Living large: The Hudson Valley homes of Roosevelt and Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt's furnishings reflect their lavish lifestyle.

The Vanderbilt’s furnishings reflect their lavish lifestyle.

Get a sense of where things are by studying the mosaic map in the visitor center floor at  the FDR estate.

Get a sense of where things are by studying the mosaic map in the visitor center floor at the FDR estate.

The homes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Henry Vanderbilt sit only two miles apart on the Hudson River. One is a reminder of ambition, determination, family and power. The other recalls the Gilded Age, a celebration of great wealth, lavish parties and luxurious living. Both are part of the same national historic site in New York, along with Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill and FDR’s Top Cottage.

Springwood was the birthplace and childhood home of FDR. It served as an alternate White House for the president and first lady as well.

Springwood was the birthplace and childhood home of FDR. It served as an alternate White House for the president and first lady as well.

I found both Springwood, the Roosevelt home, and the Vanderbilt mansion grand in their own ways. But I also came away, feeling I had gained insight into one family but had really not met the other. One was a family home, filled with mementoes and memories. The other was a playground designed for fun and kept its guests at arm’s length.

Wonder where FDR went to college? A memento in his boyhood room.

Wonder where FDR went to college? A memento in his boyhood room.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born at Springwood. As I looked around, I felt as if I heard the echo of children laughing down the hall, saw a shadow from the days when FDR would build up his strength “walking” down the long driveway, felt the warmth of candlelight at dinner with the royals.

When King George and Queen Elizabeth visited FDR and Eleanor here, this room was theirs.

When King George and Queen Elizabeth visited FDR and Eleanor here, this room was theirs.

Lots of greatness here, but lots of homey things, too. The rose garden tomb of Franklin and Eleanor…Eleanor’s uncomfortable-looking bedroom…FDR’s wheelchair…Roosevelt’s political cartoons…

When I think of presidential library, I think of shelf after shelf of books.

One of Madeleine Albright's pins, this one made with a chunk of the Berlin Wall. A collection of the former secretary of state's notable pins was on display in the presidential library. The library is a must-see at the historic site.

One of Madeleine Albright’s pins, this one made with a chunk of the Berlin Wall. A collection of the former secretary of state’s notable pins was on display in the presidential library. The library is a must-see at the historic site.

Wrong. A visit to FDR’s house ought to include a visit to FDR’s presidential library. Exhibits recall his childhood (there’s his cradle), his political ambitions (the family Bible upon which he made the oath of office and so much more. We arrived on the last day of an exhibit of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s famous pins. It was wonderful. And I’m guessing that’s par for the course. Just inside the door, a wall of letters to both Franklin and Eleanor offers an interesting glimpse of how the public viewed the couple living in the White House.

The Vanderbilt Mansion is set in 211 parklike acres with views of the Hudson from the back of the house.

The Vanderbilt Mansion is set in 211 parklike acres with views of the Hudson from the back of the house.

Two miles away, the family opened the Vanderbilt Mansion only in the spring and fall. (Lucky for us we can visit yearround.) The Vanderbilts chose to live and entertain at their other houses (or on their yacht) in summer and winter. No wonder they were here in the glorious fall, their chateau looking out on the splendor of the Hudson Valley. Inside, the house is no less splendid.

The Vanderbilt tour includes stops behind the scenes that guests would never have seen.

The Vanderbilt tour includes stops behind the scenes that guests would never have seen.

Filled with stuff, medieval tapestry, carved stone, glitter and opulence made up every part of the “upstairs.” The tour also includes “downstairs” and I was as curious about the kitchen as I was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s boudoir.

An interesting link between the two: When the Vanderbilt estate went on the market, FDR was the one that proposed buying it and giving it to the National Parks Service. Thanks, FDR. And thanks, too, to the rangers who gave the guided tours at both houses. Their stories were compelling; their characterizations of these powerful families was vivid. They were friendly and had an answer for every question. Terrific experiences.

We missed seeing Val-Kill and Top Cottage because I wanted to have enough time to walk the grounds and spend time at the presidential library (and the gift shop). Rushing, I think, only confuses the memories. It took a day (with lunch in between) to savor these two estates. I’ll be back another day to see Val-Kill and Top Cottage.

© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

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