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Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

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Sonic, guide dog-in-training. Photo by James Chang

The Guide Dog Foundation (GDF) hosted an in-person puppy class on the grounds of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum on Thursday, September 24. The event introduced future guide dogs to an outdoor environment with unique sounds, smells, and terrain features.

Guide Dog Foundation trainer and puppy at the Vanderbilt Mansion. Photo by James Chang

The Museum has a community partnership with the GDF and its sister organization America’s VetDogs (AVD). The 43-acre Vanderbilt Estate offers unusual terrain that is ideal for dog training – hills from easy to steep, a forest, cobblestone roads, and stairways. Exposure to wildlife and other dog distractions also assists trainers to socialize young dogs so they can become confident guides for someone who is blind or visually impaired.

The Vanderbilt offers other community-outreach events each year, including special weekends that celebrate veterans and first responders, and a morning exclusively for people with special needs and their families.

Year-round, the Museum extends the national, free-admission, summer-season Blue Star Museums program for active-duty military service members and their families. Each December, the Vanderbilt invites the community to its Tree Lighting event. For more information, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

SISTERS! COME, WE FLY! Catch an outdoor screening of ‘Hocus Pocus’ with the Sanderson Sisters at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum on Oct. 2.

Vanderbilt Movie Night

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its outdoor movie night series with a screening of the Halloween classic “Hocus Pocus” on Friday, Oct. 2 and “Nightmare Before Christmas” on Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. Please arrive a half hour before showtime. Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Ice cream and snacks will be sold. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

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Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

A Morning for Families

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport hosts A Morning for Families, an event exclusively for people with special needs and their families, on Saturday, Oct. 3 from 9 a.m. to noon. Spend a morning at the Museum exploring the collections and enjoying the grounds, gardens, and architecture. Additional activities include a bottle rocket demonstration, a preserved specimen touch table and a take-away craft. Face masks and social distancing are mandatory. Free admission but registration is required by visiting www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. For more information call Beth at 854-5552 or email [email protected]

Movie Night at the Vanderbilt

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its movie night series with a screening of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” starring Jim Carrey on Friday, Sept. 25 and Saturday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Come early, bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds at 6:30 p.m. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

By Melissa Arnold

It’s been a long year of Netflix binges and Zoom meetings for all of us, and these days, nothing feels better than getting out a little. You don’t have to go far to find interesting places to explore, either.

Most Long Island locals are probably familiar with the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport, with its sprawling grounds, elaborate mansion and impressive collection of marine life. But be honest: When was your last visit? If it’s been a while — or even if it hasn’t — their 70th anniversary year is the perfect time to stop by.

“The Vanderbilt is unique, a don’t-miss slice of American history. When you take a guided tour of the mansion and its galleries, it’s a time machine trip to a remarkable era of privilege,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the museum. “At one point in the past, there were more than 1,200 mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast. This is one of the few that remains.”

The Vanderbilt Mansion as we know it today had relatively modest beginnings. William K. Vanderbilt II, a son of the famed Vanderbilt family, had just separated from his first wife in the early 1900s. “Willie K.,” as he’s affectionately known, was looking for a place to get a fresh start, away from the public eye. So he came to Centerport and purchased land, where he built a 7-room, English-style cottage along with some outbuildings.

The cottage, called Eagle’s Nest, was eventually expanded into a sprawling 24-room mansion in the Spanish Revival style. From 1910 to 1944, Eagle’s Nest was Vanderbilt’s summer hideaway. He and his second wife Rosamond hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

Of course, that was just the beginning. According to Killian Taylor, the museum’s curatorial associate, Vanderbilt developed a fascination with all kinds of animals, the sea and the natural world from a young age. He had the opportunity to travel the world on his father’s yachts as a child, and longed to see more as he reached adulthood.

“Later, Willie K. inherited $20 million from his late father. One of the first things he did was purchase a very large yacht and hire a team of scientists and a crew,” Taylor explained. “With them, he began to travel and collect marine life, and by 1930, he had amassed one of the world’s largest private marine collections.”

With the help of scientists and experts from the American Museum of Natural History, Vanderbilt created galleries at the Estate to showcase his collections which contains more than 13,000 different marine specimens of all kinds and sizes, from the tiniest fish to a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

After Vanderbilt died in 1944, Rosamond continued to live in their Centerport mansion until her death in 1947. The 43-acre estate and museum – which remain frozen in time, exactly as they were in the late 1940s – opened to the public on July 6, 1950, following instructions left in Vanderbilt’s will. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The museum also features a 3,000-year-old mummy, which Vanderbilt purchased from an antique shop in Cairo, Egypt, Taylor said. The mummy even had an X-ray taken at nearby Stony Brook University Hospital, where they determined the remains are of a female around 25 years old.

“She doesn’t have a name out of respect for the fact that she was once a living woman with her own identity,” Taylor added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of difficulties to every business, and while the museum has had to temporarily close some of its facilities, including the mansion’s living quarters and planetarium, they’ve also added new opportunities for visitors.

“Like many other museums, we had to get creative virtually very quickly,” said Wayland-Morgan. “Our Education Department created the ‘Explore’ series for children — fascinating facts about the lives of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and fish, with pictures to download and color. The Planetarium astronomy educators produced 11 videos on topics including How to Use a Telescope, Imagining Alien Life, Mars, Black Holes, and Fitness in Space. We’ve received very positive responses.” The planetarium also offers online astronomy classes.

The museum is also offering new outdoor programs on the grounds, including walking tours, sunset yoga, a popular series of bird talks by an ornithologist James MacDougall and are currently hosting the third annual Gardeners Showcase through September. On Fridays and Saturdays, movie-and-picnic nights are a popular draw at the outdoor, drive-in theater.

Even without a specific event to attend, the grounds are a perfect place to wander when cabin fever strikes.

“The best reason to visit right now is to stroll the grounds and gardens and visit the open galleries. We’ve also become a very popular picnic destination with a great view of Northport Bay,” Wayland-Morgan said. “We plan to reopen the mansion living quarters and planetarium later in the fall.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. As of Sept. 17, hours of operation are from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The mansion’s living quarters and the planetarium are currently closed. Please wear a mask and practice social distancing. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12, and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 2 are admitted free. For questions and information, including movie night passes, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

Francis Halstead adds flowers to a railing in the Vanderbilt Mansion courtyard.

Francis Halstead is one of 11 garden designers and local nurseries taking part in the third annual Gardeners Showcase at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport through September, along with the Vanderbilt’s corps of volunteer gardeners. He is the first participant, however, to plant flowers of his own creation in some of the Vanderbilt Mansion gardens and terraces.

Hybrid Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet, in the Vanderbilt Mansion Sundial Garden

Halstead, who started Flowers by Friends in 2012 in Levittown, is a self-trained horticulturalist. “I went to Farmingdale State College for a single semester,” he said, “but most of what I’ve learned has been self-taught. I first became interested in gardening when I worked for a grower in Colorado. I’ve put myself into situations where I could also learn from experts in the field.”

Some of those experts were his colleagues at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, where he became lead tropical flower grower.

While working in Colorado, Halstead also became interested in exotic plants, including ethnobotanicals, specifically Brugmansia. (Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants.) Many of the hybrids he planted in the Sundial Garden are Brugmansia, flowering ornamental plants. They are also called Angel’s Trumpets for their large, fragrant flowers.

“When I saw what the leading Brugmansia growers were producing, I became fascinated,” he said. “I was inspired when I imagined what the hybrids would look like in a flower show. That’s what really drives me. At Flowers by Friends, we design flower shows using new hybrids of rare exotic plants. We want to educate people about their importance.”

In learning about horticulture and building his business, Halstead said he was guided by a philosophical quote from the singer and rapper Kevin Gates: “Anything lost can be found again, except for time wasted. A vision without action is merely a dream.”

Jim Munson, the Vanderbilt’s operations supervisor, who created and oversees the Gardeners Showcase, said, “Francis’s hybrids in the Sundial Garden are in full bloom now. People will not see these flowers anywhere else because, through botany, he has cross-pollinated different flowers to create completely new floral hybrids. His creations are utterly spectacular.”

Halstead also has planted all the flowerpots around the restored saltwater pool and created a display for the fountain in the alcove beneath the staircase to the pool. In addition, he brought in Nelson Demarest, the head garden designer at Hicks Nursery for the last 40 years. Together they created planters for all the balconies in the Mansion courtyard, Munson said.

To produce hybrid flowers, Halstead chooses the flowers he wants to cross-pollinate. “Then, you have to cross them depending on which traits you would want to see in your new seedlings,” he said. “After that, you let the seeds develop, harvest them, name them by the crosses, and plant them.”

Once the plants start to develop, he picks out the ones he no longer wants and grows the others. It takes three years before a Brugmansia cultivar is stable enough to be named. Halstead said few people outside of the plant-growing community know about Brugmansia:

“I sell them through flower shows. That is my real business. Growing plants and creating art with them.”

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.

Photos by Jim Munson

Vanderbilt Movie Night

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its outdoor movie night series with a screening of “Ice Age” (Rated PG) tonight and Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Feel free to bring a blanket and arrive at 7 p.m. to picnic on the lawn. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

'The Greatest Showman'

Vanderbilt Movie Night

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its movie night series with a screening of “The Greatest Showman” (rated PG),  the story of legendary circus promoter P.T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman tonight and Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.

Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Feel free to bring a blanket and arrive at 7 p.m. to picnic on the lawn. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Have you ever gazed at the night sky and wanted to know more about what you see? If you are intrigued by astronomy, and have a beginner or novice-level understanding of it, the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium & Observatory at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport invites you to take its Astronomy Education Series of six virtual mini-courses.

Dave Bush, director of the Planetarium, said each course builds upon the prior one in the sequence, while it also provides flexibility for students to gauge their own level of interest. Students may enroll in as many, or as few, courses as they choose, he said. It is recommended, however, that Course 1 be taken as a prerequisite for any of the other five. Course 1 begins September 15. Courses 2 to 6 are offered from mid-October through late April 2021.

“During the COVID-19 shutdown, this series will be taught remotely via Zoom,” Bush said. “Once the Planetarium reopens, the courses will be taught at the Planetarium in a classroom setting.  If we are permitted to move to a classroom setting, those classes will also will be livestreamed for those students who prefer, or are required, to attend remotely.”

The instructor is Bob Unger, who has pursued a lifelong interest in astronomy. He taught in the Planetarium’s outreach program Discovering the Universe: Mobile Classroom, has participated in projects for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is one of the command-console operators of the Planetarium’s projection system. Occasional guest speakers may be invited.

Courses are designed for beginning to novice-level amateur astronomers – and for anyone who wishes to expand their knowledge of astronomy and the night sky.  “The Astronomy Education Series provides a more formal education than is typically provided at planetarium shows and exhibits, or from media outlets,” said Unger.

Designed for adult learners (age 16 years and up), the courses explore astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and the night sky. The textbook is free in electronic form as a PDF document. The fee for each course is $70, $60 members. To register, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. For further information, call 631-988-3510.

AS YOU WISH Cary Elwes and Robin Wright star in ‘The Princess Bride’
Movie Night at the Vanderbilt:
‘The Princess Bride

Friday and Saturday, August 21-22

Have some retro summer fun this weekend and enjoy a great movie outdoors! The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will be showing the beloved fairy tale adventure The Princess Bride on Friday and Saturday, August 21 and 22.

André the Giant and Robin Wright in a scene from ‘The Princess Bride.’

Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for Members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for Members. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only. Reserve tickets early. Absolutely no sales at the gate.

Bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds and arrive at 7 p.m. The movie starts at 8 p.m. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase.

For everyone’s safety, all visitors must adhere strictly to all current public health and safety guidelines and practices. Please stay safe and practice social distancing. Please wear a mask when unable to maintain six feet of social distance.

The bathrooms at the gatehouse will be open to one family/visitor group at a time. A custodian sanitizes bathroom touchpoints regularly.