William K. Vanderbilt II – known to family and friends as Willie K. – loved the oceans and the natural world. In his sea-going global travels, he collected fish and other marine life, birds, invertebrates and cultural artifacts for the personal museum he planned to build on his Long Island estate.
Willie Vanderbilt exhibited thousands of the marine specimens he had gathered – one of the world’s most extensive, privately assembled collections from the pre-atomic era – in his own marine museum, the Hall of Fishes, which he opened to the public in 1922. Wings of the mansion house galleries of his natural-history and cultural-artifact collections, and the Habitat with its nine wild-animal and marine-life dioramas created by artisans from the American Museum of Natural History.
Today, the 43-acre waterfront Vanderbilt museum complex counts among its extensive collections (which total more than 30,000 objects) the mansion, 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.
Vanderbilt realized the potential for his sprawling estate to become a museum “for the use, education and enjoyment of the general public.” He established a trust fund to finance the operation of the museum and deeded it to Suffolk County, New York, upon his death in 1944. The county opened the museum to the public in 1950.