The mansions that Vanderbilt built

Michael Raffety

April 28, 2009

I’ve always associated the name Vanderbilt with railroads, but Cornelius Vanderbilt got his start as a boy ferrying passengers and freight from Staten Island, N.Y., to Manhattan. Of course, he went on to control most of the ferry lines into New York City. Then he expanded into regular shipping lines along the Atlantic Coast, including taking gold seekers heading to California to Nicaragua, where they crossed over to the Pacific side on foot or by horse and mule. Because of these maritime businesses he became known as the “Commodore.”

When the Civil War started he used his shipping business money to start buying up railroads, gaining control of the New York Central RR by 1867. That railroad became the core of the family’s fortune for future generations. The Commodore extended his railroad holdings far enough to connect with Chicago in 1873. He amassed enough money that he gave $1 million to Central University in Nashville, Tenn. That was a heck of a lot of money at that time, enough for the college to rename itself Vanderbilt University.

Cornelius’ money went to his oldest of 13 children, his son William Henry Vanderbilt, who in 10 years doubled the Vanderbilt fortune to $200 million, though he died two years after retiring. He was 64. He did a better job of dividing the fortune than his father did, giving money to his surviving siblings, his eight children and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. A larger share went to the two older sons who were running the railroad business. And this is where the mansion building began.

In Hyde Park in New York’s Hudson Valley, Frederick William Vanderbilt started his mansion in 1896, moving in with his wife, who was 12 years older than him, in 1898. The 50-room Greek revival mansion was situated in the middle of 125 acres along the Hudson River, with another 475 acres across the Post Road. It was within walking distance of the Roosevelts’ Springwood Mansion.

The National Park Service oversees the Vanderbilt Hyde Park mansion, which means they keep the interior dark enough so a person can’t get any photos, since they don’t allow flash, and sometimes one can barely see the artwork inside. The spacious entry is surrounded by a circular balcony lit by a large skylight above it, now darkened courtesy of the Park Service and its fabric color preservation mania.

But the grounds are beautiful. William Henry Vanderbilt loved to plant varieties of trees and had a beautiful flower garden and large rose garden that enabled his wife to have fresh flowers in the house every day, with a greenhouse picking up the slack in the off season.

William Henry was the first one to graduate from college. He was a director of the New York Central for 61 years. Though he had a townhouse on New York’s Fifth Avenue, a home in Bar Harbor, Newport and the Adirondacks, a private railroad car and yachts, he increased his $10 million inheritance to $70 million.

The most spectacular Vanderbilt mansion is the one Cornelius II built in Newport, R.I.

For a small state there are a lot of different elements to Rhode Island. It was founded by Roger Williams as a haven for religious tolerance. Quonset Point Naval Air Station, a former seaplane base, where I was stationed, is now an industrial park and a port where foreign cars are offloaded. The main town includes a heavy university concentration, with Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design pouring masses of students onto narrow streets. Downtown includes skyscrapers, businesses and the state Capitol, the railroad station and the usual poverty neighborhoods. Rhode Island also includes its own Mafia contingent as well as some pretty seedy political corruption.

But when driving over the bridge across Narragansatt Bay as the setting sun turns the water golden and makes the sailboats sparkle, one just has to say it is a beautiful place with so many middle class houses that can lie right along the bay, which sends crevices and tiny inlet fingers through the heart of the state.

But the big money was in building right along the ocean side to catch those cool summer breezes.

William Henry’s older brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, built the fabulous Breakers in Newport. The central feature of the Breakers is the 45-foot-high Great Hall, scene of debutante balls and dances. The hall’s heights are accented by the two-and-a-half-story-high limestone pilasters. Overlooking the Great Hall is a balcony that accesses rooms and a very large sitting porch balcony with a mosaic tile ceiling. Behind the grand staircase downstairs is a fountain. Opposite, behind a fireplace, is the Music Room, which had been designed in Paris and assembled there, then disassembled and reassembled in the Breakers. It features a gray and gold design, red velvet draperies, massive bronze and crystal chandeliers and gilt and platinum leafed designs.

Despite its huge size, which includes 33 rooms just for resident staff as well as visitors’ maids and valets, it is light and airy. Unlike the dark and dreary condition in which the National Park Service keeps the Hyde Park mansion, the Newport Preservation Society, which took over the Breakers in 1948, keeps it open and cheery. The society just won’t let anyone take photos inside.

Cornelius II was a workaholic and suffered a stroke at age 53 in 1896. As soon as he was well enough he was brought from New York to the Breakers to recuperate. He died three years later. His wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, lived on to age 89, dying in 1934. Their daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a remarkable sculptor, an astute art patron and the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Her niece and ward, Gloria Vanderbilt, became famous for designing jeans in the 1970s and other lines of clothes.

Another Vanderbilt — a son of William Henry — Harold Sterling Vanderbilt won the America’s Cup yachting race three times.

Just down the street from the Breakers is the Marble House, which belonged to Cornelius II’s younger brother William Kissam Vanderbilt, which he built in 1888. Architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled it after le Petit Trianon at Versailles. With marble Corinthian columns and pilasters in the font, the Marble House used balustrades along the roofline to hide the top story servants’ quarters.

The Vanderbilts had the most money and the biggest houses. But Rosecliff, a non-Vanderbilt house, had the best ballroom, the most understated elegance and is still a magnet for weddings because of its heart-shaped staircase.

Newport’s mansions are just one part of Rhode Island’s mix, but they still bring people from all over the country to see what luxurious and ostentatious living came from the folks who made money by making the trains run on time in America.

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