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William Clark’s Expensive Folly

In late 19th century New York, on an avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony”, there stood an insanely ornate house belonging to the wealthy entrepreneur and politician, William A. Clark.

Clark was, in the words of Mark Twain, a “rotten human being”, “a shame to the American nation” and “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”. He tried to bribe his way to the US Senate, and the scandal that resulted forced the country to change its constitution. Henceforth, all US senators are elected by the people and not chosen by their respective state legislatures, as was in Clark’s time. Clark eventually did become a senator at a later election, and died one of the wealthiest Americans ever.

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William A. Clark made his fortune mainly with copper mining, but he also did short stint as a railroad constructor, a farmer, a teacher, a soldier, a prospector, a wood-cutter, a teamster, a cattle driver, a grocer, a banker, a real estate tycoon, and the developer of the southern California sugar beet industry. He claimed success in every endeavor.

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Clark arrived in New York in the 1890s, and bought a patch of land on the northeast corner of Fifth and 77th Street. He then commissioned the New York City firm of Lord, Hewlett & Hull to build the finest house in existence. The mansion took fourteen years to build, but when it was completed in 1911, it was one of the largest in the city.

Clark’s house stood nine stories tall with a spectacular four-sided tower with a three-story-high inward-curving arch topped by an open pergola, that was said to have been visible from almost anywhere in Central Park. The mansion had 121 rooms, including 25 guest rooms with their own baths, 35 servant's rooms and a Gothic library that was 90 feet long, featuring a beamed ceiling and an immense carved fireplace. All the rooms were lavishly decorated with medieval tapestries and artwork. In the breakfast room, there were 170 carved panels, with no two being identical.

The mansion attracted the attention of New York’s residents and the press, and hardly any of that was positive. The New York Times called it a “pile of granite,” and architect everywhere loathed it. Apparently, the rich French décor and ornamentation for which Clark spent so much money was already out of fashion. Eventually, the house gained the nickname “Clark's Folly”.

The house itself didn’t stand long. Upon Clark’s death in 1925, his wife and daughter sold the property for $3 million and moved at an apartment in 907 Fifth Avenue. The new owners demolished the house two years later and built a luxury apartment building on the site. Clark’s house, which he spent $7 million building (equivalent to about $180 million today), stood for less than twenty years.

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