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Visiting The Roosevelts, Dropping In On The Vanderbilts

May 2024
1min read

For anyone interested in history, the $1.50 ticket that gets you into Springwood must be one of the best bargains in the country. Armed with one, you can wander through the Roosevelt home; visit the Roosevelt Library, with its galleries devoted to the lives of both FDR and his wife; and then go upriver for a tour of the Frederick W. Vanderbilt mansion just two miles north on Route 9, the old Albany Post Road. (A visit to Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill Cottage is free, but the short bus ride to and from Springwood, which is available between April and October, costs $1.95.)

FDR was fond of contrasting what he called the “comparatively simple style of living” that he believed his mother’s home exemplified with the Vanderbilts’ establishment. His secretary William Hassett once tried to puzzle out in his diary exactly what the President had in mind when he made that comparison. “There are varying degrees of simplicity,” he wrote. “I doubt if many rigors went with the life he speaks of. It probably was not Spartan. What he means, I suppose, is that the old-fashioned families didn’t show off.”

Roosevelt’s upriver neighbors, however, sprang from a clan that included some of the most ebullient architectural show-offs in our history. Frederick Vanderbilt’s mansion is an Italian Renaissance palazzo built in 1897 of Indiana limestone at a cost of $660,000, designed by McKim, Mead & White, and filled with furnishings that must have added up to almost as much. The relentlessly imposing building nicely epitomizes the excesses the New Deal made far more difficult to achieve, and it may have been in part that built-in lesson that persuaded FDR to help have the Vanderbilt estate designated a national historic site in 1940.

The Vanderbilt mansion’s interiors are well worth seeing, the ancient trees and landscaped grounds are lovely, and the views up and down the Hudson from the lawn are among the handsomest on the river.

—G.C.W.

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