19th century, afternoon adventure, dining at downton, history lesson, vacation, victorians

Afternoon Adventure: Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park

About a month ago I met up with my parents in Hyde Park, New York, for a weekend of sight-seeing and poking around historic places (this is the order of the day with my family). After touring two painters’ homes on the first day, we headed to the Vanderbilt Mansion bright and early on Saturday. Now, I have seen my share of Vanderbilt mansions, and those of their friends. Living so close to Newport, it’s basically a law that I have to make a yearly pilgrimage to the Breakers or Marble House. But I’d never seen the mansion in Hyde Park.

the entrance hall

Friends, it was worth it. It was the American version of Downton Abbey.

The Vanderbilts were one of the wealthiest families in the 19th century. Patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt created a shipping and railroad empire in the early 19th century, and his children and grandchildren used that money to build magnificent mansions during the Gilded Age, following the Civil War. Only a few of his descendants used their inheritances wisely–most of the family, including those who lived at Newport, became famous for throwing money around and trying to marry their children off to British royalty. However, grandson Frederick William actually grew his inheritance, and he got to build a bunch of beautiful residences to boot. So we made our way to his “country palace” in Hyde Park.

Frederick and his wife Louise purchased the estate as a country home, and while they often entertained friends there, for the most part it was just the two of them. Well, and loads of servants.

Louise’s bedroom, because we all need a gated bed

The mansion is a gorgeous example of late-Gilded Age architecture and decoration, complete with servants’ quarters that mimic the design of the public rooms. The first floor, designed for entertaining, is laid out in an oval, with dining and sitting rooms fanning off to the sides. The second floor is no different, with a gallery in the center to let light filter down to the first floor. From there you can peek into bedrooms, ranging from “simple” quarters for guests to the his-and-hers bedrooms designed to look like the palace at Versailles. A few rooms were even set up as though the Vanderbilts had left for the season; white cloths covered all the furniture and only a single lamp lit the interiors.

What fascinated me about this house was the sharp contrast between upstairs and downstairs. This is Downton Abbey-speak for the employers (who lived “upstairs”) and employees (who lived “downstairs”) of the Gilded Age in America. Though the basement servants’ floor was laid out in the same manner as the first and second floors, the decoration was completely different: dark wood free of ornamentation, small windows that didn’t let in much light, simple furniture. The servants’ staircase was painted silver to mark the shift from the gold in the public rooms.

A staff of over 60 kept the house running during the entertaining season, while the Vanderbilts only ever entertained, at maximum, 16 guests. It was easy to picture a Downton-like lifestyle at Hyde Park, and in a way that’s what the Vanderbilts were going for.

Wealthy Americans in the 19th century longed for the class and distinction they felt came with a European background. They traveled to Europe and purchased all the old art and sculpture and furniture they could find, because they felt American art and furniture wasn’t refined enough. By building such a palace and staffing it to the nines, the Vanderbilts, like many wealthy families, were trying to become European. No wonder the place felt so English!

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