Put “The Golden Age” in a straight line

When HBO announced “The Gilded Age,” its new series about a railroad baron and his wife fighting for status against New York’s old guard in the 1880s, Keith Taillon took notice. “I was excited, but I didn’t want to get hopeful,” he said the other day, strolling down Murray Hill. He is an expert in the architecture of the time. “I don’t want to sound historically pretentious. But I wanted to be pleasantly surprised.

Keith TaillonIllustration by João Fazenda

Taillon, who is 34 and has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in urban planning, runs the keithyorkcity Instagram account, where he posts about Manhattan’s history, often sharing snippets of a voice of “Gossip Girl”. (“lol sweeping the room telling the seamstress what to do,” one article in “Gilded Age” reads. “Impolite.”) On the weekends, he does walking tours. The show, which was created by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), has spent nearly a decade in development limbo. The planned budget would be huge.

Taillon, who has a full beard and round glasses, found the first episode better than expected, but he had some quibbles. During his walk, he stopped at places where real Golden Age dramas had unfolded. At the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue at Thirty-seventh Street, he pointed to an 1850s brownstone mansion, noting that it was the kind of house that Agnes van Rhijn of “The Gilded Age”, a forbidding widow of old fortune played by Christine Baranski, would have lived. It was one of three adjoining houses belonging to the Phelps-Dodge family, a mining dynasty; as they went extinct, the homes were purchased by JP Morgan.

“Old money really disdained ostentation,” Taillon said. In the show, van Rhijn lives with his sister and niece on Sixty-First Street, near Central Park. Rapacious robber baron George Russell (played by Morgan Spector) and his vulgar wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), build a monstrous white mansion across the street. Russell remembers both Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed the family fortune, and his heirs, who were unhappy with their showy homes and cars.

Taillon said, “What irritates me about the series is that they depict the van Rhijns and the Russells living across from each other on Sixty-first Street.” He headed north on Madison. “And, in 1882, Sixty-first Street was really the backcountry, especially for wealthy families.” (Also a “goat-infested wilderness,” according to his feed.) He continued, “My thing is, if you want to tell the story of an old New York family like theorist van Rhijns, they probably should have lived here in Murray Hill.

Taillon’s story is less rarefied. He was born in Plattsburgh, New York, and grew up in Abilene, Texas, near where his father served in the military. In college, he was tasked with researching an old building and writing a proposal arguing that it should have a historical marker. “For a lot of kids it was just another project,” Taillon said. “For me, there was a spark there.” He went looking for old wrecks. When “Titanic” came out, in 1997, he was upset that the movie got so many facts wrong and that the two leads were made-up characters. “All of my classmates at school suddenly became interested in this thing which was a very personal obsession for me,” he said.

After college, Taillon handled death claims for a funeral insurance company to save money to move to New York, where he got a job with Ralph Lauren. When he was furloughed, during the pandemic, it seemed like a sign. To occupy his days, he decides to walk all the streets of Manhattan, over a distance of about a thousand kilometers. He chronicled the walks on Instagram. “People around the world who were in lockdown were watching my stories and feeling like they were on vacation,” he said. His following grew, and now he lives off his passion, having been hired by the Fifth Avenue Association to write essays on the thoroughfare for its bicentennial celebration, in 2024.

After passing the Cartier Building at 653 Fifth Avenue, built as a private residence by an heir to a Florida railroad empire and, legend has it, traded to Cartier in 1917 for a pearl necklace, Taillon reached the site of the fictional Russell House, on Sixty-first Street. (The place is currently occupied by the Hotel Pierre, whose downstairs restaurant faces a plastic surgeon’s office.) He gestured toward Central Park, which in “The Gilded Age” appears as a wall of foliage; in the 1880s, he says, it was just a few scruffy saplings. “For so many people to be introduced to Gilded Age society and the struggle between old and new New York through, you know, fake characters and slightly incorrect locations,” he said with a sigh. . “I am in no way angry. It’s just frustrating. ♦

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