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New York City’s Lost Memory

“It should be presented to the city as a permanent curiosity, as a monument to one of the strangest of millionaires, a reminder of our recent past, a treatise on copper, and a tribute to the state of Montana.”

THE NEW REPUBLIC, 1929

“With forty years experience of human assfulness and variety at banquets, I have never seen anything of the sort that could remotely approach the assfulness and complacency of this coarse and vulgar and incomparably ignorant peasant’s glorification of himself.”

Poor Senator Clark! That is what Mark Twain said about the Montana Copper King a century ago. And Mark Twain wasn’t alone.

Montana Senator William A. Clark’s New York mansion, inspired by the architectural excess of the 1900 Paris Exposition, was completed in 1904 at 77th.and Park Avenue. The spectacle, astronomical tower and all, was to be the highlight of his effort to be the biggest apple in the Big Apple. Instead, it made him a further object of ridicule.

America’s most popular weekly, Colliers Magazine, was aghast: “Senator Clark’s taste in architecture is equal to the theatrical syndicate’s taste in plays.” The magazine gleefully added “Clark’s house would have seemed the ideal dwelling to the late Mr. Barnum. It looks like a compromise between a state capital and a Hindu temple.”

Of course, a century ago, New York’s “Millionaire’s Row” was world famous, a stretch of Fifth Avenue between 72nd and 104th facing Central Park. And such wealthy notables as Senator Clark were not a dime a dozen like today. In Clark’s heyday there were less then 5,000 millionaires in America, a tiny fraction of the adult population. And Senator William Clark was one of the ten or twenty richest persons in America.

As for us, we can only guess how many millions the Clark palace, complete with 500 seat private theater and stage as well as a showing room containing America’s greatest private art collection, actually did cost. But it cost a lot and New York had never seen anything like it..

The art collection included Jan van Goyen’s View of Rhenen (1646) and portrait pendants by Thomas Gainsborough. These masterworks were complemented by the 18th-century pair, The Departure and Camping by Jean Baptiste Pater; a Chardin, Scullery Maid (1738); and the Portrait of Madame du Barry by Marie Louise Vigée Le Brun (1782), two Corot’s, the Moored Boatman and Souvenir of an Italian Lake (1861) and La Bacchante au Tambourin, as well as Edgar Degas’ The Ballet Class (1880). Eugène Delacroix’s Tigre et Serpent (1862) and Henri Fantin-Latour’s masterpiece, Arcadia.

Then there was the complete 18th-century period room that Clark imported from France. Even the crimson and gold curtains were based on the original French architect,s vision of the room.

New York journalist and muckraker Henry George had this to say about what was then Gotham’s most spectacular example of conspicuous consumption:

“The ambition of Senator Clark respecting his house may be measured by the cornerstone, which weighs sixteen tons. This stone had to be brought from the quarry in a specially built railroad car. A single mantelpiece is expected to cost $100,000 dollars. Impatient at delay in getting bronze fittings and ornaments, a famous foundry was purchased and enlarged specially to meet the needs of this house, which also is to contain a theater capable of seating five hundred persons.”

And poor Senator Clark. All his efforts and expense and so little to show.

Today, at Park Avenue and 77th Street you can find a little plaque saying:

“In 1904 on this site Lord, Hewlett & Hull built an extravaganza of a town house for Senator William A. Clark, the copper king from Montana. Said to have been the most outlandishly ornate mansion ever built in New York, it took six years to construct, yet fell victim to the wrecker’s ball only twenty-five years later.”

But the New Republic questioned the mansion being razed in an 1929 editorial:

“The Clark house was a scandal even more than it was a joke. Decent people were indignant and considered it an affront to the city and to themselves. But time has consecrated its ugliness and it is almost an act of vandalism to tear it down .It should be presented to the city as a permanent curiosity, as a monument to one of the strangest of millionaires, a reminder of our recent past, a treatise on copper, and a tribute to the state of Montana.”

So its poor Senator Clark. But unlike Bob Gannon and the Montana Power/Touch America mob, at least he made it to New York City.

CLARK’S BUTTE LEGACY

First, on a positive note, unlike today’s wealthy, the Senator didn’t seem to be in the Christian racket or did he claim his devotion to Jesus as the reason for his fortune. The one religious gesture that I am aware of, was a donation of an organ for St. John’s Episcopal Church, on the corner of Broadway and Idaho across from the Butte Public Library.

But I can’t recall any mention of him ever attending services there, or any other church for that matter. Nor did he have a chapel in his New York palace, as some of the other high rollers of the time did.

As for Butte, unlike New York, both church and mansion are still around. St. John’s Episcopal is located a block downhill from Senator Clark’s 3 story, 34-room Butte mansion. It is said that more money was spent on that building in 1884 then on the then new Silver Bow County courthouse in 1883.

As for the family, the Senator’s children, by Katherine, would inherit an estate worth at least $200 million in 1925 dollars. By 1935 they had sold the assets, bitterly divided the remaining loot and gone separate ways, never to be seen again in Butte or Montana, the source of the Senator’s great wealth.

And the 800 piece Clark art collection, one of the world’s greatest, went to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Of course, the source of this great gift was the bloody Butte hill, once known as “the richest hill on earth.”

Thus, there is a lesson to be learned here, an idea that Montana has yet to grasp as former governor Marc Raicot’s Montana Power/Touch America deregulation debauchery showed.

What is good for the very wealthy, what is good for Wall Street, is always bad for the Big Sky. Which is the unforgiving lesson of Montana history.

JACKIE CORR lives in Butte, Montana. He can be reached at: jcorr@bigskyhsd.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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