As we bring you details of our renovations at The New York Palace, we’ll also be taking a look at the history of how The Palace became the legend it is today. Stay tuned for a series of posts tracing the story of The Palace, featuring historian and author, Mosette Glaser Broderick, Director of Urban Design and Architecture Studies at New York University.
The Villard Mansion of The New York Palace is one of the most well-preserved mansions in New York City. While the mansion is known for its splendor and regal appeal, many are not familiar with the story of mansion’s namesake, Henry Villard.
Henry Villard was born as Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard to a professional family in 1835 in Rhenish Bavaria, Germany. At the age of 18, Hilgard decided to leave his childhood home in Zweibrucken, Germany and venture to America, which was not uncommon at that time. In 1848, Germany and other parts of Europe were beset by political strife causing many idealistic German speakers, like Hilgard, to come to the new world. With no money or known relatives and absolutely no knowledge of the English language, Hilgard reached America amidst many others fleeing Germany. Upon arrival, Hilgard changed his name to a French seeming name – Villard – perhaps to stand out from all the Germans then coming into America, but possibly to keep his whereabouts from his father.
Henry Villard courtesy of The Villard Houses: Life Story of a Landmark
Villard settled in the German area of Illinois in 1854, where he soon met Abraham Lincoln through a cousin, Gustav Koerner, who shared Lincoln’s ideals of the freedom from slavery. Villard soon took up a job submitting columns to German-language newspapers. As time progressed, he became a writer and editor of numerous publications. By 1860, he was assigned to cover the Republican National Convention in Chicago for the Cincinnati Commercial. In 1866, Villard married Fanny (Helen Frances) Garrison, daughter of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
For the next twenty years, Villard entered into numerous railroad ventures with business associates including Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1881, he purchased the land across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral for $260,000. Originally, the property was owned by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and occupied by the parish Church of St. John the Evangelist (now located on 51st Street and First Avenue in Manhattan).
Church of St. John the Evangelist courtesy of The Villard Houses: Life Story of a Landmark
Within the first month of ownership, Villard announced that his intentions for the plot of land were to build several houses. He wanted these houses to include an entrance through the garden (instead of on Madison Avenue) and a lavish layout both inside and out. His original design plans were eventually altered in order to keep up with the grandeur design of the Vanderbilt’s home.
Original drawing of The Villard Mansion courtesy of The Villard Houses: Life Story of a Landmark
“Villard wanted to raise money. He wanted to keep up with the Vanderbilts,” Broderick says. “He tried to do it in a European way as opposed to an American manner, in that if he had a classier house, he would be able to show himself as a European gentleman and bring culture, like classical music, to New York.”
For additional information about the history of The New York Palace stay tuned for more of our history series featuring Broderick or pick up a copy of her (and co-writer William C. Shopsin’s) book, The Villard Houses: Life Story of a Landmark.