by Elaine Gerstein, Cooper Hewitt Design Guide

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, it is interesting to note that before the museum opened in 1976, the Carnegie Mansion had an amazing history of its own. The mansion was built from 1899–1902 for Andrew Carnegie, said to be at that time, the richest man in the world.  Tired of living on what was considered “millionaire’s row,” surrounded by rich industrialists, with whom he had growing contempt, he chose to move a distance north on Fifth Avenue, to a totally unglamorized area of Manhattan which he single handedly was to transform.  Despite his wealth, he did not live flamboyantly.  He had given strict instructions to his architects, Babb, Cook and Willard that his house should be “the most modest,” “the plainest,” and “the roomiest” in New York City and to have the largest private garden in the City of New York, for his beloved wife, Louise.  What he got was a Neo- Georgian styled country house of 64 rooms.

Black and white photo of medium sized room with high ceilings. Sofas, chairs, and a desk furnish the room and a door on the back wall opens to a garden.

The reception room, open to garden, 1938

The image is a photograph of staircase. It rises on the left, turns ninety degrees to the right as a landing, then turns ninety degress again to continue ascending up the right. A round chandelier with about twenty round bulbs hangs in the center. The staircase and its surroundings are constructed of rich brown wood, and the staircase is carpeted in a deep red textile.

Grand staircase, photographed in 2002

Built on four floors of living space, with a ground floor and basement, the mansion was the most high tech development of its time and the first steel framed house (after all, Carnegie’s money was made in the steel business). The home had electricity and was replete with designer chandeliers.  Note the magnificent chandelier above the grand staircase by Edward Caldwell, (Caldwell would go on to design lighting for St Patrick’s Cathedral and the White House).  The house had five electric elevators, including the first Otis elevator. Temperature control in the home was achieved through a central heating and cooling system (before the age of air conditioning) wherein an automatic electric railroad carried the coal from the chute to an intricate boiler room with twin furnaces. Additionally, the home had hot and cold running water throughout the house and a unique and remarkable water filtration system, capable of purifying the drinking water.

Carnegie married late in life. His mother had strong feeling against his marrying at all.  It wasn’t until the year after she died that he married Louise Whitfield, 21 years younger. In 1902, Carnegie moved into the mansion with his wife and their five-year old daughter, Margaret. Twenty servants were employed, most of whom were female.  In an era before women’s emancipation, strict doctrines prevailed, and these women were not permitted out at night.  To provide them with some form of entertainment, Carnegie had built within the servants’ quarter (located on the basement level) a roller rink to their delight and amusement.

Black and white photographic portrait of a woman wearing clothes of the 1920s, wearing, a hat, fur coat, a small purse. She smiles in front of the corner of a large building, known to be an entrance to the Carnegie Mansion.

Martha “Mattie” Clarke, born in Dundee, Scotland, standing outside the mansion’s service entrance, ca. 1926. She began to work for the Carnegies first at Skibo around 1911, when she was sixteen, eventually making the regular journeys between New York and Scotland with the family.

Carnegie was in his sixties when the family took up residence. No longer interested in amassing fortunes he had turned to philanthropy.  In this house, Carnegie gave away over $300,000,000.  Each day 200 people would line up at the mansion seeking his benevolence. If fortunate to meet with him, they would be led through a notable doorway, one foot lower than other doorways in the house (still in existence). Carnegie was 5’2”.  Visitors to this domain would be required to bow to meet his height.  In these chambers, consisting of a small study and a large library, his “Inner Sanctum,” overlooking Central Park, were the rooms where he was happiest.  Here he would meet with clients seeking his largess.  It was here he would give away his money to libraries and other institutions.   But his library was not just an office, it represented his highest ideals.  Surrounded by books and words of great minds, Carnegie was able to achieve his childhood dream, to be a man of the literary arts.

The public areas of the house, including the Great Hall, were clad in rich oak wood, coffered ceilings, and a baronial central staircase   An aeolian organ, whose pipes soared three floors, stood in the eastern portion of the main gallery, and was faithfully played each morning at 7:00AM to awaken Andrew and Louise.  Music was in the soul of Andrew and he would start his day with joyful appreciation of the music provided.

Louise and Andrew loved to entertain but not on a grand scale and so their dining room was designed to hold no more than 22 guests.  They enjoyed entertaining intellectuals, writers, men of letters, of philanthropies academics—but rarely entertained industrialists.

Most of the house was designed in the style of the times except for the family library, located on the second floor.  Known as the teak room, it was designed by Lockwood de Forest (1845–1932).  Carved teak wood panels and metal work were imported from India.  The room, radiating with warmth, was a family treasure where they spent time together listening to stories and music.  (This was the only room unaltered by the 2011 renovation). Andrew’s bedroom was notably small for the richest man in the world. In fact, it is where his childhood bed on which he slept throughout his lifetime would be found.

Photograph of a corner where two walls and a ceiling made of wood meet. Intricate designs are carved into the wood mimicking organic vine forms creating swirls of highly detailed lattice forms. Two wooden buttresses add additional ornamentation resembling ornate tentacles.

Carved corbels in the teak room. The differing tones of teak in the room indicate that designer Lockwood de Forest likely used teak from both India and Burma.

Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, Louise in 1946.  In 1949, Columbia School of Social Work, moved into the vacant mansion.  Engaged in a twenty-year lease with the Carnegie Foundation, their rent was an annual one-dollar fee.  In 1969, the school vacated the mansion to move to the Main Campus at Morningside Heights; making way for negotiations to begin with the Smithsonian and Cooper Hewitt  (who was in need of a new home for their collection).  In 1972 the museum was born.  It was a perfect fit, a museum of design, to be housed in a space that was built with groundbreaking technology, futuristic concepts, design, and fashion.  On October 7,1976 the Cooper Hewitt Museum officially opened.

Photograph of the Carnegie Mansion on sunny day. Wisteria vines climb the mansion walls and a Japanese Maple is orange with the coming of fall.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Matt Flynn

The museum closed in 2011 for massive renovations and restoration. When it re-opened in 2014, there was 60% more gallery space. Most importantly, the essence of the mansion was preserved.  It featured state-of-the-art technology unique to the museum, and the ability to showcase design solutions on a global basis.  The museum was renamed “Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.”

And to be sure, Andrew was smiling down.

Further Reading: BROWSE SHOP Cooper Hewitt to learn more about the Carnegies and the mansion. Members get 10% off!

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