Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visiting the Vanderbilts

All the pleasures of the New York summer are not necessarily in the city. A celebration for a recent Sunday birthday provided the opportunity for a drive up the Hudson River. So off we went, heading up to Hyde Park, about 90 miles north of the city.

Although the name "Hyde Park" is connected in most people's minds with the site of Franklin D. Roosevelt's home ("Springwood") and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the actual property with that name was the land on which Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856-1938) built his beautiful home in the late 1890s. Married since 1878 to Louise Anthony Torrance, Frederick built the new house when the Greek Revival house on the grounds needed to be replaced (it was apparently "structurally unsound").

Commissioning Charles Follin McKim of McKim, Mead, and White to plan a 50-room home that would match anything the European aristocracy might be inhabiting across the Atlantic, the house when it was finished turned out to be one of the most modern - and stunningly beautiful - houses of its day. The interior decoration and the purchase of the furnishings was turned over to McKim's partner Stanford White, who traveled to London, Paris, Florence, Rome and Venice in 1897 to acquire what Frederick and Louise needed for their Hyde Park home. It is said - possibly apocryphal - that the furnishings costs more than twice as much as the building itself.

The mansion is situated on some 200-plus acres (originally more than 600 acres when Frederic and Louise bought the land). The mansion and the grounds were primarily used as a vacation home for Frederick and Louise and their many guests. A staff of 60 or so kept up the house and gardens and Louise - a lady who loved flowers - would sometimes have, it was said, more that 100 bouquets in vases throughout the house when she and Frederick and their guests were in residence.

Louise died in 1926, and after her death, Frederick lived out his life in the mansion. When he died in 1938, the estate went to Louise's niece Margaret Van Alen. She told President Roosevelt the next year that she wanted to "keep my place as it is - a memorial to Uncle Fred and a national monument." The 211-acre site has been open to the public since 1940. It is a National Historic Site, with well-trained park ranges conducting informative tours for visitors. The interior of the house, except for some personal belongings, is arranged as it was when Frederic and Louise lived there.

For our family excursion, accompanied by our friend Nerisa Kamar visiting from Kenya, we had the full experience of the grounds and the very satisfying tour of the history of the interior of the mansion from the knowledgeable park ranger. Not surprisingly, flash photography isn't allowed inside the house, but the lighting conditions were good for one artifact I particularly wanted to photograph, one of a pair of ruby glass lamps (at one point in my life I collected ruby glass). So the photographs (you can see them at Vanderbilt House) are mostly outdoor photographs with the emphasis on the scenery, the splendid Beaux-Arts architecture (considered by many to be one of McKim, Mead, and White's finest residential projects), and photographic memories of our family's splendid day out. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Calling Back the 1920s and the 1930s

One of the great New York pleasures in the summertime is how much fun people seem to be having! Sure, there are the swells who go off to their country houses, or a week or two at the beach or in the mountains, but it seems to me that most people (at least the people I know) stay around town.

And why not? There's always something interesting - and often very unusual - going on.

Here's a pretty typical example of New York summertime fun: The recent Jazz Age Lawn Party put on at Governors Island back in August (there was also one back in June, but we didn't get to that one). I don't know the history of this event, but I sure plan to attend any more I hear about.

I gather the driving "spirit" - so to speak - is a bandleader named Michael Arenella. He and his Dreamland Orchestra love to evoke the spirit of the 1920s and the 1930s, and it's all pretty well covered in the local press (in fact I first learned about all this from an article about Arenella in the New York Times last spring - "Living in the Past is a Full-Time Gig," published in the Times June 14, 2012). Some friends and I got to talking about Arenella (and, truth to tell, probably fantasizing a little about how much fun it must be to live that kind of life) and we learned from another friend about the Governors Island party.

And the party's been around a while. This was the Seventh Annual Lawn Party, and where had we been? Once we got on board with the idea (we quickly found the advert online), we wasted no time planning to go. It was as much fun as we thought it would be and since that week-end, we've been amazed at the amount of coverage we've seen on Google and other search engines. You can see my photos here.

Why so much fun? Just take a look at how the people dress (we were a little square, but we'll make up for that next time!), how delighted everyone is with the dancing and the socializing, the pleasures of being out-of-doors in the open lawn, lots of food - both picnics brought by party-goers and stands with food for sale - and altogether, a rousing good time.

Much of the attention was focused - naturally enough - on Arenella and the Dreamland Orchestra, playing for the dancing. But even before the "real" dancing started, a dancing instructor and his beautiful partner led everyone in learning some of the dances of the era, particularly the Peabody, a great popular favorite of the time. Then Arenella and his musicians came on, and what a sound! He's a fantastic musician, super singing voice, plays all kinds of instruments, and he had Governors Island sounding (and perhaps looking) like it must have been eighty years ago!

Needless to say, all of the dancers weren't just amateur dancers out for a summer Sunday afternoon's fun. We all had our favorite couples (and, yes, here's a photo of mine) and there's no question that some of these folks were - or had been - professional dancers at some point or another in their lives. So many people moved just so gracefully that I began to wonder if the Broadway gypsies hadn't decided to use their Sunday off to come to Governors Island. But no. As I looked closer and concentrated on the wide range of ages and body types and energy levels - all pulled together by the enthusiasm that everyone shared - I began to realize that these people where just there to have fun, and no one was interested in proving that he or she was a better dancer than anyone else. It was just good, happy fun for a crowd of fun-loving New Yorkers.

Kind of makes you wish you had been around in the 1920s and 1930s, doesn't it?