Published January 17th, 2022 at 11:30 AM
When it was completed in 1883, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, once located at 1 West 57th St. in Manhattan, was something to behold.
Hardly a house, the Châteauesque mansion along Fifth Avenue in New York City boasted six stories, a drawing room, an art gallery and a reception area. Not to mention the salon, music room, five-story entrance hall, den, office, ballroom, dining room, the private studies and, of course, the bedrooms where gods of the Gilded Age took their rest following lavish parties.
After a few additions, the 90,000-square-foot masterpiece by architect George B. Post became one of the largest private residences in American history, and was finally fit for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the eldest grandson of railroad and shipping magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
One of those additions was a two-story Moorish-inspired smoking room, where socialites of the era would continue conversation over a cigarette or cigar in the heart of the mansion. The smoke made its escape through ornate ventilation holes in the ceiling.
“I’ve called it the sexiest lounge in Kansas City,” said architectural historian Cydney Millstein.
That’s right — Vanderbilt’s Moorish smoking room is now located right here in Kansas City. Well, some of it. And there’s a good chance you’ve walked right through it.
Kansas City’s unlikely tie to the iconic New York City home has one curiousKC reader wondering how it all went down, way back in 1927.
Millstein grew up in Kansas City and is now enjoying the early days of retirement, following 40 years as an architectural historian.
In the early 2000s, Millstein photographed the former smoking room for historic tax credit documentation. Quite familiar with the room rich in architectural and design splendor, she says the Vanderbilt room’s relocation story was relatively common around the time Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s widow sold the mansion to be demolished in 1926.
That’s when movie-mogul Marcus Loew made his move, purchasing the smoking room’s colorful tiles and mosaics. He thought they’d go well in Kansas City’s brand-new Midland Theatre, which would open the following year in 1927.
“That was not uncommon during that period of our history,” Millstein said, noting European statues and monuments along the median on Ward Parkway, between 55th and 71st streets, that were also imported to Kansas City.
As for the decision to integrate the Moorish-inspired smoking room’s style into the fabric of Kansas City’s 20th century theater construction, she said the room exudes the exotic feel that should come with a trip to the theater.
“It wasn’t uncommon for theaters across the United States in mid-to-larger cities to decorate, if you will, in that particular architectural style,” she said.
“It’s a space of fantasy. It’s elaborate, it transforms and transports you into another world. I can’t think of another space in Kansas City that depicts that feeling as (the Vanderbilt Room) in the Midland does.”
Millstein can’t say whether or not the relocation of the detailed mosaic tiles and construction of the Vanderbilt mansion-inspired smoking room created a stir among Kansas City theater-goers back in the day.
She does, however, believe the room is only growing richer and becoming more of a fascination with time.
Located down and to the left of the Midland’s south stairway to the lower-level restrooms, across from the women’s room and its vanity space, the Midland’s renamed “Vanderbilt Room,” formerly known as the “Oriental Room” and “ladies lounge,” is exclusive by nature.
During business hours, the small, now relatively obscure space is available to explore — if you’re using the women’s restroom.
Katie Schillare, the director of special events at the Midland, said the room is a popular spot for selfies or photos of the friend group during a night on the town.
The space can be made available for private parties. Absent of 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 with chandelier light. There’s a false door on the north side of the room and ceiling tiles that resemble ornately carved wood.
Millstein, whose career has taken her across the country and through many of the world’s most famous man-made creations, considers the Midland Theatre to be one of the most exquisite spaces in Kansas City. But it’s clear the Vanderbilt Room’s Gilded Age time-traveling powers have captured her heart as the crown jewel.
“When you’re in there, you’re instantly transported to another century,” Millstein said.
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis also is a social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.