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Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

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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.


“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

Interior designers, garden clubs deck the elegant halls

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s holiday centerpiece is the mansion of William and Rosamond Vanderbilt, decorated each year by local designers and garden clubs. Their creative touch brings additional charm and magic to the spectacular, 24-room, Spanish-Revival house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can see the captivating results from now through January. The decorators create magic in the rooms with lighted trees, boughs, ornaments, wreaths, ribbons, garlands and elegantly wrapped faux gifts.

Decorating the mansion this year were the Asharoken, Dix Hills, Centerport, Honey Hills, Nathan Hale and Three Village (Old Field, Setauket and Stony Brook) garden clubs; Harbor Homestead & Co. Design of Centerport; and gardeners from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

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 seasons. “We look forward to seeing them each year, and to how they use their creative skills to bring elegant holiday charm to the house.” Gress and the curatorial staff decorated the Windsor Guest Room, Breakfast Hallway, Lancaster Room and Northport Porch.

Christine Lagana and a group of friends from the Dix Hills Garden Club decorated the large tree in the mansion library and placed gifts beneath it. They also added garland and ornaments as well as white poinsettias and red ribbons to the mantelpiece over the large fireplace and artful groups of large, mirrored ornaments on side tables.

Mary Schlotter and her daughter, Krishtia McCord — who operate the Centerport design firm Harbor Homestead & Co. — decorated Rosamond Vanderbilt’s mirrored dressing room and the arcade that connects the nursery wing with the front entrance of the mansion. They decorated a live tree in the Sundial Garden off the arcade and hung icicles and silver-sprayed vines, harvested locally, from the arcade ceiling beams.

For Mrs. Vanderbilt’s dressing room, using a dress-form mannequin, they created a skirt with green boughs. “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.”

Schlotter and McCord 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.

The Asharoken Garden Club, returning after many years, decorated Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom with colors that reflect her love of pearls, Gress said, including copper, cream and gold. The Centerport club embellished the guest room of Sonja Henie (three-time Olympic skating champion, movie star, and family friend) and William Vanderbilt’s bedroom. The wreaths, garlands and large golden ornaments in Mr. Vanderbilt’s room were highlighted by pots of elegant red amaryllis, a stunning seasonal flower. They also placed garland and tall, thin trees, hung with ornaments, on the mantelpiece.

The Nathan Hale club, which decorated the Organ Room, clipped old-fashioned candles with brass holders and wax-catchers on the branches of the tree. Members added garland and cherubs to the carved mantelpiece and placed arrangements of gold-sprayed pine cones and scallop and whelk shells on tables.

In the Portuguese Sitting Room, in the original wing of the mansion, the Honey Hill club placed Tiffany packages beneath the tree and added small holiday touches around the room. The Cornell Cooperative Extension gardeners worked outside, adding flourishes to the mansion windows with live wreaths, trimmed with flowers, fruits and ribbons. “These generous volunteers use their time and talent to create an atmosphere of charming holiday grandeur and sophisticated living,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum. “We’re grateful to them for bringing magic to this historic house.”

Visiting the Vanderbilt Museum:

Now that the Vanderbilt mansion and its halls are decked elegantly for the season, the public is invited to see the home at its most magical time. Guided tours of the decorated Vanderbilt mansion continue each Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday at 12:30, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. — and on Tuesday, Dec. 26, through Saturday, Dec. 30. (Visitors pay the general admission fee plus $6 per person for a tour.)

Special Twilight Tours will be given for two days only: Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 27 and 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for students and seniors (62 and older) and $5 for children 12 and under.

The Vanderbilt Museum and Reichert Planetarium will be open from noon to 4 p.m. on Dec. 26 to 30 and will be closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.


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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.

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Above, Vanderbilt’s 213-foot diesel yacht Ara, a refitted French warship. Vanderbilt Museum Archive photo

Epic cruise began 89 years ago

William K. Vanderbilt II, an expert yachtsman, naval officer and marine naturalist, first circumnavigated the globe in 1928-29. Eighty-nine years ago — on Oct. 28, 1928 — he and his wife, Rosamond, a few friends, and a crew of 40 boarded the Vanderbilt yacht Ara, moored in Northport Bay, just off the Eagle’s Nest estate grounds.

Above, from left, Rosamond and William Vanderbilt, atop camels at the Pyramid of Cheops in Giza, Egypt, 1929. To the right is the Great Sphinx. Vanderbilt Museum Archive photo

The crew weighed anchor and, with Vanderbilt at the helm, pointed the 213-foot ship westward toward New York City, then headed for the Atlantic. The Ara cruised southward along the eastern seaboard, passed through the Panama Canal and steamed across the Pacific. The voyagers made numerous ports of call in the South Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, through the Red Sea to Mediterranean destinations, through the Strait of Gibraltar and back home. By the time they arrived back in Miami six months later, they had traveled 28,738 miles.

During the journey, Vanderbilt collected marine and natural-history specimens for his Hall of Fishes museum in Centerport. Artist William Belanske, hired away from the American Museum of Natural History, traveled with the Vanderbilts. He made detailed paintings of many of the fish collected for the museum.

By late 1929, Vanderbilt, using his ship logs and photographs, produced and privately printed a 264-page book about the journey, “Taking One’s Own Ship Around the World.” Nineteen full-color plates of Belanske’s work are included.

Chapter One begins: “For years I had waited and toiled for the moment when, as captain of my own ship, I would be able to undertake a voyage rarely accomplished — the circumnavigation of the globe. Even as a youngster, I had a leaning toward the sea, and lost no opportunity to pass my hours of leisure near the water. As time went on, I gained experience and a certain amount of knowledge in the handling of small boats.”

Vanderbilt became an expert sailor and owned a series of increasingly larger boats. Just before the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the U.S, Naval Reserve and was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade. After America entered the war, he began sea duty in command of the torpedo boat SP-124, originally his own 152-foot steam turbine-powered yacht, Tarantula 1.

“Strangely, in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the army rejected me, a freshman then at Harvard, because of a weak heart. Apparently, at thirty-nine, I had staged a comeback.”

In February 1918, Vanderbilt passed an exam and obtained his Master’s certificate. Later, advanced endorsements made his certificate “good for all oceans and unlimited tonnage.”

In 1928, he purchased the motor yacht Ara, a refitted French warship built originally for the British Navy.

From an article on the Ara voyage in The New York Sun in 1929: “Paris, April 12 — William K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Vanderbilt are pausing here on one of the most interesting around-the-world cruises ever undertaken. Other yachtsmen have circled the globe in their own ships, but Mr. Vanderbilt is no mere passenger — he is the master of his 213-foot motor yacht Ara and employs no captain. He attends to all matters of navigation himself and takes all responsibility himself for the safety of his ship and complement of over forty persons.

“Mr. Vanderbilt has three watch officers to help work the ship, but in stormy weather it he is who remains on the bridge, and who performs the other fatiguing duties that go with command of a vessel.

“However, this is no novelty for him. For fifteen years, he has been a licensed master, qualified to sail any ocean, and he holds the rank of lieutenant-commander in the United States Naval Reserve. The Ara carries several guns, but her owner made it clear today these were used solely for saluting. He strongly believes in the efficacy of a friendly approach.”

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; and with the crew of the Alva, 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.

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

Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra

Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra will fill the night with music, dancing and romance when they return to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport on Friday, Aug. 4, for their 11th annual performance of Spicy Sounds for a Hot Night. The popular event will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. in the courtyard of the Spanish-Revival style Vanderbilt Mansion overlooking Northport Bay.

Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and to take professional, club-style Latin dance lessons ($5 per person, offered from 6 to 6:45 p.m. before the main event begins). Wine, beer and soft drinks will be available for purchase. Tickets are $30 in advance at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org, $35 at the door. Tickets also can be ordered by phone, weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, at 631-854-5579. In the event of rain, tickets will be refunded. (Please check Vanderbilt website for updates.)

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum

Love to dance in the warm evening air? Want to learn new steps? Bring your friends to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Mid-Summer Night dances, held on most Thursday evenings. The summer dances, which have become some of the museum’s most popular events, are held rain or shine in the Celebration Tent next to the Vanderbilt Mansion, overlooking Northport Bay.

The schedule includes the foxtrot with Antz Joseph and Charla on July 13, the merengue with Charlie Wood on July 20, rumba by Patti Panebianco, with performances by Patti Panebianco’s Kids on July 27, East Coast swing by Ed and Maria of Swing Dance Long Island on Aug. 17, the hustle with Donna DeSimone on Aug. 24 and the salsa by Alfred Peña of Rhythmology on Aug. 31. Dances start at 6:30 p.m. with professional instructors teaching the featured dance step of the week for 30 minutes, followed by a deejay playing music for dancing of all types. Attendees are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and beverages.

Tickets are $22 online at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org, $30 at the door. The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579.