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The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

-Mansions of the 1920s-

    Several different styles of mansions were mentioned in the course of chapter one of The Great Gatsby. The Buchanans take up residence in a beautiful Georgian Colonial mansion while Gatsby himself lives in an elegant French style mansion that is modeled after the town hall in Normandy. Although no other styles are expressly mentioned in the novel, Fitzgerald describes their existence calling up the white palaces of East Egg. Again, although these mansions are fictional like the setting, they have a strong basis in fact in their various sizes and styles. These mansions could be found all over the eastern United States in the 1920s in numerous styles with some very illustrious owners. Several of these mansions still stand today and have been turned into museums that exemplify the extravagance characterized by The Great Gatsby and the time period in which it is set.

    An earlier example of the grand estates found in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a thirty-three acre piece of land located in Bristol, Rhode Island known as the Blithewold estate. The original mansion was completed in the summer of 1896 and was intended as a summer retreat for Augustus Van Wickle and his wife Bessie. Like the homes of The Great Gatsby, the Van Wickle’s estate was near a body of water, in their case Narragansett Bay, and Augustus himself was an avid boater, owning a seventy-two foot steam powered yacht. The original Blithewold mansion was done in the English tradition, using a Queen Ann style in the building’s architecture. However, the original mansion burned down in 1906 and was replaced a year later with yet a grander English style mansion. The second building was done in the English Country Manor style and had a long, narrow design so that each of the mansion’s main rooms looked out over Narragansett Bay. The family continued to use the mansion in the summer, from May to November, and on holidays through the 1920s and several more decades until the house was turned over the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island in 1976.

   Another large mansion found on the east coast in the early twentieth century belonged to Lawrence C. Phipps. Although this mansion was built from 1931 to 1933, it is actually located on Long Island and is done in the Georgian style that characterized Tom and Daisy’s mansion. The Phipps mansion was a truly grand affair boasting a size of 33,123 square feet and over seventy rooms. Like the original Blithewold estate, the Georgian Phipps mansion was decorated in the Queen Anne style as well as the Chippendale tradition. The living room alone in the Phipps mansion has a square footage of 1,000 and the foyer housed an organ with its pipes hidden behind the room’s tapestries. The mansion also has a grand library, but unlike Gatsby’s unfinished books, Phipps owned many completed, first edition publications that were signed by their authors. Phipps’ billiard room and dining room use building materials that are older than 250 years, while the oak walls of the billiard room are nearly 400 years of age. Phipps also owned an enormous Swiss grandfather clock that was a gift from Andrew Carnegie.

    A third mansion found in the east was owned by one of the most well known American families of the twentieth century. Although the Vanderbilts had many estates around the United States, such as in Newport and Palm Beach, Frederick William Vanderbilt owned a 600-acre estate in Hyde Park, New York along the Hudson River. After the death of his wife Louise in 1926, Frederick lived in Hyde Park until his 1938. In addition to owning massive pieces of property, the richest family in America spent their funds on yachting, horse breeding, and racing automobiles. Frederick bought the Hyde Park estate in 1895 as yet another nominal expense for his family’s massive wealth. The mansion itself was in fact build over the shoddy Greek style mansion that Vanderbilt had torn down and replaced with his own fifty-room mansion designed by Charles Follen McKim. Vanderbilt and his designed filled the house with numerous artifacts and antiques, many purchased on trips abroad in London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Venice, again displaying the Vanderbilt’s vast wealth.

   Although the homes of The Great Gatsby are indeed fictional, the real life settings of Long Island and many other places around the east were decorated with the homes of America’s richest citizens. Many of these homes were built sometime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reaching a peak during the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. The extreme wealth of these people is not only fictionally represented in Fitzgerald’s novel, but also in the real life individuals of the Van Wickles, Phipps, and the Vanderbilts. The huge mansions, their respective styles, and the wealthy hobbies of these real to life people are all comparable to the fictional mansions, styles, and activities in The Great Gatsby. The mansions of the 1920s were decidedly grand affairs both actual and imaginary.

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