Hidden Hamptons: Vanderbilt Mansion & Museum

A time capsule of Gold Coast life

Long Island’s North Shore, once known as the Gold Coast, is the site of several spectacular mansions built in the early 20th century by the many of the country’s most prominent families. One of the best-preserved among them is the Eagle’s Nest in Centerport, built by William K. Vanderbilt II between 1910 and 1936. In addition to a beautiful Spanish Revival-style house, the 43-acre estate includes a marine museum and recently renovated planetarium, all open to the public. This unique historic, cultural and scientific destination encapsulates an era of unimaginable opulence, offering visitors a close look at the habitat and collections of its creator. A fascinating figure, “Willie K” was an accomplished motor racer, sailor and world traveler, as well as fourth-generation heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the U.S.

“Gold Coast mansions are disappearing,” says the Vanderbilt’s executive director Lance Reinheimer of the estate’s relative rarity. “We allow people to step back in time and see how life was then. It’s also an excellent example of a museum from that era, because Vanderbilt built it for himself and it’s virtually unchanged since 1944, when he passed away. Not only are we a time capsule of Gold Coast mansions, we’re also a time capsule of how museums used to look.”
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The mansion’s family and guest rooms are full of antique furnishings, fine and decorative art, and family portraits and photographs. The serving kitchen in the servants’ wing (Downton Abbey fan alert!) is stocked with vintage kitchenware from the 1920s through 1940s, while the family dining room contains a long table set with fine china, crystal and elegant dinnerware. It’s not hard to imagine exactly how dinner was served here 80 years ago.

Vanderbilt was especially enamored of oceans and he collected marine life as well as birds and other artifacts for the museum he built on his estate. The Hall of Fishes, one of the most extensive private collections of the pre-Atomic era, was opened to the public in 1922. Mansion wings contain additional galleries of his natural history collections, including nine dazzling dioramas created by experts hired from the Museum of Natural History. “The dioramas are my favorite part of the museum,” admits Reinheimer. “Three are from the Galapagos Islands, where specimens are no longer allowed to be taken.” Others portray the Cuban rainforest and Canada, where the Vanderbilts had a hunting lodge.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 3.07.27 PMThe Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium, which features light and sky shows, was built in 1971 and reopened in 2013 after extensive renovation. According to Reinheimer, the Planetarium was initially inspired by Apollo 11’s historic 1969 moon walk. “Everybody was excited about space exploration; the museum’s board felt it was a natural extension of Vanderbilt’s interests. He was an explorer, he did celestial navigation when he travelled the world, so he would have been interested in space.”

The beautiful setting of the estate on the Long Island Sound is reason enough to visit. “We’ve done a lot of work on the grounds in the past few years,” says Reinheimer, “and we encourage people to come and bring a picnic lunch; the views of the water are just absolutely gorgeous.” For those planning wedding receptions, the museum offers a variety of lovely locales including the courtyard, lawn, gardens and several interior spaces.

Willie K. specifically planned that his estate would become a museum “for the use, education and enjoyment of the general public” and deeded it to Suffolk County upon his death. Open to visitors since 1950, the place has far exceeded its creator’s wishes.

(180 Little Neck Rd.; 631.854.5579)