The Vanderbilts were once the richest family in America. Bankrolled by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s vast shipping and railroad empire, they spent money in an astonishing fashion during the Gilded Age, until it all disappeared, in what has become known as ‘The Fall of the House of the Vanderbilts’.
The most storied family dynasties in American history, the Vanderbilts built Grand Central Terminal, created the Whitney Museum of American Art, won the America’s cup on three occasions, founded The Jockey Club, bred championship winning horses and even invented contract bridge.
But the overriding love of the Vanderbilt family was building mansions. All along the East Coast, Vanderbilts built grand townhouses, astonishing summer resorts and vast, opulent mansions.
Not content with just one grand mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, they built ten. One of their extravagant homes, on West 58th street, had a staggering 154 rooms – the largest family home New York has ever seen.
Whilst some of the Vanderbilt descendants went on to create great works, Cornelius’ son, William Henry, himself the richest American in the 1870s, would build Grand Central Terminal – others frittered the family riches away.
Perhaps none more so than his grandson, William Kissam Vanderbilt II. With untold wealth at his disposal, he pursued the lifestyle of a playboy millionaire, enjoying racing cars, and sailing the world in one of his ten yachts.
We’ve come to Centerport, on the North Shore of Long Island, to explore the old, stately home of William Kissam Vanderbilt II. Once known as the Eagles Nest, much of its opulence has given way to faded grandeur.
Perhaps one of the more visible signs of the loss of his family’s vast fortune, is William’s abandoned salt water pool.
A glittering archetype of the Gilded Age, William built the Eagle’s Nest using the same architects, Warren & Wetmore, his grandfather had hired to build Grand Central Terminal. Called the Eagles Nest, the spectacular mansion and grounds occupied 43 acres along the fashionable ‘gold coast’. Lavish, and somewhat gaudy, resembling more Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, the Eagles Nest came complete with a golf course, seaplane hangar and marina. At night, the heir to America’s richest fortune slept soundly on Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign bed.
William Kissam Vanderbilt II also built his own personal museum, just for himself and his guests. Guests who included Charles Lindbergh, Errol Flynn and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
With cost no object, William built a extraordinary miniature version of the American Museum of Natural History, resplendent with similar life size painted panoramas of wildlife habitats and taxidermy hunted animals. There is even a whale, hanging from the ceiling.
But perhaps most remarkable of all, was his swimming pool. At the foot of his 43 acre Eagle’s Nest, and overlooking Long Island Sound, Vanderbilt built an enormous 70,000 gallon saltwater pool, the water being drawn from the sound itself.
But as the lavish spending continued, the memories of the Gilded Age soon faded—one of their direct descendants died penniless and the last of their 10 mansions on 5th Avenue was torn down. The so called ‘Fall of the Vanderbilts’ saw the Eagle’s Nest decline.
William Kissam Vanderbilt II’s will left the Eagle’s Nest to Suffolk County, with the proviso that it be turned into the Vanderbilt Museum, featuring his extensive natural history collection. A fascinating, well appointed museum, complete with a planetarium, it certainly lives up to William’s hope “for the use, education and enjoyment of the public.”
But the extravagant salt water pool lies as abandoned as the Manderley of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Mediterranean-style sculptures are in ruins, the changing rooms forgotten, and the pool filled in with earth and weeds. Where once one of America’s most famous sons entertained such luminaries as Coco Chanel, Irving Berlin and Samuel Goldwyn, the sounds of summer lawn cocktail parties around the pool are long gone.