Vanderbilt Museum Marks 70th Anniversary

Vanderbilt Mansion bell tower, courtyard, circa 1920s
Vanderbilt Museum archive photos

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum – one of the last of the more than 1,200 Gold Coast estates on Long Island – is observing its 70th anniversary this month as a unique destination for education, history, and culture.

William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944) foresaw the potential for his Eagle’s Nest estate and private museum to be used for, in the words of the institution’s mission, the “education and enjoyment of the general public.” That wish prompted him to bequeath to Suffolk County his estate and museum and a trust fund to finance its operation.

After Mr. Vanderbilt died in 1944, his wife, Rosamond, continued to live in their Centerport mansion until her death in 1947. Their estate and museum – which remain frozen in time, exactly as they were in the late 1940s – have been called “a museum of a museum.” They were opened to the public on July 6, 1950.

You can become part of Vanderbilt and Gold Coast history by taking part in the Museum’s Memorial Brick Program. Honor friends, loved ones, or anniversaries with an inscribed brick that can be installed in your favorite brick walkway at the Vanderbilt. All proceeds go toward preservation of the Vanderbilt Estate and Mansion, home of the Museum. 

William K. Vanderbilt II and daughter Consuelo aboard the Alva, during 1931 world cruise

The Vanderbilt draws visitors interested in natural history, the life of the oceans, armchair journeys through space, and the history of the privileged life on the Gold Coast from the Jazz Age through the Second World War. The Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each year, the Vanderbilt welcomes more than 120,000 visitors from around the U.S. and international guests from more than 40 countries. More than 25,000 schoolchildren visit the Museum and its Reichert Planetarium annually with their science and history classes.

Mr. Vanderbilt purchased the first parcel of what would become 43 acres for his Northport Bay estate in 1910 and hired the eminent New York City architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design and build it. The firm had created Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad. (Cornelius was William’s great-grandfather.)

Eagle’s Nest is the easternmost Gold Coast mansion on Long Island’s affluent North Shore. From 1910 to 1944, the palatial, 24-room, Spanish-Revival mansion was Mr. Vanderbilt’s summer hideaway. He and Rosamond hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

An expert yachtsman, former naval officer, and marine naturalist, Mr. Vanderbilt kept his ships anchored off his waterfront in Northport Bay. He circumnavigated the globe twice, with a few fortunate, invited guests and a 50-person crew.

On those journeys, he collected thousands of ethnographic artifacts, natural-history specimens, and marine life for his growing museum. The first adventure was in his 213-foot yacht Ara in 1928-29, the second in the 264-foot Alva, named for his mother. With the help of scientists and experts from the America Museum of Natural History, he created galleries at the Estate to showcase his collections.

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