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The Other Hyde Park: The Vanderbilt Mansion

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Among the great Hudson River country houses, McKim, Mead & White’s Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park is a standout—though not in an entirely amiable way.  True, it is a pure expression of the Beaux Arts style, but it looks uncomfortable here, as if it might feel more at home in a less rural, more suburban enclave of striving, such as Newport or Long Island’s North Shore.  Our blogger, the interior designer Carey Maloney of the M (Group) visited recently with his partner Hermes Mallea and shares his inimitable take.

Rural Intelligence StyleHeading north from the city on Route 9, we pass Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Springwood (lovely house—great shutter paint color) and quickly arrive at the very baronial gates to the Vanderbilt Mansion.  (Hey - did it have a name? What did Frederick and Lulu Vanderbilt call it?  The Mansion?  Don’t think so.  Turns out they called it “Hyde Park.”)

Frankly, you’re off to a bad start whenever the word ‘mansion’ features. (Before I forget: best house name en route—Sturgeon Point Manor. Manor!)  While we had fun a couple of years ago at another Vanderbilt house, Biltmore, in North Carolina, it was due less to the design than to the astonishing excess and the remarkable—to us—commercial viability in this country of an “open to the public” house.  Bill Cecil has turned the white elephant of his great-grandfather George Vanderbilt (the Commodore’s grandson) into a cash cow. That was interesting…

So we had an idea of the scale to expect—the “hospitality” (in hotel-design parlance) feel of a Gilded-Age country house.  The Vanderbilt Mansion did not disappoint.  It is huge, cold, and sort of strange (So sign you up, right?? Sounds fun!).

(While in the name mode, other Vanderbilt house names:  Florham, Idle Hour, Rough Point, Eagle’s Nest, Elm Court, Sonogee, Pine Tree Point, and of course, The Breakers.)

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Designed by McKim, Meade & White (McKim was in charge; Stanford White’s role was antiques dealer—he dashed off to Europe and spent $50,000 on “Old World” stuff that is all still there), “Hyde Park” was built in 1899 and is the smallest of that generation of Vanderbilt houses (in a frenzy of building, 8 siblings erected sixteen new houses between 1879 and 1902). The night after we were there, I told a friend we’d been—coincidentally the ex-wife of a Vanderbilt heir—and she said, “Oh, the Little House.”  It clocks in at 50,000 square feet.

The mansion sits on a bald prairie on a mile-long stretch of the Hudson—no terracing, no gardens to soften the blow, just a large limestone building sitting on the earth. The front is flat, the rear/river side has a portico..  A huge—granted handsome—pile of stone.  Very Municipal Building—I kept looking for the “Jury Duty” sign.  But what municipality could afford such scale?  Maybe cattle-rich Argentina. Maybe sugar-rich Cuba.  Maybe Groucho’s Freedonia.  Nonetheless, Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt loved it.  While they bought and sold both city and other country houses, as well as yachts, they retained Hyde Park with relatively few changes. 

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It probably looked better back then.  Hermes blames the National Park Service aesthetic (no reflection on the NPS guide—he was a charmer), who bought the place in 1940 at the behest of FDR.  The house lacks anything personal—not a photo, not a throw pillow, not a book that isn’t bound in gilded Morocco and probably has never been read.  Curatorially speaking, we are all cursed by the fact that sunlight (damned UV) is the arch enemy of all historic houses.  Here every huge window was screened and shaded to the point that the dim vast rooms were even less approachable.  Impersonal. Dreary.  Ouch!

So we took the tour (not a bad turnout for a rainy Friday afternoon), ran through the gift shop, and bolted.  Oh well.

About 10 minutes north we passed the Mills Mansion.  Never been there either.  To quote, “When the nouveaux riche Ogden Mills married the aristocratic Ruth Livingston, a fortune and legacy was born”—this line ignites the fires of my desire. Nouveaux riche works for me.

So next time, The Mills Mansion (they called it Staatsburgh). It’s the best of both worlds, nouveau riche weds ancien regime.
Or maybe we’ll just go buy our own piece of Vanderbilt grandeur: Coming up at Stair Galleries on September 12—property from Florham, built by Hamilton and Florence (Vanderbilt) Twombly, and now the administration building at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.  To check it out, click on Florham, above; it’s the pile on the left.

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Without doubt, our favorite cache of historic houses (this is going to sound a-holey… But true!) is Goa, India’s smallest state. The Portuguese conquered Goa in the early 16th-century, and held it for 450 years, until it was annexed by India in 1961.  It is filled with palaces built by Hindi and Roman Catholic Indo-Portuguese Brahmins.  (That’s a mouthful).  Trust us—fabulous.  Those two tastes—Portuguese and Mughal— combine and clash wonderfully in Palaces of Goa.
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Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley, by our friend Gregory Long (besides being an author, he is president of the New York Botanical Garden) is a must-have guide to the neighborhood.
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Guide book wise, I have always loved the WPA series written during the (first) Great Depression—a wonderful insight into American towns and cities in the 1930’s.  Carey Maloney
The Vanderbilt Mansion
Albany Post Road (Route 9—entrance is on west side of road, north of Market Street, south of St. James Church)
Hyde Park, 845.229.7770.
Open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m
Guided Tour only;  last starts at 4 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.
January - March tours are limited; call ahead,
Tour: $8/adults; free/15 and under
Grounds open 7 days year-round from sunrise to sunset are free.
The West Point Band will perform here on Saturday, June 13, 7 p.m.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 06/09/09 at 05:47 AM • Permalink