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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historical Park

The community of Hyde Park, New York, has an extensive and storied history of affluence and regality. For centuries, the town—positioned in the heart of the Hudson River Valley and at the foot of the Catskill Mountains—has been considered an ideal getaway from the urban sprawl by New York City’s aristocratic elite. Hyde Park blossomed during the Gilded Age, a period of United States history marked by innovative industrialization and an incomprehensible generation of wealth. American millionaires constructed many lavish manors and chateaus in the Hudson River Valley during this era, but few matched the magnificence displayed at the Vanderbilt Mansion.

Long before Vanderbilt occupancy, the property was originally acquired by Dr. John Bard in 1764. Although the Bards were Loyalists during the American Revolution, John’s son, Dr. Samuel Bard, performed a life-saving operation on newly-inaugurated President George Washington in 1791, removing a tumor from his left thigh. In his retirement, Samuel Bard constructed a house at Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson, where he resided from 1799 to 1821. During this time, Bard experimented with horticulture and farming in an effort to beautify the landscape. He imported trees, flowers, herbs and shrubberies from across Europe and Asia, some of which are still grown on the property today.

Samuel’s son, William, inherited the property in 1821 and sold it to Dr. David Hosack (Bard’s former business partner) seven years later. Much like Bard, Hosack was tremendously interested in horticulture. He hired landscape architect Andre Parmentier to develop the grounds around Crum Elbow Creek with a vast array of exotic plants and trees.

In 1840, John Jacob Astor—fur tradesman and America’s first multi-millionaire—acquired the land and gifted it to his daughter, Dorothea, and son-in-law, Walter Langdon, beginning a 54-year period of Langdon ownership. When the last Langdon heir (Walter Langdon Jr.) died in 1894, the estate was put up for sale and quickly purchased by Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt.

Frederick William Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, a steamboat and railroad magnate who garnered several of the most profitable enterprises in America. At the time of Cornelius’s death in 1877, the Vanderbilt fortune topped $100 million, most of which was bequeathed to William Henry Vanderbilt, Frederick’s father. William competently followed in his father’s footsteps and was able to more than double his inheritance to $210 million by the time of his own death in 1885. Frederick, the sixth-born, was left $10 million while his two oldest brothers, Cornelius II and William Kissam, were each given $80 million.

Unlike his siblings who ostentatiously flaunted their wealth—such as George Washington Vanderbilt who created the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina—Frederick was frugal, fiscally responsible, and academically gifted. He graduated from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1878—the first Vanderbilt to ever complete college—and married Louise Anthony later that December. Their union caused quite a bit of controversy, as Louise was originally married to Albert Torrance, Frederick’s first cousin, and she was twelve years his senior. The age differential coupled with Louise’s previous divorce did not conform well to the societal standards of America’s upper echelon and was considered scandalous at the time.

In May 1895, when Frederick purchased the 600-acre Hyde Park property, he oversaw the operations of 22 railroads (including the New York Central and Pittsburgh and Lake Erie), Western Union Telegraph Company, Hudson River Bridge Company, and other major enterprises that made considerable profits. Vanderbilt conscripted the services of McKim, Mead, and White—America’s top architecture firm at the time—to design and build his vacation home. The original plan was to renovate the standing Langdon house in a neoclassical, Italian Renaissance Revival style with Beaux-Arts orientation; however, serious structural deficits were discovered in the structure’s foundation and the home had to be totally demolished. New plans were quickly concocted that followed a similar layout plan to the Langdon house.

During the mansion’s construction, a Pavilion house was also built on the property so that Frederick and Louise could observe the project’s progress when they vacationed to Hyde Park. The Pavilion was erected on top of an old carriage house (circa 1820) and was completed in 66 days. Today, it is currently utilized as the park visitor center.

The 44,000 square-foot mansion was completed in the summer of 1899 and was the epitome of Gilded Age grandeur. It featured all of the latest innovations in comfort and home technology, including central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity powered by a hydroelectric generator in Crum Elbow Creek. The mansion’s interior exhibited extravagant antiques imported from Europe and Asia, such as 15th Century Flemish tapestries, Ming vases, painted Venetian ceilings, Medici marble fireplaces, and Florentine chests. The Vanderbilts also hired famed muralist H. Siddons Mowbray to decorate several ceilings in the manor. While the mansion itself cost roughly $600,000 to build, the added interior design and furniture expenses totaled $2.25 million.

While Frederick was described as quiet and introverted, Louise was social, philanthropic, and loved to entertain. She frequently hosted lavish parties, galas, and balls at their Hyde Park estate, including an annual strawberry and ice cream festival for the community. She would also ride through town on a horse-drawn carriage during Christmastime and deliver presents to the children of Hyde Park.

Louise Vanderbilt died from a ruptured appendix on August 21, 1926, at the age of 82. Frederick took the loss of his beloved exceptionally hard. He sold all of his properties except for his Hyde Park estate and lived out the rest of his life in seclusion. He passed away on June 29, 1938, at the age of 82, with a fortune worth approximately $76 million ($1.2 billion today). As Frederick and Louise did not have any children, the Hyde Park estate was left to their niece, Margaret Louise Van Alen, who had no intention of living on the property. She tried to sell the estate, but the residual effects of the Great Depression had severely hindered the real estate market, especially for exorbitant mansions such as this. In 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—whose residence neighbored the Vanderbilt property—convinced Margaret to donate the estate and 211 acres to the National Parks Service. Later that December, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site was established.

Visitors to the Vanderbilt Mansion are greeted by well-manicured lawn speckled with gingko, oak, and fir trees. The driveway crosses over the Crum Elbow Creek via the White Bridge, one of the first concrete and steel bridges constructed in America. After parking, take a moment to walk around the grounds of the estate. Notice the exquisite views of the Hudson River and horticultural elegance of the lawn. Follow a short quarter-mile pathway from the mansion to the five-acre terraced Italian Gardens, which have been restored to their 1930s appearance. These gardens date all the way back to the turn of the 19th century when Samuel Bard owned the property. The landscaped grounds feature ornate statuettes, trickling fountains, gravel paths, and flowering blooms when in-season.

Visitors can purchase a $10 ticket at the Pavilion for a ranger-guided tour of the mansion’s interior. This experience is highly recommended, as much of the furniture and décor cannot be seen anywhere else in the United States. The tour starts in the Reception Hall, adorned with fine white and green Italian marble and Flemish tapestries. The first room to the left is Mr. Vanderbilt’s study, decorated with fine mahogany furniture, leather-bound books, and antiquated hunting gear. Frederick would spend most of his time here for peaceful reflection and solitude.

Further to the left, through the South Foyer, is the Drawing Room. This room exhibits predominantly French wood fixtures and furnishings and was typically used for formal tea receptions. On the opposite end of the Reception Hall are the North Foyer and Dining Room. The dining room is quite fascinating as it features an elaborate, hand-painted panel ceiling and two white marble fireplaces imported directly from Medici manors in Italy.

The Grand Stairway gives visitors access to the second floor. Italian marble busts, 18th century Flemish tapestries, and a five-hundred-year old Ming vase line the steps. In the immediate area of the steps are the guest rooms, each color-coded Red, Blue, or Mauve. Mrs. Vanderbilt was very particular about the color scheme of each room. Guests of the Vanderbilts were required to wear pajamas that matched the room color. If they did not have an appropriately-colored garment, they were either moved to a matching room or provided matching pajamas by Mrs. Vanderbilt herself.

Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s rooms are located through the South Foyer of the second floor. Frederick decorated his chambers with dark Circassian woods, green Italian marble, and dark red Indian rugs while Louise opted for a lighter atmosphere, adorning her room in a Louis XV-inspired French style.

The third floor of the mansion is currently closed to visitors. It originally contained several more guestrooms and servants’ quarters. However, during World War II, the attic was completely renovated by the Secret Service to make barrack accommodations for the federal agents assigned to protect FDR while he vacationed at his Hyde Park property next door. The tour ends in the basement, where there is a kitchen, walk-in refrigerator, laundry, wine cellar, and more servant’s quarters.

The Vanderbilt Mansion is positively one of the most spectacular estates in all the Hudson River Valley. The pristine landscape, astonishing architecture, and distinguished furnishings accurately portray the means to which social extravagance was achieved during the Gilded Age. It is truly a magnificent experience.

For more information on the National Park, visit the NPS Homepage

For more on the history of the Vanderbilt Mansion, check out the VMNHS Lesson Plan, Gutenberg, and House Histree

Check out Hike the Hudson Valley for more about the hiking trails on the property

Read Vanderbilt Mansion: A Gilded-Age Country Place for a more in-depth review on the property's ownership, agricultural, and architectural histories


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