A Day With The Vanderbilts

Visit Long Island’s famed Gold Coast mansion and museum

The Vanderbilt Museum and Mansion in Centerport

Their family name is synonymous with Long Island’s Gold Coast and the bygone era of lavish parties, Art Deco and homes fit for royalty. The Gilded Age saw the Vanderbilt family rise to prominence in the shipping and railroad industry, continuing for decades and cementing their place in Long Island’s history.

In the summer of 1910, American heir, businessman, philanthropist and horse breeder William Kissam Vanderbilt II purchased 20 acres on a wooded hill above Northport Bay. There, he commissioned the renowned New York City architecture firm of Warren & Wetmore to build him a summer house, which would become known as Eagle’s Nest. The massive 43-acre waterfront estate is now home to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, named for William, where today, it conducts tours of the mansion, museum and impressive planetarium.

William K. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt, of the famous Vanderbilt family, managed his family’s railroad investments. He also had a passion for travel and was a lover of oceans and the natural world. During his globetrotting sea travels, Vanderbilt collected fish and other marine life, birds, invertebrates and cultural artifacts for the personal museum he planned to build on his Long Island estate, calling it the Hall of Fishes, which encompassed one of the world’s most extensive, privately assembled collections from the pre-atomic era—totaling more than 30,000 objects . In 1922, he opened his marine museum to the public. Today, wings of the mansion house galleries of his natural-history and cultural-artifact collections including dioramas created by artisans from the American Museum of Natural History.

Understanding the potential for his estate to become an educational museum “for the enjoyment of the general public,” Vanderbilt established a trust fund to finance the operation of the museum and deeded it to Suffolk County upon his death in 1944. The county opened the museum to the public in 1950.

A trip to the Vanderbilt Museum will be an educational one for sure, especially for those who are avid nature enthusiasts like Vanderbilt himself. The philanthropists oceanic expeditions and circumnavigations have made it possible for visitors to journey around the planet without leaving Long Island. Included in the exhibits are items and artifacts from the Galápagos Islands, Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Atlantic and Caribbean. Inside the habitat, you will find stunning dioramas that depict animal life from several continents—the centerpiece is a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

The Stoll Wing and its wild-animal dioramas complement the habitat while the Hall of Fishes marine museum displays hundreds of oceanic specimens. Moving over to the Memorial Wing galleries exhibit is where one can find ethnographic objects, which showcase the artisanal talents of Asian, African and Pacific cultures in the forms of clothing, utensils, weapons and ceremonial artifacts.

In addition to the sprawling mansion, the museum grounds also feature a curator’s cottage, a seaplane hangar and boathouse, antique household furnishings, rare decorative and fine art, the archives and photographic record of Vanderbilt’s circumnavigations of the globe, and published books of his travels. So make a day of it with family and friends and learn a bit more about Long Island’s storied history and the Vanderbilt family, right in your own backyard.

Upcoming events include a Twilight Tour of the mansion (Dec. 27-28) and One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure; Solar System Odyssey and Incoming! Asteroids, Comets and the hard hitting stories of our cosmic origins at the planetarium.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or email www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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Jennifer Fauci
Jennifer Fauci is the former managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Anton Media Group's award-winning special sections and Anton’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of six PCLI awards.

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