Nestled on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River Valley is one of the only remaining examples of the “gilded age” – the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site – a 54 room vacation home built by Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt; modeled after an English country estate. It was a getaway for these wealthy New Yorkers – just a short train ride on Vanderbilt’s own New York Central Railroad.
The National Park Service took over this home in 1940; when it was donated to them by the Vanderbilt niece who had inherited the property when the childless couple passed away. The National Park Service preserves the home, with most of its original furnishings, and maintains 211 acres of property.
The National Park Service calls the Vanderbilt Mansion a “monument to an era”; not just an example of how the wealthy lived in the late 19th century but an illustration of society at that time.
Visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion
We had seen grand homes like this from the outside, driving past, but this was our first time to visit the inside of one. We are thankful that the National Park Service has maintained the Vanderbilt Mansion and offers people the opportunity to tour the house and grounds.
We were simply amazed to see how people lived in those days; building a grand palace that was only used a few weeks a year. The Vanderbilts spent summers in Newport, Rhode Island and winters in New York for the “social season”. Their home in Hyde Park was simply a country retreat used for few weeks in the spring and fall; and possibly an occasional visit in the winter.
They employed about 60 staff year round to maintain the house and grounds. These folks would spring into action to “open” the house when notified the Vanderbilts were coming – uncovering the furniture, cleaning, filling the panty and wine cellars. They say that it took weeks of preparation.
Touring the Vanderbilt Mansion
The National Park Service offers guided tours of the mansion. We found it fascinating to see how these people lived. The tour takes you into most of the rooms. You start on the main floor at the Elliptical Hall, where visitors would wait to see which room they had been assigned. (The closer your room to the Vanderbilt’s bedrooms, the higher you were in the pecking order.)
The other rooms on the main floor – the Dining Room, Living Room, Den and Gold Room – all look like they were ready for guests. You could even see the Lavatory… of course the Vanderbilts had plumbing, as well as central heat and electricity!
Upstairs you see the bedrooms and bathrooms. Frederick and Louise each had their own suites, and the guests were separated by gender with a room for each female visitor. (Sometimes male visitors shared rooms.) There was a separate Servant’s Hall for the personal servants who came along with each guest.
It was amazing to hear how guests would arrive with their servants and steamer trunks full of clothing. It seemed that they would change what they wore multiple times each day… morning clothes, outfits for the daily sport (polo, hunting, tennis), afternoon clothes and of course, formal dinner attire.
The tour takes you to most parts of the house, including the kitchen and wine cellars. You can almost imagine what a bustling place this was when the owners and guests were in residence. You can also imagine how expensive the upkeep would be – no wonder it was donated to the National Park Service!
Touring the Property
You can also tour the property. Be sure to stand beside the house and marvel at how tiny you are.
There are garden tours and you can walk the grounds, experiencing the gorgeous views of the Hudson River Valley. If you like to hike, you will enjoy the “Vanderbilt Loop” trail. Open daily until sunset, it is free to visit the grounds and pets are welcome.
Other National Park Units Nearby
The Vanderbilt Mansion is part of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites. In fact, there are hiking trails that connect these sites.
While you are in the area you should visit the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site and Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (Val-Kill) – the only National Historic Site dedicated to a former first-lady. (We wrote about this last week!) Together, all of these sites offer an interesting insight into the lives of the rich and powerful during that era.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.