a fire
broke out, she tried to get through police lines to rescue her
tenants; no one was killed."
"In 1909," the article continued,
"The Times reported that her remarkable house, built
and furnished at a cost of $1 million, was in foreclosure, its
limestone badly discolored, its great glass dome cracked.
By the 1920s the house was the headquarters of
Olivotti & Company decorators, with apartments upstairs. Polo
Ralph Lauren arrived in the late 1980s, and the building is still
a Ralph Lauren store. The company has just treated it to an extensive
exterior restoration, simultaneous with the completion of a second
store across the street on the site of Consuelo Vanderbilt's mansion.
For the new building, Weddle Gilmore Architects has produced an
assured and demure neo-Classic design, French in character. At
the time of proposal it was challenged by some preservationists
as a fake, but as it stands, it is magnificent. The
peculiar story of Mrs. Waldo is not unusual; New York has other
private houses that for unexplained reasons were never occupied
by their rich owners. But Mrs. Waldo's case is a particularly
sorry one; although she had inherited millions, in 1915 The
Times reported that she died in debt for $135,000."
With the completion in October 2010 of the
new four-story Ralph Lauren building across the avenue (see The City Review article), this fine
"mansion" now has a more appropriate "setting"
and the neighborhood and Madison Avenue are much better off.