On behalf of the National Park Service, welcome to Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Before you stands the only Gilded Age mansion in the National Park Service, “Hyde Park.” This was the country place of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt, used primarily in the spring and fall. Built over 26 months between 1896 to 1898, at the cost of $660,000, it is one of the best-preserved examples of a Gilded Age home in the US. The approx. 45,000 square-foot building consists of 54 rooms and six floors.
Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt purchased this property in 1895. It is one of the oldest continuously manicured properties in the United States, dating to the late 18th century. Hyde Park is the third home built in this exact location. It features many modern conveniences that were considered luxuries at the time of its completion: hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and electricity, generated by a hydroelectric plant on the estate. These innovations were incredibly remarkable at a time when millions of Americans were still using chamber pots. The fortune that allowed Frederick and Louise to build this mansion came from Frederick’s family. The Vanderbilts were once the wealthiest family in the United States, whose fortune was made in railroads and shipping. Their business empire was started by Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt and the family’s most famous enterprise was the New York Central Railroad system. Frederick’s generation, the grandchildren of Cornelius Vanderbilt, are well known for the lavish mansions they constructed with the family fortune in places like New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. Along with Hyde Park, other well-known mansions, constructed by Frederick’s siblings, include The Breakers, Marble House, and the Biltmore. The Vanderbilts built these homes as monuments to their wealth and status in the Gilded Age. Members of New York City society, like the Vanderbilts, owned many homes and changed their residence with the season. This site preserves the era in which the Vanderbilt’s thrived, the Gilded Age, which spanned late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when America was rapidly industrializing, and tycoons were making vast fortunes with little to no regulation or taxation. As you tour this home, do not view it as a memorial for the Vanderbilts, but as a monument to the lifestyle of the Gilded Age.
2. Elliptical Hall
A 17th Century Medici crest is located prominently over the grand fireplace clearly marking this as the home of a “merchant prince.” Cipollino (“onion stone”) and Carerra marble walls and floor, classical statues and throne chairs create an impressive introduction into the Vanderbilt’s home and served to showcase their status. During a party, this would have been a location of formal reception and refreshments.
While amongst some the wealthiest human beings who have ever lived, the Vanderbilts were considered new money in their day. Newly rich families of the Gilded age were a bit more showy than their old monied counterparts in society. They were part of a culture of self-styled American royalty. When visiting, one walks under Horns of Plenty on the front portico and experiences a home full of symbols representing prosperity and power. Indeed, the Vanderbilt family has been referred to as the “American Medici,” American merchant princes. The Vanderbilt Mansion NHS was first national park service house museum to come with intact furnishings. Most of the objects you’ll find in this house are original. Objects of art are placed throughout this home. And if something looks uncomfortable, it probably wasn’t used. As you visit the rooms, you’ll find that prominent architects McKim, Mead and White, interior decorators, European furniture dealers, and craftsmen created a fantasy realm full of reinterpretations of “old world” noble aesthetics.
3. Mr. Vanderbilt's Office
Frederick Vanderbilt used this space as his personal office and valued private refuge. The narrow doorway leads to a toilet room which links his office to his den.
Frederick Vanderbilt was the first Vanderbilt to go to College, studying business and horticulture at the Yale Sheffield Scientific School. His two older brothers, father and grandfather were all talented businessmen, wheeling and dealing with millions in transportation dollars. Frederick was the first college educated businessman of the lot. He sat on the Board of directors for the NY Central RR System, the family’s pride and joy, for his entire adult life. He was the president Western Union for a time. And when Mr. Vanderbilt’s died in 1938, he was affiliated with 22 RRs, as well as a successful investor and consultant for various companies. Though business was primarily conducted in NYC, this relatively modest office was sometimes a location for meetings with professional associates and employees who worked here at “Hyde Park,” his beloved “Gentleman’s Farm.” Yet, if the door was closed, then it was clear indication that Mr. Vanderbilt was not to be disturbed.
As you view the room from the doorway, a small portion of Mr. Vanderbilt’s book collection is on display to your right. This is where he would store written works personal interest, texts from college and some valued first editions. The mantel over the fireplace has a hidden latch and panel. When swung open, a small compartment for valuables or spirits is revealed.
4. The Den
The Den was a place where men could lounge after dinner, drinking fine beverages out of snifters and smoking big blue clouds of tobacco. When no guests were in the home, both Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt relaxed in this room. More often than not, this Den would function like a family room does today.
The Vanderbilt family excelled in a culture that emphasized reputation and valued appearances. It was a life filled with etiquette and complex social protocols. The parties of the time were no different. After hours of extensive fine dining, which might contain a dozen courses, the ladies and gentlemen would typically split up and withdraw to separate spaces for digestion, relaxation and conversation… Later rejoining each other for the evening’s entertainment. Here men would drink brandy, cognac, or other fine spirits. Smoke a cigar or two, or a pipe. And talk about their businesses, hobbies and sporting activities. It’s a place where status driven individuals could engage in friendly one upmanship and forge business relationships.
To that end, the room has masculine themed decorations. It’s a counterpart to the feminine French design of the Gold Reception Room across the hall… A Den with Germanic flair with a Gothic atmosphere. Hand worked Santo Domingo mahogany is prevalent throughout the room, in use as four-inch-thick paneling, ceiling arches, and intricate carvings. Its décor is related to hunting and sportsmanship, with the animal mounts and guns prominently displayed on the walls. Mr. Vanderbilt was not an avid huntsman, forbidding hunting on his property. He preferred fly fishing and sailing. The animal heads and swiss wheel lock rifles are ornaments furnished as interior decoration. The books on the shelves are also a part of this room’s design.
This 54 room mansion was primarily intended as a retreat for Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt. Without weekend guests, this is the room that Frederick and Louise would use for companionable leisure time. They would read by a fire, write correspondences to family or associates… And they both had their preferred seats.
5. Living Room
The Vanderbilts used their living room almost exclusively as an entertainment space. This is not a ball room and the house doesn’t have one. This was where Mrs. Vanderbilt and her acquaintances convened for more casual conversation and coffee. Their male counterparts would later join them here for cards, charades, music, and more relaxed dialogue than what would typically take place at dinner. Parties held on Saturday nights included dancing, as well.
In the McKim, Mead, and White architectural plans, this room is labelled as the “Living Room” a relatively new concept at the time. This newer type of room is meant to be a designated space for informal uses. You might call this the “fun” room. After a day of outdoor enjoyment, the Vanderbilts and their guests would adjourn in the Living Room. Parlor games were a focus of these gatherings and to that end, you can find fold-out card tables throughout the room. Bridge was one popular game during this time. Here musicians performed and melodies would permeate the air as they would dance, play card games, and relax until midnight. The piano to the right is an 1878 Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. It’s noted for its giltwood and vernis Martin decorations, the sides with floral and ribbon borders, and oval portraits depicting classical composers, such as Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart. Bands of poetic verse by Milton and Shakespeare wrap around the side; the lid, also gilded, is decorated with a painted pastoral landscape, the backboard with floral garlands. Before you leave, take a moment to look around and you’ll notice rather large tapestries. On either side of the Living room there are two tapestries depicting the Medici Family Crest. As you leave the living room, there are two 16th c. Flemish tapestries showing scenes from the Trojan War. Tapestries are considered a personal and significant collection for Mr. Vanderbilt and are displayed prominently throughout the mansion.
6. Reception Room
The Gold Reception Room is an ornately staged room fashioned in the style of an 18th century French Salon. It was meant for entertaining small groups of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s friends and formally welcoming very special guests.
Rooms like this played a social function and they were intended to impress. Having a proper reception, with tea, with a Vanderbilt, in her gold salon, might give you a serious leg up in society. And after a formal meal, female guests could imbibe digestifs with much ceremony in this room. When guests were not in residence, however, this would on rare occasion function as a private space for Mrs. Vanderbilt.
This room emphasizes style over function. It was not a comfortable spot and was rarely used by the Vanderbilts, unless they had guests. Throughout the house you can find many objects of art that were hundreds of years old when they were purchased by decorators for the Vanderbilts. However, this room was designed by an interior decorator, and is staged to look like a 18th c. French Salon, with manufactured pieces purposefully copying items displayed in the Louvre. French salons were in vogue during the Vanderbilt’s Era and found in many Gilded Age Mansions.
Above you, the ceiling includes a luminous painted panel of “Aurora and Tithonus” by the American artist Edward Simmons. It depicts the goddess of the dawn and her spurned lover. At some point, the Vanderbilt’s remodeled, and Aurora was covered in white paint. This may indicate that they didn’t like this painting. The mural was accidentally discovered by the National Park Service in 1962 and restored.
7. Grand Staircase
The staircase rises 22 feet, using 39 steps, with four-inch risers. It’s a design that allowed the Vanderbilts and their guests to navigate the steps with ease and poise—making grand entrances and exits, without tripping over their elaborate costuming.
In many Gilded Age homes, the staircase was front and center; the first thing you see when entering. They were designed to be grand and imposing. In fact, the lady of the house and host would often receive her guest on this centerpiece, at the first landing. The staircase here is off to the side, tucked out of the way. While not typical of the grand staircases within 5th avenue’s townhouses or Newport Road Island’s “Millionaire’s Row”, this one does have society’s standards in mind. The railing was once covered in luxurious velvet. When in use, a lady’s gloves would not be damaged, and gentlemen would experience added comfort. This was common in the opera houses and social clubs of the day. The staircase’s positioning within the house is a clear indication of the kind of entertaining that occurred at this residence. Hyde Park is a Country Place and a Gentleman’s Farm, most often lived in outside of the influential winter and summer social seasons. An idealized country experience was emphasized. One could escape into the outdoors and outdoor recreation, rather than parties at the house itself. Activities such as golf, horseback riding, tennis, garden tea parties, boating, and strolls on the estate were the main focal points of one’s visit here.
Take note of the Ming Dynasty koi-bow at the bottom of the stairs, a piece that is half a millennium old. It’s here, in part, because the Vanderbilts used it as a planter for a 20 ft live palm tree. As you ascend the stairs, you will pass classical statuary on the landings. At the top, you’ll be greeted by Infant Hercules, wrestling a snake.
8. Dining Room
When the Vanderbilts were at Hyde Park, the Dining Room was one of the more utilized rooms inside their mansion. It is one of the largest rooms in the house and mirrors the Living Room in size and shape. It would be one of the focal points for an evening’s gathering. Fine dining was a regular occurrence, along with more casual affairs depending on the number and type of guests. Based on the size of the table and its seating capacity, it’s assumed the largest gatherings were around eighteen people.
Dinner parties here at Hyde Park were much more exclusive and casual than those held in New York City by societal elites, which routinely numbered in the hundreds and occasionally included over a thousand people in one residence. The meals served in this room during a dinner party were fine French cuisine, prepared by a French chef. A formal Gilded Age dinner would include seven to twelve courses, including a different French wine with every course. This room contains many objects and pieces of furniture originally from Europe and Asia, including the ceiling, the Persian carpet, the fireplaces, and orreries on each end of the room. An orrery is a mechanical model of the motions of the solar system. Orreries can be used to demonstrate phenomena such as day and night, the seasons, lunar phases, and eclipses. Mr. Vanderbilt was fond of the sciences and these items from the 1760s showcase that interest. Leaving the dining room, you’ll see one of three cassoni on this floor. This is not a coffin, but an Italian Wedding chest, which could be described as a dowry chest. They served no function for the Vanderbilts other than as art and decoration.
9. Servants Staircase
This staircase was used by the servants to travel between floors without guests seeing or hearing them. During the Gilded Age, staff and servants were typically separated from their wealthy employers and their guests until they were called upon. The Otis elevator on the right was installed in 1936. Frederick Vanderbilt, then in his 80s, could use this elevator to avoid using the main staircase.
Only specialized employees like the Butlers and Lady’s Maids had regular access to the first and second floors. Most servants were intended to be invisible until needed. Additionally, staff were instructed not to speak loudly on the servant’s staircase, in order to avoid being disruptive. Doors were usually kept shut and locked to prevent accidental interaction between guests and employees. It was the Head Housekeeper that had the keys. Her apartment is located at the top of these stairs, where she could oversee the female servant’s wing, in the evening. Her office is at the bottom, where she could manage the mansion’s operations, during the day.
BONUS: A word from the Butler
Alfred Martin, the last butler employed by Mr. Vanderbilt, describes guests arriving for a stay at the mansion.
Of course, I might say before your arrival the various household departments would be informed to everything possible for your comfort. Housekeeper would have been notified as to what room you was to occupy. Menus from the chef would be admitted and approved. The butler would be informed as to the wine, glass and china to be used. And there’d be one of the underbutlers detailed to be your personal attendant to take care of your personal needs, pack your bags, pack your clothes, and as your car came around the bend in the drive your host and hostess would be notified who were sitting in the den waiting for you. And by the time that you arrived, at the front door you would see them on the steps waiting to extend a cordial welcome to you. You no doubt would turn and look east and express words of admiration for the beautiful lawn and the trees that you would see. You would then take him into the living room where tea would be served. And after a length of time you would be asked if you would like to retire to your room to rest. Not wishing to do so your host would suggest taking a little walk looking at the view of the river, going back in ample time to dress for dinner. Guests may have been invited to meet you for dinner or possibly the host and hostess might think they’d like to dine alone with you and spend a quiet evening. After dinner you would have a game of cards or sit and talk or read. Before you retired the night before why your hostess would ask you if you preferred to have breakfast in your room on a tray or if would like to come down to the dining room so that it’d be up to you to decide which way about you would naturally understand that your host and hostess would be upstairs in their room for breakfast so you would naturally prefer to stay in your own room. On the other hand, you might want to get up early and say well I’ll get dressed early and come down and have breakfast in the dining room and take a walk before you get around. We’re talking about now if you were alone. Of course, if there was many of you say 5 or 6 gentleman or so why you’d oh yes I’ll come down for breakfast I’ll join you and the next one say I’ll join you, first thing you’re all down for breakfast. On the other hand, one might say, well I’m gonna have breakfast upstairs and another one says, well I’ll do the same and that’s how it goes, so you might all stay upstairs. Just how the thing went.