The Vanderbilt Mansion was designed by Stanford White, one of America’s premier Gilded Age architects, and provides an outstanding example of the Beaux Arts style of building popular in the late nineteenth century. In addition, it was owned by Frederick William Vanderbilt, a grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, and a successful businessman in his own right. With its antique-filled rooms and beautifully landscaped grounds, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site serves as an exemplar of the Gilded Age lifestyle, a time when millionaires enjoyed flaunting their wealth through the construction of lavish country houses and through entertainment on a grand scale.
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
4097 Albany Post Road
Hyde Park, NY 12538
ph.: (914) 229-9115
Web site: www.nps.gov/vama/
The Vanderbilt Mansion, located on the outskirts of the village of Hyde Park, New York, is visited by thousands of tourists every year. Visitors come to admire one of the finest examples of a Beaux Arts private residence in the United States. Designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the three-story, masonry house is reminiscent of a sixteenth century Venetian palace. Surrounded by magnificent gardens, the house and the landscaping would seem to have been designed as a coherent whole. The truth is that the gardens came first.
The bluff top overlooking the Hudson River was actually the site of a substantial private residence before the estate was purchased by Frederick William Vanderbilt in 1895. The lower Hudson River valley became a favorite seasonal residential area for New York City’s wealthy businessmen comparatively early in the nineteenth century. Millionaires often owned multiple residences: one in the city, where they might spend the winter months; one at the seashore; one in the country; and sometimes a hunting lodge in the mountains. The area along the lower Hudson River quickly became the place to live during the late spring and early fall months. Wealthy property owners generally stayed away in the summer, when it became too hot and humid, and in the winter, when they would stay in the city or head to southern climates.
In any case, the gardens at the Vanderbilt Mansion Historical Site date from the 1840’s, when Walter Langdon, Jr., a grandson of millionaire John Jacob Astor, began laying out new gardens and constructing walls and conservatories. Langdon hired the architectural firm of Sturgis and Brigham of Boston to design a gardener’s cottage and tool house. Those buildings are still standing, although the greenhouses Langdon constructed no longer survive. Langdon established the general location and layout of the gardens, although the plantings today are based on garden designs used by the Vanderbilts.
It was, in fact, the gardens established by Langdon that attracted Frederick William Vanderbilt to the property. Vanderbilt had a passionate interest in horticulture. While it was fashionable for Gilded Age millionaires to purchase country estates that included working farms and gardens, for most, gardening was a casual interest. Livestock, produce, and flowers might be entered in local fairs, with the property owner playing the role of landed gentry, but the real work was done by hired help. The millionaires themselves generally took little actual interest in the gardens as long as there were sufficient cut flowers for decorating rooms when they entertained. Vanderbilt, in contrast, has been described as being at his happiest when closeted with his gardeners discussing seed purchases, garden designs, the progress of certain varieties as opposed to others, and so on. From the time the house was completed in 1898 until he died in 1938, Vanderbilt remained in constant touch with the garden and farm staff. When he was in residence, his day would begin with a meeting with the head gardeners, and when he was away he maintained a steady correspondence, providing direction and receiving daily reports.
Initially, however, the Vanderbilts’ attention was on the house they planned to build. Frederick William Vanderbilt was a member of one of America’s wealthiest families. A grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt (1794-1877) and the son of William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), Frederick William Vanderbilt inherited a substantial fortune built on investments in railroads and other industries. His father had been that rare individual, the son of a millionaire who inherited a huge fortune and built it into a larger one.
Along with the wealth came the expectation of a lavish lifestyle. William Henry Vanderbilt began the family tradition of constructing mansions on the grand scale. His father, Commodore Vanderbilt, had been a self-made man, a millionaire who had created his wealth through hard work and shrewd investing. The family had no social standing other than what it could claim through new wealth. The Vanderbilts’ palatial houses filled with antiques and artwork purchased in Europe helped provide an appropriately impressive setting as well as implying an ancestral heritage they did not actually possess. Commodore Vanderbilt had been snubbed by the upper classes in New York City. His children and grandchildren used his money to gain entree, and, once there, pursued a lifestyle worthy of European royalty. Thus, William Henry began the Vanderbilts’ construction spree by constructing a lavish house on Fifth Avenue, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, a Paris-trained architect.
Each of William Henry’s eight children would eventually build an opulent mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. They also constructed huge summer houses in Newport, Rhode Island, and other fashionable resort areas, which they referred to as “cottages,” and country estates. These estates were often thousands of acres in size and might employ hundreds of workers. George Washington Vanderbilt surprised family members by choosing the unfashionable hills of North Carolina as the location of Biltmore, a Hunt-designed building inspired by French chateaux. Frederick William stayed closer to the traditional haunts of New York millionaires when he selected his estate on the Hudson.
At the time of its purchase by Vanderbilt the mansion was known as Hyde Park, and the village of Hyde Park itself at one time was inhabited primarily by workers on the estate. Today most people associate the name Hyde Park with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Roosevelt family home (now also a National Historic Site and home of the Roosevelt presidential library and archives) is located close to the Vanderbilt estate, and FDR himself no doubt took a twelve-year-old boy’s lively interest in observing the 1896 to 1898 construction of the Vanderbilt house.
In addition to the property at Hyde Park, Frederick Vanderbilt owned residences in New York City; Palm Beach, Florida; and the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Once the house at Hyde Park was completed, Vanderbilt would be in residence only a few months out of the year, in late spring and in early fall, even though by Vanderbilt standards he was a virtual recluse. He shunned the limelight, preferring gardening over socializing, and spoke of the mansion as a place he could go to escape from the headaches of both city life and the notoriety that went with the family name.
Construction of the mansion began in 1896. While Charles McKim had designed an exterior that would remind visitors of an Italian ducal palace, his partner Stanford White’s hand is clearly visible in the interior floor plan. White made a practice of scouring the markets of Europe for antiquities and architectural artifacts that could be incorporated into his clients’ buildings in the United States. These purchases ranged from antique Oriental rugs to entire buildings. He would purchase literally entire rooms, complete with wooden panelled walls and ceilings, mantels, and other fixtures, and have them dismantled and shipped to the United States. He then would design houses to provide the proper setting for the antiques he had obtained for his clients.
In the case of the Vanderbilt Mansion, White found a magnificent carved wooden dining room ceiling. This room is one of the first that visitors are shown on their tours of the mansion. It is at the right end of the main entrance hall. The already finished ceiling probably dictated the size and proportions of the room, and, to maintain balance in the overall floor plan, the proportions of the drawing room at the other end of the first floor of the house as well. The dining room also contains an Isphahan rug, quite possibly purchased at the same time as the ceiling, and antique stone chimney breasts. The Renaissance-era chairs in the main entry hall, antique tapestries in both the dining room and the drawing room, and the marble columns in the drawing room were also purchased by White on one of his frequent trips to Europe. The first floor ceilings are fourteen feet high.
A magnificent curved marble staircase leads to the second floor. It is while ascending the stairs to the second floor that visitors are likely to notice the plaster detailing on the first floor ceiling. Although many of the construction workers for the house were from the local area, European craftsmen were hired for the ornate plaster work. The second floor of the mansion houses Mr. Vanderbilt’s bedroom, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom, guest rooms, and a room for Mrs. Vanderbilt’s personal maid. In keeping with the general tone of opulence, Louise Vanderbilt’s room is modeled on a queen’s bedroom from a French palace. The canopied bed stands on a raised dais and is separated from the rest of the room by a curved railing. The room, which was decorated by Ogden Codman, a well-known interior designer of the time, is intensely feminine. Although the furnishings appear to be antiques from the French rococo period, they are actually reproductions built by Paul Sormani, a noted French cabinetmaker of the 1890’s. The Savonnerie rug on the floor was custom made to fit the room.
Frederick Vanderbilt’s bedroom, with its dark woods and red draperies, is stereotypically late nineteenth century masculine. In addition, where Mrs. Vanderbilt’s room can be seen as an example of the new style of decorating championed by Edith Wharton and Codman, a rejection of Victorian eclecticism and clutter, Frederick Vanderbilt’s bedroom is a mix of styles and periods. Antiques and contemporary pieces were used together with no attempt being made to imitate any particular historical period.
The fact that Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt had separate bedrooms does not imply any problems within their marriage. It was the custom of the wealthy, and even the middle class, during the nineteenth century for husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms. Vanderbilt was reportedly devoted to his wife, whom he had married over the strong objections of his father. Louise Vanderbilt was twelve years older than her husband and divorced from his cousin. Following her death, Frederick Vanderbilt moved to a bedroom on the third floor of the house and made the gardens the focus of his passion. The couple had no children.
The third floor of the house contained guest rooms occupied by single women who visited the Vanderbilts. Single men stayed in a separate guest house on the estate. Louise Vanderbilt, perhaps because she had experienced the personal scandal of being a divorcee at a time when divorce was uncommon, insisted that guests always behave with proper decorum.
Despite the lavish use of both genuine antiques and reproduction pieces, which gives the house a period feel, the Vanderbilt Mansion was an extremely modern building. The architects and builders incorporated all the latest conveniences into its construction, including electrical lighting and thoroughly modern plumbing. Electricity was provided by a hydroelectric plant on the estate. The building itself has a steel and concrete frame hidden beneath its façade of Indiana limestone, and is virtually fireproof. Still, even the most mundane aspects of the house reflect the wealth of its builders. The plumbing fixtures–the exposed pipes, faucet taps, and so on–in the bathrooms used by the Vanderbilts and their guests are silver-plated and were kept polished by the cleaning staff.
Following Frederick Vanderbilt’s death in 1938, the house passed to a niece. Unable to maintain the property, she persuaded President Roosevelt to accept the house as a national monument. The federal government did maintain the mansion itself in good condition, operating it as a historic site and opening it to the public for tours, but could not afford to keep up the gardens. They fell into disarray and were eventually fenced off as a hazardous area. In 1984 local residents formed a volunteer association, the Frederick William Vanderbilt Garden Association and, in cooperation with the National Park Service, have now restored the gardens to close to the original condition. The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site is open to the public seven days a week from 9:00
Croffut, W. A. The Vanderbilts and the Story of Their Fortune. New York: Ayer, 1989. A general history of the Vanderbilt family. Lessard, Suzannah. The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996. Stanford White was one of the most talented architects of the Gilded Age. He was also one of the most colorful. This book provides an intriguing glimpse into his legacy. Patterson, Jerry E. The Vanderbilts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. Vanderbilt, Arthur T. Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. New York: William Morrow, 1991. An intriguing family history written by a Vanderbilt. White, Samuel G., and Jonathan Wallen. The Houses of McKim, Mead, and White. New York: Rizzoli International, 1998. Beautiful photos of McKim, Mead, and White structures. Wilson, Richard Guy, et al. Architecture of McKim, Mead, and White in Photographs, Plans, and Elevations. New York: Dover, 1990.