Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site: Monument to the Gilded Age (Teaching with Historic Places)

Photo of a grand mansion.

This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.

With spectacular views of the Hudson River as well as the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains, the Hudson River valley has much to offer both residents and visitors. By the turn of the 20th century, many wealthy families, including the Vanderbilts, had built palatial houses along the Hudson, between New York City and Albany. The Hudson River held special significance for the Vanderbilts. In the early 1800s, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt laid the foundation for the Vanderbilt fortune when he began a ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan.

Later, the family's New York Central Railroad ran along the Hudson. In 1895, Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore, built his country estate overlooking the river in Hyde Park, New York. With more than 600 acres of landscaped property and a palatial Beaux-Arts mansion, the Hyde Park estate came to symbolize the enormous wealth accumulated by a privileged few during the Gilded Age. Today, the Vanderbilts' Hyde Park home is preserved as Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.

Photo of side exterior of stone mansion.

(National Park Service)

The architectural style of the Vanderbilt mansion is known as Beaux-Arts. Typical features of Beaux-Arts buildings include a large and grandiose appearance; symmetrical facade (both sides of the central entrance are identical); exterior columns or pilasters (rectangular columns attached to a wall); wall surfaces embellished with floral patterns, garlands, medallions, or similar details; and a flat, low-pitched roof.

Questions for Photos 2 and 3
1. Identify some of the features which make this a Beaux-Arts style building.
2. Are there any houses or public buildings in your town that represent the Beaux-Arts style?
3. Why do you think wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts considered it important to construct such elaborate houses? Why was the Beaux-Arts style appropriate for these houses?

Drawing of interior layout of the Vanderbilt Mansion.
List of rooms in Vanderbilt Mansion.

The Vanderbilts' guests entered the Reception Hall from the front driveway or from the lobby on the river side of the house. If they had come to see Mr. Vanderbilt on business, they were shown to the Study where he conducted estate business. Guests arriving for a party might enjoy a cocktail in the Gold Room before moving into the Dining Room. Formal entertainment, including dances and musical performances, took place in the Drawing Room. The Den acted as a family room as well as a place to have afternoon tea, write letters, or read.

Questions for Drawings 1 & 2

1. Match the room numbers to the key to discover how the rooms were used. If you owned this house, how might you use the spaces provided?

2. Why is the kitchen not shown on these floor plans? (You may need to refer back to Reading 2.) What other rooms might be located on the same level as the kitchen?

Visual Evidence

Photo 4: Louise Vanderbilt's bedroom.

Louise Vanderbilt's bedroom with gold trim.

(National Park Service)

This room is a reproduction of a French Queen's chamber from the Louis XV period. It features a ceremonial railing around the bed, silk wall coverings at the head of the bed, and French paintings. A connecting door leads to Louise Vanderbilt's boudoir (dressing room).

Questions for Photo 4
1. Refer to Drawing 2 to find the location of Louise Vanderbilt's bedroom.
2. How does this room reflect the Gilded Age?
3. Why might Louise Vanderbilt have wanted to sleep in a reproduction of a French Queen' bedroom?

Visual Evidence

Photo 5: The Vanderbilt dining room.

Photo of a formal dinning room.
(Photo by Richard Cheek. Used by permission of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Association.)

The Vanderbilts hosted many elaborate parties in their formal dining room. The large table could be expanded to seat 30 guests. When they ate alone, the Vanderbilts used the round table at the far end. The carved wood ceiling and the fireplaces came from European castles and palaces.

Questions for Photo 5
1. Refer to Drawing 1 to find the location of the dining room.
2. What are your impressions of this room?
3. Why would the Vanderbilts have wanted such a large dining room?

Visual Evidence

Photo 6: The Pavilion.

Exterior of a large house.
(National Park Service)

The Vanderbilts stayed in this 16-room building during construction of their mansion. Built of stucco and painted wood, it became a guest house when the Vanderbilts moved in the completed mansion. After Louise Vanderbilt's death in 1926, the Pavilion remained closed until 1940 when it became an inn and a restaurant. For a time it also served as a visitor center and National Park Service office.

Questions for Photo 6
1. Locate the Pavilion on Map 2.
2. How do the design elements of this house compare to those of the mansion? List some important differences in design.

Putting It All Together

The following activities will help demonstrate to students the contributions, activities, and influences of the Vanderbilts and others who came to define the Gilded Age.

Activity 1: How the Other Half Lived
Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following aspects of life during the Gilded Age: occupations, transportation, housing, leisure activities, and fashion. Concentrating on the last two decades of the 19th century, have each group research its category to discover the practices of both the wealthy and the average citizen. Ask each group to select a spokesperson to summarize the findings for the class. Finally, hold a general classroom discussion on the differences between the lifestyles of the wealthy and the average citizen during the Gilded Age.

Activity 2: Researching Personalities from the Gilded Age
Have students choose a wealthy individual or family, other than the Vanderbilts, from the Gilded Age. Ask them to conduct research on their life and legacy and prepare a short report. If possible, have students try to find out similar information about an important person in their own community or region during the same period. If any places associated with that person still exist in the community, arrange for students to visit and incorporate what they learn there in their report.

Activity 3: Philanthropy in the Local Community
Discuss with students the concept of philanthropy and have them list several examples. Encourage them to consider national, state, as well as local level efforts. Working in groups of three or four, have them select and visit a local organization--museum, hospital, university, library, or social club--that receives substantial philanthropic gifts. Ask each group to interview someone from the organization and try to find answers to the following questions: How have philanthropic donations benefited your organization? What philanthropists (individuals or businesses) have made major donations? Has their contribution been publicly recognized (e.g. through a plaque, name of a building, etc.)? Why and when did they or do they make their donations? Have the groups share their reports with the class and then discuss how their community as a whole benefits from philanthropic gifts.

Supplementary Resources

By looking at The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site: Monument to the Gilded Age, students discover how the Vanderbilts became one of the wealthiest families in America and how their lifestyle influenced business, culture, architecture, and society in ways that still affect us today. Those interested in learning more will find that the Internet offers a variety of interesting materials.

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park Service. Visit the park's Web pages to obtain information on activities, tours, and the history of the mansion and its inhabitants.

Library of Congress: American Memory Collection
Search the American Memory Collection Web page for a variety of historical resources on the Vanderbilt family. Included on the site are documents, photographs, and other materials on the lives of these extraordinary people. Also search on Vanderbilt Mansion for architectural documentation of the site by Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record.

Other Vanderbilt Family Homes

  • The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, called Eagle's Nest, was the residence and museum built for William K. Vanderbilt II, great-grandson of New York's famed railroad and shipping magnate "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, who lived 1794-1877.

  • The Biltmore Estate was built by George Vanderbilt in North Carolina and is one of the grandest estates in the United States.

  • The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island set the standard of "summer cottages." It was built by Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt.

Last updated: July 28, 2023