Living In Style

The Life and Death of a Manhattan Mega-Mansion

Before Gracie Mansion, Charles Schwab's massive, 50,000 square feet Riverside Drive abode was set to become the official residence of New York City's mayors.

Library of Congress

It seems almost unimaginable now walking down Manhattan’s bustling sidewalks lined with buildings that are locked in such a tight embrace that a piece of paper could hardly fit between them, but at the turn of the 20th century there were still parts of the island that weren’t fully developed.

As with every generation, one’s wealth at the time could be measured by the glory and opulence of one’s mansion—the bigger and more gilded, the better—and these untouched spaces were just waiting to be paved over by the top one percent of the American industrial class as New York City carried out its own version of Manifest Destiny.

Steel magnate Charles Schwab was not going to miss out on the action. In fact, he was going to build one of the greatest houses turn-of-the-century New York had ever seen.

For the location of his first (and only) Manhattan home, he picked an up-and-coming area of the Upper West Side that many were hailing as the future “it” neighborhood of New York.

At the time, Riverside Drive was still remote enough to give its residents the feel of living in a countryside retreat while remaining close enough to the city center to allow for easy commuting. Plus, the area was not yet as developed as neighborhoods in the heart of the city, so Schwab was able to procure an entire city block for himself (it only cost him $865,000 for the land on which an orphanage had formerly stood).

“Riverside Drive, from the moment of its completion, seemed plainly destined to be a boulevard of palaces, a rus in urbe combining the great prospect, down, up, across the Hudson, with easy accessibility from the commercial quarters and from stage-land and clubland,” a 1907 article in The Architectural Record read.

The neighborhood would never fully develop into the playground of the elite—the Fifth Avenue haunt of Carnegie, Frick, and Vanderbilt remains supreme to this day; nor would it maintain the isolated quality that The Architectural Record prophesied. (“Riverside Drive seems secure from traffic for many generations, by the lay of the land as well as by its remoteness from the center,” the article read. The author would be shocked to see the area today.)

But those were concerns for a future date. In 1902, Schwab broke ground on his granite masterpiece.

Like all great houses—Mount Vernon, The Breakers, Monticello—the Manhattan mansion Schwab finalized in 1906 had a name: Riverside.

Located on the entire block from West End Avenue to Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th streets, his new family estate was a massive 50,000 square feet designed by architect Maurice Herbert and modeled after several French chateaus in the Loire Valley, a very important aesthetic decision.

“The choice of a chateau by a billionaire is an emphatic proclamation to whom it may concern that he has ‘arrived,’” The Architectural Record said.

Among the many stunning features of the mansion were 75 rooms, three elevators, a bowling alley, a gym, an indoor pool, four garages, a chapel, and an onsite personal power plant.

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The house required so much upkeep that it employed a full-time fireman and an electrician, among a small army of other staffers.

Organs were all the rage at the time, so Schwab built an organ room that featured an instrument of unparalleled quality that was played every Sunday during his weekly bridge game. According to David Patrick Columbia writing in Quest magazine, Schwab was so passionate about music that he wanted the instrument to be heard in every corner of the house—without being seen, of course.

To that end, “there were organ pipes behind walls, under floors, in closets, in shaftways, everywhere from the basement to the attic, and not one in sight. The house was, in effect, a gigantic musical instrument.”

The house was filled to the brim with the finest art—including paintings by Botticelli, Turner, Titian, and Rembrandt—and French-inspired furniture and design—Marie Antoinette’s bedspread was repurposed as a covering for the piano in the music room, according to Columbia. But one of its crowning features was the grounds, a swath of green with a stunning view of the Hudson River.

The whole thing cost Charles Schwab a whopping $6 million to build, but that was just the start.

He and his wife, Eurana, lived in the house during the winter (the rest of the year was spent in their native Pennsylvania), and they entertained, but not excessively so. Still, the annual expenses for their time in residence amounted to a small fortune.

“Mr. Schwab figured out that in the four or five months they spent there at the house on Riverside Drive, it cost him about $3,000 a day or about $400,000 a year (or about $20 million in today’s dollars),” Columbia wrote in 2013.

For 30 years, the Schwabs enjoyed their mansion on Riverside Drive. But, by the mid-30s, they were getting up in years, and they, too, were starting to feel the effects of the Great Depression. (By the time he died at the end of the decade, Schwab had lost nearly all of his estimated $200 million fortune.)

So when Schwab saw an opportunity to get rid of the place in 1936, he seized it…or tried to at least.

Previously, the upper-crust mayors of New York had remained in their personal residences while serving their city. But in 1932, Fiorello La Guardia took office. While he was more than happy—even determined—to stay in the Harlem tenement where he lived with his family, the great power broker himself, Robert Moses, was less than satisfied with the aesthetics of the situation, according to a piece in Curbed. Moses began a campaign to find an official residence for the current and future mayors of the city.

Schwab was willing to give up Riverside at a bargain price; he offered his estate to the city for a mere $4 million.

“Mr. Schwab and his wife are 75 years of age and the house is too big for them and he is extremely anxious to sell the property,” the New York Times quoted Schwab’s realtor Electus T. Backus as writing in an offer letter. “It seems a shame to tear down this beautiful private home, which is probably the finest of its kind not only in the city but in the United States.”

But LaGuardia was less than interested. He didn’t want to leave his humble abode, much less move into a hulking chateau of French opulence. So, Moses moved on to his next option and Gracie Mansion on Manhattan’s other bank became the official residence of New York.

Their offer rejected, the Schwabs stayed put in their city block on Riverside Drive until Eurana died three years later. Soon after, Charles moved into a hotel, and he followed in his wife’s footsteps eight months later.

The couple didn’t leave behind any children, so the city attempted to sell the steel titan’s beloved home after his death. But the country was still reeling from the depression, and, even with a light at the end of that tunnel, wealth in America had forever changed. The age of the industrial titans was over.

“It is the last of New York’s private palaces still standing in melancholy grandeur on an entire city block,” read a 1947 piece in the New York Times. “An altered economy makes it unlikely any will ever be built again.”

In 1948, Riverside was bulldozed, and Schwab’s preserved block of the city gave in to the relentless march of the concrete jungle.