Big Old Houses: A Finale, of Sorts

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Here’s William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), a man as nice as he was rich, in front of his Maurice Fatio designed house on a small island off the southern tip of Miami Beach. In 1925, Vanderbilt swapped his yacht Ara for seven acres of harbor dredge belonging to a Florida developer named Carl Fisher. Today’s post has nothing to do with Florida, but the picture captures the man.

William K. Vanderbilt II.

When he finally built on Fisher’s Island in 1935, Vanderbilt had long ago disposed of Deepdale (seen above in its prime), his and his first wife’s Horace Trumbauer-designed estate at Lake Success, Long Island. Deepdale was not far from Brookholt, his mother’s place near Hempstead. New-ish suburban houses crowd Deepdale today, while Brookholt has been carpet-bombed by suburban subdivisions and might as well have existed on another planet.

In 1920, Vanderbilt rescued the gate to his late father’s Long Island estate Idle Hour. He then moved it to a property he was developing independently of his estranged wife in Centerport, an off-the-beaten-track (for society people, anyway) hamlet on the north shore of Long Island.

Houses were in this man’s blood. Under the supervision — and largely the instigation — of his mother Alva (later Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont), his parents had built 660 Fifth Avenue, whose chateau-esque design changed the course of domestic American architecture, Marble House in Newport, and Idle Hour on Long Island. After her divorce, Alva built Beacon Towers and Brookholt on Long Island, another mansion on Madison Ave in Manhattan, and supervised the redesign of Belcourt, her 2nd husband’s house in Newport.

Vanderbilt’s sister, Consuelo, didn’t build Blenheim Palace, but her father’s money installed central heating, a project almost on the order of electrifying Cleveland. Vanderbilt’s aunts and uncles were great builders as well, but the momentum, like the Vanderbiult fortune itself, faltered with his generation. Eagles’ Nest in Centerport is to me a sort of swan song of a great family’s tradition of building great houses.

Between 1910 and 1912, Vanderbilt, by then separated from the mother of his 3 children, cleared and graded his newly purchase 46 Centreport acres and hired the firm of Warren & Wetmore to build him a small house. The choice of architect doubtless was related to Whitney Warren‘s ongoing project replacing old Grand Central with the Terminal we know and love today. Vanderbilt salvaged half a dozen limestone columns and a pair of giant iron eagles from the demolished terminal to use on the approach to his new house.

Vanderbilt was a Harvard dropout who, after a not very long stint as president of the New York Central Railroad, dedicated his life to automobiles, yachting and natural history. He was the driving force behind the first purpose built auto race course in America. In 1904, at age 26, he set a world speed record of 92mph at the first Vanderbilt Cup.

One of the troubles with auto racing — then as now — is that drivers and spectators alike keep getting killed. The Vanderbilt Cup stopped in 1906, and by 1908 the course had morphed into the Long Island Motor Parkway, a high speed (for the era) 45-mile long toll road extending from Springfield Blvd in Queens all the way to Lake Ronkonkoma. Hard to imagine today, but the automobile was not initially loved in America. “Nothing has spread Socialistic feeling in this country more,” muttered Woodrow Wilson in 1906, “than the use of automobiles … (T)hey are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness.”

In 1899, when but a lad of 21, W.K. Vanderbilt married Virginia (Birdy) Graham Fair (1875-1935), daughter of a hard boiled, hard drinking prospector named James G. Fair. Birdy’s father became filthy rich mining the Comstock Lode.

W.K. Vanderbilt with his second wife, Rosamond Lancaster Warburton.

Birdy and Willie were honeymooning at Idle Hour when his father’s mansion caught fire and burned to the ground. A bad omen. The couple had 3 children and separated in under ten years.

In 1927, by now a mature 49, Vanderbilt married Rosamond Lancaster Warburton (1897-1947), a divorcee with 2 children of her own. They met, they fell in love, they obtained divorces from their respective sophisticated spouses and married quietly in Paris a the office of the Mayor. On the way out, Vanderbilt’s secretary gave the recording secretary a 500 franc tip.

If Deepdale was Willie’s and Birdy’s house, Eagles’ Nest, as the Centerport estate is called, was Willie’s and Rosamond’s. Between 1910 and 1927 the house was repeatedly enlarged, and ancillary buildings added to the property. However, my sense is that the place took on much of its present character — or perhaps just its atmosphere — after Vanderbilt’s second marriage.

Eagles’ Nest wasn’t originally built in the “Prisoner of Zenda” style of architecture we see today. A 7-room cottage of 1910 was transformed in 1924 by Warren & Wetmore designer Ronald Pearce into a 3-sided courtyard composition entered through a portcullis at the base of a showy bell tower. The 3 images below show the courtyard’s western and southern sides.

Improvements never stopped. The vintage view below shows the southern arcade prior to glazing, and the courtyard without cobblestones.

The main part of the house faces east — well, more correctly northeast — over Northport Harbor. It’s deep enough out there for a ship-sized yacht to enter and anchor. This is what brought Vanderbilt to Centerport in the first place, in addition to a need to get away from his first wife.

In 1935 the courtyard was enclosed on the north side with the so-called Memorial Wing. Three quarters of this wing is filled with marine specimens, ethnographic artifacts, bird and butterflies and big game trophies accumulated during “scientific” yachting trips. The last and grandest of Vanderbilt’s yachts was the 285-foot Alva, designed by Cox and Stevens, launched in 1931 at the Kiel Yard in Germany, and named after his suffragette mother, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Yachting Magazine described Alva as “the original over-the-top superyacht.” Besides paneled salons with marble fireplaces, a private gym, and accommodations for a crew of 50, she was outfitted with her own seaplane.

Before exploring indoors, let’s leave the courtyard and make a clockwise circuit of the exterior elevations. The first image below shows the outer facade of the Memorial Wing. That’s a garage door at ground level (we’ll go inside shortly), and a slice of the bell tower behind the tree.

Big house, right? The over-scaled wall-mounted sundial presides over a small formal garden on the south side of the glazed arcade.

The ceremonial entrance to Eagle’s Nest is at the eastern end of the arcade. The interior layout, as my late mother used to say, “grew like Topsy.” This lent character but not a lot of “flow.”

Immediately left inside the front door is the first of two principal stairways. Beneath it is one of my favorite features in big old houses, a phone room.

The entrance hall is a double height affair with a bedroom gallery on the second floor. A set of shallow stone steps at its far end leads to an iron and glass door beyond which an enclosed porch overlooks Northport Harbor. Amusing photo blowups in one corner of the porch show Mr. & Mrs. Vanderbilt at El Morocco, with Coco Chanel in the background.

Below, to the right through the door at the end of the porch, is a paneled study. A famous photo of Vanderbilt’s sister, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, sits in a frame on his desk.

The drawing room is past the study and up the second of the principal stairs.

A tapestry hangs above the stair. The super-sized sundial is on the other side of the wall behind it. The beautiful paneling, salvaged from some ruined old joint, is unfortunately obscured by Xmas decorations.

Back on the main floor, directly below the drawing room, a guest corridor accesses two very elegant guestrooms. I’m told the green one was occupied by the Windsors, how often I cannot say.

Let’s return along the guest corridor, cross the porch and have a look at the dining room, which is interesting, if not exactly grand.

A short corridor, with dumbwaiter to the downstairs kitchen, connects the dining room to a serving pantry that hasn’t changed since Mrs. Vanderbilt died.

Beyond the pantry a corridor leads to spacious maids’ rooms, some with water views.

Back by the dumbwaiter, a stair descends to the basement kitchen, now largely obscured by storage.

The kitchen above is connected by ramp, and second dumbwaiter, to a second kitchen on a lower level. This is the first time I’ve seen a house with two kitchens plus a serving pantry stacked vertically on top of one another.

In 1921, in the wake of wartime service in the navy, Vanderbilt was promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander. I’ll bet you could have eaten off the basement floor of his Centerport mansion when he lived here. The image below shows a portion of the servants’ dining room, two floors below the drawing room. The french doors open onto a lawn terrace facing south.

I always want to see basements, but having got that out of the way, we can get back to the good stuff upstairs. At the top of the main stair is a gallery overlooking the entry hall. A family guest room located over the study is at one end of the gallery. The owners’ suites, located above the dining and maids’ rooms, are at the far end of an adjoining corridor. We’ll visit the guest room first and its attached bath which, as my readers will agree, is nothing short of fabulous.

My hospitable guide, Vanderbilt curator Stephanie Gress, makes sure I won’t get lost.

A stone corridor proceeds north to the owners’ suites.

This very large sun-flooded bedroom belonged to Mr. Vanderbilt. His bathroom is through a door on the south wall.

middle is a small breakfast room, which seems remote from the pantry, but that’s what they told me. Hard to imagine a nicer place to have coffee and read the paper.

Beyond the breakfast room is Rosamond Vanderbilt’s bedroom, whose look, I must say, is exactly up my alley. The framed Fabiano pastel is of Mrs. Vanderbilt. Adjoining her bedroom is a high 1930’s dressing room and bath that say it all about Depression-era chic.

Mrs. Vanderbilt’s clothes were protected behind sliding glass wardrobe doors in a room-sized closet tucked behind a dressing room panel.

The door in the image below is the courtyard entrance to the Memorial Wing. That Scheherazade screen above it covers a window in Mrs, Vanderbilt’s closet. Her suite occupies about 25% of this wing, added in 1935. The other 75% houses 3 of Mr. Vanderbilt’s 5 museum galleries that display his personal natural history and ethnographic collections. Marine invertebrates and aboriginal shields may or may not float your boat, but the scope and professional presentation of the collections is impressive.

I imagine Vanderbilt as a man in the grand tradition of eccentric British aristocrats, obsessed with things like cuckoo clocks and hair brushes. The hall below houses marine invertebrates; the one in the image below it displays birds, butterflies and ethnographic artifacts. A separate Hall of Fishes, built between 1929 and 1930 in the same Ruritanian style as the rest of the place, stands beside Little Neck Road.

This brilliant handrail, mounted along the stair to a lower level garage, is the work of the great Samuel Yellin (1885-1940), a master blacksmith whose ironwork is all over Eagles’ Nest.

That’s a 1928 Lincoln sitting on the turntable.

On the 2nd floor of the Memorial Wing is the Sudan Trophy Room, dedicated to Vanderbilt’s deceased son (hence the name, ‘Memorial Wing’). It’s filled with big game trophies bagged by the son during a three-week safari in 1931.

In November of 1933 William K. Vanderbilt Jr., age 26, disembarked his father’s yacht at Miami and began driving north to visit his mother. Cousin Erskine Gwynne came along for the ride. Also in the car was a chauffeur named J. W. Guppy, more groom/postilion/relief driver than actual chauffeur. On November 14th, outside Bunnell, FL, with young Vanderbilt at the wheel, the car was moving so fast that a bird crashed through the windshield and lacerated his face. After getting stitched up in Jacksonville, and installing a new windshield on the car, Vanderbilt and companions continued north.

The next day, cruising at 75 on a country road outside Ridgeland, S.C., Vanderbilt sideswiped a parked fruit truck, ripped off the entire right side of the car — being a European right-hand drive model, that’s where he was sitting — hurled both himself and Gwynne into the air and trapped Guppy under the overturned wreck. Gwynne, amazingly, wasn’t badly hurt; Guppy was pinned under the car but survived; Vanderbilt landed hard on the cement road surface and died in ten minutes. Does this sound like alcohol was involved? To me, that would be a yes.

More Yellin ironwork in the courtyard.

There’s an entire wing we still haven’t seen. Entered at the opposite end of the arcade from the front door, it is full of handsome bedrooms used today as offices or meeting rooms, or chock-a-block with stored furniture and files. Coincident with construction of the Memorial Wing, a grand paneled library was added to the west side of this building, separated from it by what they call the Moorish Court.

Beneath the library, accessed from outdoors, is the Habitat, a collection of nine natural history dioramas designed by the American Museum of Natural History.

My last stop was a trip to the top of the bell tower for a look at Vanderbilt’s son’s room. A faint vibration of sadness still hangs in the air here — or perhaps I just imagined it.

Seen on google earth or Bing bird’s eye, this part of Long Island appears heavily developed. On the ground, however, and especially close to the water, it retains much of the enchanting feel of woods and water that lured the disappointed Vanderbilt here over a century ago.

On New Years’ Day, 1944, the Times noted that “William K. Vanderbilt, who has been ill and confined to his home at 651 Park Avenue for some time, is improving … (and) … expected to resume his business activities within a few weeks.” Six days later, he was dead of heart disease at the age of 65. Vanderbilt’s will left Eagles’ Nest and an endowment of $2,000,000 to Suffolk County, subject to a life tenancy by his wife. Rosamond Vanderbilt died at Eagles’ Nest in 1947 and the estate has been operated as the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum ever since.

In 1932, Vanderbilt produced a full-length film called “Over the Seven Seas with Mr. & Mrs. Vanderbilt.” This period travelogue, complete with dramatic music and intervals of the new colored film technology, documented a 29,000 mile ’round the world cruise on the Alva.

Critics of the day noted an unfortunate lack of scenes showing the interiors of the yacht, which of course everyone wanted to see. Notwithstanding which, the film’s many highlights include: WKV in immaculate blazer, white ducks and captain’s hat at the wheel of his enormous ship (he was, incidentally, a fully licensed master); Mrs. Vanderbilt in chic 1930’s sport clothes looking amused by the whole undertaking; Vanderbilt’s son-in-law clowning good-naturedly for the camera; Vanderbilt onshore wearing another immaculate getup — this time a blue double-breasted blazer — and chatting with a naked Fiji Islander covered in paint and feathers; hokey South Pacific festival dances; and everything overseen by a smiling crew who clearly recognized a good boss when they saw one.

Also of note is the narration, done by Vanderbilt himself in the unassuming, unaffected early twentieth century accent of the American upper class — a veritable “Rosetta Stone,” if you’re looking for one.

The videos above and below, like the vintage images throughout, are courtesy of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, and will take you to edited sections of the film. I loved Eagles’ Nest; the link is

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