Did you watch the hit HBO show, The Gilded Age? I was glued to my screen for every episode, and now I can’t wait for Season 3! Well, long before that show came on the air, tour guide Emma Guest-Consales came up with the brilliant idea for a Gilded Age-themed tour on the Upper East Side. The result is our most popular walking tour to date — Gilded Age Mansions of Fifth Avenue.
I recently spoke with Emma about the origin of the tour, her favorite characters on the HBO show, and the lavish mansion she would choose to live in.
You launched the Gilded Age Mansions of Fifth Avenue tour in 2020, long before the HBO show “The Gilded Age” debuted. What was the catalyst to create such a unique tour?
I wrote my Gilded Age Mansions of Fifth Avenue tour as my final project for the Guides Association of New York City (GANYC) Certification class. Back in the early 1990s, I did my Master’s Degree in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts which is in the Duke Mansion on East 78th Street. Later on, I worked at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, only a few blocks away, and I have always loved the Frick and Carnegie Mansions too. I was always fascinated by the history of those houses and the neighborhood, so the tour developed very easily as a relaxing stroll on the Upper East Side looking at beautiful buildings. As a trained art and architectural historian, specializing in the European tradition from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and early Baroque, the mansions always appealed to me for their European inspiration.
Did you ever think the tour would prove to be so popular? Your tour is the most booked in Bowery Boys Walks history!
I honestly did not! It was doing very well even before the HBO series came out, in fact, I had no idea people would be so interested in the Gilded Age. I think people are always fascinated by the lives of the super wealthy, so these houses and the stories of their residents have always appealed to people. Most of the groups are mixed between people who are huge fans of the show and others who are just fans of the period in general.
If you could live in any of the Gilded Age Mansions on the tour, which one would you choose?
I would l love to live in the Harkness House at 1 East 75th Street. In my opinion, it is the most elegant and refined of the grand mansions; the stonework and wrought iron fences are so beautifully made! But it is also so large, I think I might prefer one of the smaller houses, perhaps even one of the houses currently for sale, such as Henry Cook’s second home, 973 Fifth Avenue, even though it’s rather a noisy corner!
Now let’s talk about “Gilded Age”, the hit HBO show. Who is your favorite character on the show so far and what do you think of the design — from the costumes to the architecture?
I adore Bertha and George Russell — kind of the anti-heroes of the series. I love Bertha’s drive and how her character was inspired by real people from the Gilded Age, including Alva Vanderbilt. George is also the same, a little bit of Vanderbilt, with maybe some Frick too? George is so devoted to his family, and I think he’s a bit of a softie underneath, but I won’t give any spoilers! I think the design and the costumes are wonderful. I (and other New York City tour guides) have great fun seeing how they recreated spaces and places that we always talk about on our tours. I especially enjoy the architecture, since that’s what I show so much on my tour. I have a still from the show of the Russell’s white stone mansion next to a row of brick and brownstone houses to help guests understand the great change in building style with the Beaux-Arts-inspired buildings of the period.
Now let’s chat about being a tour guide. You were president of the Guides Association of New York from 2019 to 2023, we would love to know what you think makes a great tour guide in New York — something we take pride in at Bowery Boys Walks.
A great New York City tour guide needs to love the city, all of the city, even the parts that make us crazy! You need to know your material and to love learning about everything it has to offer. The city is made of so many layers, there is always something new to learn.
That being said, I appreciate tour guides who know what they are passionate about and who concentrate on their favorite places or aspects of the city history. When you love your subject matter, your love and interest will be communicated to your guests, and that will make all the difference between a good tour and a great one.
Tour guides also need to be flexible and able to think on their feet; you have to be ready for anything that comes, because you honestly never know what will happen when you’re exploring our city streets. Finally, a great tour guide in New York City should be a member of the Guides Association! GANYC is a wonderful resource, a great way to network with other guides, and it provides the best continuing education opportunities for guides in the city.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Emma. It was great to speak with you!
Are you ready to explore the Gilded Age Mansions of Fifth Avenue?