Howard Russell Butler and Andrew Carnegie

Heather Ewing, Executive Director of the Center for Italian Modern Art; author of Life of Mansion: The Story of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2014)

Howard Russell Butler spent much of his professional life working for Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie—who first met the artist in the 1880s, when Butler was soliciting donations for the creation of the American Fine Arts Society—was so impressed with Butler that he hired him to manage what became known as Carnegie Hall. In 1897 he asked Butler to manage the planning and construction of his new mansion on Fifth Avenue at 91st Street (today home to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). As Carnegie’s agent, Butler stealthily purchased numerous city lots near Central Park on the Upper East Side; these comprised the land for the Carnegie Mansion property as well as the adjacent plots that Carnegie later sold to those he thought would make congenial neighbors—thus giving rise to the area known today as Carnegie Hill.

Howard Russell Butler with Andrew Carnegie at Lake Carnegie, Princeton. Seeley G. Mudd Archives Manuscript Library, Princeton University Archives

As work on the mansion came to a close around 1902, Butler introduced Carnegie to the idea of funding a new lake at Princeton, for use by the university’s rowing team. The creation of Lake Carnegie proved far more complicated that Butler had imagined, however, and expenses mounted, eventually more than tripling the original estimate. This project ultimately cost Butler his relationship with Carnegie, who told the artist that the project was “the worst thing” he ever undertook.

View Portraits of Andrew Carnegie

“While the negotiations for the lake were in progress President Wilson tried unsuccessfully to interest Carnegie in making a substantial contribution to the endowment of either the graduate school or the preceptorial system. Later when Wilson again asked for help and Carnegie answered, ‘I have already given you a lake’' (Ray Stannard Baker relates), Wilson replied, ‘We needed bread and you gave us cake.’” – Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion (1978)