I have to admit, museums were not my thing when I was younger. I’ve been to Paris twice and both times I opted to spend my time at sidewalk cafés with a carafe and people watch as my fellow travelers experienced the wonders of the Louvre. ***click on photos to enlarge
I’ve come full circle and now relish a day where I can spend some time seeped in world history and art. If you are a museum lover then the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport is just the place. It is such a jewel for us to have it right in our own backyard. The Vanderbilt’s were a fascinating Dutch family who came to America in the 1600’s and made a mind-boggling amount of money. Aside from their wealth what makes this family interesting was their integrity, intelligence and benevolence.
The Centerport summer home christened “The Eagle’s Nest” was built by William Kissam Vanderbilt, (Willie K), grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt who made his fortune in the shipping and railway business. At one point the Vanderbilts had an ownership stake in every railway and shipyard in this country. At the entry to the museum are two huge eagle statues that are from a set of 10 Eagles perched on the ramparts of the Vanderbilt-owned Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The Mansion is filled with pieces and structures from the various Vanderbilt estates and travels. There are some 1,000-year-old marble pillars from Carthage that frame a magnificent view.
Willie K built the house and purchased the 43-acre property in phases. He first bought the original small cottage after he separated from his wife and wanted a refuge from the limelight. The finished home reflects his love of Spanish architecture and is complete with a nursery wing as well as a memorial wing, which was built as a tribute to his son who died at the age of 26 in a car accident.
His son had inherited his father’s love of cars and speed.
The mansion sees roughly 100,000 visitors a year and about 50,000 of them are school children. Keeping those sticky fingerprints off of everything has got to be a gargantuan feat. Many of us Long Islanders aren’t aware of the impact that the Vanderbilt family and specifically Willie K has had on our way of life. Willie K started the infamous Vanderbilt Cup car races, which helped kick start our automotive industry. In order to bring more people out for the races he built the Motor Parkway, which made access to Long Island much easier and most likely expedited its development . Willie K was a quiet man and a phenomenal sailor. He was an officer in the US Navy reserve qualified to command any ship. He took his yachts around the world and collected samples of marine life and animals, which he preserved and brought back to the Eagles Nest. The curator from New York’s Museum of Natural History put together the displays in his home, which he in turn opened up one day a week to the public. Willie K knew that most people would not be afforded the luxury of world travel and he wanted to share what he experienced. His museum-quality collections are beautifully preserved with everything from African Cuttlefish to an Egyptian mummy and to really gross everyone out; shrunken heads!
Willie K also had a private collection that shows the sensitivity of this man. This collection had been closed for 13 years but thanks to the drive of the current curator, Stephanie Gress, it has been re-opened for about a year and it is simply amazing. There are scenes with the animals and fish he brought back from places like Southampton, Canada and the Galapagos Islands. One scene shows starving goats and a donkey from the Galapagos Islands that demonstrate what happens when people don’t think about their actions and leave a foreign animal in a land where it can’t possibly survive. His underwater scene with a shark is stunning. He also has one of the biggest documented whale sharks caught off of Fire Island in 1930.
Willie K died in 1944 and after his second wife died in 1947 the museum and $2 million were bequeathed to the state to maintain it as a museum in perpetuity. After the state turned the offer down, the county stepped up and took ownership. There is so much to see at the Vanderbilt . The mansion’s detailed preservation helps to lend a voyeuristic journey for visitors. The educational aspects for the kids are huge and if they get bored looking at the amazing home and cars, the animals are sure to keep them engaged. We didn’t even mention the planetarium, which is a whole adventure in itself just steps away. Bring a picnic lunch to set up at the outside tables because once you get here , you are going to want to make a day of it.
There are several tour guides who offer tours throughout the day and on the weekends there are “Living History tours” when the tour guides are in period costumes.
They also have many special events and host weddings. Checkout their website for directions and more info.