The Vanderbilt Estate, Hyde Park
The Vanderbilt Mansion represents two centuries of Hudson Valley architecture and history. The Vanderbilt’s were the last private owners in a line of illustrious residents that left their unique footprints on the Hyde Park property. This paper will present a highly condensed summary of the “Cultural Landscape Report For Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site” written by Patricia M. O’Donnell, Charles A. Birnbaum, and Cynthia Zaitzevsky Ph.D. for readers who want to learn more on this historical site.
The current Vanderbilt Mansion and grounds are a small piece of what was a huge land patent dating back to the late 17th century which encompassed most of present day Hyde Park with the current Vanderbilt Mansion as its prized property due to its river frontage. Henry Pawling held this land but the prized river frontage acreage was given to Peter Fauconnier as a settlement of a property dispute from the Great Nine Partners, a group of Huguenots. Neither man made any significant improvements to the property.
The first owner to live on the patent was Dr. John Bard and his wife, Suzanne Valleau, Fauconnier’s granddaughter. Dr. Bard did not develop much of the land west of the Albany Post Road that bordered the Hudson. The only development was three landing points on the Hudson including an outcropping of flat rocks where a flat bottomed sloop could be docked which was later named Bard’s Rock. Bard’s development took place on the other side of Albany Post Road, now Rt. 9, where he built a sizeable farm was developed with barns, orchards, and a house, called Red House, along with houses for gardeners, and other farm related buildings.
His son, Dr. Samuel Bard, was the first owner to actually develop what are now the remaining grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion. The estate became a retreat for Bard who was a practicing doctor in New York City. However, he eventually changed professions to become a gentleman farmer in order to look after his estate and continue to farm his father’s land. There is evidence that he desired to develop the land near the river into a picturesque design similar to the ones he saw when he studied in England. He sent letters to his father mentioning ideas that included the use of serpentine lines in the landscape instead of straight ones to accentuate the natural beauty. Bard built the main residence on a bluff overlooking the river to capitalize on the great views of the river and scenery. While this house has been replaced numerous times as times and tastes changed, the one thing that remained constant was the placement of the main residence. The only evidence of what the house looked like was one pencil sketch that showed a curved circular driveway. The other important addition that Bard made to the property was his love of horticulture. Many of the trees still existing are believed to be ones that he planted including a beautiful gingko tree which is still to this day one of the most striking features of the landscape.
Bard died in 1821. His family held on to the property until 1828 when they
sold his estate to his former partner and good friend, Dr. David Hosack who bought 700 acres on both sides of Albany Post Road. Dr. Hosack also made the life altering decision to become a gentleman farmer and practice medicine on the side. The Hosack era was relatively short, lasting only from 1829 to 1835 but the changes and effects on the estate would leave their permanent mark even through today. He hired noted architect Martin Thompson to oversee a major renovation of the Bard house as well as the rebuilding and addition of many structures to the river property including green houses, a new farmer’s cottage and new gatehouses. Hosack also added a triangular piece of land south of Crum Elbow Creek to the west of Albany Post Road so that there was enough room to create an entrance that curved back and forth to the main house.
However, the major change that one still sees today on visiting Vanderbilt Mansion is the landscape design carried out by Andrew Parmentier. Parmentier emigrated from Belgium in 1824 and ran his own nursery in Brooklyn, New York. He was also considered one of the earliest landscape designers in North America. The importance of the Hyde Park property to the study of landscape architecture in America is that this noted landscape design is to some degree the only lasting landscape design of Parmentier.
Parmentier’s other works in the New York tri-state region and Canada have been lost to changing tastes and redevelopment. Parmentier practiced what was called “picturesque” landscaping where large parts of property were kept natural and all structures and landscape served to enhance the beauty of nature. Both Parmentier and present day scholars see the Hyde Park estate as his crowning work. While the elaborate gardens and greenhouses that were located in the present day south lawn are long gone other striking features are left. The most lasting improvement were the drives and pathways including the main drive which snaked up to the mansion giving visitors new views of specimen trees at every turn, crossing over Crum Elbow Creek with a new bridge sloping northwest towards Hyde Park Landing and again following the property line towards Bard Rock. Some of these roads may have been left over from the Bard era but Parmentier created a formal network of roads and paths that added visual interest.
After Parmentier’s work was completed, the landscape blended functionality with natural beauty. The roads had a practical use getting material from the river to the various structures on the property but also served to accentuate the landscape and to showcase different vistas, clumps of trees, and views.
A young painter by the name of Thomas Kelah Wharton who had visited the estate many times before and after Hoscack’s death wrote descriptions for his paintings and sketches. While most of these did not survive, his descriptions to go along with them did. The following description gives the reader a mental picture of what Parmentier’s landscape design must have looked like just after completion with rare plants and trees that Hosack had collected from all over the world arranged in a natural flowing landscape down to the rivers edge.
“This noble river view is from the curving walk along the ridge on the grounds of the late Dr. D. H. Hosack—leading from the principal mansion to the “cottage” at the north end of the estate – the spot chosen is just where the walk emerges from the shadow of lofty trees which border it for some distance from the house—here it winds over a high grassy hill—with a mate just opposite crowned with a tasteful “vase” of colossal proportions; and dedicated to the goddess of “Lyric Poesy”—another walk turns off to the left a and steals down the hill by the woodside, then plunges into a deep shady dell, crosses a bridge and finally conducts you across a wide open glade to a “pavilion” occupying a broad table of granite projected out into the river and tufted with cedars and rich lichens—far away to the north, soar the peaks of the Catskills—the highest is the “Round Top” seen to the right of the chain in the view—3500 feet above the level of the Hudson. The mountains are the engrossing feature of this superb scene, only a section of which is embraced in the view.”
Wharton along with other artists and visitors described pavilions that were situated in key locations to give views of the river and the surrounding nature. This landscape in the last years of Hosack’s life was the ideal mid-19th century picturesque landscape in the English and French style that Parmentier brought over from his training in Europe. It blended nature with functionality seamlessly.
In December of 1835 Hosack died of a stroke. His children who inherited the property originally planned to sell it within a year and began the separation of the Sexton tract by deeding a cottage and 60 acres to his third wife. They also sold separately the farm on the east side of Rt. 9 which contained the Red House. In 1840 the heirs sold the balance of the remaining property for $45,000 to Walter and Dorothy Astor Langdon Sr.
The Langdon’s used the property very differently than the previous families. Both Samuel Bard and David Hosack used the estate all the time except for winters. The Langdon’s had a house in New York City for the winter, a house for the summer, and only used the Hyde Park estate in the spring and fall. However, this intermittent use preserved most of the Hosack and Parmentier landscape design and allowed the plant material to grow into mature specimens. In 1845 the main house burned to the ground and the Langdon’s built a new house on the same site. This is known because when the Vanderbilt’s eventually tore down the house they found dates on the structural beams. That same year Langdon died suddenly. After Landon’s death, his wife then lived abroad until her death in 1874.
Walter Langdon Jr. and his wife began to buy out his siblings share of property willed to them after their father’s death in 1852. Langdon, Jr. bought the Red House and most of the farmland in 1872 and by 1875 he had finished buying all his siblings shares and increased the size of the property by buying the land south of Crum Elbow Creek. He continued his parent’s lifestyle of long trips to Europe and short visits to Hyde Park. The one notable change that occurred during this almost forty-year period of his acquiring the land and its eventual sale to the Vanderbilt’s was the movement of the formal gardens, greenhouses, and the gardener’s cottage to their present location.
The true reason for this move is unknown. One theory is that the trees had matured and made the moving of the greenhouse and gardens desirable. Another theory is that the greenhouses were by that time out of date being almost thirty years old. However, this marked an interesting trend in the Langdon ownership of periods of exuberant building matched by periods of long trips to Europe and near neglect followed by restoration projects. Except for the moving and redesign of the formal gardens, the rest of the Hosack – Parmentier design remained largely unchanged.
The Langdon era lasted from 1840 to 1895. During the last decades of the Langdon ownership, small changes occurred. The river shoreline was straightened with the construction of the railroad, and a bridge was built over the tracks to access Bard’s Rock, etc. Property was added to the farmland on the east side of Albany Post Road along with minimal acreage on the south end along the river. However, by the 1890’s at the time of Walter Langdon Jr.’s death, the house and grounds had matured into parkland but were overgrown and neglected. There were fields and undergrowth where once laid lawn and pastures. Stonewalls seemed to be placed at random locations by unskilled local labor. The once spectacular Greek revival mansion had been painted a light shade of pink instead of its traditional white.
Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt bought the house after Langdon’s death for $125,000. Frederick Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt who had built a fortune from first shipping and ferries and then made his real money in the New York Central Railroad. This allowed his succeeding heirs to spend their money on lavish estates from Long Island’s Gold Coast to the coast of California. Frederick Vanderbilt and his wife saw their opportunity to have their own countryseat at Hyde Park in the height of the Gilded Age. However, their intention was not to totally change and wipe away the by then nearly 150 years of history on the Hyde Park estate but to merely modify and restore it to its former grandeur. This is one of the most amazing parts of the Hyde Park story. Throughout its history, its owners did not seek to totally erase the past so it is a record of what had come before it.
Vanderbilt was content in leaving most of the landscape alone. He wanted to simply restore the grounds with slight improvements. As evidence of this he did not employ Peabody and Stearns, an architectural firm, for the redesign of the house or
F. L. Olmsted’s firm to redesign the grounds. Both firms were heavily involved in most of Vanderbilt’s estate planning elsewhere. Instead he hired McKim, Mead, and White who were brought in shortly after the purchase to redesign the existing Langdon house by adding two wings to the north and south sides as well as remodeling the interior.
After starting construction they found that the house was beyond repair and easier knocked down due to out of plumb walls, weak and crumbling mortar, and a rotting structure. It was deemed easier to design a totally new house, which retained the round portico overlooking the river that Mrs. Vanderbilt especially liked as well as the same general style. This new house would be different than the Langdon house; it would be built of the material of that age; the same steel that was redefining America redefined the Hyde Park estate. This house gave a new grandeur to the estate in the height of the Gilded Age, a mansion built to impress the casual visitor. The mansion was designed in 1896 and finished in a fast fury of construction in only three years, an impressive time considering the three floors, intricate stonework of the façade and its ornate interior finishes.
The Vanderbilt’s next turned their attention to the streams and the Parmentier-Hosack signature drives. All evidence suggests that they sought to enhance them. One example was their turning the “Y” intersection at the main gate into a “T” and building a gatehouse. However, the most striking improvement, considering it was built on a private property, was the one of the country’s first steel and concrete bridges called the “White Bridge”. The bridge had an elegant arch spanning Crum Elbow Creek and was visible from Albany Post Road or the estate proper. This along with some minor straightening of roads and the addition of some service roads enhanced the overall Parmentier road system. The roads were paved with finely crushed stone replaced yearly and cobblestone edged the road leading down to Bard Rock.
After the mansion and other major construction were finished at the turn of the century, Vanderbilt acquired the Sexton Tract that had been separated from the Hyde Park estate proper since the death of Hosack. Vanderbilt swiftly removed the house, greenhouses, and other farm structures only leaving the gardener’s cottage and the boathouse by Bard Rock that he apparently preferred as Langdon’s boathouse was torn down. He then extended the north roads and built a new north entrance and gatehouse in 1906 as well as extending the stone walls of the length of the Sexton property. An iron fence was added to top of the stonewall along the length of Albany Post Road. The other major addition was the “subway” which was built under the Albany Post Road and was a passage way to move from the estate on the west side to the farm land on the east side.
Vanderbilt’s main improvement and interest in the landscape apart from restoring and doing minor additions to the overall estate was to totally redesign the formal gardens and the structures surrounding them. Every greenhouse built by the Langdon’s was torn down and replaced with new construction of state of the art circa 1900 greenhouses. Much of the hardscape was kept including the brick walls holding up the various levels and terraces along with the brick arches which one passes through to enter the formal gardens as well as most of the brick walls surrounding most of the garden.
The formal garden was reworked during the Vanderbilt’s ownership. The only documentation was from pictures and accounts of what it looked like. The formal gardens were developed into an Italian and rose garden design. Robert Cridland, a landscape architect designed the rose garden. Greenleaf, the head gardener, initially designed the Italian garden. The Vanderbilts added such improvements as a birdbath fountain that became the focal point of the Italian garden along with a pavilion overlooking the natural picturesque landscape in the foreground centered on the fountain. There were geometric shaped beds with flowers such as begonias, petunias, pennisetum grasses, cannas, heliotrope and zinnias.
On June 29, 1938 Frederick W. Vanderbilt died shortly after his wife’s death. The Vanderbilts had no children and the bulk of the property was inherited by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s niece, Daisy Van Alen who had no intention of ever living there. Her first inclination was to sell the land, however it was 1938 and the Great Depression had taken its toll on the country’s economy and the desirability for large country estates was gone. Even people with money did not want to show it. Furthermore, the New Deal had required the raising of income tax and higher property taxes along with a minimum wage for workers made the ownership of such an estate undesirable for financial reasons.
An offer was made to buy the property by Father Divine, leader of a cult based in New York City and while Mrs. Van Alen wanted to sell, she was not willing to sell it to a cult leader. Father Divine had even gone to the trouble of sending a letter to the nearest estate that happened to be President Roosevelt asking him if he would mind if he bought the property. Roosevelt replied that it was a man’s right to buy any property he could afford but he hoped that the property would become a national park.
At this point, FDR, a life long Hyde Park resident decided to get involved in the acquisition of the Hyde Park property. He saw the property as having historical significance and actively tried to convince Mrs. Van Alen to donate the land. His argument was helped by the fact that no other credible buyers had come forward. Despite being President in a time of great turmoil, Roosevelt gave great attention to the Vanderbilt Mansion. He pushed his Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to get Congressional approval to make the Vanderbilt Mansion and its 211 acres a national historic site.
The farmland on the east side of Rt. 9 was not included in the historic site. Mrs. Van Alen asked Ickes what she should do with the land and he advised her she could sell it on her own or give it to the National Park Service and they would sell it to create an endowment for the remaining property. She decided to sell the land to make some profit on the property. This once and forever sold off the land on the east side of Rt. 9 that had drifted in and out of estate ownership. On December 18, 1940 the Vanderbilt Mansion was named a National Historic Site.
The one condition that FDR had was that the property be self-sufficient and the proposed entrance fee was to be .50 cents paid at the front gate. This effectively ended almost 200 hundred years of private ownership of the Vanderbilt property. However, it ensured that in the post-war-world that followed with its development of the suburb that the Vanderbilt Estate with its desirable riverfront property would not be sold off and sub-divided and the bones of the Parmentier landscape that were laid out a over a century ago would still remain to be studied and admired.
FDR did not simply have the idea to acquire the property and then turn it over to some minor government agency to run it. He decided to micro-manage the property and brought in staff from his various New Deal agencies to run it such as historians and writers to research and write about it. He came up with his own planting plan with help from forest rangers in his misguided but well-intentioned hopes to maintain the property. FDR went as far as to receive detailed reports on everything from the cost of replacement of broken glass in the greenhouses and to the acquisition of peat moss and pruning of specific bushes.
For the remainder of FDR’s life, despite such distractions as leading the country through World War II, the Vanderbilt Mansion seemed to be an extension of his own property and he gave it the attention that he would his own estate just down the road. During this time the mansion and grounds were tourist attractions with thousands of people flocking to see the lavish home that was still furnished as well as the beautiful landscape. FDR made sure of this by giving instructions that the general public should be able to drive on the mansion’s extensive roadways. Shortly after the property was open to the public, the .50 cents entrance fee was lowered to a quarter and then removed in favor of a fee only to tour the mansion. This remains the practice through today.
After FDR’s death the property started was regarded as just another national park and without a president giving special attention to it, certain things started to decline. The boathouse and some of the greenhouses neglected for years fell into disrepair and then were removed. The once magnificent formal gardens of the Vanderbilt period soon were forgotten and quickly became weed filled and overgrown. Some of the meadows and open vistas were overgrown. In the mid-50’s the first attempts at maintenance were attempted. The gardens were cleared and somewhat restored into order. The fields and meadows were cleaned out and weedy trees were removed.
However, a lack of funds from the mid-50’s to the early 80’s as well as a general lack of interest in preservation made it difficult for the people and superintendents that cared about the property to find enough money to do necessary maintenance and improvement projects although they were able to maintain the bones of most of the main features of the landscape. In the mid-60’s for example they did a major restoration of the White Bridge, which probably saved it from falling down as well as resurfacing a large percentage of the roads. During this period a landscape plan was also developed to further preserve the property that dated back to a previous landscape plan done in the mid-40’s. The new plan did not so much criticize the earlier plan but added to it and asked that it be followed more strictly. Sufficient funds were never available to carry out all the grandiose ideas of the landscape plans.
In 1981 an ambitious project got underway to restore the formal gardens and surround structures to their former glory. By this time most if not all most of the formal garden plantings were gone and the buildings and other hardscape features in disrepair and detoriating. In 1981 John Robbins from the National Park Service created a set of plans to restore all the hardscape such as enclosing wall, greenhouses, pergolas, and the steps to the Formal Gardens. Unlike other restoration attempts, this one got off the ground restoring all the hardscape. The next evolution of restoration was re-laying out the bed patterns and paths but there weren’t sufficient funds to accomplish the task. The Master Plan from 1976 suggested that volunteer groups be used to restore and maintain the beds. In 1984 Martha Stuart, a local Hyde Park woman, spearheaded the effort to rebuild the gardens. With help from the National Park Service, she used Walter Ewald’s 1941 “Planting Guide for Perennial Borders” which was supposed to have referred to the plans used by Greenleaf, Meehan, and Cridland to lie out the restored gardens. However, it is not known if the 1941 plan was accurate. The other great sources used were photographs and oral accounts of the original gardens. Stuart’s organization, “The Frederick W. Vanderbilt Garden Association, Inc.” has under the supervision of the National Park Service has restored and maintained the gardens to near their original beauty to the point of even restoring the fountain in the rose garden.
The Vanderbilt Mansion and grounds stand as a living testimony to an age gone by where unimaginable wealth was used to create some of the most spectacular private paradises. Due to public involvement the landscape stands as not only a monument to this unique time in American history but as a place where visitors can enjoy and study.
Patricia O’Donnell, Charles Birnbaum, and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Ph. D. “Cultural Landscape Report for Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. (Boston: National Park Service, North Atlantic Region, Division of Cultural Resources Management, Cultural Landscape Program.1992) A complete copy of this report is available at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY in the James A. Cannavino Library, Archives and Special Collections.By: Mike Russo'04