This House Belonged to "The Most Powerful Family in America"

Vanderbilt mansion portico

Vanderbilt Mansion. Photo by tiarescott via Flickr and Creative Commons.

A former president, a cult and "the most powerful family in America" all had a role in the history of this park, which celebrates its 68th anniversary today. For a look at the lifestyle of the formerly rich and famous, make a visit to Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York.

By any standard, past or present, this property—with a magnificent view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains—would be considered prime real estate. A series of fine homes has stood on the tract since about 1764, and in 1847 the estate was called "one of the finest specimens of the modern style of Landscape Gardening in America."

Such superlatives attracted the attention of Frederick Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who had built a fortune from shipping, ferries and the New York Central Railroad. One of Frederick's brothers, George Washington Vanderbilt, is perhaps best-known for his Biltmore estate near Ashville, NC. Collectively, the Vanderbilts were known as both the richest—and the most powerful—family in America in the late 1800s.

Frederick Vanderbilt acquired the 600-acre Hyde Park property in 1895, and if you're curious about what kind of country estate you could develop in those days for $2,250,000, here's a hint: The mansion has about 50 rooms on 4 levels, including servants' quarters and utility features like the kitchen and laundry.

The entire construction was concrete and steel, faced with cut stone, and except for the interior paneled walls and the furnishings, is fireproof. The estate had its own powerhouse for generating electricity.

Following Frederick Vanderbilt's death in 1938, a niece inherited the property, but had no interest in living there. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, there was little market for such estates—the only offer reportedly came from Father Divine, leader of a cult based in New York City. Father Divine also contacted a neighboring landowner, inquiring if the neighbor would mind if his group bought the Vanderbilt property.

That neighbor was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who recognized the property's historical significance. Roosevelt persuaded the Vanderbilt heir to donate the house and 211 of the estate's 600 acres to the federal government. He also asked his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to convince Congress to establish a national historical site for the property, and the park was established on December 18, 1940.

Roosevelt reportedly took a very personal interest in management of the estate, but after his death, the site became just one of many NPS areas competing for limited dollars and staff. By the time a restoration project got underway in 1981, most of the formal garden plantings were gone and many other features were in disrepair. That shouldn't be a surprise—during the Vanderbilt's time, 13 men cared for the gardens and lawns alone.

In 1984, a small group of local gardeners joined together to attempt to restore the gardens to their former glory. Since then, the Frederick W. Vanderbilt Garden Association has grown to over 100 volunteers, and the group has donated hundreds of thousands of hours to restore and maintain the gardens.

The park is now considered a monument to an era rather than a tribute to any one person or family. Visitors to the park can walk the grounds, hike carriage trails and enjoy the outstanding views of the Hudson River and Catskills. The site includes one of the finest collections of native and exotic specimen trees in North America, and the landscape design is said to be the only lasting example of work by Andrew Parmentier, considered one of the earliest landscape designers in North America.

In terms of architecture, interiors, mechanical systems, road systems and landscape, the estate is a remarkably complete example of a gilded-age country place—one of the few examples that have survived into the 21st century. Except for some of the owners' belongings, the mansion and its contents remain unchanged from the time the Vanderbilts lived here, as if their country retreat were ready for a weekend visit.

Vanderbilt Mansion is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. by guided tour only. The last tour of the day is at 4:00 p.m. Tours typically begin on the hour, take about 60 minutes, and are limited to 50 people per tour. Extra tours are often added if necessary, but it is not unusual for tours to sell out on summer weekends, holidays and during October.

The Mansion is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. The grounds are open year-round from sunrise to sunset.

Vanderbilt Mansion is in the Hudson River Valley in Dutchess County, New York, about 90 miles north of New York City and 70 miles south of Albany. The park website includes travel directions by car or public transportation.