Tuesday, January 26, 2016


While I was in Newport, Rhode Island, I visited a bookstore and bought a book about the history of the Vanderbilt family.  I had heard of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who had amassed the wealth, and the Vanderbilt name was linked with rich elite, but the name was not as commonly referred to as Rockerfeller or Roosevelt so I didn’t know much of anything about them.  Perhaps if Grand Central Station had been named Vanderbilt Center, they’d still be more in the forefront.

What I learned was that Cornelius Vanderbilt was born and raised on a farm on Staten Island.  When he was a teenager, he worked a ferry service shuttling people and produce from the farms on Staten Island to various docks in Manhattan.  While continuing his ferry service, he went to work managing the steamboat service of Thomas Gibbons who wanted to drive his competition to either sell out to him or go out of business.   

Cornelius to New Jersey with his wife Sophia, also his first cousin, and she opened a profitable inn there.  For the California Gold Rush, Vanderbilt turned to ocean shipping.   Then he bought the stock of the Harlem Railroad, made it profitable, and the rest is history..

The competitiveness was passed through the generations – his grandson Cornelius II bought the block on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets to build the biggest house ever constructed in the US.  And why?  Because he wanted to outdo his friends and neighbors.  By contrast, the amasser of the
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt House
10 Washington Place, NY
wealth, the Commodore moved from New Jersey to a relatively moderate home at 10 Washington Place (torn down to build a 6-story commercial building in 1900) which is now owned by NYU.  I was there while it was being renovated and took a walk inside. 

After his first wife (Sophia) died in 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt eloped in 1869 with another cousin, 43 years his junior.  Her name was Frank Armstrong.  A year later he financially sponsored Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tinny in become members of the New York Stock Exchange.  There were rumors that Vanderbilt had an affair with Tinny, also much younger than he.  The Woodhulls made a fortune on Wall Street and started their newspaper Woodull & Clafflin’s Weekly which published the first English version of Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.  Did the Commodore read it, I wonder.

Commodore Vanderbilt donated land to the Moravian Church in Staten Island and that is where he and some other members of his family are buried.  I wanted to see it, so I took a trip over to Staten Island.  

I only visited Staten Island twice while I lived in Brooklyn.  I drove across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (this is the bridge in Saturday Night Fever) just for fun and was surprised when I was charged a hefty toll to get back to Brooklyn.  The second visit, I took the ferry from Manhattan.  Staten Island doesn’t have a subway (underground), but it does have a train which I took to the New Dorp stop and walked up to the cemetery.  The feeling being there was like a fishing village.  The area isn't as densely populated or over-constructed as the other boroughs, and the feeling is lighter, newer.

I knew from the book that the Vanderbilt Mausoleum was at the rear of the cemetery and so that’s where I headed.  At the back, I passed a vaulted exit with locked iron gates and couldn’t find the Vanderbilts.  I asked some people in the cemetery and they directed me back to that vaulted exit.  That was the entrance to the Vanderbilt portion of the cemetery.  I found my way passed the gate and into a weird, silent, dead feeling.  I walked about a quarter of a mile up a narrow road, passing lots of fallen dead trees and not seeing or hearing a living creature – not a bird or squirrel – the whole way.

Vanderbilt Tomb Interior
At the top, the feeling was creepy.  The Vanderbilt Mausoleum resembles a small church with three sets of doors at the front and small vaulted windows above them.  At one time the doors were iron gates, but in the 1960s a woman pulled on the gates trying to get inside the tomb and the gates fell on her and killed her.  So, the gates have been replaced with gray steel industrial doors with padlocks.  The windows above the doors have been stopped up with concrete blocks. 

It is difficult to describe the feeling – sadness, loneliness, desolation.  But certainly the place felt empty.   I didn’t linger.  I would never want to go back there.

It was only when I was walking back down through the cemetery that I realized I was walking on the farmland where Cornelius Vanderbilt grew up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


One Christmas while I was living in Brooklyn, I rented a car and drove with my son to Newport, Rhode Island.  I’d wanted to see the summer “cottages” of the one-percenters of the Gilded Age that line Bellevue Avenue.  My interest had been captured years before when I watch a documentary produced by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Newport is not a busy place in the winter – no regattas, no tourists to speak of – just a quiet island town with little pubs and restaurants.  It’s as quaint as an old-fashioned Christmas card, especially with snow on the ground.  We stayed on an island just off Newport and faced the town. 

Because it was Christmas, only a few of the “cottage” homes were open for tours and we chose The th Street.  Still standing at the southeast corner of 64th Street and Fifth Avenue, it’s now a 9-unit coop.  The coops currently sell in the neighborhood of $25 million and rent in the neighborhood of $150,000.  Even though the front door is still on East 64th Street, the building uses the address 828 Fifth Avenue as it is more posh.
Elms and The Breakers.  The Elms was the summer home of coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind, at one time the largest owner of coal properties in the world.  He built a 6-story house in Manhattan at 2 East 64

The Elms was built in 1899-1901 at 60,000 square feet and four stories – including the basement.  If you look at the photograph, two floors show, but there is a deceptive wall above the second story.  That wall is 8 feet high and it surrounds the servants’ quarters.  Berwind felt that servants should serve without ever being seen – except in the dining room or if specifically called into a room.  The servants could sit outside on the walkway surrounding their quarters, but should they ever be seen trying to look over that wall, they would be dismissed immediately.

The Elms had a servants’ staircase, and the chamber maids used it to get to work in the bedrooms on the second floor AFTER the rooms were vacated.  Guests might leave shoes in the hallway for buffing or clothing to be cleaned, but the servants were only allowed to pick them up at night after the guests had gone to bed. 

Deliveries to the house were made underground as well.  Coal was delivered at a door at the curb that lead to an underground tunnel from the street to the coal bins.  Food and other supplies were delivered to a covered lower driveway on the other side of the house.
Berwind’s psychology is a bit mystifying.  Perhaps seeing his servants’ lives contrasted with the splendor of the house and his life made him feel guilty.  At any rate, the tour made him very unlikable.

The Breakers, just down the street, is the same size at Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) and was built by Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Alice and Cornelius II had a large townhouse at 1 West 57th Street, but feeling that their friends and neighbors might outdo them, they bought the entire block on Fifth Avenue from 57th to 58th and built the largest house EVER in the United States.  The house in Manhattan has been torn down and Bergdorf Goodman department store now stands on that property.  I do not know if Bergdorf’s is as large as the destroyed Vanderbilt house.

Alice and Cornelius II outdid their neighbors in Newport by building a house just over 120,000 square feet on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  Only half of the square footage is actually usable because there is a large atrium in the center of the house with balconies on four sideson each floor.  The bathrooms are the size of a large bedroom and the kitchen is massive, and kindly, the servants were allowed to be seen.

Next door to The Breakers is Marble House, which we toured only externally.  It was built by Cornelius’s brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt who built the current Grand Central Station and his wife (at the time), Alva who was very independent and a suffragette.  She built a little tea house on the edge of the cliff and had a temporary railroad for the staff to bring all the tea and food.  The tracks were put away after tea time was over.  Well, if your husband works for the railroad…

She still owned the house when she divorced William and married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (Belmont Stakes is named for his father August Belmont).  Belmont was a playboy addicted to gambling and absinthe.  However, along with Marble House at Newport, Alva shared a home that Belmont built there when he received his inheritance – Belcourt.  It only merited a drive-by.  

Alva continued to host afternoon teas at her little tea house on the cliff and designed a tea service with “Votes for Women” inscribed on it.  Replicas are available for sale at the gift shops in the different houses.

Post by Alana Cash