When HBO announced “The Gilded Age,” its new series about a railroad baron and his wife fighting for social status against the Old Guard of New York in the eighteen-eighties, Keith Taillon took note. “I was excited, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” he said the other day, strolling around Murray Hill. He’s an expert in the architecture of the period. “I don’t want to sound historically conceited. But I wanted to be pleasantly surprised.”
Keith TaillonIllustration by João Fazenda
Taillon, who is thirty-four and has a B.A. in history and a master’s in urban planning, runs the Instagram account keithyorkcity, where he posts about Manhattan history, often sharing tidbits in a voice out of “Gossip Girl.” (“lol sweeping around the room telling the curtain seamstress what to do,” reads one “Gilded Age” post. “Rude.”) On weekends, he gives walking tours. The show, which was created by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), spent nearly a decade in development limbo. The set budget is said to be enormous.
Taillon, who has a generous beard and round glasses, found the first episode better than he’d expected, but he had quibbles. On his walk, he stopped by spots where real-life dramas of the Gilded Age had unfolded. At the Morgan Library & Museum, on Madison Avenue at Thirty-seventh Street, he pointed out a brownstone mansion from the eighteen-fifties, noting that it was the sort of house that “The Gilded Age” ’s Agnes van Rhijn, a forbidding old-money widow played by Christine Baranski, would have lived in. It was one of three adjacent houses owned by the Phelps-Dodge family, a mining dynasty; as they died out, the houses were purchased by J. P. Morgan.
“Old money really disdained ostentation,” Taillon said. In the show, van Rhijn lives with her sister and niece on Sixty-first Street, next to Central Park. The 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 recalls both Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed the family fortune, and his heirs, who were resented for their gaudy houses and carriages.
Taillon said, “What irks me about the show is that they portray the van Rhijns and the Russells living across from each other, up on Sixty-first Street.” He headed north on Madison. “And, in 1882, Sixty-first Street was really the hinterland, especially for wealthy families.” (Also a “goat-infested wilderness,” according to his feed.) He went on, “My thing is, if you’re going to tell the story of an old New York family like the theoretical van Rhijns, they probably should have lived down here, in Murray Hill.”
Taillon’s own history is less rarefied. He was born in Plattsburgh, New York, and grew up in Abilene, Texas, near where his father was serving in the military. In middle school, he was assigned to research an old building and write a proposal arguing that it should have a historic marker. “For a lot of kids, it was just another project,” Taillon said. “For me, there was a spark there.” He moved on to researching old shipwrecks. When “Titanic” came out, in 1997, he was upset that the movie got so many facts wrong, and that the two protagonists were made-up characters. “All my classmates at school suddenly were interested in this thing that was a very personally nerdy obsession for me,” he said.
After college, Taillon processed death claims for a funeral-insurance company to save money to move to New York, where he got a corporate position at Ralph Lauren. When he was furloughed, during the pandemic, it seemed like a sign. To fill his days, he decided to walk every street in Manhattan, a distance of around a thousand miles. He narrated 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’s making a living out of his passion, having been hired by the Fifth Avenue Association to write essays about the thoroughfare for its bicentennial celebration, in 2024.
After marching past the Cartier Building, at 653 Fifth Avenue, constructed as a private home by an heir to a Florida railroad empire and, as legend has it, traded to Cartier in 1917 for a strand of pearls, Taillon reached the site of the fictional Russell house, on Sixty-first Street. (The spot is currently occupied by the Pierre Hotel, whose ground-floor 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 eighteen-eighties, he said, it would have been a few scraggly young trees. “To have so many people introduced to Gilded Age society and the fight between old and new New York through, you know, fake characters and slightly incorrect locations,” he said, sighing. “I’m not angry by any means. It’s just frustrating.” ♦