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View of mansion from the north.

A Mansion in the Making

Work had scarcely started on the mansion when serious structural defects were discovered in the walls of the center section. Complete demolition was deemed necessary. Vanderbilt balked at first, maintaining that he would have built along different lines had he felt there was nothing of the old house to be saved, Mrs. Vanderbilt was unhappy, too. In a letter to architect McKim, then in Egypt, his partner William R. Mead stated: ". . . when it was found the old house had to come down, Mrs. Vanderbilt kicked over the traces, and was disposed to build an English house, as she called it."

But the architects prevailed. New plans were drawn with the center section rooms arranged along virtually the same lines as in the old house. The exterior features, including the projecting west portico that the Vanderbilts had particularly admired, were retained.

The new plans were ready in August 1896, and demolition of the old Langdon mansion was completed in September. Excavation of the deep basements for the new house was completed by hand and the foundations were finished before heavy snows in January 1897 forced suspension of the work.

As soon as the weather broke, activity resumed on the mansion project. Brickwork was completed by November, and electrical, plumbing, and heating systems were installed.

The heavy construction was barely completed when plasterers, stone carvers, and other artisans swarmed over the building. Working under the direction of the noted interior decorators, Ogden Codman and Georges A. Glaenzer, these men installed ceilings, wall tapestries, marble mantels, columns and pilasters, and beautiful mosaics and woodwork. Many of these items came from the Emperor Napoleon's former chateau of Malmaison near Paris, also owned by Vanderbilt. A mural was painted by H. Siddons Mowbray on the drawing room ceiling.

Brougham carriage used by the Vanderbilts.

The curious public was barred from the estate during these operations for fear of damage to the exquisite and costly decorations. But speculation concerning the interior of the mansion could not be stopped. One reporter, commenting on the number of skilled workmen and artists who daily tramped into the building, surmised that ". . . the inside will be as rich and beautiful as the outside is massive and splendid." Another writer seemed gripped with nostalgia for a simpler day when he wrote: "The modest dwellings which satisfied wealthy landowners along the Hudson half a century ago . . . are disappearing. On their sites are rising baronial halls fit for royalty. . . "

By April 1899, the furniture was being installed in the mansion, and on May 12 the Vanderbilts gave their first house party there. Guests for this auspicious occasion arrived at Hyde Park by special train.

Actual cost of the new mansion, unfurnished and without fixtures, was $660,000. The total cost of all construction and improvements, from May 1895 to March 1899, has been estimated at $2,250,000. And this was an age when a man worked all day for a dollar.

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Last Modified: Mon, Mar 4 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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