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Stephanie Gress

Above, the museum’s George Washington portrait. Image from Vanderbilt Museum
Visitors invited to take part in museum ‘treasure hunt’

From Feb. 17 to 25 including Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 19, visitors to the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can view a framed oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. Stuart was widely considered one of America’s foremost portrait artists, producing portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

The artist’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart. In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the board of trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

Guests can also view a facsimile of a letter President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City. President Lincoln wrote the letter to Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War.

Wood (1812–1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms, 1854–58 and 1860–62. He reached out to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

“In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you —

Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant   

A. Lincoln”

Now a part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives, the letter will be on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room.

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.”

Visitors can also take part in a museum “treasure hunt.” The Vanderbilt curatorial department has created an intriguing list of treasures and clues to “the presidential, the regal and the royal” on display at the museum. Guests of all ages are invited to explore the galleries and discover them. Laminated copies of the treasure list will be available for guest use.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Directions and updated details on programs and events are available at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. For further information, call 631-854-5579.

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Normandy Manor in 1917, Vanderbilt Museum archive photo
Elegant French-Norman house built for estate superintendent

Normandy Manor, the stately French-Norman style house built as the home for the superintendent of the estate of William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

Designed by the renowned New York City architects Warren & Wetmore, Normandy Manor was built in 1917. The architects also designed the Vanderbilts’ 37,600 square-foot, 24-room Spanish-Revival mansion and several other buildings on the waterfront estate which was called Eagle’s Nest, home today of the Vanderbilt Museum and Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium.

Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt, said “The architectural design of Normandy Manor and the hewn stone and timbers are characteristic of the Norman region. The name distinguishes the house from the other architecture on the property. Mr. Vanderbilt’s boat house was designed in the same style.”

Normandy Manor in 2017

Warren & Wetmore are most noted for designing New York’s Grand Central Terminal for Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Vanderbilt’s great-great grandfather, and his New York Central Railroad. The firm also created the Ritz, Vanderbilt, Ambassador and Biltmore hotels; grand Manhattan townhouses for the Vanderbilt and Astor families; and some of the finest apartment buildings on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

The two-story, 3,300 square-foot structure, which was constructed of pink granite and has a slate roof with copper trim and copper rain gutters, sits on three acres that are enclosed by ornamental wrought-iron fencing. Located across the road from the main entrance of Eagle’s Nest, the manor had its own landscaped grounds and impressive gardens.

The Vanderbilts lived only part of the year at Eagle’s Nest, so the superintendent became caretaker not only of the estate, its grounds and buildings but also of the mansion and its art and furnishings. Archival photographs dating from the 1920s and ‘30s show flower gardens, fruit trees, a greenhouse, and vegetable gardens on the property.

William Vanderbilt bequeathed his estate, mansion and museum to Suffolk County, N.Y. After his wife, Rosamund Lancaster Warburton Vanderbilt, died in 1947, ownership passed to the county, which opened the museum to the public in 1950.

Corwin H. Meyer

Normandy Manor – owned by the Vanderbilt Estate but not part of the original bequest to the county in 1947 – was sold as a private residence to Corwin H. “Corky” Meyer, the chief test pilot for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island. In 1974, he became president and chief executive officer of Grumman American, a commercial aircraft subsidiary. Normandy Manor later had other private owners. In the summer of 2002, Suffolk County purchased the house and property and reunited it with the rest of the original Vanderbilt Estate.

During the summer of 2011, Huntington interior designer Claudia Dowling led 18 Long Island designers, artisans and landscape architects who turned the manor into the 2011 Restoration Design Show House. Each designer invested in the project.

Using mostly traditional design approaches, the group spent 10 weeks restoring, painting, decorating and furnishing the rooms, and enhancing the plantings around the house and grounds. The makeover of the historic manor house was unveiled in September at a gala opening. Open to the public for six weeks, the house attracted more than 1,600 visitors.

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport is open Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Artist Thomas Doncourt restores flamingo mud nests in the Marine Museum’s Hall of Fishes.
Creating an undersea mural, conserving flamingos

Small photos of a vintage, 8-by-10-foot painting of the ocean floor are taped to Sean Murtha’s easel. He glances at the photos, dips his brush onto his palette and applies paint to a stand of tall sea grass. He is creating a new version of the faded, original 1924 painting — lying nearby on the marble floor of the Hall of Fishes on the first floor of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Marine Museum in Centerport.

Just steps away from Murtha, Thomas Doncourt, a foreground artist, lies inside a small exhibition case on a slender platform he built. The device allows him to work in the diorama that contains a group of preserved tropical shore birds without damaging the surrounding foliage and other objects. Using steel mesh, plaster, sand and paint, he is reconstructing a section of beach that, after nearly a century, has crumbled, leaving a hole in the scene.

These two accomplished artists, along with Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt’s director of curatorial affairs, and her staff, are engaged in the Marine Collections Conservation Project.

Artist Sean Murtha creates a new undersea background painting for a fish exhibition case.

Funded by a $135,000 grant from The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the project has been underway for two years. The latest phase of work began last winter, when five flamingos and a dozen fish from the Marine Museum spent the winter in New Jersey at the studio of taxidermist George Dante. Dante and his colleagues at Wildlife Preservations cleaned decades of dust from the specimens, touched up fins and feathers, and returned them recently to their home at the Vanderbilt.

During the spring and summer, Murtha and Doncourt completed weeks of crucial repair and restoration on the background paintings and vegetation in the exhibition and diorama cases where the creatures live.

In the flamingo diorama, Doncourt repaired and repainted the birds’ pedestal-shaped mud nests after Murtha had finished the cleaning and spot restoration of the curved background painting that depicts the birds’ homes in inlets along the coast of Cuba.

Sean Murtha place fish on completed mural.

The painting was created in the early 1920s by William Belanske. Later, William K. Vanderbilt II hired Belanske, who had been working for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), to be his artist on the 1931-1932 global ocean journey of his ship, the Alva. Belanske later became the resident artist and first curator of the Vanderbilt Museum.

Murtha, Doncourt and Dante, like Belanske, are former members of the American Museum of Natural History staff, and the latest generation of the century-long Vanderbilt-AMNH collaboration. Over the past few years, the three also completed extensive work on the wild-animal dioramas in the museum’s Stoll Wing, funded by significant grants from the Roy M. Speer Foundation. That tradition began with Belanske in the early 1920s and continued with the artists and scientists Vanderbilt hired in the late 1920s to create his nine-diorama Habitat Room that depicts animal life from several continents. The centerpiece of the room is a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

The tradition resumed in the late 20th century, when AMNH artists were hired to restore the deteriorating habitat, which had been closed from 1996 to 2009. The project was made possible by a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, through the National Parks Service.

The finished project.

Murtha restored the flamingo diorama painting by carefully painting over the numerous water streaks. “The case is located on a wall of the building,” he said. “The painting was created on the surface of the plaster wall itself. The heat and outside moisture leached through the wall from the outside, then through the surface of the painting, which caused streaking over the decades.”

Murtha’s work makes the nearly century-old painting look bright and vibrant. “Now, with the streaks covered, there is no distraction from the birds and the marsh,” he said. “Plus, the flamingos, which are now re-installed, cover most of the streaks I was unable to paint over.”

Murtha also created a new version of the 8-by-10-foot, 1924 canvas background painting in the exhibit case titled “Fish from the Atlantic Ocean, the Madeira Islands and Bermuda.” The case contains about six dozen fish and nearly three dozen examples of coral lying on the sand of the “ocean floor” at the bottom of the case. The fish and coral were removed temporarily for cleaning and repairs, and their locations marked on the new canvas before Murtha began painting.

Doncourt also restored tropical foliage and rebuilt the crumbling beach in the diorama “Shore Group — Man O’War Birds and Pelicans (Lesser Sandpipers).” “The beach was originally created by placing a layer of sand over nongalvanized steel screen, which has rusted over the years and crumbled,” Doncourt said. “I rebuilt it with galvanized steel lath, which won’t rust.”

After removing the sand and other nearby materials, he cut heavier galvanized mesh to repair the hole. “I covered the mesh with a plaster bandage, painted it a base color, and then covered it with the sand and other foreground materials,” he said.

When the birds were back in place, Doncourt repaired the foreground and repainted it in two tones. “I went in with a brush on a long stick to add a third, darker color,” he said. “I have an extendable ‘claw’ like grandma used to get cans off a high shelf, and used it to place dried leaves and twigs on the ground around the birds.”

Another expert who worked to conserve the flamingos was Marco Antonio Olcha, a skilled taxidermist and conservator from Cuba and a consultant to Dante. Olcha, who works for the National Center for Conservation, Restoration and Museology in Havana, said he gently vacuumed the flamingo feathers to remove decades of dust.

“I also used a brush, and finally a special conservator’s paper, moistened with a water-based soap solution, to complete the gentle process of cleaning the feathers,” Olcha said. “Then I repainted the flamingos’ beaks, legs, and feet.”

The earlier phases of the Marine Collections Conservation Project involved extensive conservation and preservation work by Vanderbilt curators on nearly 1,500 of the museum’s fluid-preserved ocean specimens.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Through Sept. 3, the museum will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The Marine Museum is currently closed for further renovations but the Habitat Room and all other exhibits are open. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

All photos courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum

The Living History cast. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport will turn back the clock once again when it offers Living History Tours beginning on Memorial Day weekend, Saturday and Sunday, on May 27 and 28.

The Vanderbilt has been called a “museum of a museum” — the mansion, natural history and marine collections galleries are preserved exactly as they were when the Vanderbilts lived on the estate.

For more than a decade, Living History Tours have delighted visitors to the elegant 24-room, Spanish-Revival waterfront mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These special, time machine events feature the Vanderbilts and their servants, who are portrayed by museum tour guides.

The stories told on the tours are based on the oral histories of people who worked for the Vanderbilts as teenagers and young adults. Some stories originated in William K. Vanderbilt’s books of his world travels and extensive sea journeys.

This summer it will be 1936 again. “The movie ‘Captains Courageous’ with Spencer Tracy is playing in the theaters, and Agatha Christie’s new novel, ‘Dumb Witness,’ is in the bookstores,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs. “Legendary aviator Amelia Earhart is lost at sea in July, and European leaders are faced with threats of German expansion. And the U.S. Post Office issues a commemorative stamp in honor of the women’s voting rights activist and social reformer Susan B. Anthony on the 30th anniversary of her death in 1906.”

Earlier in 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia — who supported women’s voting rights — had been the keynote speaker at a dinner at the city’s Biltmore Hotel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s City Club in New York. The Living History presentation is set against this background of national and international news.

LaGuardia is invited to Eagle’s Nest to join a few of the Vanderbilt family members including William K. Vanderbilt’s brother, Harold; his sister, Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough; and her guests Elizabeth Arden, Anne Morgan, and her nephew, Henry Sturgis Morgan, Gress said. Vanderbilt’s sister, Consuelo, and her guests reminisce about their younger days at suffragette rallies.

Beginning Memorial Day weekend, the museum will display items in two guest rooms that commemorate the centennial of women’s right to vote in New York State. Included will be an enlargement of the Susan B. Anthony stamp, suffrage banners and sashes and an authentic outfit worn in that era by Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough. (Vanderbilt’s mother, Alva, also had been active in the movement.)

The Living History cast includes Peter Reganato as Mayor LaGuardia, who will be reading the comics in the kitchen and practicing for his radio address later that day. Ellen Mason will play Elizabeth Arden, who created the American beauty industry. Yachtsman Harold Vanderbilt — Willie’s brother, three-time winner of the America’s Cup, and expert on contract bridge — will be portrayed by Jim Ryan and Gerard Crosson. Anne Morgan will be played by Judy Pfeffer and Beverly Pokorny.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will present its Living History Tours at regular intervals on summer weekend afternoons through Sept. 3. Tickets are $8 per person, available only at the door. For more information, please call 631-854-5579.

Museum collection artifact has mysterious provenance

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, that is part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives. Visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can see a facsimile of the letter on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room through Feb. 26 from noon to 4 p.m. They also can view an oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It will be displayed in the Portuguese Sitting Room.

President Lincoln wrote the letter to Mayor Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War, which began on April 12 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms. (Wood’s brother, Benjamin Wood, publisher and editor of the New York Daily News, also served three terms in Congress.) Fernando Wood sent a letter to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you – Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant A. Lincoln

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.” The value of the letter is unknown, Gress said.

In 2008, a representative of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a grant-funded project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, visited the Vanderbilt archives to scan the letter for inclusion in its database. At the time, the representative noted that few letters have the original envelope in Lincoln’s hand, which makes the Vanderbilt’s document an exceptional Lincoln artifact. The Vanderbilt Museum is listed as a repository on the project’s website, www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org.

The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington is believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered to be one of America’s foremost portrait artists. He produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.

In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the Board of Trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. The museum and planetarium are open for Presidents’ Week daily from noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the mansion are conducted at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. General admission is $7 adults, $6 students with ID and seniors (62 and older) and $3 for children 12 and under. For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Kathleen Kane of the Dix Hills Garden Club places an ornament high on the large tree in the Vanderbilt Library. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Interior designers and garden clubs deck the elegant halls of the Vanderbilt Mansion in Centerport each year, and hundreds of visitors see the results beginning the day after Thanksgiving. The decorators create enchanted rooms with lighted trees, boughs, ornaments, wreaths, ribbons and elegantly wrapped faux gifts.

Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the museum, said, “These generous volunteers use their time and talent to create an atmosphere of charming holiday grandeur and sophisticated living. We’re grateful to them for bringing magic to this historic house.”

Stephanie Gress, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said “Most of these garden clubs and designers have been decorating the mansion for more than 20 years. We look forward to seeing them each year, and to how they use their creative skills to bring elegant holiday charm to the house.”

JoAnn Canino chairs the Three Village Garden Club (Old Field, Setauket and Stony Brook), which has decorated a mansion room every year for more than a decade. “The Portuguese Sitting Room is very masculine,” she said. “We wanted to bring out the colors of the rug and of the sculpture of the knight on the horse — teal, turquoise, pinks, blues and greens.” In addition to decorating the tree, club members added boughs, ribbons and ornaments to the centuries-old mantelpiece.

Kathleen Kane of the Dix Hills Garden Club places an ornament high on the large tree in the Vanderbilt Library. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Kathleen Kane of the Dix Hills Garden Club places an ornament high on the large tree in the Vanderbilt Library. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Dix Hills Garden Club decorated the striking paneled library, the grandest room in the 24-room Spanish Revival mansion. “It’s a dark room, with not much natural light coming in,” said Christine Lagana. “So we added a wide deep-red ribbon that winds down from the top of the tree. The ‘pop’ of the red brightens the tree in that dark space.” The club used many gold ornaments and enhanced the mantel of the imposing fireplace with green boughs and gold ornaments. “Since this is a museum, we can’t use glue or nails on the carved wood,” Lagana said. “So we wrapped hidden bricks in dark-green felt and used them to secure the boughs, which are intertwined with golden ribbons. Then we were able to hang ornaments securely from the large length of bough that runs along the mantelpiece.”

From left, Samantha Bendl, Claudia Dowling and Ian Daly of Claudia Dowling Interior Designs in Huntington decorate a Vanderbilt Mansion guest room. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
From left, Samantha Bendl, Claudia Dowling and Ian Daly of Claudia Dowling Interior Designs in Huntington decorate a Vanderbilt Mansion guest room. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Claudia Dowling of Claudia Dowling Interiors in Huntington said, “We’re blessed to help decorate the Vanderbilt Mansion. It’s such a beautiful historic, Long Island treasure. In one of the guest rooms, we used gold and cream and a very traditional tree, in keeping with the original concept of how the Vanderbilt rooms were designed and decorated. We added subtle ‘whisper’ touches in one of the guest rooms — a garland on the mantelpiece and surprise gifts on the club chair.”

Jenny Holmes, vice president of the Nathan Hale Garden Club, and her friends decorated the upstairs Organ Room, a paneled parlor with an Aeolian pipe organ, large fireplace and sofa, and a table for playing cards and board games. “Because Mr. Vanderbilt loved the sea, we created a nautical theme with lots of shells from the beach — including a gold-sprayed horseshoe crab shell — and added pine cones and large magnolia leaves,” Holmes said. “We sprayed the magnolia leaves and shells silver and gold, and made ornaments from shells, adding pearls, glitter and tiny stones. We wanted to make the large room as elegant as possible, and lightened it with silver and gold ribbon and bows. And of course, a large trimmed tree and wrapped presents.”

Mary Schlotter and her daughter, Krishtia McCord — who operate the Centerport design firm Harbor Homestead & Co. — decorated Rosamund Vanderbilt’s mirrored dressing room and the family’s breakfast hallway.

 Mary Schlotter (left) and Krishtia McCord of Harbor Homestead & Co. Design in Centerport create a Christmas dress for Rosamund Vanderbilt in her dressing room. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Mary Schlotter (left) and Krishtia McCord of Harbor Homestead & Co. Design in Centerport create a Christmas dress for Rosamund Vanderbilt in her dressing room. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Using a dress-form mannequin, they added green boughs as a skirt. “Our friend, dress designer Lorri Kessler-Toth of Couture Creations, created a fitted turquoise-blue velvet cover for the dress-form torso,” Schlotter said. “We added a necklace of chandelier crystals and a pendant, and embellished the skirt with teal ornaments, champagne ribbon, and filigreed poinsettia leaves. This is a dressing room, so we created a Christmas dress,” added Schlotter. They also added chandelier crystals and champagne poinsettia leaves to the bough that decorates the mantelpiece on the marble fireplace. The crystals on the mantel complement those that hang from the sconces in the mirrored, hexagonal dressing room.

Finally, The Centerport Garden Club decorated the dining room and Mr. Vanderbilt’s bedroom, and the Honey Hills club decorated Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will give guided tours of the decorated mansion each Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday and each day during the week between Christmas and the New Year through Dec. 30. Special Twilight Tours will be given on Dec. 26 and 27, from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress

By Victoria Espinoza

Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress
Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress

One employee at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum was a fan of the spot long before she started working there and improving many of the exhibits.

Stephanie Gress, director of the curatorial department, frequented the Vanderbilt as a kid growing up in St. James, and even went there on her second date with her future husband to see the Pink Floyd laser show at the museum’s planetarium.

“A lot of people have a fond memory from here,” Gress said in a phone interview. “My niece actually had her wedding here as well.”

Gress has been upgrading exhibits at the Vanderbilt for nearly 15 years. She said some of the collections in the museum were more than 100 years old when she stepped in and needed refurbishing, and she was able to find funding to make the renovations possible.

The first exhibit Gress focused on, the Habitat Gallery, had been closed to the public since 1996, but she reopened it in 2001. She received a Save America’s Treasures grant — through the National Park Service — to make the renovations possible, including cleaning and restoring taxidermied animals displayed inside the dioramas.

“There was a whole generation of people on Long Island who hadn’t seen the exhibit,” Gress said.

For two years, Gress has also been working on a project at the Hall of Fishes that involves working with dry and wet fish specimens. She said some of the fish are a century old, and they have to be treated with extreme care because they are so fragile.

Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

William K. Vanderbilt II, the museum’s founder, caught all of the fish himself, according to Gress, and some were the first of their kind ever caught, so “he had the fun task of naming them.”

She said she feels lucky to have found the money to finance these projects because that can be difficult, but is crucial to keep the displays in the museum in their best shape.

Gress likes many aspects of her job.

“I enjoy seeing the reactions of the kids and parents that come here,” Gress said. “There is nothing else like this on Long Island. You can’t see another polar bear or whale shark around here.”

She said aims to continue Vanderbilt’s intention when he created the museum, — to bring pieces of other countries and cultures to Long Island.

“You can choose to visit the planetarium, see the museum or even just take a picnic on the grounds.”

Gress wrote a book this year, “Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate,” which has details about why the museum founder built his estate in Centerport and “how the place changed over the years, based on changes in his life, and how we use it today,” she said when the book was being released over the summer.

In terms of future projects, Gress said in an interview this week that there is always something to work on, and she expects to soon digitize the collections online to bring them to people who can’t make the trip to the museum.

Book launch to be held at annual members reception

The front cover of Stephanie Gress’s new book. Image from Vanderbilt Museum

Stephanie Gress knows more about the history of William K. Vanderbilt II than most people. As director of curatorial affairs for the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum for eight years¸ she is the steward of Mr. Vanderbilt’s legacy, his estate, mansion and museum collections.

Using that extensive knowledge and a trove of rare photographs from the Vanderbilt archives, Gress created a richly illustrated book, Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Its cover photo, from the Vanderbilt Museum archives, is by the noted New York City photographer Drix Duryea. The picture shows the bell tower and one wing of the mansion in the late 1920s, before the Memorial Wing enclosed the courtyard.

The book was published June 1, by Arcadia Publishing in South Carolina, the leading local-history publisher in the United States. The Vanderbilt will celebrate the book’s official launch at its annual Members Reception on Sunday, June 28.

Gress noted that the release of the book is well-timed, as the development of the Eagle’s Nest estate is in its centennial decade: “This book tells readers about the Vanderbilt family, why Mr. Vanderbilt came here and built the estate, how the place changed over the years based on changes in his life, and how we use it today.”

Vanderbilt, known as Willie K., purchased the first parcel of what would become 43 acres for his Northport Bay waterfront estate in 1910, and hired the eminent New York City architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design and build it. The firm had designed Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad. Cornelius was William’s great-grandfather.

Eagle’s Nest is the easternmost Gold Coast mansion on Long Island’s affluent North Shore. From 1910 to 1944, the palatial, 24-room, Spanish-Revival mansion was Willie K.’s summer hideaway. There he hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends — including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

“Mr. Vanderbilt embarked on many of his legendary world voyages from Eagle’s Nest,” Gress said, “along with a 50-person crew and a few, fortunate invited passengers.” During his travels, she said, he collected natural-history and marine specimens and ethnographic artifacts from around the globe.

With the help of scientists and experts from the America Museum of Natural History, he created exhibits in the galleries at the estate to showcase his collections.  Mr. Vanderbilt died in 1944. His wife Rosamund continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1947.  Vanderbilt’s will bequeathed his estate and museum to Suffolk County. In 1950, it was opened to the public as the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum. The estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Much to the credit of Willie K., Eagle’s Nest continues to fulfill his intended mission,” Gress wrote in the conclusion of the book. “Visitors from all over the world come to see one of the few remaining Long Island Gold Coast estates with its original furnishings. His collections remain on display and they continue to fascinate and entertain.”

Eagle’s Nest is available for purchase on the Arcadia Publishing, Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, in the Vanderbilt Museum Gift Shop and in local bookstores.

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