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Image credit above: The Vanderbilt Room at the Midland Theater (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)
When completed in 1883, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s home, once located at 1 West 57th St. in Manhattan, was something to behold.
Barely a house, the Chateauesque mansion along New York’s Fifth Avenue had six stories, a salon, art gallery, and reception space. Not to mention the living room, the music room, the five-story entrance hall, the boudoir, the study, the ballroom, the dining room, the private studies and, of course, the bedrooms where the gods of the golden age rested after lavish parties.
After a few additions, architect George B. Post’s 90,000 square foot masterpiece became one of the largest private residences in American history and was eventually fitted to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the little -eldest son of railroad and shipping magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
One of these additions was a two-storey Moorish-inspired smoking room, where socialites of the time carried on the conversation over a cigarette or cigar in the heart of the mansion. Smoke escaped through ornate ventilation holes in the ceiling.
“I called it the sexiest living room in Kansas City,” said architectural historian Cydney Millstein.
That’s right – Vanderbilt’s Moorish Smokehouse is now located right here in Kansas City. Well, part. And chances are you’ve been through it.
Kansas City’s unlikely connection to the iconic New York home has a curious KC reader wondering how it all happened, in 1927.
From Manhattan to Main Street
Millstein grew up in Kansas City and is now enjoying the first days of his retirement, after 40 years as an architectural historian.
In 1990, Millstein photographed the old smoking room for tax credit historical documentation. Thoroughly familiar with the hall rich in architectural and design splendor, she says the story of Vanderbilt Hall being relocated was relatively common at the time when the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II sold the mansion for demolition in 1926 .
That’s when movie mogul Marcus Loew decided to buy the colorful tiles and mosaics from the smoking room. He thought they would do well in the brand new Midland Theater in Kansas City, which would open the following year in 1927.
“It was not uncommon during this time in our history,” Millstein said, noting European statues and monuments along the median of Ward Parkway between 55th and 71st streets that were also imported to Kansas City. .
As for the decision to weave the style of the Moorish-inspired smoking room into the fabric of 20th-century theater construction in Kansas City, she said the piece exudes the exotic feel that should accompany a trip to the theater.
“It was not uncommon for theaters across the United States in medium to large cities to decorate, if you will, in this particular architectural style,” she said.
“It’s a fantasy space. It’s elaborate, it transforms and transports you to another world. I can’t think of another space in Kansas City that portrays that feeling like (the Vanderbilt Room) in Midland.
To go back in time
Millstein can’t say whether the moving of the detailed mosaic tiles and construction of the Vanderbilt Mansion-inspired smoking room caused a stir among Kansas City theatergoers at the time.
She thinks, however, that the piece is only getting richer and becoming more and more fascinated by time.
Located down and to the left of the South Midland staircase leading to the lower level washroom, opposite the women’s bedroom and its vanity area, Midland’s “Vanderbilt Room”, formerly known as the oriental” and “ladies’ salon”, is exclusive by nature.
During office hours, the small, now relatively dark space is available to explore – if you use the women’s restroom.
Katie Schillare, director of special events at Midland, said the room was a popular spot for selfies or photos of the group of friends on a night on the town.
The space can be made available for private parties. Absent from indoor smokers for at least a few decades, the Vanderbilt Room surely offers one of the most historic selfie backdrops in the city.
The 20-by-20-foot room is lined with bright blue and green Tiffany glass tiles that shimmer in the light of a chandelier. There is a false door on the north side of the room and ceiling tiles that look like ornately carved wood.
Millstein, whose career has taken her across the country and through many of the world’s most famous human creations, considers the Midland Theater to be one of Kansas City’s most exquisite spaces. But it’s clear that Vanderbilt Hall’s Golden Age time-traveling powers have won its heart as the jewel in its crown.
“When you’re in there, you’re instantly transported to another century,” Millstein said.
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis is also the social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.