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Vanderbilt Mansion

By their grand scale, classical ornament, and look of permanence, the majestic homes of the late 19th century call to mind those of the European upper classes from times past. These were the dwellings of Americans who made fortunes from industry. Devoted at first to amassing large sums, the new millionaires eventually found that money was no longer enough. They wanted to live as though they were heirs to centuries of wealth, to leave a lasting tribute to their achievements. The era when such a way of life was possible ended early in this century. Frederick Vanderbilt's mansion, along with its counterparts in Newport, Palm Beach, or elsewhere along the Hudson, can transport us briefly to an elegant world long past.

Frederick William Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt and the son of William Henry Vanderbilt -- both the richest men in America in their time. The Vanderbilts redefined what it meant to be wealthy. "Up to this time," wrote social observer Ward McAllister, "for one to be worth a million of dollars was to be rated as a man of fortune." By the 1880s, "fortune" connoted "ten millions, fifty millions, one hundred millions, and the necessities and luxuries followed suit."

How did the richest family in America spend money? Yachting, horse breeding, and racing automobiles became family avocations. They attended opera, attired in top hats and tiaras, and collected art. They gave to worthy causes, married European titles. Every one of William Henry's eight children eventually owned mansions on Fifth Avenue as well as several "cottages" in the country or by the sea. With their grandfather's millions, the younger Vanderbilts gained admission to drawing rooms and ballrooms where the Commodore himself would have been unwelcome.

Along with his father's fortune, William Henry inherited the mixed blessing of fame for himself and his descendants. Their births, marriages, divorces, business doings, philanthropies, and scandals made for lively newspaper copy from the 1880s well into the 20th century. "Thank God for the Vanderbilts," a society columnist wrote. "The Vanderbilt family can always be relied upon in times of dullness to furnish either news or a sensation of some kind."

Publicity-shy Frederick Vanderbilt managed to escape such scrutiny. Still, he spent his inheritance in the manner of his siblings, surrounding himself with the best that money could buy. He bought Hyde Park, as the property was known, in 1895. Like their wealthy neighbors, Frederick and his wife, Louise, were probably attracted to the east bank of the Hudson by the beauty of the Hudson Valley and quick access to New York City on the Vanderbilts' own New York Central Railroad. Previous owners had made the estate famous for its landscape. The variety of trees and plants certainly appealed to Frederick's love of nature. Shortly after the Vanderbilts acquired the 600-acre estate, the New York Times described it as "the finest place on the Hudson between New York and Albany."

Vanderbilt Mansion Site Map Like most of the prominent Hudson River families, the Vanderbilts used their retreat only for a few weeks in spring and fall, and for an occasional weekend in winter. They spend summers at Newport or cruising on their yacht, and the winter social season at their New York City townhouse. A staff of 60 or so, drawn mostly from local farm families, maintained the house and grounds year-round. After Louise Vanderbilt died in 1926, Frederick lived out his days here amid his trees and gardens. Louise's niece Margaret Van Alen inherited the estate upon Frederick's death in 1938; the next year she told President Franklin Roosevelt she wished to "keep my place as it is -- a memorial to Uncle Fred and a national monument."

Since 1940 the 211 acres Margaret Van Alen donated to the federal government has been open to the public. Except for some of the owners belongings, the mansion and its contents remain unchanged from the time the Vanderbilts lived here, as if their country retreat were ready for a weekend visit.

As you enter the gates, the modern era is left behind and you step back in time to an era of great wealth and privilege. The Vanderbilt Estate, known as Hyde Park, represents this era.

What lies before you is not an attempt to recreate an era... it is an era preserved. It is preserved in every curve of the impressive driveway. It is sculpted in every soaring column of the Mansion. It is mirrored in the magnificent view of the Hudson River. Here, you will experience not only the historic buildings and furnishings, but also the impressive settings that display these jewels. In 1841 Andrew Jackson Downing, landscape designer and theorist, wrote "Hyde Park is justly celebrated as one of the finest specimens of the Romantic style of landscape gardening in America."

Whether you are strolling through the Formal Gardens or striding briskly along the trails, you cannot help but be impressed by the flow of the landscape design as it weaves an intricate pattern of drives, walks, specimen trees, grand overlooks and ornamental features.

Between 1763 and 1835, three generations of owners made improvements on the grounds. The most significant contribution was the landscape design work of Andre Parmentier, employed by David Hosack in the 1820s. Parmentier's style enticed visitors from Europe to see the justly famous Hyde Park landscape. It is exceedingly rare to see a major residential landscape of this time period preserved, and the Vanderbilt Estate is the most impressive of the four known Parmentier designs.

Under Frederick Vanderbilt's stewardship beginning in 1895, the Pavilion, Mansion, Gate Houses, Coach House, and Powerhouse were built, and the Gardens were redesigned several times. As you contemplate the Vanderbilt Estate, think of it as a tapestry bound together over the centuries by the common thread of enlightened ownership; beautiful and varied, it attests to the lifestyle and interests of the privileged in the Hudson River Valley.

"Frederick William Vanderbilt of New York," reported the New York Times in 1895, "who has recently joined the little colony of millionaires up the river, is getting ready to make extensive improvements on his house and grounds." When the Greek Revival house he had purchased proved structurally unsound. the Vanderbilts built a new house on the site. They moved into the mansion late in 1898, although European craftsmen did not complete the interior plastering and woodcarving until the next spring. The 50-room dwelling was designed by Charles Follin McKim of McKim, Mead, and White to evoke the ancestral home of a noble European line. The classical style and gleaming Indiana limestone facing belied the modern steel and concrete supports beneath. Everything was up-to-date, including the central heading, the plumbing, and the power supplied by a hydroelectric plant on the estate. It was also virtually fireproof, an important consideration since an earlier house on the site had been destroyed by fire. Just as the Vanderbilts had retained the services of the country's premier architectural firm to build their home, they sought the top names to design its interior. The furnishings and decoration were more than double the cost of the house itself.

 

Living Valley Panoramas
Visit the Vanderbilt Mansion in HV/Net's 360° panoramas!
Hudson River View - from the back portico, the landscape leads you to highly structured vistas of the majestic Hudson River.
The Rose Garden - the highly formal gardens on the grounds form a perfect foil for the surrounding naturalistic Romantic Landscape design.

 

In the principal rooms of the first floor, the hand of Stanford White is as clear as if he had signed his name. The flamboyant partner of McKim, Mead, and White influenced the house plan form its inception by furnishing a carved wooden dining room ceiling. To be incorporated as a whole, the ceiling must have dictated the proportions of that room and thus its opposite wing, the drawing room. White probably purchased the ceiling -- along with the large Isphahan rug and stone chimney breasts in the dining room, the Renaissance chairs in the entrance hall, the marble columns in the drawing room, and assortment of tapestries -- on one of his expeditions abroad. He searched Europe for relics which he shipped home. He was then prepared to supply clients with original works of art that lent authenticity to the background he was designing for them. In 1897 White traveled to London, Paris, Florence, Rome and Venice in search of articles for the mansion at Hyde Park. Thus the antique pieces in the Vanderbilt Mansion are found almost exclusively in White's first floor rooms.

By the 1890s, the popular taste for over furnished rooms with nondescript furniture and miscellaneous objects was on the decline. "After a period of eclecticism that has lasted long enough to make architects and decorators lose their traditional habits of design," wrote Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman in their 1892 volume The Decoration of Houses, "there has arisen a sudden demand for 'style'." Like their architect counterparts, these decorators sought to bring order out of chaos using the grammar of earlier decorative schemes to create rooms that were original but unified in style. It was a revolutionary concept.

The rooms designed by Geroges Glaenzer exhibit both schools. In Frederick Vanderbilt's bedroom antique twisted columns that flank the bed are brought together with the settee and side chairs of Spanish influence, the built-in bed and cabinet of no particular style, and the contemporary desk and upholstered pieces. It was this disregard for a guiding design principle -- this "delight in disorder" -- that gave way to a more scholarly approach. The versatile Glaenzer's Gold room is a textbook example of a "period room," where all of the furniture and ornaments follow the Rococo style of Louis XV. The tall case clock, a copy of one in the Louvre, was reproduced by Paul Sormani, one of the finest cabinetmakers in late 19th century Paris. Another room that appears to have been lifted bodily from 18th century France is Louise Vanderbilt's bedroom, by Ogden Codman. The commodes and writing desk came fro Sormani's shop. His case pieces carry his name in delicate script on the locks of the drawers. The settee, daybed, and chairs are also reproductions, and the rug from the Savonnerie was made to fit this room.

The interiors of the Vanderbilt Mansion present a study of the dramatic change in interior design that occurred in the late 19th century. The contrast between old and new, as defined by the leading decorators of the day, is striking.

Vanderbilt Mansion: Completed in 1898, the residence was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The building is an early example of steel frame construction; Indiana limestone forms the facade. It was to remain in the Vanderbilt family for over four decades as their center for entertaining in the Spring and Fall. The cost of construction and furnishings was nearly two million dollars. The original Vanderbilt furnishings are on display.

 

Pavilion Picture

Pavilion: Now serving as a Visitor Center, it was built in 1895 and served as the Vanderbilt's living quarters while the Mansion was being built. The sixteen room Pavilion contained kitchen and dining facilities. It became a guest house for men after the Vanderbilts moved into the Mansion. Single ladies could join the married couples as guests in the Mansion.

Gardens Picture
The Formal Gardens: During the Vanderbilt years there were five greenhouses and a staff of approximately twelve men to oversee the grounds and gardens. Cut flowers were provided for both the Hyde Park estate and the Vanderbilt's townhouse in Manhattan.

Coach House Picture
Coach House: This imposing building was erected in 1897. It was designed by architect Robert Henderson Robertson. Originally used as a horse stable, it was altered in 1910 for automobiles. The structure contained seven double stalls, many work rooms and seven bedrooms for staff.

Powerhouse: The hydroelectric powerhouse was built in 1897. It connected to the Mansion by underground wiring, extremely rare in private residences in this time period. The powerhouse supplied all electricity and water on the estate until 1938.

Upper and Lower Gatehouses: Designed by mansion architects McKim, Mead, and White in 1898, both buildings are of Indiana limestone capped with copper roofs. The upper gatehouse has six rooms, and the lower gatehouse five rooms. These homes were occupied by the Vanderbilt staff.

The Mansion and Formal Gardens are open daily from 9am to dusk.

For more information, contact:

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
c/o National Park Service
519 Albany Post Road
Hyde Park, NY 12538
(845)229-9115

Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historical Association
PO Box 235
Hyde Park, NY 12538
(845)229-9115

Specifics on visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion were correct at time of publication. We would suggest that you confirm dates and times prior to your visit.
 
 
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