I hold a special place in my heart for both the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families. These two power players had significant influences on America for generations. Thankfully there are still many places you can visit to see the legacy they left behind up close. I have been to many of those to see how the other half lived, not solely, but just in case I ever have the opportunity.
I love Rhode Island and when I visit I love to pass through Newport. The town by the sea has adorable shops, great restaurants, and of course some of the infamous Summer Cottages I love touring. When speaking of the Vanderbilt’s that means The Breakers (http://bit.ly/2mDtmr0) and Marble House (http://bit.ly/2ngfYWH). In fact I will be returning here next month to check out some new sights. Well sights new to me.
As my sixth year of blogging has just begun I am trying to accomplish as much of my 2016/2017 to do list (http://bit.ly/29H6zRG) as possible before coming out with my newest version. On that list are the Gold Coast Mansions.
Before I begin the details of my latest adventure there are a few details about the Vanderbilt family tree we need to establish first. Cornelius Vanderbilt the patriarch that brought railroads to America and a fortune to his family had thirteen children. His eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt had eight children of his own. William Henry’s first-born son was Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who was the man behind The Breakers. Cornelius II’s brother, William Kissam was the creator of Marble House.
In a personal point of interest, it is Cornelius II and William Kissam’s brother George Washington II, who built the Biltmore estate in North Carolina, which America’s largest family home. I am simply aching to visit.
But I return to the Williams of the Vanderbilt clan. Specifically to William Kissam and his son William Kissam II. For it was the latter’s home I stopped by the other day, Eagle's Nest. Eagle's Nest is one of the Gold Coast Mansions found on Long Island. They were all built between 1930-1940 and celebrated the era found within “The Great Gatsby.” Eagle's Nest is now more commonly known as the Vanderbilt Mansion and Museum in Long Island, New York.
The owner, Willie K., as he was commonly called, built his home on a plush forty-three acres of land. His Spanish style abode is enthralling. Two enormous eagles, not surprisingly, greet you at the main gate. When you walk down towards the house there are six pillars with a “V” shape inscribed into the landscape.
The grand entrance of the home has one of my most favorite features, a massive black gate like the kind you see in “Sleeping Beauty”. I felt like Maleficent would morph into a dragon and fly right in as the mighty gate descending down made a loud clamoring sound.
Once you enter that walkway you truly feel like you are in Europe at a private estate.
The home was purchased in 1910 for thirty-one thousand dollars, which was a lot of money back then considering he was receiving an annual trust fund from his family worth fifty thousand dollars.
This was the home for Willie K. and his wife and their three children.
The tour walks you through and around this circular home. The doors on this home are the heavy medieval era type where you have a heavy knocker on ether side. I am not sure how many people have the strength to open and close it by themselves.
The first room we saw was the dining room, which had an incredible wooden ceiling, made with trees from Florida. The floor was Portuguese tile with turquoise, white, and peach coloring. The fireplace had the family’s motto written in Latin, which translated means “do the right thing”. Our tour guide Paul made the joke that it was a reference to Spike Lee’s movie of the same name, bless his heart.
From here we went to the finishing kitchen where the staff would use a dumbwaiter to bring the food up to the main floor from the lower level kitchen. Seeing the old appliances like the toaster makes you picture that this home was really lived in and it was.
Unlike the majority of other Vanderbilt properties, including Willie K.’s father’s summer home, Marble Hill, Eagles Nest was not for partying for but living. It was a place where the family spent time together and entertained their family, friends, and special guests like the former King of England and new husband to Mrs. Wallis Simpson. In the guest room he used the holes in the vents were still visible from where the ice and outdoor fans cooled the room down, as there was no air conditioning in the home.
There was the sitting room where the furniture was largely salvaged from Willie K.’s last ship, the Alva (named for his mother). The best pieces were the two small chairs that were used as samples when designs where commissioned. We would see another set of similar chairs in the hallway, this time upholstered versions. I loved this idea. I also loved seeing a real life version of bell system, instead it was a box with numbers on it all of which were assigned to a particular room in the home, which would light up when assistance was wanted. It is much like what you would have seen on Downtown Abbey. In fact this house has a lot of the qualities from that show because this is how the other half lived.
Some of the most spectacular rooms were Willie K.’s bedroom with panoramic views of the ocean and solid marble bathroom. In his bedroom there was a copy of his largest book out on display and a chair he could sit in where he would not wrinkle the tux he wore to dinner.
Willie K. was an avid fisherman and lover of oceanic life. He collected numerous specimens of marine animals many of which were unidentified prior to his research. On site you will even find a museum called “Hall of fishes” where another Mediterranean style home holds most of these treasures.
Of his wife’s rooms I am hard pressed to decide which was my favorite. While her bedroom was certainly no slouch I think her dressing room was simply divine. I loved that all of the doors were discreet and blended right into the décor on both sides. But I suppose it was her bathroom that took my breath away. It is one of the reasons I really hate that photos were not allowed because it is almost too elegant to describe. The beautiful crystal fixtures, the marble tub and shower, mirrored vanity, all made me want to climb in and shut out the rest of the world. I think the only reason she ever got out was to go into her nearby closet, a thing of not just beauty but creativity. Her dresses, outfits, even lingerie were hung high on the racks behind glass doors so that dust would not cling to them nor would they hit the floor. There was a tall ladder there for grabbing whatever she requested from her lady’s maid for an outfit change. There is a rumor that could be as many as six a day and that including dinner which the family always dressed up for.
The only oddity in that room was a sink but it was explained that she never wanted anyone with dirty hands to touch her precious garments. What a trip!
The sink was also used to fill the vases she had all over the home where she preferred to have fresh flowers daily. The rose garden was not in bloom just yet but I am sure these plush grounds have more than their fair share of flowers for arrangements.
That leads us to the final room of the tour, the room Willie K. built in honor of his son William Kissam III after he died in a car crash when he was only twenty-six years old.
The sign above the room reads something along the lines of “these collections are from a trip to Egypt and Africa my son took in 1931.”
An avid naturalist like his father, this room consists of many exhibits you would see in the American Museum of Natural History. The reason is simply- Willie K. had been on the board of the museum. This room has several mounted deer heads, elephant tusks which I loved being able to touch, elephant feet made into pots, a gigantic stuff alligator/crocodile (I a not sure which it was), and antelopes just to name a few.
After this stop the tour ends and you are left to explore the rest of the property on your own. The only thing I knew I had to see was the mummy. Yes a mummy, because when you live like the other half you need one of everything. The mummy is female but little was known about her including her cause of death. But it was awesome to see and no other house, estate, or famous property I have ever been to had one. That is until I go to visit the sight of the real life Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle where the remains of King Tut’s tomb lie. The former resident, fifth Earl of Carnarvon had sponsored Howard Carter’s exploration. That was the one aspect of English aristocracy Downton Abbey didn’t cover.
Willie K. was thinking ahead and knew that upon his death, which occurred in 1944, he wanted his estate to be a place of learning for others. His will declared that upon his wife’s death, which happened three years later, Eagles Nest would become the property of Suffolk County. In addition Willie K. left Suffolk County two million dollars for its care.
Today private funds are raised yearly to pay for the grounds keeping, utilities, and staff salaries so there is a public/private financing keeping the dream alive.
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