Adventures in the Villa



2019-04-20 – Airstream Caravan Travels – Asheville, NC and Biltmore!

Today we went to see the Biltmore Estate, right here in Asheville.  We arrived, parked, and walked about 1/2 mile to the see grand vista over the front lawn:


This is the largest privately owned house in America.  Yes, it is still owned by the Vanderbilt family, the 5th generation since George Washington Vanderbilt II had the house built between 1889 and 1895.  The house is a Châteauesque-style mansion, and it measures over 178,000 sq. ft.  It is one of the finest examples of mansions of the “Gilded Age”.

We walked down the lane adjacent to the lawn, then stood in line in the biting cold while we waited to be admitted at the appointed hour.  At least we had something interesting to look at…


In the 1880s, at the height of the Gilded Age, Vanderbilt began to make regular visits to the Asheville area. He loved the scenery and climate so much that he decided to build his own summer house in the area, which he called his “little mountain escape”.  His older brothers and sisters had built luxurious summer houses in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Hyde Park, New York.   (See my blogs from the summer of 2017…)  Their father, William Vanderbilt, had died unexpectedly young, so his massive fortune was inherited by his many children while they were in their 30s; they all went on a building spree, spending all this money.  But George Vanderbilt did not get along with many of his siblings, and he was considered a black sheep of the family, so he had no desire to build his house near theirs.  Vanderbilt bought almost 700 parcels of land, including over 50 farms and at least five cemeteries; a portion of the estate was once the community of Shiloh.  A total of 125,000 acres were assembled.  Archives show that much of the land was in very poor condition, and the farmers and other landowners were glad to sell.

Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt to design the mansion, with Frederick Law Olmstead hired to design the grounds.  Olmstead turned the 8,000 acres directly around the mansion into luxurious parks, woods, meadows, and gardens.  The rest of the land was made into commercial lumber forests.

Construction of the house began in 1889. In order to facilitate such a large project, a woodworking factory and brick kiln, which produced 32,000 bricks a day, were built onsite, and a three-mile railroad spur was constructed to bring materials to the building site.  A separate village (Biltmore Village) was built to house many of the workers and their families and to attend to their daily needs.  A trade school (Biltmore Estate Industries) was opened to train the local youths in making hand-crafted wares.  Biltmore Dairy was built to provide milk, butter and other foods to the newly formed community.  Construction on the main house required the labor of about 1,000 workers, including 60 stone masons.  Vanderbilt went on extensive trips overseas along with Hunt to purchase decor as construction on the house was in progress. He returned to North Carolina with thousands of furnishings for his newly built home including tapestries, carpets, paintings and prints, linens, and decorative objects, all dating between the 15th century and the late 19th century.

George Vanderbilt opened his opulent estate on Christmas Eve of 1895 to invited family and friends from across the country who were encouraged to enjoy leisure and country pursuits.  George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898 in Paris, France; their only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, was born at Biltmore in 1900, and grew up at the estate.

The appointed hour arrived; we were allowed into the house.  They have an excellent audio tour which allowed us explore at our own pace.  Also interesting is the way the tour has been “curated”.  The audio tour makes it seem like the butler has greeted us in the entry hall, and he is going to escort us through the house, introducing us to other house-guests and servants  and showing us the many features of the house.  We are all here for one of the famous house parties, and the gala banquet is tonight.

All the rooms are populated with manikins with clothing recreated to match period photos of the Vanderbilt family. (Yawn)

The house and the family have an interesting history:

The family occupied the house from 1895 and into the early 20th century, living their lavish lifestyle.  Then, in 1914, to combat the impact of the newly imposed income taxes, and the fact that the estate was getting harder to manage economically, Vanderbilt initiated the sale of 87,000 acres to the federal government.  Before the sale was finalized, Vanderbilt unexpectedly died (of complications from an emergency  appendectomy); his widow completed the sale and that property became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest.  Still overwhelmed with running such a large estate, Edith Vanderbilt began consolidating her interests and sold several separate businesses that had been established when the house was built: Biltmore Estate Industries in 1917 and Biltmore Village in 1921.  Edith intermittently occupied the house, living in an apartment carved out of the former Bachelors’ Wing, until the marriage of her daughter to John Francis Amherst Cecil in April 1924.  The Cecils went on to have two sons who were also born in the house.

In an attempt to bolster the estate’s financial situation during the Great Depression, Cornelia and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March, 1930, at the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped the attraction would revitalize the area with tourism.  

After the divorce of the Cecils in 1934, Cornelia left the estate never to return; however, John Cecil maintained his residence in the Bachelors’ Wing until his death in 1954. Their eldest son, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil, occupied rooms in the wing until 1956. At that point Biltmore House ceased to be a family residence and continued to be operated as a historic house museum.

Their younger son William A. V. Cecil, Sr. returned to the estate in the late 1950s and joined his brother to manage the estate (which was in financial trouble) and make it a profitable and self-sustaining enterprise like his grandfather envisioned.  He eventually inherited the estate upon the death of his mother, Cornelia, in 1976, while his brother, George, inherited the then more profitable Biltmore Dairy, which was split off into Biltmore Farms.  In 1995, while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the estate, Cecil turned over control of the company to his son, William A. V. Cecil, Jr.  After the death of William A. V. Cecil in October 2017 and his wife Mimi Cecil in November, their daughter Dini Pickering began serving as board chair and their son Bill Cecil is CEO.  The Biltmore Company is still privately held.

Today, the estate property is 4,300 acres.  The property is run as an “amusement park” for tourists who love gilded age estates.  There is a hotel and an inn, restaurants, a winery,  several gift shops, a nursery, and every other thing that tourists love.  (No roller coaster.  yet…)  The main house and the views are well protected, but it is clear that they want you to come and stay a week and spend lots of money along the way…

Biltmore has 250 rooms in the house, including 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, 75 servant bedrooms, three kitchens, and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating and cooling, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and a call-bell system.  The principal rooms of the house are located on the ground floor.  The largest room in the house is the Entry Hall.  (Just like my 1905 house in Redlands…)


(My center table is smaller, with fewer flowers…)

The Winter Garden always seemed like a strange place to me, but I’ve never spent a winter in Asheville, NC.  The skylight is marvelous:


The Banquet Hall measures 42 feet wide and 72 feet long, with a 70-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling. The table can seat 64 guests, overlooking the triple fireplace that spans one end of the hall. On the opposite end of the hall, on the upper level, is an organ gallery that houses a 1916 Skinner pipe organ.


To the left of the entrance hall is the 90-foot-long Tapestry Gallery, which leads to the Library, featuring three 16th-century tapestries. This room serves little function except as a place to showcase the three tapestries.  We did hear on the tour that the family took tea here in the afternoons…


The two-story Library contains over 10,000 volumes in eight languages, reflecting George Vanderbilt’s broad interests in classic literature as well as art, history, architecture, and gardening.  The second-floor balcony is accessed by an ornate walnut spiral staircase, and the balcony includes a passage behind the fireplace.


The second floor of the house is accessed by the cantilevered Grand Staircase of 107 steps spiraling around a four-story, wrought-iron chandelier holding 72 light bulbs.  The Second Floor Living Hall is an extension of the grand staircase as a formal hall and portrait gallery.  Located nearby in the south tower is George Vanderbilt’s gilded bedroom with furniture designed by Hunt.  His bedroom connects to his wife’s Louis XV-style, oval-shaped bedroom in the north tower through a Jacobean carved oak paneled sitting room with an intricate ceiling.

The remainder of the second floor contains various elaborate bedroom suites for family and close family friends and other honored guests.

The third floor has many guest rooms for couples, families, and single women, each given names that describe the furnishing or artist with which they were decorated.  The rooms all have connecting doors so that they can be configured into suites as needed…

The fourth floor has more than 20 bedrooms that were inhabited by housemaids, laundresses, and other female servants.  Also included on the fourth floor is an Observatory with a circular staircase that leads to a wrought iron balcony with doorways to the rooftop where Vanderbilt could view his estate.  Male servants were not housed here, however, but instead resided in 40+ bedrooms above the stable complex.

The guest rooms for bachelors were on the second and third floors on the opposite end of the house, adjacent to the service courtyard and stables complex.  It contains the Billiard Room, which is equipped with both a custom-made pool table and a carom table (table without pockets).  The room was mainly frequented by men, but ladies were welcome to enter as well.  Secret door panels on either side of the fireplace led to the private quarters of the Bachelors’ Wing, where female guests and staff members were not allowed.  The wing includes the Smoking Room, which was fashionable for country houses, and the Gun Room, which held mounted trophies and displayed George Vanderbilt’s gun collection.

The basement level featured activity rooms including an indoor 70,000-gallon heated swimming pool with underwater lighting, a bowling alley, and a gymnasium with once state-of-the-art fitness equipment.  The service hub of the house is also found in the basement; it contains the main kitchen, pastry kitchen, rotisserie kitchen, several walk-in pantries, walk-in refrigerators, the servants’ dining hall, laundry rooms and additional bedrooms for staff.  The sub-basement contains the heating and air conditioning systems, giant water heaters, and massive storage rooms.

So after two hours of fun we returned to the truck… We did get to drive through the entrance court and the formal gates…


Unfortunately, due to the severe rains, a few of the estate roads were closed, and their signs pointing us to the exit were faulty.  But after driving around in circles for 45 minutes we made our way out.  The views along the way were pure North Carolina:


I had been to Biltmore many years ago, on a tour given via the AIA convention.  We had the regular tour, then a special tour just for us architects, where we saw the attic and roof structure, the servants rooms, several un-restored guest rooms, the bachelor quest quarters, and even the sub-basement.  After the tours we were given free access to return to any of these spaces for the rest of the day.  It was marvelous…

None of the gaudy details and goo-gaas impress me (that’s why I am not posting hundreds of photos of every room…); what interests me the most is the incredibly complicated program that Hunt and Vanderbilt worked out.  Remember, Vanderbilt was not even married when the house was designed and built.  The complexity of the separate areas for family and guests, male and female servants, separate circulation hallways and stairs so that the servants could move about the house relatively inconspicuously – all this is so very complicated in a house of this size.  I love this stuff!

The plantation Big Houses were nice to look at, but they were only 3, 6, or 8 rooms to a floor, with no bathrooms, no servants quarters, no kitchens, no mechanical systems – just simple boxes.  The complexity of  a great house like Biltmore, with 250 rooms and multiple stairs and circulation spaces… Wow!  It was great fun to see…

We returned to the Villa in the rain, and had a relaxing afternoon and evening.

And an enjoyable time was had by all…

2017-07-08 Nor by Nor’east Caravan -Newport, Rhode Island – Summer Cottages, day 1

The day was sunny for a change, but not too warm. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Summer Cottages again since I first saw them nine years ago…

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These were summer homes, used for 6-8 weeks each summer.  These are houses of the Gilded Age.  And gilded they were.  Gold and platinum were used as common decoration. Many of the interiors were ripped from palaces and castles in Europe, dismantled, sometimes cut into pieces, shipped to America and installed in these giant “cottages”. Nothing exceeds like excess here.  As architectural critic Ellsworth Toohey once said, (I paraphrase here…) “The house has a lovely garden gate, fine in proportion and workmanship. It is installed on the ceiling of the Dining Room”.

Pieces of furniture were cut up and used as decoration on stairways.  Huge paintings were cut in half, or reshaped into ovals, to fit into a room.  The money spent was pocket change to these people – labor was cheap and palaces and castles were cheap.

The various Vanderbilts had four houses here in Newport.  We toured two; one has been incorporated into a college, the other we could not fit into our schedule.

In any case, I love houses, even ostentatious ones. Even when a room hurts my eyes to look at it… We saw five houses today…

The Breakers; Cornelius Vanderbilt II; 138,000 s.f.; 70 rooms; 15 Bedroom suites; 33 staff bedrooms; 40 full time staff.  Architect: Richard Morris Hunt;

Marble House;  William Vanderbilt; 50 rooms; 7 Bedroom suites.  Architect: Richard Morris Hunt; contains over 500,000 cu. ft. of marble.

RoseCliff; Theresa Fair Oelrichs; 9 Bedroom suites; 33 staff bedrooms;      . Architect: McKim, Mead, and White

The Elms; Edward Berwind; 48 rooms; 7 Bedroom suites; 16 staff bedrooms; 40 full time staff.  Architect: Horace Trumbauer

Isaac Bell House; Isaac Bell; 7 Bedroom suites; 3 staff bedrooms.  Architect: McKim, Mead, and White

There isn’t a lot to say about these houses. The pictures tell the story:

The Breakers:

The biggest of all the Newport Mansions, and the best preserved; only lived-in for a few years…

The Approach:


The Grand Hall:

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More of the grand, gilded rooms…

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The Dining Room:

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The Billiard Room:

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Sitting Room; note the platinum accents in the wallpaper…

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The Music Room:

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The Library:

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And more utilitarian spaces… The 2 story Butler’s Pantry:

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The Kitchen:

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And, finally, the view over the grand lawn:

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Marble House:

Over 500,000 cu. ft. of marble was installed inside and out…

The Approach:

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The Dining Room:

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The Library:

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The Dining Room:

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The Drawing Room:

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The Grand Stair:

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The Master Bedroom:

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The other Master Bedroom:

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The the fun rooms…

The Kitchen:

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The Housekeeper’s Office:

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Part of the Butler’s Pantry:

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All the furnishings were sold off in 1941; in the early 1950s the house bought by a family from New Orleans, who summered here until the 1960s; most furniture is from the 1950s…

The Approach:

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The Grand Stair:

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Entrance to the Drawing Room:

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The Drawing Room:

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The Ballroom:

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The Library:

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The Dining Room:

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The Master Bedroom:

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The Elms:

My favorite of the grand mansions.; The Berwind family started spending their summers in Newport in the 1890s, and they had The Elms built in 1901; Mrs. Berwind died in 1922; Mr. Berwind invited his niece,Julia Berwind, to take over hostess duties in the house.  Mr. Berwind died in 1936. Julia remained in the house until her death in 1961.  When Julia Berwind died, The Elms was one of the very last Newport cottages to be run in the fashion of the Gilded Age: forty servants were on staff, and Miss Berwind’s social season remained at six weeks each year.  The family lived day-to-day on the second floor. The first floor was for entertaining only… The kitchen and other service rooms are in the basement, and there is a hidden third floor containing the servants’ bedrooms (more on this tomorrow…). Mr. Berwind loved technology and the house was fitted with all the latest devices, and was continually being updated until Mr. Berwind’s death in 1936. Julia had no interest in technology, so nothing was changed after 1936.

The approach:

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The Grand Hall:

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The Grand Stair:

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The Library:

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The Conservatory:

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The Drawing Room:

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The Music Room:

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The Dining Room:

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Mrs. Berwind’s Bedroom; this was also her sitting room, where she would receive lady friends during the day:

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Mr. Berwind’s Bedroom:

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Mr. Berwind’s Bathroom:

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The Upstairs Hall; the stained glass skylights in the ceiling get their light from glass block floor in the servants’ hall on the third floor; the actual skylight is above the third floor, in the roof. (More on this tomorrow).

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The Family Sitting Room on the second floor:

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The Kitchen:

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The Grand Lawn to the rear:

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The Carriage House:

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After touring these four houses, we needed a break. We took a long walk along “Cliff Walk”, a beautiful ocean front walkway around Newport:

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There were even surfers:

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We had time for one more house:

The Isaac Bell House:

This house is totally different from the others; it is not a neoclassical stone pile, but a post-Victorian cottage at a more human scale. It is older than the grand houses, but it portends what is coming, and what continued long after the neoclassical craze was over. This is the type of house Frank Lloyd Wright was trained to design. He took it to a whole new level…

This house was lived-in up until the 1990s, as a boarding house, a nursing home, and other uses.  It is still undergoing restoration…

The Exterior:

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The interior hall is dark:

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The Stair:

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Here we see something this house has in common with the others: These decorative panels were bought as bedsteads in Europe, dismantled and cut apart, and used as decoration on the stair:


The Living Room:

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The Dining Room:

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The Library:


The Upstairs:

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So it was a long day. We headed back to the Villa and the rest of the caravaners… An enjoyable time was had by all…























2017-07-04 Hudson Valley, NY; Roosevelt’s many houses in Hyde Park, and the Great Estates of the Vanderbilts

On 4th of July  we once again took to the train; this time going north, to Poughkeepsie.  At the train station we were shuttled to FDR’s Hyde Park estate, Springwood.  It has a nice driveway approach:

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The house has a great presence as you approach:

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However, it is really a simple (yet large) farm house. Those columns you see aren’t marble, or even stone; they are wood, fashioned to imitate stone.  Inside, the rooms are quite plain, except for the Living Room; it is quite lovely:

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The Sitting Room:

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The Dining Room:

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FDR was born in this house and lived here his entire life; for all but the last four years his mother lived here as well.  There are no permanent accommodations for the fact that he spent most of his waking hours in a wheelchair.  There is a ramp from the main level down to the Living Room, but when visitors were expected, he would transfer from the wheelchair to his desk chair in the Living Room, the ramp was removed and stored, and the wheelchair was hidden.  To access the upper level, he transferred himself into the dumbwaiter, and he hoisted himself up by using the ropes and pulleys.

As I said, FDR’s mother, Sara, lived here with FDR and his wife Eleanor.  FDR was a bit of a “Mama’s Boy” and Eleanor and Sara never got along well. Both Eleanor and FDR built separate, private houses for themselves on the estate, although FDR never slept in his…

Also on the grounds of the estate is the FDR Library; it was the first presidential library built, and it is the only presidential library that was actually used by a sitting president. It was built in about 1941, and expanded after his death.  There is a moving art installation in the garden: given by Winston Churchill’s grand-daughter, it is a sculpture made from pieces taken from the Berlin Wall.  It is entitled “Freedom of Speech”.  The western side is covered in graffiti; the east side is blank…

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In addition to being born here, and living here all his life, FDR is also buried here:

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Next we visited the Vanderbilt Estate, also in the city of Hyde Park.  Is is just one of many Vanderbilt mansions in America…

From the late 1870s to the 1920s, the Vanderbilt family employed some of the United States’s best Beaux-Arts architects and decorators to build an un-equalled string of New York townhouses and East Coast palaces.

The list of architects employed by the Vanderbilts is a “who’s who” of the New York-based firms that embodied the “eclectic” styles of the American Renaissance: Richard Morris HuntGeorge B. PostMcKim, Mead, and WhiteCharles B. AtwoodCarrère and HastingsWarren and WetmoreHorace TrumbauerJohn Russell Pope and Addison Mizner were all employed by the eight grandchildren of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who built only very modest houses for himself.

Commodore’s grandchildren inheritted about $200,000 from their father, and they treated it as play money to indulge their home-building passions;  I count 24 houses…

  1. Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899), built a townhouse, the “Cornelius Vanderbilt II House” (1883) at 1 West 57th Street, New York by George B. Post. Enlargements by George B. Post and Richard Morris Hunt. This mansion was, and remains, the largest private residence ever built in Manhattan. Demolished.  Also, “The Breakers” in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1892–95, which was also designed by Richard Morris Hunt.  Also, “Oakland Farm” (1893), mansion and stables on 150 acres in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Demolished.
  2. Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt (1845–1924), built a townhouse (1882), part of the Triple Palace, at 2 West 52nd Street, provided to them by her father and shared with her sister Emily Thorn Vanderbilt and their families. Demolished.  Also,  Woodlea (1892–95), designed by McKim, Mead & White, a country estate in Scarborough, New York, now the Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
  3. William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849–1920) had three houses designed by Richard Morris Hunt.
    • Petit Chateau“, the New York City townhouse at 660 Fifth Avenue, built in 1882 with details drawn in part from the late-Gothic Hôtel de Cluny, Paris. Demolished in 1926.
    • “Idle Hour” country estate in Oakdale, Long Island, New York, was built in 1878–79 and destroyed by fire in 1899. A new “Idle Hour”, designed by Hunt’s son Richard Howland Hunt, was built on the same property from 1900–01 of brick and marble in the English Country Style and is now part of the Dowling College Campus.
    • Marble House” summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1888–92.
  4. Emily Thorn Vanderbilt (1852–1946) built a townhouse, 642 Fifth Avenue, part of the Vanderbilt Triple Palace, provided to them by her father. Demolished. Also, “Elm Court” in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1887. It is the largest shingle-style house in the United States.
  5. Florence Adele Vanderbilt (1854–1952) built a townhouse at 684 Fifth Avenue, New York (1883). Designed by John B. Snook,  Demolished.  Also, Florham” in Convent Station, New Jersey, in 1894–97. Designed by McKim, Mead and White as a summer estate, it is now used for classrooms, faculty offices, and administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  Also, “Vinland” in Newport, Rhode Island. Renovated by Ogden Codman, Jr.. Now part of the Salve Regina University.  Also, a townhouse, her second, a 70-room house at 1 East 71st Street, New York. Designed by Whitney Warren. Demolished.
  6. Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856–1938) built “Hyde Park” in Hyde Park, New York. Designed by McKim, Mead and White and built in 1896–99.  Also,  “Rough Point” in Newport, Rhode Island designed by Peabody and Stearns built in 1892. Also, “Pine Tree Point“, Adirondack Great Camp on Upper St. Regis Lake in 1901. Also, “Sonogee” (1903) in Bar Harbor, Maine purchased and renovated in 1915.
  7. Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt (1860–1936) built “Shelburne Farms” in Shelburne, Vermont, built in 1899.  Also, a townhouse (1883) at 680 Fifth Avenue, New York. The house was a wedding gift from William H. Vanderbilt to his daughter. Demolished.  Also, “NaHaSaNe” (1893), the 115,000 acre Great Camp located on Lake Lila in the Adirondacks.
  8. George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862–1914) built a townhouse (1887) at 9 West 53rd Street in New York City. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Demolished. Also, “Biltmore” in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1888–95. Designed by Hunt, it is the largest house in the United States.  Also, houses at 645 and 647 Fifth Avenue, New York, called the “Marble Twins”. 1902–05. Number 647 survives, a designated landmark, as the flagship store for Versace.  Also, “Pointe d’Acadie” (1869), the Bar Harbor, Maine cottage purchased and renovated in 1889. Demolished 1952

The Vanderbilts started the craze of building ostentatious mansions to showcase their wealth and to be a backdrop for their lavish parties. You will hear more about these houses in a few days when we visit the “Summer Cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Frederick Vanderbilt house in Hyde Park is arguably the smallest of the grand houses, a mere 55,000 square feet.  Unfortunately, it is undergoing restoration and thus is covered in scaffolding and slipcovers.

Today’s visitors center was originally built as a cottage for the Vanderbilts to view the ongoing construction:2017-07-04 Vanderbilt Hyde Park 01


The mansion as it looks today:

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We were allowed to take interior photos, but the interiors are in a state of disarray:

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As you can see, this house, like others I will show you in Newport, is simply an ostentatious display of excess;  these people were not patrons of artists who benefited their development; they simply bought castles and palaces in Europe, dismantled them, and reassembled them here in America. Don’t forget, this is one on the smallest, simplest Vanderbilt house; we will see more…

We returned on the train back to the Villa; this being the 4th of July, the Park was packed with thousands of people, crowding the beaches and lawns.  It was quite a madhouse. Luckily the RV park is about 1/2 mile beyond all the partying, so we were not affected by the crowds once we were finally able to drive by them. W spent the evening cleaning and packing. Today marks the final day of Part 1 of this Odyssey; tomorrow we rendezvous with the Nor by Nor’east caravan in Ashaway, Rhode Island.



















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