Hudson Valley Ventures 10/9/14

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park is only a short drive from campus and is open year-round. If you can’t make it to one of the tours of the mansion, you can still explore the beautiful estate grounds.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park is only a short drive from campus and is open year-round. If  you can’t make it to one of the tours of the mansion, you can still explore the beautiful estate grounds.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park is only a short drive from campus and is open year-round. If you can’t make it to one of the tours of the mansion, you can still explore the beautiful estate grounds. Photo by: Tobias McNatty

No doubt you’ve heard of Hyde Park, the home of all the famous rich people—including like three presidents or something—who have lived in the Hudson Valley over the years, and you’ve probably heard that it’s a really beautiful place to visit (if you haven’t heard either of these things, well, now you have).

What you probably haven’t heard is that, great as the rest of Hyde Park is, Vanderbilt Mansion is the one place you should definitely check out on a bright fall afternoon.

Located 20 minutes from Vassar, the mansion is situated at the heart of an estate of over 200 acres. Though you’ll need a car to get to the estate, once you’re there, you won’t want to get back in. Instead, you’re going to want to wander the beautiful, wooded grounds, which are free and open year-round to the public.

Walking paths will take you in and around the Italian-style gardens, which are also tended and maintained year-round. The gardens are renowned for their collection of rose bushes that were bought and planted at the behest of Frederick Vanderbilt, who bought the estate and updated it for his family. All the pathways eventually lead back to several wide-open grass lawns ringed quite strikingly by the trees, which are often either entirely empty or entirely full.

If you come at the right time of the year, you might find that one of these fields is occupied by an outdoor wedding and reception, which are open to being rented for events of this nature, and often are.

Assuming you can find an open space in one of the fields, they are the perfect area for a light picnic with friends or visiting family. After the picnic, a casual game of Frisbee or a catch can be a great way to spend an afternoon with friends and family. If that’s not your style, you can also simply relax in the quiet serenity that permeates the entire garden.

The estate’s air is something that you will notice throughout your entire visit. It is not a solemn or eerie air, but one of quiet reverence for the beauty of the natural surroundings, particularly the sweeping vistas of the Hudson River that cannot help but command your attention through their sheer beauty.

Several of the paths will take you right up to the edge of a sharp overhang at one edge of the estate. From this small cliff you can behold the magnificent views of the river that the estate offers. Plenty of other mansions can be seen peeking through the tree-line throughout the year, although if you decide to visit Vanderbilt during the fall you might be too distracted by the brilliant blaze of red and gold leaves that coat every tree in sight to appreciate the panorama.

Yet no visit to the estate is complete without taking a walk through the mansion. Technically, the mansion itself isn’t open to the public, so you’ll have to take one of the guided tours that are offered several times a day.

Though you might prefer being able to take your time going through the mansion, the tour is actually quite worth it as the tour guides will explain the building’s architecture and the works of art scattered throughout.

Though the mansion is rather small as mansions go, clocking in at only 54 rooms, it is by no means a small building. Immediately after walking into the building, you will find yourself in a circular foyer that is open all the way to the roof of the building three stories up, allowing daylight to filter down through the skylight.

Branching off from the foyer are various parlors, sitting rooms, a small library, and a formal dining hall, all of which are decorated with expensive paintings and furniture from the early 1900s, when Frederick Vanderbilt bought the estate from its original builders.

As you ascend the unnecessarily wide staircases – which look suspiciously like something out of a movie – you’ll see that the rest of the mansion contains similar displays of the Vanderbilt’s wealth. Even the basement, which contains the kitchens and the servants’ quarters, is lavish and extremely well-kept.

After the Vanderbilt’s bought the estate from its previous owners, they repurposed it to be a kind of summer home for their family, and they would commonly hold small banquets and formal events for their friends and business partners from the City.

Upon the death of Frederick Vanderbilt in 1938, his family members who inherited the mansion decided to donate it  and much of the estate grounds to the National Park Service. In the coming years, President Franklin Roosevelt, whose own estate is only a few short miles away (and makes for another great adventure), used the mansion to house members of his staff and Secret Service while he stayed at his own home.

Before they donated the mansion, however, the Vanderbilts ensured that the members of their household staff, who lived in the servants’ quarters in the basement, would be able to stay on and continue to live and work at the mansion, so that they wouldn’t be put out of both work and home.

The tour of the house doesn’t take long, but you’ll definitely leave wishing that you could spend more time in the mansion, maybe curl up in one of the ancient leather-backed chairs in front of the enormous fireplace with a good book—but alas, all good things come to an end and eventually you will have to depart..

Once you make it back outside and are on your way down the long shaded driveway back to the main road, you’ll probably be thinking about how great it would be to be a Vanderbilt and how you’d love to have an estate just like this one all for yourself.

Unfortunately, there’s only so many beautiful estates to go around, but at least the Vanderbilt mansion is close enough to visit whenever the whim takes you!

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