Novel New York
by Jessica Allen, 04/01/2014
The Frick Collection photo by Michael Bodycomb • "The Age of Innocence" (1920), by Edith Wharton courtesy Penguin Group USA
The Age of Innocence
This Pulitzer Prize–winning classic by Edith Wharton imagines life in New York in the 1870s—the Gilded Age of huge fortunes and even huger aspirations. Beginning around that time and continuing into the early 20th century, when Wharton wrote her novel, America's wealthiest tycoons built their mansions along Fifth Avenue, the so-called Millionaires' Row on the Upper East Side. Perhaps none of the residences is so splendid as the Henry Clay Frick House, built at a cost of $5 million and requiring a staff of almost 30 servants, and home today to the Frick Collection, which focuses on European paintings and sculpture. Allegedly, Frick wanted his house to outshine that of his business nemesis, Andrew Carnegie, up the street. (Carnegie, in turn, boasted that he earned the money to build his house after outsmarting Frick in a deal.) Now the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Carnegie's block-long mansion originally contained 64 rooms, many of which overlooked a lushly landscaped garden. (The museum is currently being renovated, with a planned reopening for late 2014.) Well south of here, on Madison Avenue, the Morgan Library & Museum has preserved the literary collection of Pierpont Morgan in the financier's original rooms. These domiciles give some sense of the opulence and luxury that Wharton both lived in and critiqued. Conclude your Gilded Age explorations with yet another museum: the Museum of the City of New York, back uptown, has an ongoing exhibition showcasing the period through portraits, jewelry and decorative objects.