Location: Hyde Park, New York
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Vanderbilt Mansion serves as an example of the country palaces built by wealthy industrialists during the Gilded Age. The site includes 211 acres of the original much larger property known as Hyde Park. In addition to the mansion, the property also includes the pavilion, the restored Italian style gardens and the carriage house which is still undergoing renovation to be opened later this year. As the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt and son of William Henry Vanderbuilt (eldest son of Cornelius), Frederick William Vanderbilt stood to inherit a vast fortune made by his father and grandfather in the railroad and shipping business. However, William never forgave Frederick for marrying Louise Holmes Anthony, a divorcee that was much older and apparently unable to have children, and bequeathed him only $10 million, a pittance in comparison to his brothers and sisters. Frederick increased this fortune to over $78 million by the time of his death unlike most of his siblings that ended up bankrupt. Obviously Frederick was the businessman of the family, however, his wife was a socialite and had to entertain with countless parties and gatherings. Winters were spent in New York City during the opera season and summers at other houses, so their “cottage” on the Hudson was occupied for only 6 weeks in the spring and fall. However, Louise still had to entertain guests and the mansion was built for this purpose. So in 1895, Frederick purchased the estate on the Hudson and began with construction of the Pavilion which served as the family residence while the mansion was built and later a bachelor quarters for single male guests. The 54 room mansion took nearly three years to build, finally being finished in 1899 at a total cost of $2.25 million ($62 million today) of which only $600,000 was the construction. The remainder of the cost was the furnishings which included many exotic elements such as Italian marble and Russian walnut, as well as, precious gems, gold, paintings, and tapestries. The house is considered modest by the standards of the Gilded Age, being only 55,000 square feet which is only 20% the size of Biltmore Estate built by his brother George Vanderbilt. The mansion included all the latest technology including hot and cold running water in each of the bathrooms, forced hot air central heating, and was the first home in the area with electricity from an on-sight electric plant. When Louise Vanderbilt suddenly died in 1926, Frederick Vanderbilt became virtually a recluse living on the third floor of the estate until his death in 1935. Having no children of their own, the mansion was inherited by Margaret Van Alen, a niece. Having other larger property of her own, Margaret had little interest in this “modest” mansion. She attempted to sell the property for $250,000, a small fraction of its worth, but being the height of the Depression, she could not get any buyers. At the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who’s estate was nearby, Margaret sold the mansion, gardens, and 200 acres of the original property to the federal government for $1 in 1940. Since there were no children, the sale included nearly all of the furnishings which today provides an impressive snapshot of the lifestyle of the millionaires of the Gilded Age.
1) You enter the property at one of the two gatehouses that are on the property, proceeding across an ornate bridge to the circular drive in front of the mansion. From here you get your first view of the mansion, which is awesome. At first glance it does not look that impressive until you realize the shear size of the structure.
2) The Visitor Center is housed within the Pavilion that is also an impressive structure. Here you obtain the free tickets for the mansion tour.
3) Our tour guide was fantastic. He had spent years at the Vanderbilt Mansion and was very knowledgeable. He had a number of humorous stories about the Vanderbilts, their lavish lifestyle, and the mansion itself. To realize this opulent mansion was only one of several mansions built by Frederick Vanderbilt, who was the “modest” brother being more interested in business than entertainment and it was occupied for a few weeks in the spring and summer as a “vacation” from the hectic social life in New York City during the opera season in the winter.
4) While the outside of the mansion is not very opulent, you are blown away as soon as you enter the main hall inside the front doors. It is a vaulted two story elliptical entrance hall with a marble balcony on the second floor. On the first floor are the public areas consisting of the lavish Living Room in one wing and Dining Room in the other wing. Off the Elliptical Hall are five secondary spaces: the Lobby, Den, Gold Room, Lavatory, and Grand Staircase. The Lavatory is where female guests would refresh themselves after their “long” journey and the Lobby had a very small bathroom for the men. The Den was where the men went after the meal and included all the furnishings you would expect emphasizing hunting and the outdoors, while the Gold Room was an opulent room with ceiling murals of angels to entertain the women. The Grand Staircase circles around with statues in little alcoves along the way.
5) The second floor was for Mrs. Vanderbilt’s suite of rooms including her Bedroom, Boudoir, and Bathroom. To reflect French royalty, her Bedroom includes a rail surrounding her bed called a birthing rail. This would separate the queen from the many spectators that had to witness the birth of a new heir. Also according to upper class customs of the day, the men and women had separate bedrooms. Mr. Vanderbilt’s bedroom also had a bed large enough for a crowd with a ship model at the foot of the bed. The most impressive feature was the tapestry that covered the walls instead of wallpaper or paint. It extended all the way around the room, completely hiding the connecting door to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom and even the main door into the bedroom when it was closed. The rest of the second floor was devoted to guest bedrooms, again separate rooms for the wife and husband.
6) The third floor is a combination of guest rooms which were much smaller than those on the second floor, and servant quarters.
7) From the third floor the tour descends by way of the servant circular staircase that runs the entire height of the house into the basement. In the basement you find the huge kitchen and preparation room, a walk in cooler, and even a separate room to hold nothing but vases since the flowers were replaced throughout the home every day. There is also a service elevator that would be used to lower the cases into waiting carriages whenever they moved.
8) The formal garden has been reconstructed, except for the network of greenhouses that have been removed. Even in early spring the garden is beautiful with many flowers and water elements. Even though the mansion was maintained since 1940, the gardens were left to deteriorate and were virtually gone in 1980. With the permission of the NPS, local volunteers began to replant some of the beds in 1984 and today, most of the gardens are now restored. Each of the five tiers has a different theme and is worth the time to explore.
9) As you are leaving the property, the road takes you by an overlook of the Hudson River, from which you can see the Catskill Mountains in the distance. There is a small parking lot at the location and it is worth the stop.