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Reading 3: The Vanderbilts as Philanthropists
Like many other Gilded Age "aristocrats," the Vanderbilts pursued their philanthropies as diligently as their pleasures. Beginning with Frederick Vanderbilt's grandfather, the family gave millions of dollars to charitable causes. In 1873, the Commodore donated a million dollars to establish Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Additional Vanderbilt gifts underwrote opera houses, art galleries, museums, hospitals, libraries, and educational institutions.
Frederick Vanderbilt, the first Vanderbilt to graduate from college, gave generously to Yale University, from which he graduated in 1878. He also contributed to the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) and the New York Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor. Louise Vanderbilt never tired of helping the Hyde Park community, particularly its young people. She established a reading room at St. James Chapel in Hyde Park and provided for the higher education of qualified young women. She proved instrumental in bringing a chapter of the Red Cross to town and in funding the District Nurse Service. Her principal charities outside Hyde Park were St. Anthony's Home for Girls and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier; the local newspaper at the time, often publicized the Vanderbilt's generous gifts to the community, from treating school children to an ice cream festival to buying a second hand motion picture machine so the residents of Hyde Park could view movies in the Town Hall.
The Vanderbilts played an important role in the economy of the community by hiring local residents, when possible, to work in the mansion and on the grounds and farm. When Frederick Vanderbilt died at the Hyde Park estate in 1938, 33 of the 57 recipients named in his will were employees of the estate. The amount each employee received depended on length of service and position held. Those who had worked on the estate for at least 10 years received the smallest bequest of $1,000. In 1938, $1,000 would purchase a nice new home in the town of Hyde Park. Other bequests ranged from $3,000 to $5,000, and from $10,000 to $25,000. The superintendent of the estate received the largest inheritance of the employees--$250,000 and one of the guest houses on the estate--because he had the responsibility of running the whole estate and keeping it productive and efficiently managed.
Born into an elite and privileged family, Frederick Vanderbilt maintained a good work ethic throughout his life and managed to acquire even greater wealth in his adulthood. He and his wife lived a lifestyle of almost unimaginable opulence and extravagance on their country estate in Hyde Park and elsewhere. Still, they became valued members of the local community by using their wealth and influence to help others.
Questions for Reading 3
1. What kinds of institutions did the Vanderbilts support through their philanthropy?
2. Although the Vanderbilts had no children, many of their charities focused on children. Why do you think that might have been?
3. Would you have wanted to work for the Vanderbilt family in Hyde Park? Why or why not?
Reading 3 was adapted from 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).