y 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
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
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
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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.
the Vanderbilt Mansion in HV/Net's new panorama
River View - from the back
portico, the landscape leads you to highly
structured vistas of the majestic Hudson
Rose Garden - the highly formal
gardens on the grounds form a perfect foil
for the surrounding naturalistic Romantic
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
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.
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
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.