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New York City in the Gilded Age: A Cultural History

All-Day Program
View other America's Gilded Age programming

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, February 25, 2017 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2886
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Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue, 57th Street, and Grand Army Plaza, New York 1908

New York City in the late 19th century was an era of spectacular architecture, beautiful parks and squares, exquisite mansions, and palatial public buildings—all magnificent markers of what has become known as the Gilded Age and the wealth that made it possible.

Yet the city was a study in dichotomies, an urban society whose contrasting facets were both celebrated and critiqued in the writings of Edith Wharton and Henry James and boldly exposed in the photographs of Jacob Riis. Mark Twain slyly referred to the period as the Gilded Age, to make the point that the golden, splendiferous surface only masked an underlying core of more disturbing socio-political and economic realities. As such, the grand story of the city’s burgeoning wealth and emerging national dominance is incomplete without looking at a parallel New York—the world of immigrants, tenements, and sweatshops. George Scheper, a senior lecturer in the advanced academic programs at Johns Hopkins University, surveys the cultural panorama of New York as the foundations of its modern identity were created.

9:30­­–10:45 a.m.  Prelude to the Gilded Age

Explore the growth of New York’s "metropolitan industrialism" and the explosive growth of its merchant class. Examine how New York City’s first middle-class residential neighborhoods such as Washington Square and Astor Place offered areas of cultural refinement set apart from the hustle and bustle of the downtown commercial districts

11 a.m.­–12:15 p.m.  5th Avenue and "The 400": Mrs. Astor's New York

Experience the privileged world of the Astors—and their rivals, the Belmonts and Vanderbilts— as seen in the succession of 5th Avenue mansions moving ever further uptown, and the commerce and investments that turned New York’s nouveau riche into the New World's aristocracy.

12:15 –1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30–2:45 p.m.  Beaux Arts New York

Trace the impressive trajectory of the arts of the period, including William Law Olmsted's Central Park and Prospect Park, Stanford White’s status-symbol mansions, and the works of William Merritt Chase and the New York impressionists. The culmination of the aspirations of Gilded Age New York is seen in the array of Beaux Arts architecture and sculpture, both public and private, strategically placed from lower Manhattan to midtown the upper east and west sides of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn—borders of a world chronicled in the fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

3–4:15 p.m. How the Other Half Lived

Explore New York's Lower East Side, the most densely populated acreage on earth, through the patrician eyes of Henry James in The American Scene, Danish immigrant Jacob Riis in his explosive exposé How the Other Half Lives, and the fiction of its immigrant writers such as Abraham Cahan, whose novella Yekl was memorably translated into the film Hester Street.

America's Gilded Age



S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)