Along the east bank of the Hudson River, in the town of Hyde Park, New York, sits the 211 acre Vanderbilt Mansion. Built between 1896 and 1899, the three-story, fifty-four room, seasonal residence is a stunning reminder of what a state-of-the-art “country” estate was like during the Gilded Age (1870-1900) in America. Now a National Historic Site and run by the National Park Service, the Vanderbilt Mansion is a fantastic place to immerse yourself into history and get a taste of what it was like to have the ability to build a property where money was no object.
A brief history.
Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is the reason when someone speaks of “the Vanderbilts” you already know that person is referring to a family with a rich history in America of power and wealth. Having left school at eleven years of age, Cornelius eventually began a shipping company with one boat and proceeded to build his company into a shipping and railroad empire, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world long before his death in 1877. The majority of his fortune (over $100 million ) was passed on to his eldest son William Henry Vanderbilt who died nine years later, but had managed to double the family’s fortune before his death.
The Vanderbilt Mansion, or Hyde Park as it was known at the time, was completed in 1899 as a country palace for Frederick William Vanderbilt (The Commodore’s grandson). This fifty-four room mansion was built as a seasonal home for Frederick and his family, as they also maintained residences on Park Avenue in Manhattan, New York City, Newport, Rhode Island, Bar harbor, Maine, and the Upper St. Regis Lakes in the Adirondacks, New York.
When it was built, Hyde Park was ahead of the times and some of the features found in the home included indoor plumbing, forced air central heating, and electrical lighting which was powered by a hydroelectric plant found on the estate grounds. The mansion had power long before the rest of the town had reliable electricity. The gardens were designed in the “Italian” style, which after looking up what that meant, simply means that if you were to draw an imaginary line down their middle, either horizontally or vertically, one side would mirror the other.
After Frederick’s death in 1938, the estate was inherited by Margaret Van Alen, who told then President, and fellow Hyde Park resident, Franklin D. Roosevelt that she wanted to keep the house as it was, as a memorial to her late Aunt and Uncle. Ever since 1940, the federal government has maintained, preserved, and kept the home open to the public.
Back to reality.
When I was growing up in Dutchess County, the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts remain iconic names that exuded American aristocracy. I vaguely remember visiting the Hyde Park area and touring Franklin Roosevelt’s home, as well as Vanderbilt Mansion, but as a kid, what I really remember about that area was the Hyde Park drive-in theater (which I am proud to say is still up and running). When Emily and I went to visit New York awhile back, I was genuinely excited to revisit the mansion as an adult.
Our friend Kate, (find her and follow her on instagram @camera4one) who lives in the area and does not take the history or the beauty that surrounds her for granted, helped arrange a tour so we could maximise our limited time in New York.
The mansion is open just about every day (excluding holidays), and is viewable by guided tour only. Be sure to check the park’s website for tour times and hours of operation before arriving (check that info here). The tour only takes about an hour, but you are free to walk around the beautiful property before or after the tour and visitors may stay until sunset.
Touring the estate and the grounds, one cannot help but conjure up images of Downton Abbey or Gosford Park and the small army of sixty or so laborers it took to keep the home, gardens, and grounds in pristine condition all year round. The park service has done a fantastic job of trying to preserve the original furnishings (sunlight is the enemy of all fabrics) of the home and according to the tour, most of the furniture is original to the time and place.
An HDR (High-Dynamic Range) composite of the front facade of the mansion.
Two of my favorite people in the whole word, sitting on a bench, looking over the Hudson River towards the Catskill Mountains.
That last picture has nothing to do with my blog about the Vanderbilt Mansion, but it always makes me happy to see this picture and realize how fortunate we were to have the limited time and beautiful weather during our brief visit.