Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Way In

I once said to a friend, rather pompously, that I was a front door kind of a guy. I won't tell you what he said to me, even though it was pretty funny. The topic I was trying to discuss had to do with "membership." The operators of big old house museums rarely see their visitors as belonging to the same august group as the former owners. This is probably true, but it's no excuse for us lumpen being forced to use the servants' door.

The image above is of the main gate to Frederick W. Vanderbilt's former country house in Hyde Park, NY. Driving north on Route 9, this would have been the first glimpse Fred got of the entrance to his property. This is where his driver would have turned left, and in the immense wisdom of the National Park Service, it is the same place where we turn left today.

I thought it would be fun to document the approach to the house as seen through the windshield of my car, the way a real guest would have done, assuming he owned a 1997 Mercedes he bought on eBay. (It is a very nice car by the way and, like myself, it looks much younger than it is). How fine is this gate? I live on a property whose grand gate has a portcullis, no less, but alas it's always closed.

Once through the gate, we are clearly in another world.

A bridge that crosses a stream or a lake is a common feature in big places like Hyde Park. It reinforces the symbolism of leaving the world of troubles and dubious aesthetics behind. This is particularly so when there are sufficient funds for maintenance, as appears to be the case at Hyde Park.

Over the bridge we go, and up the hill on the other side...

After a glimpse of the garden wall (we'll come back to that in a moment), the great house appears. This is the proper way to approach an important country mansion, and not via a new road somewhere in the woods that leads to an "interpretive visitor center" all glass and angles and located behind a barn. It is at this point that Mr. Vanderbilt's car would have taken a left and driven up to the front door. We visitors are detoured to the right to continue around the far perimeter of the lawn, which is not so bad because.... affords this excellent prospect of McKim, Mead and White's noble design, completed in 1899. The Park Service's subsequent elimination of original foundation plantings was a terrible idea for which somebody should have been swatted upside the head. However, mine is a voice in the wilderness on that one.

The Vanderbilt Historic Site, which the National Park Service administers in conjunction with the nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site, has administrative offices, a gift shop, and interpretive displays in this building, which used to be the estate's guest house. Here's the river elevation, overlooking drop dead views of the Hudson and the Catskills. Many of us would kill to have a little place like this in the country, with its double height oak paneled hall and abundance of Edwardian detail. Fred and his wife had it built in sixty days during the fall of 1895, in order to have a comfortable base from which to monitor construction on the big house.

Hyde Park was an historic estate long before the Vanderbilts came along. Dr. John Bard, intimate of Franklin, physician to Washington, built a house on the site in 1764. During the 1820s Dr. David Hosack, the prominent New York physician and owner of Manhattan's once famous Elgin Botanic Gardens, remodelled the place in the Greek style and hired a Belgian landscaper to lay out the grounds. In 1840, John Jacob Astor bought it for his daughter Dorothea and her husband, Walter Langdon. The house burned in 1845 and the building you see in the image immediately below was its replacement, constructed in 1847. The Langdons' son died here childless in 1894, at which point the Vanderbilts arrived.

Style-wise, the new house is basically a Brobdingnagian knockoff of the original. The plan at first was to encase the Langdon house in a sort of gigantic limestone cocoon. McKim did just that, albeit in stucco, with a similar house in nearby Staatsburg belonging to Ogden Mills. The Mills house is nowhere near as successful as Vanderbilt's - particularly as regards the interior plan - because the architect was able to convince Vanderbilt to tear the old one down and start from scratch.

Notwithstanding the ill-advised removal of those original foundation plantings - they would soften the lines of the house and better integrate it with the grounds - this very fine building is obviously in very fine repair. Visitors typically rush indoors, which to be sure is a good show, but rarely take time to examine the bravura exterior stonework.

Here's the river side of the house, with a semi-circular porch and more fine detail work.

Fred Vanderbilt was still at Yale when he met his future wife, Louise Anthony Torrance. It's likely he met her before that, actually, since she was married to his cousin Daniel Torrance. I look at this picture of Fred and consider having an affair with him myself. Whether Lulu was divorced when the two of them took up together is unclear. She was divorced by 1878, however, when to the dismay of his family and the fury of his father, 22-year old Fred made 34-year old Lulu his bride.

I used to know a drag queen who, when not working at the bank or whatever he did during the day, dressed up in evening gowns and a tiara and called himself Robin Kradles. Lulu probably had a similar image in the eyes of the Vanderbilt family. In the way of the willful Victorian paterfamilias - indeed, of benighted fathers everywhere - William Henry Vanderbilt was perfectly ready to disinherit his son Fred for displeasing him. Fred's favorite sister, Lila, is credited with talking their father out of it, a favor Fred would remember in years to come.

While Fred was not disinherited, his wife became a sort of pariah. Years ago, I met Lila's grandson, a man named J. Watson Webb Jr. Watson was a great help to me in my Vanderbilt researches, sharing all sorts of family stories. According to one, Lulu was granted a reprieve by her husband's family when she announced to them that she was pregnant. The next thing anyone knew, she and Fred traveled to France, and almost immediately after that the baby was tragically lost. Inevitably the truth came out. There never had been a baby. I don't know how Lulu started this deception, or how or whether she got trapped into it, or at what point or to what degrtee Fred was involved. To the family's credit, they came to see it for what it was - a desperate and poignant attempt to find a way in. She was forgiven and accepted thereafter.

I narrated this story in a book I wrote years ago titled, "The Vanderbilts and Gilded Age." One day at a reception, I was accosted by a volunteer at the Hyde Park house, who dressed me down in a loud voice and in no uncertain terms. You would have thought I'd burned a Koran in a public square in Kabul. The woman was outraged that I could have printed such baseless - and in her mind insulting - gossip. I trusted my source, however; Watson Webb was irrefutable.

We rarely get much insight into the characters of people who lived in houses now open to the public. I think Lulu's is a humanizing story that tells far more about her and her husband than Park Service brochures or dry historical narratives. Fred lived for exactly 12 more years than Lulu, dying in 1938. From all reports, they were a devoted couple. They had no children.

The gardens at Hyde Park were developed over a period of centuries. These pavilions once flanked a glazed greenhouse. They look to me like they date from the Langdon period.

This kind of plaque reminds me of just how much the survival of great houses means to all of us - even when the foundation plantings are missing.

Here are some shots from my stroll through the Vanderbilt garden on a fine February day.

Back in my car, on my way home, basking in the aura of my hood ornament,

This auxiliary gate to Route 9 is better than most main gates elsewhere.

The Vanderbilt walls flank both sides of Route 9 for considerable stretches, although not just at this point. The estate's former farm and stable complex, located east of the highway, was subdivided in the 1940s and is a housing development today. To passersby, however, the look of the past remains largely intact.


  1. The Vanderbilt estate at Hyde Park is well worth a visit. I went there several times as a child (the grounds are great for running around and the size of the house awed me) and again as an adult, when I could better appreciate things. You left out the stable/garage complex which still contains (I hope) Fred's 16 cylinder Cadillac limousine.

    Incidentally, everyone who reads this blog should (MUST!) read your wonderful book "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age". When it was first published, I (alas) could not afford it, but I treasure my copy bought a few years later found on Great stuff!

    1. That's really nice of you to say. Thank you!

    2. The Blachly family owns everything now

  2. A very magnificent home in a truly magnificent setting. The Park Service also has been a very good steward of this property over the years

  3. Wonderful work, as usual! I have been following your blog for a while and it was just now that I realized that you are the author of The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age. I treasure that book! What a small world!

  4. Nice blog and I had a great time reading your big old house post and I am very glad that I came across here. Thank you and keep posting.

  5. Wonderful operate, as always! I have already been following your blog for a while plus it was just now that I realized that you're the writer of The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age group. My partner and i prize that e-book! What a little planet!

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  6. I'm so glad I found your blog, as I read this piece in New York Social Diary and couldn't find a way to respond. I want to put your mind rest about those foundation plantings: The Park Service was following the vehement instructions of none other than Charles F McKim. He was extremely attached to his Hyde Park design, which he considered scrupulously Palladian, and demanded that the Vanderbilts restrict the immediate landscape to manicured turf. I myself have always thought the house is BEGGING for some nicely contoured shrubs to ease the transition of it's theatrical mass to it's wooded, meadow-like site.