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Homes on the Hudson housed American aristocracy

Tours take visitors inside Vanderbilt, Roosevelt estates

Published: Sunday, Oct. 1 2000 12:00 a.m. MDT

HYDE PARK, N.Y. — They were neighbors on the hilly banks of the Hudson River. The Vanderbilts and Roosevelts each had homes with grand views of steamships plying the broad river and the green valley all around.

But the two wealthy families lived quite differently. Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt lived in an opulent Gilded Age show palace decorated to the hilt with marble, velvet and carved mahogany. The nearby home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was less showy, more lived in and had a working farm.

These very different estates down the road from one another are separate national historic attractions, although a single $18 ticket provides admission to both. Visitors to the two estates can get a double-barreled view of how the rich once lived in America. One demonstrates the extravagance of the ultra-rich in the days before income taxes. The other gives a glimpse of the rarified atmosphere that cultivated a giant of the 20th century

The estates evoke a time when the Hudson Valley was sort of a bucolic millionaires' row. Monied families were attracted to the celebrated countryside that lay just a bit north of their Manhattan townhouses.

Among the richest of these families were the Vanderbilts, controllers of a vast railroad empire in latter part of the 19th century. Frederick Vanderbilt — a grandson of family fortune founder Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt — had the columned 50-room mansion built in the 1890s as a country home for him and his wife.

The stone house is big and boxy, perched atop a steep hill with a sweeping view of the valley. But the real display of Gilded Age splendor is revealed during guided tours of the inside.

Rooms off the skylit main hall are generously accented with tapestries, a ceiling frescoe, marble fireplaces and, of course, gilding. Stair bannisters are covered in red velvet. The decor looks like it was plucked from the finest palaces of Europe, and some of it was. Louise, meanwhile, slept in a reproduction of the bedroom of an 18th-century royal bedroom.

"This was the age of unlimited money," ranger Marge Farnett tells a tour group.

The lavishness is more mind-boggling considering the estate was only used about four months out of every year, in the spring and fall. Frederick and Louise summered in Newport, R.I., and elsewhere. Their main residence was in Manhattan.

The Hyde Park estate was used to entertain. Louise hosted elaborate parties featuring gourmet food and dancing. Guests arrived for the first party there in 1899 by special train from Manhattan. A gentlemen's guest house was built amid the towering trees and lush lawns to handle overflow guests.

All told, about 60 servants stayed on year-round. Many tended to the trees and gardens that Frederick enjoyed strolling through. Others were servants for the servants.

Despite the estate's grandeur, it was downright frugal compared to the homes being built then by other Vanderbilts. Frederick's brother, George, at the time paid for the construction of the Biltmore in North Carolina. Billed as "America's Largest Home," it has 4 acres of floor space.

No such flashy displays for the more patrician Roosevelt family, whose wealth dated back to colonial times. The estate downriver from the Vanderbilt's purchased by FDR's father in 1867 has more of an air of a country estate.

Visitors to the Roosevelt site do get to tour a big house, but the furnishings here are more plain and worn — little wonder considering FDR and his five children were raised here.

This was FDR's oasis away from the pressures of battling the Great Depression and World War II, although tourists can see signs that he never really escaped from the weight of the world. Beside his bed is a direct line to the White House. The presidential library he had built on the grounds includes a study where he gave a couple of his famous "fireside chats."

The study remains preserved there today as part of a museum that illustrates FDR's life from pampered boy, to B student, to rising politico, to polio victim and then finally governor of New York and president.

Leg braces and wheelchairs on display give poignant testimony to the disability FDR did his best to minimize in public. The house features a claustrophobic luggage elevator FDR would use to literally pull himself up to the second floor, via a rope and pulley system.

A wing in the museum traces Eleanor's own metamorphosis from wallflower political wife to world-class activist. One of the most touching images in the whole museum is a black and white picture of her crossing a New York City street in 1960 — alone, slightly hunched and carrying her own suitcase.

She and her husband are buried on the grounds in a rose garden.

Those really interested in Eleanor can take a tour of nearby Val-Kill, which can be visited as a third stop at no extra cost. Eleanor used a cottage first as a refuge from the main house and later as a home.

It's a plain, unpretentious cottage that hosted world leaders like Nikita Krushchev and Jawaharal Nehru. In 1960, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy came by to ask for Eleanor's support in the general election (she had favored Adlai Stevenson in the Democratic primaries). He got it.

Val-Kill is no match for the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt homes in scale, but the little cottage crammed with her photos of family and friends rivals the larger estates in charm.

Each house tour takes about 40 minutes. Exploring the presidential museum can add another 40 minutes. Leave time for exploring the grounds of the estates.