It was in 1910 that William K. “Willie K.” Vanderbilt II first started building a bungalow-sized bachelor pad on an estate in Centerport. By 1935, it had been developed into the 24-room Gold Coast mansion known as “Eagle’s Nest,” a massive home with a private museum, golf course, boathouse, seaplane hangar and other luxurious amenities.
It was deeded to Suffolk County upon his death in 1944 and was opened to the public in 1950 — with a planetarium added in 1970. The Vanderbilt estate has been an esteemed, well-attended attraction … but it still has plenty of secrets.
They were 'from the Bilt'
The Vanderbilt name is often associated with the history of American industry, great wealth and the Gilded Age -- but the name "Vanderbilt" is itself an American creation, as the family's original Dutch name was "Jan Aertsen." They emigrated from De Bilt, Netherlands, and early Jan Aertsens in the U.S. were identified as "from the Bilt;" the Dutch translation of which is "van de Bilt." (Pictured: Consuelo Vanderbilt Earl, and her father, William K. Vanderbilt II, builder of the Eagle's Nest estate.)
Fossils in the walls
Look carefully when visiting the mansion, as its walls -- built from fossiliferous limestone -- feature actual fossils. The estate and museum are open Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday during winter. The planetarium offers shows on Tuesday afternoon, Friday and Saturday nights, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Mystery of the Madonna and Child sculpture
This Madonna and Child sculpture, attributed to the Atelier of Luca della Robbia, was once on an outside wall, but now resides in a wing built around it in 1970. For several years, the new wing had hidden the piece away, walled in, the space further obscured by a preserved antelope. Again revealed in 2009, it was damaged during the removal of the wall in which it was cloaked. Its origins aren't fully known, but it first appeared in photos of Eagle's Nest in the mid-1930s, around the time William's son, William K. Vanderbilt III, was killed in a car accident. The piece is believed to have possibly been placed in William III's memory.
About the Alva
William K. was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving in the Navy during World War I and always held sailing, yachting and fishing as serious passions. Here is a representation of his vessel, the German-built, 264-foot Alva yacht, on display in the mansion museum. During the 1930s, it was frequently spotted in Northport Bay, but eventually Vanderbilt gave the boat to the U.S. for military purposes. Renamed the USS Plymouth, it was sunk during World War II (as fate would have it, by German forces). If you look carefully in the largest representation of the Galapagos Islands in the exhibition hall within the Vanderbilt Mansion, a small representation of the Alva is painted on the rear wall, toward the right side of the display.
The private museum
This exhibition hall within Eagle's Nest was a private museum, open only to the Vanderbilts and their guests. It features a preserved whale shark and dioramas that represent places William K. visited (the Galapagos, the Hamptons, Canada and the Caribbean). The animals on display are the real thing, but Vanderbilt did not hunt them -- for the most part he purchased the animals, already passed.
A pair of pigeons from the past
Among the animals on display in the mansion's collection is this pair of mounted passenger pigeons, notable as the creatures have been extinct for more than 100 years.
Dinner with the Vanderbilts
Servants could be paged by a tap of a foot button, which was located here at the (closest) end of this table, where William K. Vanderbilt II sat when the family ate their dinner. (Mrs. Vanderbilt always sat at the opposite, far end of the table.)
The forgotten safe
This safe near the servants' quarters and kitchen sat undisturbed for decades, until it was opened in the late 1980s, revealing a cache of silver Tiffany cigarette cases, either long-forgotten or abandoned by the Vanderbilts.
The importance of art at Eagle's Nest
A portrait of the 40-year-old William K. Vanderbilt II, painted by Gari Melchers in 1925. A tour of Eagle's Nest reveals several paintings placed along walls and in hallways that don't really stick to a motif -- the reason is that as this 24-room Spanish-Revival mansion and surrounding estate was merely a summer home for the Vanderbilts, comprehensive showcasing wasn't an imperative.
The faces of Crusaders?
However, an upstairs parlor room features this mantel, a Portuguese piece dating to the 1490s. It features representations of five men who, as lore has it, were actual Crusaders.
A closer look at an ancient face
A close-up view of one of the faces (possibly a Crusader) on the Vanderbilt mantel.
A room for royals
The Vanderbilt family hosted some of the most celebrated people of the early 20th century, such as Charles Lindbergh and Erroll Flynn, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who stayed in this very room.
A room for clothing
Being the wife of a Vanderbilt came with all sorts of perks, as you can see by the size of this "closet" belonging to Rosamund Vanderbilt (William II's second wife) that holds a full display case for clothing, a separate ceiling-to-floor case for shoes and a sink that poured water solely for the upkeep of fresh-cut flowers.
A hidden window
Mrs. Vanderbilt's closet and dressing room also featured this stone covering over the window, poked with a number of keyhole-shaped spaces -- the openings allowed someone changing the option to look out while blocking passers-by from seeing into the room.
Why she wanted leather fenders
William K. Vanderbilt II's 1928 Lincoln limousine, currently parked under the mansion in its garage. Unlike other cars, it has leather fenders -- an extra feature placed at the request of Rosamund -- because during those days early in automotive history, many roads remained unpaved, resulting in regular occasions when pebbles and rocks would ping against a car's undercarriage. Rose Vanderbilt found the sound annoying, and as the Vanderbilts were generally able to afford anything they wanted, the car was fitted with the leather guards at her request.
A salty swim
Willie K.'s love of the ocean also led to the creation of this pool. Now filled with earth, it once held gallons of saltwater, drawn and piped directly from the bay.
A secret face that used to watch peacocks
It's very unlikely you'll ever see this face, located within a former fountain that is on the portion of the grounds not open to the public. The fountain was once a pool for peacocks kept by the Vanderbilts; all of the birds reportedly met their fate as food for local foxes.
Before the planetarium
The Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium (pictured, rear) is a major draw, but before visitors came to this spot to see the stars, the space was used for tennis courts by the Vanderbilts.
A tee with a view
If you've ever driven down Little Neck Road by the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, you would notice a tall structure along the wall, which today is the Marine Museum, also known as the "Hall of Fishes." However, for William K. Vanderbilt, it was also a golf tee. He, and anyone playing along with William, would stand on the roof for the opening tee-off, striking balls out over the hills that provided the Vanderbilt family with space for a nine-hole course. Here is a similar view of the estate that would be visible from that tee spot, taken from a Marine Museum stairwell close to the rooftop.
A (true) big fish tale
Although William K. wasn't much of a hunter, he was an avid fisherman, and he caught this 2,000-pound ray in 1916, on display in the Vanderbilt Marine Museum.