Opulent NY homes at dawn of 20th century
I could feel the woman’s eyes on me as I flipped through the book of black and white photographs. Without even seeing her face, I knew what she was thinking.
I was taking my time going through the book and she could tell that I was liking it a lot more than she wished. It was a book of the interiors of New York homes at the turn of the 20th century. She wanted that book and was afraid that I would, too – seeing in her mind the $5 she had hoped to pay for it toppled by my higher bid.
In fact, I liked what I saw, even though I found the photos of opulence-beyond-need a little disconcerting. While these folks in their fancy apartments were living the life, others were barely existing. The over-the-top furnishings bordered on gluttony – but I couldn’t put the book down.
It was titled “Photographs of New York Interiors at the Turn of the Century” and contained the works of Joseph Byron, the premier photographer of the city at that time – “our Vesuvius,” preserving “the setting of a vanished race,” as described in the book. A paperback coffee-table book, it included photos from the Byron Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, and was published in 1976.
The 131 photos showed lavishly decorated rooms – of Edwardian and Victorian designs, according to the introduction – in homes of the upper crust, along with the insides of some of the establishments that mimicked their lifestyles. The publishers also included one slum apartment.
The pictures cover the years between the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. The museum has a collection of 22,000 photos of New York City and its surroundings shot by the Byron Company, which included Joseph Byron and his son Percy, from 1890 to 1942.
“Because the cultural domain was expansive, and this was, after all, cosmopolitan New York, the interiors shown represent the taste of the nation at large and the style trend of most of the civilized world,” according to the book’s introduction, which over 14 pages discussed the history of design, along with the style of the interiors and tastes of the owners.
The interiors in the book included at least two millionaires’ surnames that I actually recognized: the Astors and the Vanderbilts. But Joseph Byron’s camera was very eclectic: his clients also included such people as Mark Twain, and actresses Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt.
Joseph Byron came from a family of photographers in England, leaving the country in 1888 to set up a studio in Manhattan, according to the introduction. He soon got commissions to chronicle urban life in the city, an assignment that put him in touch with not only its high society but its down-under.
He also shot theater subjects and important buildings, ocean liners and soda fountains, car shows and Easter parades, “Little Italy” tenements in Harlem and pushcarts on the Lower East Side, according to the book.
The stars of the book, though, were the “millionaires’ palaces on Fifth Avenue” and other tony locations. I found most of the rooms too crowded, with much too much furniture, heavy drapery and dark spaces that shut out most of the light. Even so, they were still mesmerizing for anyone who appreciated design.
Standing there, looking through the book at the auction house, I made up my mind that I would bid on it. It had been placed among others in one of several boxes of disparate books on a table. I did not want any of the others so I pulled it out for a separate bid. That didn’t sit well with the woman who was watching me. She chided me for removing the book from the lot, apparently forgetting that this auction house encouraged what’s called a “pull.”
So, we both bidded on the book and when it became clear that I wasn’t about to back down, she gave up. The book was mine. And I’m glad I got it because the photos are remarkable. What do you think?