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On a recent trip to the Hudson River Valley to tour the Vanderbilt Mansion Hyde Park in Dutchess County, N.Y., I learned about the various roles horses played in a late 19th Century Gilded Age estate.
The 600-acre estate was completed in 1898 for Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who built the family fortune. Frederick Vanderbilt was wealthy in his own right as owner of the Grand Central Terminal and Western Union. The 54-room mansion was designed for Frederick and his wife Louise by McKim, Mead & White, America’s preeminent architectural firm at the time, and is representative of the neoclassical Beaux-Arts architecture.
According to the The New York Times on October 18, 1898, the Vanderbilts couldn’t wait to move in, “Mr. and Mrs. Frederick W. Vanderbilt, who have been at Newport for the past ten days, have passed through the city on their way up to Hyde-Park-on-Hudson. Their new villa there is nearly completed, and they will remain in the country until Thanksgiving.”
In fact, the estate was used only for spring and fall residency. The childless couple would arrive from Palm Beach in March or April for Easter and stay until the Fourth of July when they went to Maine, Newport, or Europe for the summer. They would return around Labor Day and then head back to New York City in mid-November for the opening of the opera season. The new urban elites needed a place to relax and enjoy country living and the sporting life. In a 1895 Troy Press article on the Vanderbilts it was noted, “In their Hudson house there is more freedom and a joviality, the expanding tonic of the wide scenery on every side.”
In The Park
The large estate was split in half by the old Albany Post Road, with a “farm side” and a “park side” that contained the mansion, the greenhouses, formal tiered gardens, tennis courts, as well as two boathouses and a railroad station on the Hudson River. It also held the coach house, built in 1895 and designed by R.H. Robertson. The Vanderbilts’ fancy carriage and riding horses were shipped from New York City, by special rail car, around May 1 and stayed until December 1. When the couple was not in residence, the horses and ponies would be ridden by the children of staff members.
The 16-foot carriage roads were made from the natural windings of the forest paths on the estate. The road’s surface used the Frederick Law Olmsted-invented macadamized pavement, where smaller smooth stones were put under pressure to create a smoother surface that was rough enough for a horse to get a tight foothold, yet suited to the light pleasure carriages of the very rich. Olmsted first installed this type of carriage road in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1858.
Mrs Vanderbilt like to ride in carriages, according to The Historic Resource Study for Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. She was “a very handsome woman, so queenly in her carriage as to make her seem taller than her inches.” Every day at 3 pm despite the weather, she took a solitary drive with her coachman, and later her chauffeur. Mrs Vanderbilt was 12 years older than her husband and by the early 1920s, she no longer enjoyed riding with her guests due to her age.
The “riding parties” held at Hyde Park were legendary, where young ladies and women would take carriage rides during the 1890s around the estate or ride astride later in the 1920s with the men. On one weekend in 1924, Mr Vanderbilt gave an estate tour on horseback. Afterward, afternoon casual tea was held in the Elliptical Hall of the mansion. Lounging in their “riding togs” guests sipping tea perched on overstuffed velvet and silk sofas with tiger and bear skin rugs at their feet. Lush palms sprouting from Ming dynasty pots and American Beauty roses, a favorite of the Vanderbilts, bloomed in tall silver vases around the marble fireplace.
According to the book Vanderbilt Mansion by Charles Snell, “The Vanderbilts enjoyed their winter sports during their weekend visits to the Pavillion. Their particular delight was sleighing. On a crisp winter day, the Post Road would be alive with handsome turnouts and high-stepping horses. The air would then ring with the sound of sleigh bells as the wealthy Hyde Parkers dashed about on their snow-covered highways.”
The Vanderbilts lived in the 16-room Pavillion or guest house in the winter when the mansion was closed. During Christmas Mrs Vanderbilt would drive a sleigh with gifts for the children of the town of Hyde Park. A Gilded Age Mrs Claus perhaps?
At The Farm
Across the road on the farm side, Mr Vanderbilt was very proud of his prize-winning purebred Belgian horses and Jersey cattle. He also grew flowers and produce that routinely took awards at the Dutchess County Fair alongside his livestock. The self-sufficient estate had a dairy, poultry operation, and a farm that fed the family and 60 staff members and their families. He employed teamsters for farming and coachmen for driving. But stablemen, horseman, and grooms were needed for all the horses whether they worked the farm side or the park side.
Despite their heavy workload on the estate, Mr Vanderbilt had fancy brass harnesses made for his 15 Belgians, calling them “regular show horses.” They were broke and trained by the horsemen and cleaned and fed by the stablemen. Three teams were used for haying in summer, hauling leaves in autumn, and snow plowing, hauling ice, firewood, coal, and ash in winter. Four horses pulling a wooden V-plow “up to their bellies” in snow ahead of the plow cleared the carriage roads. They plowed the pond before they harvested ice, dragging 24-inch-square ice cakes daily to the coolers in the dairy, the mansion, and the employees’ houses.
When Horses Left Hyde Park
Historians at the US National Park Service, which owns Hyde Park, call 1910 a watershed year for the estate. For it was in that year that the coach house, which originally housed carriages and stables, was converted to include a garage. The heavy horses used on the farm and across the park landscape to plow the land, haul materials, and clear roads had already been replaced by tractors and trucks. The fine carriages were pushed aside by the automobile. The property had now become reliant on fossil fuels to feed the “work horses” of the farm versus using the feed from the farm to fuel the work horses.
And then the landscaped changed. After Mrs Vanderbilt died in 1926, the widower spent the remainder of his days at Hyde Park until he died in 1938. By 1940, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site was established, using just the park side. To learn more visit nps.gov/vama/index.htm.