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Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution
Online article adapted from print sources



When industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie announced in 1898 that he was going to have a new house built on East Ninety-first Street in Manhattan, his main purpose was to make a spacious new home for himself and his family. In the process he created a mansion that is a fascinating study in innovative design, intriguing in both its decorative and functional aspects. The Carnegie Mansion has been the home of the National Design Museum since the 1970s. There the public can view the museum's extensive collection of objects and media and at the same time appreciate the exceptional structure in which it resides.

[The Life of Andrew Carnegie]

Understanding the history of the Carnegie Mansion requires knowing the history of the man who built it. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was born in Dunfermline, Scotland and emigrated to America at age thirteen, settling with his family in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. There he worked at various jobs, including bobbin boy in a cotton factory, telegraph operator, and as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Carnegie rose from these humble beginnings to become the owner of a huge industrial empire that included steamship and railroad lines and iron, coal, and steel companies. At the time that he announced his intention to build his new home on East Ninety-first Street he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States.

Carnegie believed that such wealth as his was only justified if it was used to benefit society. In 1901, he sold the Carnegie Company to the newly formed U.S. Steel Corporation for the reported sum of $400,000,000. From the time of this sale until his death in 1919 he devoted himself to philanthropic duties. Many of the requests for assistance were made to Carnegie in his office and library on the main floor of the mansion. He described his role as that of "...the man of wealth...becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren." During his lifetime Carnegie gave away $350,000,000 to diverse social and educational institutions.

[A Pioneering Location]

While committed to public philanthropy, Carnegie also recognized the obligations he owed his own family. He believed it was his duty to "provide moderately for the wants of those dependent on him." For Carnegie, these moderate provisions included purchasing thirty-two lots of land on which to build his new home. The land he chose was far north on Fifth Avenue, between Ninetieth and Ninety-First Streets.

Carnegie was the first "merchant prince" to build this far north in Manhattan. In 1898, when Carnegie bought his land, upper Fifth Avenue was far from glamorous. The land was rugged and rocky, and much of it was populated by shanty towns. Middle-class residents had begun to populate the East Nineties since completion of the Third Avenue "El" train in 1881, but no one of Carnegie's level of wealth had yet ventured so far uptown.

With this unorthodox purchase the great businessman was once again showing his investment genius. Carnegie was able to purchase his thirty-two lots for the reasonable price of $900,000, and his pioneering step encouraged other wealthy New Yorkers to settle in the upper Eighties, eventually making Fifth Avenue renowned as one of the most elegant streets in the world.

[Designing the Mansion Inside and Out]

Andrew Carnegie wanted his new home to be "the most modest, plainest, and roomiest house in New York." The resulting edifice was certainly roomy--it contained sixty four rooms on six levels and occupied a site 230 feet long by 200 feet wide.

The mansion was designed by the architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Willard at a cost of $1,500,000. It was built in the solidly comfortable style of a Georgian country house. While not as grandiose as the residences of his peers, Carnegie's home was spacious and comfortable. Its brusque and robustly overscaled quality seemed precisely tailored to the desires of the formidable man who owned it.

Other aspects of the mansion reflected Carnegie's interests, especially the sophisticated machinery in the house that helped domestic life run smoothly. Carnegie was obsessed with technology, and his home included many innovations that were new in his era. The mansion was the first private residence in the United States to have a structural steel frame. The house had one of the first residential Otis passenger elevators in New York. Ahead of its time, it was designed with both air conditioning and central heating. In the cellar a coal car, holding three-quarters of a ton of coal, ran on tracks to deliver coal to any of five different boilers. Finally, to assure that mechanical failures would not interrupt the life of the house, each major piece of equipment was installed in duplicate.

The structure of the mansion was as sophisticated as its machinery, allowing the building to support a complex web of professional and personal needs. Its simple vertical organization allowed the activities of family life, business, and servants to go on simultaneously and with seamless efficiency. The boilers, pumps, and heavy machinery were in the cellar; workrooms, kitchen, laundry, and service rooms were on the ground level; public living quarters were on the main floor; private living quarters were on the second; guest and special living quarters were on the third floor, and servants rooms were located on the fourth level. These different levels were linked by carefully placed front and back stairs and private elevators. These access ways related the different worlds of the mansion with the elegant intricacy of a Chinese wood-block puzzle.

As well as a model of structural efficiency, the mansion and its grounds were an elaborate showplace. The southern half of the property included a splendid garden planted with wisteria, azaleas, rhododendron, ivy, chestnut, and flowering trees. The main entrance to the house was sheltered by an ornate copper and glass canopy designed in the manner of Louis Tiffany. Inside, at the east end of the great hall, stood an organ built by the Aeolian Company whose pipes extended from the ground floor to the third floor. The instrument not only provided the Carnegies with splendid after-dinner music--it also served as an alarm clock, with wake-up tunes played every morning at eight o'clock.

The Carnegie's suite of public family rooms, which ran along the south side of the house facing the garden, demonstrated how creative design can transform a space. Each room's placement and decoration was carefully planned to convey its own unique identity. None of the rooms in the suite were especially large, but their axial relationship to one another and their southern exposure provided a sense of sunlit spaciousness, while the variation in decorative materials reinforced the separate identities of each room.

The Music Room was decorated as a "high style" salon in the manner of Louis XVI, and was furnished with French antiques. Included among the elaborate molded ceiling decorations is a bagpipe, a sentimental touch to remind Carnegie of his native Scotland. In the formal dining room--the scene of many banquets--guests were asked to autograph the tablecloth. The signatures were later embroidered, providing a permanent decorative record of the illustrious guests who included Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Mme. Eve Curie, and several U.S. presidents.

[From Mansion to Museum]

Andrew Carnegie lived in the mansion he built from the time of its completion in 1902 until his death in 1919. Today, the public rooms in which the Carnegies entertained guests welcome visitors to the National Design Museum.

The process of giving the mansion its new role began in 1972, when the Carnegie Corporation gave the house and property to the Smithsonian Institution as a permanent home for the Cooper-Hewitt museum. The building received landmark status in 1974, and in 1976 reopened as the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Prior to its opening, the building was transformed under the direction of architects from Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. The award-winning renovation--which cost $3,000,000--made the space suitable for a museum while preserving the distinctive architectural qualities of the house. The public reception rooms on the first floor are now used as exhibition gallery space. The ground floor is used for the reception of staff visitors, and the upper levels house the library, study centers, curatorial departments, and staff offices.

Today the mansion is again being renovated to accommodate the growing collection and educational mission of the National Design Museum. The $20,000,000 project--assigned to Polshek and Partners Architects--is a three-phase process that will improve and expand the museums facilities and collections.

Originally through its own fine structure and appointments, and now through the impressive design collection it houses, the Carnegie Mansion has promoted creative design for almost a century. Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic spirit lives on in the exhibitions, courses, and design resources available to the public through the National Design Museum. As the new century begins there can be no doubt that this once private, now public treasure will continue to house the remarkable.

This article ©Copyright 1998 Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

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©Copyright 1999 Julie Hathaway Keisman