Way back in March I took a repeat visit to Hyde Park, New York.
I first spent the day there back in late 2015 when I went to see the birthplace and residence of FDR, a personal hero of mine. He was born in the main house known as Springwood, and eventually built the first presidential library on the grounds. His wife (and cousin Eleanor) also had a personal property nearby.
But what I didn’t realize until that day was that another place I had longed dreamed of visiting was literally down the road; the Vanderbilt Mansion. Had I had any more time that day I would have visited. But as usual I was booked. My only regret was that it took years for me to return to this area.
Now the first thing you need to know before you visit, is how to search for further info (even easier just click any of the links below). If you type into Google any combination of the words “Vanderbilt”, “historic”, or “New York” you are going to get a slew of sites that are not necessarily talking about this particular Vanderbilt property.
As this family was prominent for several generations, each member seems to have branched off to create their own legacy via real estate. Luckily for us many of the them have been preserved and are open to the public.
I have been to several and recommend them ALL!
In no particular order they are:
- The Breakers built by Frederick’s brother Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
- Marble House built by Frederick’s brother William Kissam Vanderbilt.
- Eagle’s Nest built by Frederick’s nephew William Kissam II.
Ironically this isn’t the first home of Frederick’s I have visited. He was the first owner of a house in Newport, Rhode Island that is now famous for being the homestead of Doris Duke; Rough Point.
The Vanderbilt family tree can be quite confusing and hard to untangle. This is my Cliff Notes version.
The original patriarch and the man who built the family’s railroad fortune was Cornelius "The Commodore” Vanderbilt. Cornelius and his wife, Sofia Johnson, had thirteen children; one of whom was William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt.
William Henry was the eldest son and heir to throne. Along with his wife Maria Louisa Kissam, had eight children of their own. Their sixth born child, is the man whose house I have just visited, Frederick Willam Vanderbilt.
If you are keeping score and want to know how Gloria Vanderbilt (and her son Anderson Cooper) tie into this mix, Gloria’s father Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt is the son of Frederick’s brother Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The infamous custody battle that ensued over “little Gloria” was between her mother, Gloria Morgan and her father’s sister Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Officially the house is known as Hyde Park, but because that is also the town it resides in, it is also known simply as the Vanderbilt Mansion. The first thing I noticed, besides how gorgeous the surrounding landscape is, that it is the least opulent Vanderbilt property I have ever seen. Apparently it is also the smallest.
There are only fifty-four rooms (yes by Vanderbilt standards that is small) as Frederick and his wife Louise only visited during the spring and fall months. They had several other properties including a place in NYC.
Hyde Park now includes two hundred and eleven acres but originally had over six hundred. The property was also very modern for its day as there was indoor plumbing and centralized heating and electricity provided via the hydroelectric plant built on site for this purpose.
These Vanderbilts had no children but had their fair share of guests while staying here. When Louise died in 1926, Frederick sold all of their other properties and lived here full time until his death in 1938.
The visitor center is in the former carriage house (one of the other smaller structures here) and was where all of the gentlemen would gather during the day while the ladies convened in the main house. The property has extensive gardens, which I did not see on my tour, but were there prior to the Vanderbilt’s purchase in 1895.
Although one of the oldest properties in the area, this Hyde Park house isn’t quite the oldest. The aforementioned Springwood’s original structure predates it by about thirty years, although the grounds here are from the late 1700s.
This house is decorated entirely with furniture, furnishings, and art collected by the Vanderbilt’s during their travels through Europe. This is pretty typical of the era.
After Frederick passed, the estate went to Louise’s niece, Margaret "Daisy" Van Alen. She was persuaded by her neighbor, FDR, to donate the estate (and nearly everything in it) to the National Park Service. FDR signed the papers himself in 1940, that declared this location a National Historic Landmark. However, this did not include the lavish gardens which remain in private hands.
Fun fact: after FDR was president and returned to visit his home in the area, much of his secret service would stay in Hyde Park’s basement.
During the time the Vanderbilts lived here, the farm that once stood across the road from the house provided all of the flowers, fruits, and vegetables year round for all of their homes. When they were here there was a staff of about sixty people. About half of them traveled with them from house to house.
One of the most interesting things my very informative tour guided shared with us was about the generations of these types of families. The first generation creates the business, the second expands it, and the third spends all of the profits. That combined with changes in industry, world wars, and income tax, these types of lifestyles became extinct. Perhaps that is why I love visiting these “relics” so much. They are from a land before our time.
If you are lucky enough to spend any time in this area, as I deeply encourage you to, it is lovely any time of year. During spring and fall this town really shines. There are many small shops and places to eat. The restaurant I seem to keep gravitating towards is the Eveready Diner. Its super cute, the food is good and plentiful, and I always seem to leave with a bag of coffee in hand.
I myself have to return to the Hyde Park area because I have yet to visit the last remaining Roosevelt property (in this area) on my list; Top Cottage. Though given enough time I would revisit all of these places not just because they are historic but because they are beautiful.
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