Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Vanderbilt Mansion

We stayed in New York for an extra day after the HOP to tour two National Park Service sites in Hyde Park, since we don't know when we will be back in this part of the country.
Our first stop was the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, her home Val-Kill. Eleanor was born in 1884 in New York. Her early life was filled with tragedy, her mother dying in 1892, her brother in 1893 and her father in 1894. At her wedding in 1905 where she married her distant cousin Franklin, she was given away by the POTUS, her Uncle Teddy. There main home was Springwood in Hyde Park that I covered in the last post.
Val-Kill was built 1924-26 from a design done by FDR. In the late 20's, along with her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerson, they turned the home into an industrial center where local farmers made furniture and forged pewter items during the slack season on the farms. After FDR contracted polio, she along with Cook and Dickerson supported him in his return to politics. For her entire adult life Eleanor was an activist supporting the League of Nations and the World Court after WWI, joining the Urban League and NAACP in 1934 and resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 when the group would not allow African American opera singer Marion Anderson perform in their hall. After that, Eleanor and FDR arranged for Marion to perform at the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people.
   After Val-Kill Industries failed in 1936, the building was converted into a twenty room cottage. Eleanor's secretary Malvina Thompson lived in this part of the home until she died in 1953. It was then made into an office for Eleanor. Until FDR died in 1945 Eleanor stayed here when he was not at Springwood. After his death, Springwood was turned over to the National Park Service and she lived the remainder of her life commuting between New York City and Val-Kill. 
During WWII, Nederlands Queen Wilhelmina and her family, who had escaped the Nazis, often visited Val-Kill. After the war President Truman appointed Eleanor as our delegate to the United Nations where she served on the Committee for Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. She was in the UN until Eisenhower was elected in 1952.  
Val-Kill became an important stop for leaders from around the world. French President Auriol decorated her as Commander of the Order of the Legion of Honor here. Other visitors included Nehru of India, Tito of Yugoslavia, Selassie of Ethiopia and Khrushchev of the USSR. In 1960 John Kennedy sat in the chair in the background to ask her for her endorsement as president. She agreed after he committed to support civil rights. Eleanor died in 1962 and was buried along side Franklin in the rose garden at the Hyde Park estate. Kennedy, Johnson, Eisenhower and Truman all attended the funeral.
Stone Cottage, located on the grounds near Val-Kill, was where the only swimming pool on the Roosevelt estate was built. It was a favorite place for FDR who swam to maintain his strength after he contracted polio. We have been to Hyde Park twice and still have not seen all the Roosevelt sites. Top Cottage, a small home that FDR built in the 1930's as an escape from the crowd at Springwood, is still on our to do list. All the sites offer an interesting look into the lives of the Roosevelt family.
Just down the road from the Roosevelt home is the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. The home was the spring and fall country estate of Frederick Vanderbilt, the son of William and grandson of Cornelius. The mansion, one of 40 built by the Vanderbilt family, is a look into how the super rich lived during the Gilded Age following the Civil War. 
When Frederick and his wife Louise bought the 600 acre estate in 1895 they wanted a temporary home to use while the big mansion was being built. This16 room house was built in two months and is now the park service visitors center. 
The 54 room Beaux-Arts mansion designed by McKim, Mead and White, America's top architectural firm at the time, took three years to build. Craftsmen did all the carving of wood and stone on the site. 
Many of the furnishings for the mansion where purchased from European families that had fallen on hard times. The walls and floors were covered with expensive Persian rugs. The total cost for construction and furnishings was $2,250,000. 
The wealthy of the time were enamored with the style of the French aristocrats. This included not only the building and the furnishings but also the food they ate.
One of many Persian rugs in the mansion. Some of those rugs have been taken down to preserve them.
Since the main purpose of the mansion was to entertain their wealthy friends the dining room was huge. 
Louise's bedroom, boudoir and bathroom where an exact replica of Marie Antoinette's. It included a birthing rail, that in France was where the members of the queen's court would gather to watch the birth to confirm the gender of the child.  
Frederick's bedroom, also on the second floor is modeled after the French king's. Our park service guide told us that Cornelius' great-great-granddaughter Gloria Vanderbilt (of fashion fame) and her young son Anderson Cooper (CNN journalist) once came for a tour. She insisted on doing the public tour and telling the rest of the group what it was like being at the mansion as a child. How cool would that have been?
One of many guest rooms. Where guests stayed was determined by their social status. Some stayed on the second floor near Frederick and Louise while five other guest rooms were on the third floor, where some servants also had rooms. While the Vanderbilt family were some of the wealthiest people in the country, they did not have the same social status as their neighbors, the Roosevelt family, who had "old money" wealth and social status. 
The mansion had all the modern conveniences of the time; from central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity to its own power station. One thing it did not have was refrigerators, they used ice boxes.   
The staff dining room. The mansion was pretty much self sustaining, providing food and flowers for the family. When the Vanderbilts were staying at the mansion there was a staff of 60 that lived on or near the grounds that served them. The personal staff that traveled with them lived in the mansion.  
The gardens on the grounds date back to the 1790's (a hundred years before Frederick purchased the property)  when the owner Dr. Samuel Bard, an avid horticulturist, started to beautify the grounds with many plantings.
Vanderbilt expanded the formal gardens over the years that he owned the land. When Frederick died in 1938 Louise's niece inherited the estate. She was unable to sell it and was convinced by her neighbor, President Franklin Roosevelt, to donate the land and mansion to the U.S. government. It has been part of the park service since 1940. If you are in Hyde Park all the Roosevelt sites and the Vanderbilt mansion are well worth a visit.

We are now back in WashPA for our annual visit until the middle of October. 

1 comment:

Doing It On the Road(Part II) said...

Thanks for the post! A great story of a great American, Eleanor Roosevelt!