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Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

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William K. Vanderbilt’s superyacht, the Alva, before World War II. File photo

William K. Vanderbilt II (1878–1944) spent years dreaming of and designing his 264-foot yacht Alva. The luxurious ship, named after his mother, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, was custom built at the Krupp-Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, on a design by Cox & Stephens. It was powered by two diesel engines with an auxiliary electric motor. Top speed was 16 knots. 

 On Aug. 5, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum marked the 75th anniversary of the yacht’s wartime service and recalled its tragic sinking on Aug. 5, 1943.

Aboard the Alva, steaming out of Kiel on March 5, 1931, William and Rosamond Vanderbilt began the ship’s inaugural voyage from Europe to Miami and then New York. The trip was preparation for their epic seven-month circumnavigation of the globe that began in July of that year. During the voyage, Vanderbilt collected marine life, invertebrates and cultural artifacts for his Centerport museum.

Ten years, later, just before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked yacht owners to donate their boats to the U.S. Navy. Vanderbilt answered the call.

The Alva after being converted to a Navy ship.
Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

On Nov. 4, 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he gave the Alva to the Navy, which converted it to a patrol gunboat. The ship was renamed the USS Plymouth (PG 57).

The Vanderbilt family had served in every major conflict since the War of 1812. In 1917, William Vanderbilt was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. From May 9 to Oct. 1, 1917, he patrolled U.S. coastal waters in his ship Tarantula II.

The following details of the Alva’s life as the USS Plymouth are from the Vanderbilt Museum archives and from Uboat.net, a history website based in Iceland with contributing writers from Germany, the United States, Canada and Europe:

On April 20, 1942, the Plymouth was commissioned and based in Norfolk, Virginia. Assigned to the Inshore Patrol Squadron in the 5th Naval District, she made several convoy escort voyages between New York, Key West and Guantanamo, Cuba, during 1942-43.

On the evening of Aug. 5, 1943, the Plymouth was escorting a ship convoy 120 miles southeast of Cape Henry, Virginia. The ship’s sonar gear alerted the captain and crew of underwater movement in the vicinity. Moments later, the Plymouth was spotted in the periscope of U-566, a German submarine. The sub launched a torpedo at 9:37 p.m.

“The gunboat had made an underwater sound contact while escorting a coastal convoy,” the Uboat.net entry reported. “Just as the ship swung left to bear on the target, she was struck just abaft the bridge. The ship rolled first to starboard, then took a heavy list to port with the entire port side forward of amidships in flames and sank within two minutes.”

 Of the Plymouth’s 179 officers and men, only 84 survived. They were picked up in heavy seas by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Calypso and arrived in Norfolk on Aug. 6.

 The commander, Lt. Ormsby M. Mitchel Jr., was thrown violently against a bulkhead by the explosion. He sustained serious injuries, which later required amputation of his left leg. Despite his own condition, he directed abandon-ship operations and remained at his post until the ship went down. Mitchel was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism.

Learn more about the Alva and William K. Vanderbilt’s other yachts by visiting the mansion’s Ship Model Room at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Fall hours through Nov. 4 are Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579.

The first floor of The Hall of Fishes. Photo courtesy of the Vanderbilt Museum

CENTERPORT: The first floor of The Hall of Fishes at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Marine Museum has reopened following the Marine Collections Conservation Project. The second floor remains closed temporarily while the nearly 1,500 wet specimens, recently conserved, are organized and returned to their exhibition cases.

Supported by a $135,000 grant from The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the conservation project began in the summer of 2015. Work included conserving five taxidermied flamingos and a group of dry-mounted fish specimens, the repair of three shore bird dioramas and restoration of the diorama background paintings, and the creation of a new undersea painting for a large-scale exhibition case.

“We’re indeed fortunate to have some of the finest restoration experts from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to help us with the conservation and preservation of the collection,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt. 

“Their exceptional skills allow us to be the careful stewards of Mr. Vanderbilt’s legacy, a marine and natural history museum for the education and enjoyment of the people of Long Island and beyond,” she said.

The first floor of The Hall of Fishes. Photo courtesy of the Vanderbilt Museum

The specimen conservation work was completed in New Jersey at Wildlife Preservations, the studio of taxidermist George Dante. He and his colleagues cleaned decades of dust from the specimens, touched up fins and feathers, and returned them to the Vanderbilt.

Sean Murtha, an artist who specializes in fine-art background paintings for museum dioramas, recreated an 8×10-foot painting of the ocean floor to replace the faded original created in 1924. Thomas Doncourt, a foreground artist, restored the habitat in the Caribbean shore bird dioramas, which included recreating a crumbled section of beach in one diorama. Murtha also restored sections of the paintings in those dioramas.

Murtha and Doncourt are both former staff members of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and Dante is a top AMNH taxidermy consultant. The three are part of the continuous, century-long Vanderbilt-AMNH collaboration that began when William K. Vanderbilt II (1878–1944) hired artisans and scientists from the museum to design the habitat dioramas in his own new museum in the 1920s. Vanderbilt also hired artist William Belanske, who accompanied him on his world voyages and became his resident artist and curator.

Over the past several years, the three artists also completed extensive work on the wild-animal dioramas in the museum’s Stoll Wing, funded by two $100,000 grants from the Roy M. Speer Foundation.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Summer hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.   

General museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for students with ID and seniors (62 and older), and $5 for children 12 and under, which includes estate-grounds access to the Marine Museum, Memorial Wing natural-history and ethnographic-artifact galleries, Nursery Wing, Habitat Room, Egyptian mummy and Stoll Wing animal-habitat dioramas. For a mansion tour, add $6 per ticket. 

For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

The Vanderbilts and Huntingtons, with the Sikorsky seaplane behind them, are greeted by press photographers at the airport in Mendoza, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum
Update: This event is sold out!

By Sabrina Petroski

Dance the night away at the eighth annual Summer Fiesta at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport! The year’s most important fundraiser for the museum, the gala event will be held in the Vanderbilt Mansion’s Spanish Revival courtyard on Saturday, July 21 from 6:30 to 10 p.m. and feature an evening of wine, food, music and, of course, dancing. 

“We want it to be a wonderful evening for the attendees, and we also want to showcase the museum and have them see why it’s important to support the museum and the work that we’re doing here,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the museum, in a recent phone interview. “Thirdly, we want to raise funds for our programs and to be able to expand our education programs.”  

 According to the museum’s Director of Development Sue Madlinger, this year’s gala is a salute to William K. Vanderbilt II, his wife Rosamund and friends Edie and Robert Huntington who flew around the Caribbean, Central America and the perimeter of South America in Vanderbilt’s Sikorsky S-43 seaplane, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11, 1937, “which was a major feat in it’s day. Each year we try to bring Mr. Vanderbilt’s history into our events, and all the great things he did for [the museum], for Long Island, and all the adventures that he went on,” she said.

Entertainment for the gala includes Latin music by the world-renowned band, Los Cintron, with performances by flamenco dancer Juana Cala. The Cintron brothers are known as the greatest Gypsy Kings tribute band, and the group’s guitars, vocals and melodies evoke the traditional sounds of Andalusia and their beloved Spain. Food will be catered by Sangria 71 restaurant in Commack and feature hors d’oeuvres, a five-foot paella and dinner. On the menu will be chicken, salmon, fish and skirt steak plus margaritas, sangria, wine and beer. 

The funds raised from the gala will go toward expanding and modernizing the Vanderbilt Learning Center within the Carriage House. “We have an aggressive plan to upgrade [the Carriage House] architecturally, to maintain the historic features of the building but to bring in modern elements and flexibility so that we can continue the education program in a way that children are used to learning,” said Reinheimer. 

Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, the associate director of the museum, says the museum is looking for more sponsors, as well as corporate support to continue working on making the educational programs more attractive for children of all ages. 

Tickets are $135 for nonmembers, $125 for members. In the event of rain, the Summer Fiesta will be moved to the Celebration Tent. Guests are asked to follow a formal dress code, with cobblestone-friendly shoes. For more information, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

A scene from last year’s performance of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum

By Sabrina Petroski

Come join the fun as the most beautiful words in the English language are given new life! In celebration of its 30th anniversary, The Carriage House Players will present “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hamlet” for its annual Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport. The festival opens on June 29.

With a modern twist on two of the Bard’s most famous plays, performances will be held under the stars in the central courtyard of William K. Vanderbilt’s Eagle’s Nest mansion, one of the last remaining Gold Coast estates on the North Shore.

The festival was the brainchild of Frederic De Feis, who ran the productions through the Arena Players until his retirement. Upon his leave, De Feis passed the reins to longtime company member and protégé, Evan Donnellan.

“[The festival] started because Fred was looking for a space to perform Shakespeare outdoors,” said Donnellan. “He found the Vanderbilt courtyard and decided to use the space because of its atmosphere and architecture, which lends itself particularly well to Shakespeare.” As executive director, Donnellan, who was part of the company for 22 years, decided to rename the troupe The Carriage House Players to “better reflect our space” as they perform in the Vanderbilt Carriage House on the museum’s grounds.

“The Carriage House Players add a delightful dimension to the Vanderbilt Museum’s creative programming throughout the year,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum, in a recent email. “Every July and August, their annual Shakespeare productions are a very popular summer attraction. Their shows, presented on our outdoor stage, are enhanced by the graceful backdrop of the estate’s century-old Spanish Revival architecture.”

Jacob Wright and Michael Limone in rehearsal for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

“The Shakespeare Festival has been a main event for Long Island for three decades now and we are proud to continue the tradition,” added Donnellan who said the group chose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because the timeless story of love gone awry, complete with mischievous fairies and bumbling actors, will create a hilarious evening of theater filled with charm, magic and grand romantic gestures. The play will be directed by company member Christine Boehm, who has previously graced the stage as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and has directed recent productions of “The Woman in Black” and “Precious Little.” 

“With an aesthetic largely inspired by the Celtic Punk movement popularized in the 1980s with through lines discussing politics, pride in the working class and, most importantly, drinking, our ‘Midsummer’ will focus on the text’s most largely identified theme as the title suggests — a dream,” said Boehm. 

After “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Players will present Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet.” Donnellan says “the classic tale of revenge, loss, and the thirst for power, complete with glorious sword fights and ghostly visitors, will transport audiences back in time and put them right in the head of the Danish prince as he struggles to determine what is wrong and what is right.” Directed by company member, Jordan Hue, who directed “Macbeth” and “Much Ado About Nothing” at previous festivals, the show will be performed in the more classical tradition but with an emphasis on neo-futurism.   

For Donnellan, his hope is that this festival will appeal to wide audiences and introduce new theatergoers to the Bard’s genius. “Our goal is for audiences to embrace the old with the new while focusing on Shakespeare’s gorgeous prose and powerful storytelling.” 

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport, will host “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from June 29 through July 29 followed by “Hamlet” from Aug. 5 through Sept. 2. Shows are held at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays and 7 p.m. on Sundays, weather permitting. Running time is approximately 2 hours. Guests are encouraged to arrive early and enjoy a picnic on the grounds before the performances. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or at the door. For more information, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

STATELY ELEGANCE: The beautiful landscape at the entrance to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium welcomes visitors.

Throughout the summer, visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport will see the spectacular results of its first Gardeners Showcase.

A call went out at the beginning of the year inviting local nurseries and garden designers to “bring back the gardens.” In May, local nurseries, landscapers and garden designers used their artistry to transform 10 gardens on the grounds of the 43-acre waterfront estate of William K. Vanderbilt, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the last remaining Gold Coast estates on the North Shore of Long Island. 

“I am grateful for the enthusiastic response from the landscaping and gardening community to volunteer their talents to beautify this historic estate,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum.

The new gardens were established at the main entrance gates, in front of the planetarium, the mansion courtyard, the Wishing Well and back terrace using boxwoods, yews, perennials, herbs, annuals, topiaries, grasses and more. Existing gardens, including the ones with water features, were spruced up as well. 

JUST TROTTING ALONG: Above, a topiary/sensory garden designed by members of the Pal-O-Mine Equestrian J-STEP Program and Gro Girl Horticultural Therapy is located in front of the Planetarium.

One of the more popular gardens is the sensory garden located in front of the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium. A collaboration between Gro Girl Horticultural Therapy and Pal-O-Mine Equestrian J-STEP (Job Security Through Equine Partnership), it features a topiary horse as well as rosemary, lavender, marigolds and lamb’s ear. The garden also recycles Christmas trees (with branches removed) to construct teepee-like structures for climbing, flowering vines. The goal of the garden is “to arouse the senses and to evoke positive feelings.”

“These floral artisans, as well as our own veteran corps of accomplished volunteer gardeners, have invested their time, labor and resources. Their enhancements will be enjoyed by more than 30,000 visitors this summer. We hope to continue this collaboration for many years,” Reinheimer said. 

Showcase participants include Gro Girl Horticultural Therapy of Greenlawn, Pal-O-Mine Equestrian J-STEP Program of Islandia, Sacred Gardens of Center Moriches, Dina Yando Landscape & Perennial Garden Design/North Service Nursery of Centerport, Landscapes by Bob Dohne of Greenlawn, Carlstrom Landscapes of Rocky Point, Mossy Pine Garden & Landscape Design of Greenlawn, Centerport Garden Club, Joe deGroot Designs of Centerport, Mother Earth’s Landscape & Nursery of East Northport and Vanderbilt Volunteer Gardeners. Each group is identified by signage at its Garden Showcase site. The event will run through Sept. 30. 

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. To see the gardens, visitors pay only general admission: $8 adults; $7 seniors/students (age 62-plus or student ID); $5 children age 12 and under; children age 2 and under, free. For hours and more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Photos courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum

Living History cast members, from left, Ellen Mason as Elizabeth Arden; Peter Reganato as Pietro, the Italian chef; Beverly Pokorny as Ann Morgan; and Florence Lucker as Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport turns back the clock once again by offering its popular weekend Living History tours now through Sept. 2. For more than a decade, these tours have delighted visitors to the elegant 24-room, Spanish Revival waterfront mansion, Eagle’s Nest, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

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. 

Guides dressed as members of the Vanderbilt family and household staff tell stories about the mansion’s famous residents and their world-renowned visitors. 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 II’s books of his world travels and extensive sea journeys.

This summer it will be 1936 again. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan is enjoying a reunion of her friends in the women’s suffrage movement. 

“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 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. Consuelo and her guests reminisce about their younger days at suffragette rallies. 

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. (Vanderbilt’s mother, Alva, also had been active in the movement.) 

The Living History cast: Ellen Mason will play Elizabeth Arden, who created the American beauty industry. Yachtsman Harold Vanderbilt — three-time winner of the America’s Cup, and expert on contract bridge — will be portrayed by Jim Ryan and Gerard Crosson. Peter Reganato will be Pietro, the Italian chef. Dale Spencer will perform as William Belanske, the curator and artist who traveled with Vanderbilt on his epic journeys. 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 in the mansion on Saturdays and Sundays at 12, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Tickets: $8 per person, available only at the door, are in addition to the museum’s general admission fee of $8 adults, $7 senior and students, $5 children ages 12 and under. Children ages 2 and under are free. For more information, please call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. 

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A view of Northport Harbor and Estate boathouse from the Vanderbilt Museum’s rose garden. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport, will host its first Gardeners Showcase, “Bringing Back the Gardens,” during the spring and summer of this year. The museum invites local nurseries and garden designers to show off their skills and creativity in one of the gardens that grace the 43-acre waterfront estate, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Spots are available for nine showcases, and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

In return for their effort and contribution, participants will receive:

* Signage that identifies their business at each garden showcase site. This signage will be viewed by the more than 100,000 anticipated Vanderbilt visitors during the spring, summer and fall.

* Recognition on the Vanderbilt website and publicity on its social-media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).

* Publicity through news releases sent to regional media including Newsday, News12, Patch, and Long Island weekly newspapers.

* A one-year, Associate Membership to the Vanderbilt Museum.

To secure a spot in this year’s Gardeners Showcase, or to obtain more information, please contact Jim Munson, the Vanderbilt Museum’s operations supervisor, at 631-379-2237 or at jim@vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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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William and Rosamund Vanderbilt with Robert and Edie Huntington at the airport in Mendoza, Argentina with the Sikorsky seaplane in background. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

William Kissam Vanderbilt II was an explorer and adventurer who traveled the world in his yachts. An avid race car driver, he set a world speed record in 1904, and brought auto racing to the United States. Vanderbilt also looked to the skies for diversion and adventure.

Arriving at airport in Arica, Chile, for flight to Lima, Peru. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

In early 1937, William and Rosamund Vanderbilt and their friends, Edie and Robert Huntington, flew around the Caribbean, Central America and the perimeter of South America in his 12-passenger Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11.

On Feb. 2, they few over the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, which, Vanderbilt wrote, “can be very treacherous … as meteorological conditions in this area change rapidly.” He arranged with the Panagra airline to have one of its pilots show his pilot through the high mountain passes. Altitudes were so high that the travelers occasionally had to use supplemental oxygen tanks.

This year, the Vanderbilt Museum observes the 80th anniversary of that adventure.

Hayden Hamilton, managing editor for the American Aviation Historical Society in Huntington Beach, California, said, “This form of tourist travel was extremely rare in this period, generally restricted to the uber-wealthy or well-heeled entrepreneurs.”

Vanderbilt kept a detailed log and journal of the 25-day trip. They traveled 14,217 miles in 101 hours, 40 minutes, and used 8,360 gallons of gasoline and 828 gallons of oil. Later that year, Vanderbilt privately published 1,000 copies of his book, “Flying Lanes — Being the Journal of a Flight Around South America and Over the Andes.” The volume was illustrated with aerial photos from Pan American Airways (PAA) and others taken by Robert Huntington.

Sikorsky built 53 S-43 airplanes. Most were acquired by PAA and only two were sold to private individuals, according to Hamilton of the AAHS: William Vanderbilt and Howard Hughes. Just as Vanderbilt donated his 264-foot yacht Alva to the U.S. Navy for service during World War II, he sold his Sikorsky plane for $175,000 to the U.S. government for similar duty in 1941. The Alva, converted to a patrol gunboat and renamed the USS Plymouth, was torpedoed in 1943 by a German submarine and sank off the coast of North Carolina. According to an unconfirmed report, Vanderbilt’s amphibious plane crashed on a flight to Trinidad.

From “Flying Lanes”: After leaving Fisher Island and Miami on January 18, 1937, the Vanderbilts and Huntingtons flew toward Cuba, where they made their first fuel stop. As they flew, Vanderbilt wrote notes about the flight and thought about the man he had hired to fly them, Earl F. White, whom he described as “one of the most reliable and resourceful aviators in the game.”

The interior of the Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, with luxurious seating and custom-painted wrap-around cloud mural. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

White, 49, had been a World War I pilot in the U.S. Air Service, the forerunner of the Army Air Corps and later the Air Force, from 1915 to 1919. His extraordinary credentials included making the first nonstop flight from Chicago to New York in 1919, during which he set the official world distance record of 727 miles. White inaugurated the world’s first scheduled night air-mail service, which operated 1914-1925. He flew for Pan American Airways on the Miami-Havana-Puerto Rico route, from 1928 to 1931, and began working for Vanderbilt in 1935.

Robert Huntington, also a licensed pilot (as was his wife), occasionally took the controls of the seaplane to give White a break, so that he could send and receive Morse code messages. Huntington flew the plane for 40 hours of the trip.

“I flew the ship eleven hours during the trip and have altogether 104 hours at the controls to my credit,” Vanderbilt wrote. “But I have no pilot’s license and my guess is — I won’t get one. A little too old to start at this game, but it is nice to feel one knows a little about the ship, and it gives one reassurance that he is not apt to have if he has never actually been at the controls. However, I did do the navigating during the voyage whenever we left the coast and was rather pleased with the results …”

February 10, 1937 — Antiqua, Guatemala. “What a grand day. Motored with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Sanches de Latour, to Antigua, the old capital, and were met there by the Governor and shown about that most interesting and picturesque city, at one time the capital of Guatemala but now abandoned as such because of earthquakes and fear of volcanic eruptions from ever restless volcanoes close by.

“We dined with the American Minister and had a most enjoyable evening and, as 4:00 a.m. was our time for getting up, we were glad to drop into our beds at midnight.”

February 11 — To Havana and Miami: The Vanderbilts and Huntingtons arrived at the airport at 5:30 a.m. “A cup of coffee was all Rose and I could muster, but then we would be home tonight. Think of it! Home! My, how good that sounded.”

After a stop in Havana, the travelers were airborne again, bound for Florida. “American Shoals light appeared at 4:50 p.m.,” he wrote. “There was the good U.S.A. once more. What a thrill went through us!” After landing in Miami, Vanderbilt wrote, “I clasp Mr. White by the hand. ‘Congratulations from all of us, a wonderful flight!’…

“Our total mileage added up to a very considerable total of 14,217 statute miles and the flying time amounted to 101 hours and 40 minutes. We had enjoyed the thrill and adventure of the journey to the utmost, but now that we were home once more we were glad to rest where we were beyond the reach of an alarm clock.”

Visit the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport through the holidays to view more photos of William K. Vanderbilt’s adventures including a photo of him as a child with his parents and grandparents on a ship on the Nile, of him at various ages with his cars and large marine specimens in the Ship Model Room of the Memorial Wing in the mansion. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or go to www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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Vanderbilt estate’s restored pool in 2017

When William K. Vanderbilt II created his Eagle’s Nest estate and mansion in the early twentieth century, he included a golf course, tennis courts and a saltwater pool with cabanas, overlooking Northport Bay.

Decades ago, the pool was filled in for visitor safety and today it is planted with grass. Earlier this summer, the Vanderbilt Museum restoration staff repaired and restored the pool and cabanas and, according to the original design, repainted them white. With the completion of the project, the museum has another singular, scenic location for receptions, parties and weddings.

The pool complex is built into the steep hillside, which made possible the imposing semicircular wall and double staircase that splits at a landing below the grand entry steps. The sides of the wall, which is crowned by a balustrade, step down several times. Each step is decorated with an urn of flowers.

The double stairways, with elegant wrought-iron railings, wind down each side of the wall to the walkway that encircles the pool. On the walkway level, in the center of the wall, is a large niche that showcases a statue rising out of a shallow basin. The statue, which is also a fountain, is a neoclassical bearded man with a cherub standing on each shoulder.

The staff also restored the twin cabanas adjacent to the waterfront edge of the pool. Crew members removed the deteriorating cabana roofs and constructed new ones from the remaining inventory of original, curved, Mediterranean-style ceramic tiles purchased by Vanderbilt’s architects. The carved wooden cabana doors, removed and stored for years, were rehung and repainted. Between the cabanas is a small terrace of bricks set in a herringbone pattern.

Several years ago, the Vanderbilt pool had an anonymous moment of fame on the silver screen. That moment had its beginnings in 2013 when, even in its deteriorated state, the pool design appealed to Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann.

Restored cabanas and terrace, overlooking Northport Bay

When Luhrmann was doing research for his film “The Great Gatsby” (2013) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, he and his production designer, Catherine Martin, visited some of the remaining Gold Coast mansions on the North Shore of Long Island. They spent an afternoon exploring and photographing the Vanderbilt estate, mansion and pool. Luhrmann was so impressed with the pool that he created a version of it and its graceful, curving twin staircases, for his movie.

A May 2013 Vanity Fair article detailed Luhrmann’s visit: In the film, Gatsby’s parties are centered around his circular pool, which later serves as the setting of a tragic climactic scene. During an extensive location scout of houses in Long Island, Martin says, she, Luhrmann, and their crew stumbled upon their inspiration at Eagle’s Nest, a Spanish Revival–style mansion that Vanderbilt began building in 1910.

Even though the pool had been filled in with grass and dirt after a hurricane, she says, Luhrmann was so taken by the property that he had his music supervisor and an assistant spontaneously act out the pivotal scene right there. “The video that Baz shot that day is almost identical to the scene that ended up in the movie,” she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport is open on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. through April 2, 2018. Mansion tours are given at 12:30, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579.

Photos courtesy of Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

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