Do you know about the Gold Coast Mansions on the North Shore of Long Island? If you’ve read the Great Gatsby, then you do. Yes, the Gilded Age, where new fortunes were made in steel and other industries. These were the lavish homes of some of the wealthiest American families like the Astors, Whitneys, Guggenheims and Vanderbilts. At one point there were over 500 mansions built along this 16 mile stretch, but less than half survived; only a handful are open to the public.
We’ve been to 2 of these mansions located near my parents’ house a number of times – Old Westbury Gardens (where the family threw me the best birthday surprise) and The Nassau County Museum of Art. On Saturday, we visited the Vanderbilt Museum.
When William K. Vanderbilt II passed away in the 40s, his will mandated that the grounds be donated to the county as a museum for his collections. Sometime in the 70s a planetarium was built which reopened last month after major renovations. We took the girls to a show at the planetarium, but we weren’t expecting to see such an extensive collection of taxidermy, marine and ethnographic objects housed in the main mansion and other buildings. Apparently Vanderbilt was quite the explorer and collector and he built natural history habitats for tigers, polar bears and other mammals, much like you would find at the Museum of Natural History. The Hall of Fishes was quite impressive, as was the room of birds, insects and butterflies. Some of the objects on display are quite odd, including 2 large rooms full of hundreds (thousands?) of aquatic specimens preserved in jars and a 32 foot long whale shark, thought to be the world’s largest mounted fish. Oh, and a 3000 year old Egyptian mummy. Oh, rich people…
The financial struggles of the museum have been well documented and the renovation of the planetarium is to bring more visitors and revenue to the museum (there are areas of the estate that are boarded up and in disrepair, like the boathouse pictured above). We’ll certainly be going back. On a warmer summer day I can imagine exploring the grounds a bit longer and perhaps taking a tour of the 24 room mansion. While the kids were in one room upstairs looking at this huge stuffed alligator, I saw a room off to the side with the door ajar on the other side of the hallway. What did I see when I peeked inside? A wall full of shoes, presumably dated from the 20s and 30s. I’m certainly intrigued.