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The Vanderbilt family, building on the shipping and railroad business started by Cornelius Vanderbilt, became prominent during the Gilded Age (the period after the Civil War.) In that period the Vanderbilt grandsons built ornate palaces to showcase their wealth including The Breakers in Rhode Island and The Biltmore in North Carolina.
The Vanderbilt Mansion, originally known as Hyde Park, is the only Gilded Age mansion owned by the National Park Service. The 54-room Beaux-Arts structure was built in 1898 by Frederick Vanderbilt. He and his wife Louise lived in NYC and used this elaborate mansion as their country ‘cottage’ and entertained only a dozen or so guests at a time here.
Louise Vanderbilt was a fan of the palace at Versailles and emulated that style of decor in many rooms of the mansion.
The Park Service had just completed a major renovation when I visited. All of the windows had been removed to be restored by an artisan off-site and then reinstalled.
While this work was in progress, the furnishings had been put into storage. Some of the rooms were still being put back together and were filled with stacks of plates, assorted knickknacks and sheet-covered pieces.
We noted that the walls in the foyers and hallways were unadorned and plain. The ranger guiding our tour of the mansion told us that Frederick Vanderbilt had collected antique tapestries and that it looked much different when they were all hanging.
Unfortunately the tapestries are in need of professional restoration and the park service lacks the funds for that project. Most of the tapestries have been put into storage indefinitely.
Frederick and Louise were childless. Frederick lived in Hyde Park full-time after Louise’s death and willed the estate to his niece, Margaret Van Alen.
Van Alen did not want the 600 acre estate and tried to sell it. Because it was the end of the Great Depression, no one could afford it.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who’d already willed his nearby Springwood estate to the people of the United States, worked with Van Alen to donate the mansion along with 200 acres and some of the other buildings to the National Park Service. The remaining acreage, which had been farmland, was sold off and eventually developed.
Prior to FDR’s presidency, most of the National Park units were designated to preserve our natural wonders and prehistoric sites. Under Roosevelt’s presidency, the role of the National Park service was expanded to include the nation’s historical and cultural treasures as well. Through his legislation, FDR’s government created a quarter of the NPS units currently in the system.
The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site was designated to be representative of this era in American history, not as a museum devoted to the Vanderbilt family. So while this might not be the grandest or best-kept estate in the Hudson Valley, the interpretation provided on the Ranger-led tours gives visitors an excellent perspective.
Hyde Park posts:
Location: 119 Vanderbilt Park Rd, Hyde Park, NY 12538
Designation: National Historic Site
Date designated or established: 12/18/1940
Date of my visit: 10/3/2018