Visit the Gilded Age at the Vanderbilt Mansion

Vanderbilt Mansion

Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt built their Vanderbilt Mansion, in Hyde Park NY, high above the Hudson River. This seasonal home was a their spring and fall retreat, one of several they owned in New York City, Bar Harbor, Newport and the Adirondacks.

The late 1800s was an era of unparalleled growth in the United States. With the Civil War behind us, unfettered capitalism made its mark. Most of the companies that the Robber Barons created and ran have either closed in the century and a half since, or have morphed into other named companies. But the one thing most of these Robber Barons left behind were their Gilded Age mansions.

About Frederick and Louise

If you want to have a mansion like Frederick’s and Louise’s, it helps to be the grandson of America’s first multi-millionaire. “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping, created the family fortunes.

Frederick Vanderbilt was born in 1856 at Staten Island. After graduating from Yale — the only member of his family to go to college — he joined the family business. He began his career in 1878 at the New York Central Railroad as a lowly clerk. Like his father and his brothers, he worked his way through the various departments so he could gain a full understanding of the railroad business.

In 1878, Frederick married Louise Holmes Anthony Torrance. She had wealth of her own as the daughter of a successful dry-goods merchant in New York City. But as a divorced woman, she brought scandal to the family and Frederick’s father disapproved of the union. Too late and too bad. Frederick and Louise apparently enjoyed a contented 50-year marriage. Together and in conjunction with Frederick’s siblings and Vanderbilt aunts and uncles, Frederick and Louise enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle and a lofty place in New York society, despite their “new money.”

Throughout his lifetime, Frederick followed the family tradition. He kept his business interests closely tied to the transportation industry and that was a successful strategy, enabling him to build a place like Vanderbilt Mansion. In all, Frederick ran 22 railroads. In addition, he also ran the Western Union Telegraph Company, Hudson River Bridge Company, Detroit River Tunnel Company, Niagara River Bridge Company and the New York State Realty and Terminal Company. Unlike his siblings and most of his aunts and uncles, Frederick increased his fortune, despite increasing pesky regulation by the Federal government.

The Vanderbilt Mansion and Its Trappings

Until Louise’s death, Vanderbilt Mansion was a seasonal residence. Frederick and Louise alternated between the Hyde Park mansion, their home in New York City. Sometimes they’d travel up to their mansion in Bar Harbor. Or perhaps they’d head to Newport. During the hottest months, they’d flee to their luxurious “camp” in the Adirondacks.

Despite being one of many, Frederick and Louise poured a fortune into the Vanderbilt Mansion. The property was a choice one, on a bluff high above the Hudson River. They hired one of the most prominent American firms to design it. In fact, many consider the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, designed by McKim, Mead, & White, to be an understated masterpiece of American architecture.

Though modest compared to the grand houses of Frederick’s siblings, the 22-room mansion’s interiors spared not a dime. Think rooms outfitted with exotic wood paneling, velvets and silks, antique European tapestries, the finest marble money can buy. Then fill those rooms with the most luxurious furniture and the finest antiques their agents could find as the great houses of Europe dwindled in fortunes, including their ceilings! Frederick and Louise moved into their mansion in 1899.

Most of the Gilded Age grand estates along the Hudson River catered to the outdoor pleasures of their inhabitants. Life at the Vanderbilt Mansion was no different. Frederick and Louise and their guests enjoyed intimate house parties. During the day, they played golf or lawn tennis, or took carriage rides. Sometimes they’d visit neighboring estates for tea.

Louise died in 1926 and Frederick in 1938. They left their mansion to their niece. She immediately tried to flip it. But with a world war brewing and the country still recovering from the Great Depression, few were in the market for an old mansion lacking modern amenities in upstate New York. Luckily, the President of the United States lived next door, in his Hyde Park mansion. The two decade old National Park Service acquired the mansion and thus, it became a national historic site.

Know Before You Go

The mansion is not air-conditioned, which may impact tour availability. The hour-long tour is an enjoyable look at Frederick and Louise’s lives and mansion. During the tour, you visit the first and second floors and the basement.

Getting there: 119 Vanderbilt Park Rd, Hyde Park, NY
Hours: Tours available Thursday – Monday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site

Check out these articles about other historic houses in the mid-Atlantic region!

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