One of the more interesting homes we have visited on our travels is the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York. I didn’t know anything about the Vanderbilt family before we came here, but I learned much more from this historic site now managed by the National Park Service. The Vanderbilts were once the richest family in the United States during the gilded age of the late 1800’s. Cornelius Vanderbilt made a fortune in the shipping and railroad business and his children and grandchildren proceeded to spend their inheritances with luxurious lifestyles that have never been seen in America before or since.
They built fancy mansions on 5th Avenue in New York City as well as summer homes in Rhode Island. Their balls and parties could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. While they lived lavishly, much of the population around them were in poverty, such as the tenements in New York City. Few of the Vanderbilt mansions survive today. The New York City mansions were demolished to make way for office buildings. A mansion called “The Breakers” can still be seen in Rhode Island and the largest home ever built, the famous Biltmore is a popular tourist attraction in North Carolina.
In 1895, Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius bought property in Hyde Park and built this mansion which he used as a retreat in spring and summer. Since he and his wife had no children, the house was left to a niece when he passed away in 1938. She tried to sell the home and grounds without success as maintenance would be too costly. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt who also lived in Hyde Park suggested she donate it to the National Park Service (NPS) she agreed. The home that once cost $2,250,000 to construct and furnish was given to the public to enjoy. It was opened in 1940 as a tourist attraction.
We took a tour of the house with a park ranger who was a wealth of interesting stories and information and who shared that his grandfather once worked for the Vanderbilts in the railroad business. In the picture above is our guide with one hand on the rail talking to the group. We learned about the generosity of the Vanderbilts in helping the citizens of Hyde Park, often giving gifts and charitable donations. When the Vanderbilts stayed here there were as many as 60 staff working at the home and property. Although children were never welcomed into the home, when the Vanderbilts came across little ones outside on their estate they always had a treat to give them.
At Frederick’s death, he was worth $76 million which in today’s money would be over $1.2 billion. Much of his money was left to their many servants, the amount dependent on how long they had worked there. Some received amounts that enabled them to buy a home in town and one servant even received a home and land on the Vanderbilt property. The Vanderbilts did not believe in leaving their money to family members who they felt did not need it. Their servants had been the ones to take care of them and deserved to be rewarded. I found this to be admirable and rather touching.
We learned that bad feelings over inheritances can sometimes last for many years. Our guide shared that while making plans to visit the Biltmore mansion in North Carolina he contacted the National Park Service (NPS) office that manages the site. He thought since he also worked for the NPS they would be willing to give him a special tour. The response from the NPS at Biltmore was no, they could not accommodate him. They did not associate with the Frederick Vanderbilt side of the family. George Vanderbilt, the builder of Biltmore was the brother of Frederick.
When the 54 room mansion was given to the NPS, the home had been left intact with all furnishings. This made the visit even more interesting, since we were able to see how the Vanderbilt family actually lived. Although originally a part time residence, Mr. Vanderbilt lived here full time for 12 years after his wife passed away in 1926. It appeared that no expense was spared to make the home as lavish as possible. Much of the furnishings and decoration came from Europe, obtained from wealthy families who had fallen on hard times. In addition, it was designed with all the latest modern conveniences such as electricity, central heating and indoor plumbing. Above is a picture of the master bedroom.
We were also able to walk around the lovely gardens which are still maintained. In the picture above I am standing at the pool of the formal Italian Garden. The property features a very nice view of the Hudson River and surrounding area.
After our visit I wanted to learn more about the gilded age and the Vanderbilts so I bought a book in the gift shop titled “Fortune’s Children, the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt” written by Arthur Vanderbilt. One sentence in the Introduction was especially striking. It noted that when 120 Vanderbilt descendents of the original “Commodore” met for the first family reunion in 1973, there was not a millionaire among them. Although once the richest family, over the years, the fortune had been depleted. A historical lesson that wealth can certainly be fleeting!
Thanks for reading!