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Reading 2: The Vanderbilts' Hyde Park Mansion
During the Gilded Age, upperclass New York families typically owned houses in Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island, as well as a "country retreat" not far from New York City. Every one of William Henry Vanderbilt's eight children eventually owned a mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue in addition to several other houses in the country or by the sea. Aside from their mansion in Hyde Park, New York, Frederick Vanderbilt and his wife Louise owned a townhouse in New York City for use during the winter theater season; a mansion on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Newport, Rhode Island, for use during the summer season; another summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine; and a "Japanese Camp" in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Although called "camps," mountain homes built by wealthy families in the Adirondacks allowed them to commune with nature in a setting that provided all the comforts and conveniences of their other mansions.
Frederick and Louise commissioned the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design their estate at Hyde Park. Construction began in 1896 and reached completion 26 months later in 1898, at a cost of $660,000; with furnishings included, the cost rose to $2,250,000. Norcross Brothers, the largest construction firm in the country, brought in craftsmen from all over the world to work on the mansion. Italian craftsman cut and carved Italian marble on the site. German craftsmen executed the plaster and stone work on the interior of the building and hand carved the Indiana limestone on the exterior of the building. Using exotic woods such as Russian walnut and Santo Domingo mahogany, Swiss craftsmen carved elaborate walls and ceilings.
Stanford White, a partner of McKim, Mead and White, influenced the interior design of the house from the start. For example, he possessed a European carved wooden ceiling that he wished to put in the Vanderbilt's dining room. The size of that ceiling determined the shape and size of the room. White collected the ceiling and other such treasures on his frequent buying trips to Europe. He knew his wealthy clients would be anxious to purchase expensive, antique furniture and design elements brought back from palaces and manor houses in Italy, France, and England.
The Vanderbilt's wealth enabled them to incorporate the latest innovations into their estate. They used electricity generated by a hydroelectric power plant built on the property. Other modern conveniences included a central heating system using coal-fired furnaces and indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water and flush toilets. The completed mansion contained 54 rooms, including 14 bathrooms, 10 guest bedrooms, and several rooms for male and female servants.
The couple typically spent time at the estate around Easter each year before heading north for the summer months. They returned in the fall, splitting their time between Hyde Park and New York City. Louise Vanderbilt delighted in entertaining at Hyde Park. Guests included nobility, and leaders in business, politics, and the arts. Visitors arrived by yacht at the estate's own river dock, by private railroad car at the estate's railroad station, or by chauffeur-driven automobiles. Aside from the 10 guest rooms in the mansion, the estate had guest bedrooms for bachelors located in the Pavilion, the house built for the Vanderbilts to live in as they oversaw the construction of the new mansion. The estate boasted two other guest houses as well.
Entertainment provided by the Vanderbilts included drives around the grounds and countryside as well as golf, tennis, horseback riding, and swimming at neighboring estates. After a day filled with activity, guests assembled for a formal dinner. The Vanderbilt dining table comfortably seated 30 guests. No matter the season, flowers selected by Louise from the greenhouses or gardens adorned the dining room table. Elaborate meals, prepared in the basement kitchen and sent up to the dining room on the dumbwaiter, consisted of several courses accompanied by different wines. An evening of bridge or a dance held in the 30-foot-by-50-foot drawing room followed the formal dinners. On Saturday night, dancing stopped precisely at midnight; Mrs. Vanderbilt did not approve of dancing on the Sabbath.
Frederick, known as a quiet and reserved man, avoided social occasions when he could. He preferred to slip away on walks to inspect his grounds. He avidly pursued his passion for horticulture and farming at Hyde Park. He often entered flowers in local shows as well as cattle in the Dutchess County fair. The farm provided the Hyde Park estate with all food necessities, including vegetables, beef, poultry, and dairy products. Usually 40 or more people tended to the farm and gardens, while 17 to 23 servants staffed the mansion. The farm and gardens operated year-round while a reduced crew oversaw the care of the mansion when the Vanderbilts did not reside there.
Upon his wife's death in 1926, Frederick Vanderbilt sold his other houses and returned to his Hyde Park estate to live out the last 12 years of his life. Since the couple had no children, they left their Hyde Park mansion to Louise's niece, Margaret Louise Van Alen. The wealthy Mrs. Van Alen tried for two years to sell the estate but found no buyers. Her neighbor in Hyde Park, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, suggested that she donate the estate to the National Park Service as a monument to the Gilded Age. Mrs. Van Alen agreed, and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site opened to the public in 1940. The farm lands, which did not become part of the donation to the National Park Service, remain in private hands. The lavish mansion and its contents remain virtually unchanged from the time the Vanderbilts lived there.
Questions for Reading 2
1. Why would the Vanderbilts have wanted to hire a prestigious architectural firm to design their mansion?
2. How much money did the Vanderbilts spend on furnishings for their new mansion?
3. Why would the mansion have been considered modern at the time?
4. List some of the activities the Vanderbilts and their guests enjoyed. Do they differ from activities we enjoy today? If so, how?
5. Why did the Vanderbilts maintain such a large staff?
Reading 2 was adapted from Bronwyn Krog, "Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site" (Dutchess County, New York) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior; National Park Service, 1979; the National Park Service visitor brochure for Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site; and John Foreman and Robbe Pierce Stimson, The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age: Architectural Aspirations, 1879-1901 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).