The Vanderbilt Era (1895-1983)
Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt purchased the 600 acre property in 1895 because of its beauty and Frederick's interest in horticulture and forestry. By then, the landscape originally designed by Andre Parmentier and planted by David Hosack had matured, with many impressive specimen trees. However, the Langdon mansion had deteriorated, as had much of the gardens. Frederick contracted with McKim, Mead and White of New York City to build a new mansion on the site of the original building. When construction of the mansion began in 1896, one of the spectators was a 14 year old Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose family were close neighbors.
The new mansion was to be very modern, including electricity. The hydroelectric power plant to supply it was completed in 1897. The mansion was completed two years later, in 1899. Final alterations were made to the mansion in 1906 by Whitney Warren of New York City. The mansion stands today much like it was after these alterations.
Like the Langdons before them, Hyde Park was a seasonal home for the Vanderbilts. Their main residence was a townhouse in New York City. However, they also owned houses in Palm Beach, Florida, Maine and in New York's Adirondack Mountains, as well as an ocean going yacht. The couple would spend April through July and September through November at the estate. Even when away, Frederick remained in touch with his head gardener and made the decisions as to what plants would be in the garden and when seeds and cuttings would be started.
While the Vanderbilts replaced the existing garden greenhouses, they kept the rest of the garden structures. However, the planting designs changed drastically. In 1901, they hired Charles A. Platt as their first landscape designer. At that time, Platt had recently achieved fame as a proponent of Italian style gardens in America. However, the Vanderbilts did not move forward with Platt, and instead engaged James L. Greenleaf to design an Italian garden on the lower two terraces. This design featured pergolas at the north and south end of this garden area, with a reflecting pool nestled in the south pergola. Hedges were planted to visually separate this area from the rest of the landscape, and allow premeditated vistas. The topography was altered to create a gently sloped walk through the upper of the two terraces to the lower.
In 1910, Thomas Meehan and Sons were hired to design an addition to the garden. Located to the east of the existing garden, this addition consisted of two more terraces, arranged perpendicular to the existing ones, with a loggia on the eastern side. In front of the loggia is a large pool. Originally, the pool contained a frog fountain that sprayed water high in the air. Later, the frog was replaced with a statue of Orpheus playing his lyre. The garden was enclosed by iron fencing between brick piers. Originally designed as a mixed perennial garden, this area would slowly change all to roses, before changing to a mix of roses and cannas.
The last garden designer employed by the Vanderbilts was Robert B. Cridland. Since the Vanderbilts considered the layout of the garden to be complete, Cridland’s primary purpose was to design planting schemes. Because of designs being continually tweaked by the gardeners, it is difficult to tell from photographs which of the many Cridland designs were actually implemented. One that unquestionably was, is the alteration of Greenleaf’s Italian garden into a perennial garden. The upper section of this is referred to as the Cherry Walk, since the terraces on either side of the sloped path are planted with ornamental cherry trees.
Mrs. Vanderbilt died suddenly in 1926. After her death, Mr. Vanderbilt became a virtual recluse, living on the third floor of the mansion with the servants until his death in 1938. Since the couple were childless, the estate was inherited by her niece, Margaret Van Alen.
Frederick William Vanderbilt
Frederick was born on February 2, 1856, the grandson of Cornelius "the Commodore" Vanderbilt, who had built the vast Vanderbilt fortune. He graduated from Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1878. Working in his father's office of the New York Central Railroad, he went through every department in the railroad service, mastering the general details of the whole business. He impressed everyone with his studious application and willingness to submit to the rules and regulations of the office.
During his lifetime, he was director of 22 railroads, the Western Union Telegraphy Company, Hudson River Bridge Company, Detroit Tunnel Co., and the New York State Realty and Terminal Co. His chief holdings were in the New York Central Railroad and the directorships in other railroads stemmed from that system. His fortune, which amounted at his death to more than 78 million dollars, was invested in steel, tobacco, mining, banking, oil, and government securities as well as railroads.
By all accounts, Frederick was a modest and unassuming person. He gave millions of dollars to philanthropy, but always avoided personal recognition from his benefactors. He gave more than 1 million dollars to Yale for the construction of dormitories and willed them 4 million more after his death. He also gave more than 3 million dollars to Vanderbilt University. The Red Cross Fund, YMCA, and the Vanderbilt Clinic were among his favorite charities, and the Salvation Army was willed 1 million dollars at the time of his death.
Frederick and his wife, Louise, were childless. After her death in 1926, he spent the rest of his life in quiet seclusion in Hyde Park. He lived on the third floor of the mansion with the servants and directed the affairs of the estate from his bedroom. He died on June 29, 1938 at the age of 82. He was buried in the Vanderbilt mausoleum at New Dorp, Staten Island.
Louise Holmes Anthony Vanderbilt
Louise was born on September 4, 1854. Her first husband was Albert Torrance, Frederick's first cousin. That marriage ended in divorce and she and Frederick married, secretly, on December 17, 1878 shortly afterwards. The family, especially his father, disapproved of the marriage. Divorce was not a common thing in the 19th century and was not considered acceptable, even in “high society, and there could have been other reasons as well for the family’s displeasure. Their marriage, however, was a true love-match, which endured for the rest of their lives.
Unlike Frederick, Louise was outgoing and social. She loved to entertain friends and family on the estate, while Frederick would take refuge in his study. Since she had no children of her own, she 'adopted' the children of the estate employees and servants, holding parties for them and sending presents at Christmas. One of the favorite activities was her 'ice cream social', which was held every summer in the garden. Mrs. Vanderbilt would serve the children ice cream and strawberries and host games on the lawn.
In keeping with her interest in children, Louise contributed a great deal of time and money to organizations and groups which worked with them. She helped found the St. Anthony Home for Girls in New York City and, for 29 years, hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner at Newport for hundreds of the New York's newsboys and messenger boys. Louise was also involved in bringing the Red Cross to Hyde Park and in establishing the District Health Nurses movement. During World War I, she and Frederick were involved with the Red Cross. She also donated $100,000 in 1925 toward the completion of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Louise Vanderbilt died suddenly in Paris, France on August 21, 1926. She was 82.