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Frederick W. Vanderbilt
Frederick W. Vanderbilt in his later years.

Society in the Hudson Valley

March and April were generally spent at Palm Beach, Fla. Here the Vanderbilts and their guests would cruise on their yacht in southern waters. For variety they sometimes leased a large estate on the West Coast, the family making the trip there and back in its private railroad car. The Vanderbilts would return to Hyde Park about Easter, remaining until shortly after the Fourth of July. Between then and Labor Day, they usually went to one of the several summer mansions that they owned at various times. The first of these was Rough Point, at Newport, R.I. They also had a retreat which they called their Japanese Camp on Upper St. Regis Lake in the Adirondacks; it had been built by 15 "expert mechanics" brought over from Japan. From 1913 until Mrs. Vanderbilt's death in 1926, they went to Cornfield, a residence at Bar Harbor, Maine.

Part of the summer might be spent in Europe. The Vanderbilts would cross the Atlantic on an ocean liner, having sent the yacht on ahead. Then they would pick up the yacht and cruise along the coast of Europe or in the Mediterranean. In his later years, Vanderbilt spent much of his time at Hyde Park, but would make an occasional summer trip on his yacht.

There were several reasons why so many men of wealth chose the Hudson River Valley as the locale for their country estates. Scenic charm at a convenient distance from New York City attracted some. Others, like Vanderbilt, found the rolling countryside ideal for the pursuit of interests in purebred livestock and in horticulture.

The barns on the Vanderbilt estate, now privately owned.

Two events of great interest to these gentleman farmers were held each autumn. There was keen competition among them at the annual flower show of the Dutchess Horticultural Society in the State Armory at Poughkeepsie, and at the Dutchess County Fair, originally held at Poughkeepsie, and after 1919 at Rhinebeck. Vanderbilt always came away with his share of prizes for his plants and flowers, and for his garden produce, Belgian horses, and Jersey cattle.

For the sports-minded, the Hudson River provided both active and spectator events. Vanderbilt was a member of the Hudson River Yacht Club, some of whose members also enjoyed ice yachting on the frozen river. Sharing in this thrilling pastime were Archibald Rogers, John A. and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Samuel B. Sexton, Edward Wales, and Thomas Newbold.

A spring attraction that appealed to many of the Dutchess County residents was the college regatta held each year on the Hudson at Poughkeepsie. Vanderbilt was a regular contributor to this rowing event. The presence of his yacht in the spectator line was frequently mentioned in the papers.

The Vanderbilts enjoyed winter sports during their weekend visits at the pavilion. Their particular delight was sleighing. On a crisp winter day, the Post Road would be alive with handsome turnouts and highstepping horses. The air would then ring with the sound of sleighbells as the wealthy Hyde Parkers dashed about the snow-covered highways.

Spring and autumn found the members of the Dutchess Hunt Club riding to the hounds on their swiftest horses. All the fine livery of a pageant brightened these occasions.

Leading all other events for color and magnificence at the Hyde Park estates were the weekend house parties. The guest lists on these occasions included European nobility, and leaders in the fields of business, politics, and the arts.

Blue room
Blue room, largest of the guest rooms.

Those invited to Vanderbilt Mansion were accommodated in lavishly appointed guest rooms, all of them furnished in 18th-century French style. Each room had its distinct color scheme, with the motif carried into the bathroom accessories. When the number of guests exceeded the number of guest rooms in the mansion, the overflow was housed in the pavilion.

Guests had the option of having breakfast in their rooms. The food would be served on special breakfast sets that matched the color scheme of the rooms. Those who preferred eating in the dining room found the small family table at the east end of the room covered with a white cloth and set with red china. In the center was a large swivel tray, or Lazy Susan, containing coffee and food for the meal. Guests were expected to seat themselves, turn the tray, and choose from it whatever they wished. If anyone was late, fresh coffee and warm food were brought up from the kitchen and placed on the tray.

When luncheon was served for the family or intimate friends, the small table was again used. If a formal luncheon was being served, the larger table in the center of the room, which could seat up to 30 people, would be set.

Dining room
Dining room, family table at far end.

Details for formal affairs were arranged weeks in advance by Mrs. Vanderbilt with her cooks, butlers, and gardeners to avoid last-minute slip-ups. On such occasions, the hostess made it a point to blend the color of the flowers, the cloth, and the china. Thus, if yellow flowers were being used, the lace cloth would have a yellow satin undercover. The centerpiece might be an inlaid gold mirror and gilt vase, filled with fresh yellow roses. Scattered about the table would be six or eight smaller gold vases of flowers. The service would be gold-plated, and the china would be white, with a gold stripe and the family monogram in the center.

The courses served at such a luncheon included hors d'ouvres, and an egg dish, followed by an entree. The main course would be a choice of chicken, turkey, or game. This was followed by an elaborate dessert, with cakes, fruits, and candies.

The family and intimate friends took their afternoon tea in the library. On more formal occasions, tea was served in the drawing room. Guests gathered in the gold room for sherry before dinner.

The color of the flowers, cloth, and china would again be blended for dinner. A monogrammed cloth covered the large table on the occasion of a formal dinner. The centerpiece might be a large silver bowl, a yachting trophy, filled with pink flowers, on a silver tray. Candelabra, fruit and bon-bon dishes, and the flatware would also be of silver. China would be of a fine Italian variety, engraved with pink flowers. Courses for a formal supper included soup, fish, and an entree. The main course was a choice of game, meat, or fowl. This was followed by dessert, fruit, and candies.

Drawing room
Drawing room.

When finished at table, the ladies retired to the drawing room, where demitasse and liqueur were served. The gentlemen remained in the dining room for coffee, liqueur, and cigars. In about half an hour they would join the ladies in the drawing room for cards or other amusements.

Sometimes dinner was followed by a formal dance held in the drawing room. House guests were joined by other guests, neighbors, and their visitors. Music was furnished by an orchestra from New York City, and the dancing stopped promptly at midnight on a Saturday evening.

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

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