The history of the 211-acre grounds surrounding the Vanderbilt Mansion goes back much further than that of the house.
On April 18, 1705, Peter Fauconnier and three other men were granted a patent for 3,600 acres of scenic land on the east side of the Hudson River. Fauconnier had fled his native France as a religious exile, arriving in America by way of England. Here he became secretary to Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, Governor of the Province of New York, who signed the patent papers in the name of Her Majesty Queen Anne. The land was divided among the grantees; Fauconnier's portion, undeveloped in his lifetime appears to have passed at his death to his daughter, Magdalene Valleau. Mrs. Valleau sold her interest in the patent to her son-in-law, Dr. John Bard, who later purchased the entire patent.
The name Hyde Park was applied to the patent lands. Perhaps Fauconnier gave the name to his share out of respect for the Governor and it later extended to the holdings of Dr. Bard; or possibly the name came into use during the years of estate development by the Bard family. At any rate, the town of Hyde Park, established in 1821, took its name from the estate.
Dr. Bard, noted physician and pioneer in hygiene, had his first house built on the property about 1764. He continued to maintain his principal residence in New York City until about 1772, when he moved to Hyde Park. A new house, which he called the Red House, was built just north of the present St. James Episcopal Church, opposite the north gate of the National Historic Site. He disposed of approximately 1,500 acres of the land, and developed the remainder as his estate.
After the Revolution, Dr. Bard returned to private practice in New York City where he assisted his son, Dr. Samuel Bard, as attending physician to President George Washington. The elder Bard retired again to Hyde Park in 1798. Before his death a year later, the property was transferred to his son.
Dr. Samuel Bard built a house at Hyde Park in 1795, the first to stand on the site of Vanderbilt Mansion. A large house on the high elevation rising about 300 feet above the Hudson, it commanded a superb view of the river and of the mountains beyond. A garden was laid out on the land west of the Albany Post Road, and by 1820 a greenhouse, said to have been the first one in Dutchess County, was erected. In addition to his interest in trees and improvement of the grounds, Dr. Samuel Bard undertook experiments in horticulture and farming. He imported fruits from England, France, and Italy, and vines from Madeira. The Society of Dutchess County for the Promotion of Agriculture made him its first president in 1806. In this position he encouraged the use of clover as a crop and gypsum as a fertilizer. Dr. Samuel Bard lived at Hyde Park until his death in 1821 at the age of 79. His death followed within 24 hours that of his wife, Mary.
Their only surviving son, William Bard, inherited Hyde Park which had been reduced by land sales to 540 acres. He lived there only until 1828, when he sold the estate to Dr. David Hosack of New York City. A former professor of natural history at Columbia College, Dr. Hosack had become a partner of Dr. Samuel Bard and had taken over the latter's medical practice when he retired.
Dr. Hosack spent vast sums of money for the improvement of his property. He was to create the first of the great Hudson Valley estates.
Deeply interested in botany, he revived horticultural experimentation and gardening at Hyde Park. Many of the rare specimens that today grace the lawns and gardens probably date from the period immediately following Dr. Hosack's acquisition of the estate. Andre Parmentier, a Belgian landscape gardener, was engaged to lay out roads, walks, and scenic vistas.
In 1829, under the guidance of Martin E. Thompson of the architectural firm of Town and Thompson, Dr. Hosack remodeled and enlarged the house built by Dr. Samuel Bard in 1795. A new carriage house and gate lodges were also designed and constructed.
The new beauty of the Hyde Park estate carried its fame throughout this country and to Europe. Many notables came to Hyde Park to visit Dr. Hosack and to enjoy the scene. Among them were Philip Hone, diarist and former Mayor of New York; Washington Irving, noted author; the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck; Jared Sparks, American historian and editor of the North American Review; Capt. Thomas Hamilton, British novelist and adventurer; Harriet Martineau; Dr. James Thacher, physician and biographer; and the young English artist Thomas Kelah Wharton, who made several engravings of the estate.
In 1840, some 5 years after Dr. Hosack's death, John Jacob Astor bought the mansion tract, containing about 125 acres of land west of the Albany Post Road. Astor almost immediately made a gift of this purchase to his daughter Dorothea Langdon and her five children. One of her sons, Walter Langdon, Jr., eventually bought out the property interests of his mother, sisters, and brothers, and by 1852 had become sole owner.
The handsome house originally built by Dr. Samuel Bard, then enlarged by Dr. Hosack, was completely destroyed by fire in June 1845. A new mansion was built on the site of the destroyed house in 1847. By 1872, Langdon had reunited the farmland east of the Post Road through purchase. In October of that year, fire destroyed the splendid barns that had been Dr. Hosack's pride. Three years later, Langdon built the gardener's cottage and toolhouse, the only buildings still standing that antedate the Vanderbilt era. Until late in life, the Langdon's spent much of their time in Europe, and the Hyde Park mansion was closed for years. In 1882, however, Langdon returned to Hyde Park, living there the life of a country gentleman. There were no surviving children when he died in 1894 at the age of 72. When Hyde Park was offered for sale the next year, Frederick W. Vanderbilt purchased it.