Save Long Island’s Historic Vanderbilt Museum!

January 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm Leave a comment

When I first moved here to Long Island in 1981, one of my most memorable visits was to the famed Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport. I remember traversing the narrow, winding streets through the North Shore to finally arrive at the imposing gates to the mansion known as Eagle’s Nest. From its hilltop bluff, you can see into the harbor, Long Island Sound, and, on clear days, all the way to Connecticut. Walking along its cobble-stoned walkway through the massive gates and into the courtyard, the stately mansion allows visitors to see why the North Shore is called the “Gold Coast” and how earlier Vanderbilt family members used to live. This was the summer home of William Kissam Vanderbilt II, whose family fortune was created by his grandfather, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, shipping and railroad tycoon.

But today the historic museum is in trouble. When millionaire William K. Vanderbilt II died in 1944, he left an $8.2 million endowment to help take care of the mansion and marine museum on his 43-acre estate. The endowment stipulates that the original principal could not be spent thus producing $800,000 a year from endowment income, about half of the museum’s operating expenses. But with the economic downturn, the endowment has dropped from $12.3 million to $8.3 million. The museum needs visitors to stem its closing!

While the museum works to gain additional funds, either from the Suffolk Legislature or private firms, visitors should take the opportunity to see this unique group of buildings. Even though it is winter, the mansion offers an inside glimpse of Willie K., as he was known. The beautiful Spanish Revival interior structure is decorated with Vanderbilt’s original furniture, paintings, books, and other personal effects. Throughout the house visitors will find exquisite examples of the finest furnishings from around the world. The millionaire’s 1928 Lincoln is on exhibit, along with hundreds of objects he collected during worldwide travels on his 264-foot yacht. The two-story Marine Museum is a few steps away from the main house. No need to travel to the Museum of Natural History in New York City; this is a smaller version that will thrill children and adults alike. Among its preserved artifacts are fish, birds, tarantulas, two shrunken heads from Peru and an Egyptian mummy. The first floor of the Hall of Fishes displays a large collection of mounted animals and marine specimens. The second floor contains hundreds of marine vertebrates and invertebrates. Many of the displayed marine forms are the only such specimens in existence, collected, identified, and named by Vanderbilt and his staff.
The Habitat Wing displays dioramas of animals in their natural habitats, and is dominated by a huge whale shark suspended from the ceiling. The Memorial Wing, built to commemorate the life of Vanderbilt’s son, contains various trophies and mementos of his exploits. The Moth and Butterfly Room contains a collection of rare and beautifully colored moths, butterflies, and beetles, some of them unusually large.There is also a diorama depicting the growth of railroading in America.
The Planetarium, erected in 1971, is among the dozen best equipped in the country, featuring the largest public-use telescope in the New York City area (available on clear evenings when shows are scheduled). The Sky Theatre has a 60-foot diameter, 238-seat dome “sky” onto which a customized GOTO projection instrument reproduces the sun, moon, stars, and the imaginary coordinate lines used to map the heavens. This amazing system can create the heavens as they would appear from any point on Earth, at any time up to thousands of years into the past or into the future. Hundreds of special projectors and effects supplement this device and combine with a four channel sound system to create fantastic educational and esthetic visual and audio effects.
Hopefully, interest in the museum and its unique collections will keep it open to the public and we will not see another chapter in Gold Coast history be forever lost.

Additional Resources: 180 Little Neck Road
Centerport, NY 11721-0605
(631) 854-5555 • 854-5538 Planetarium • 854-5539

By Deborah Toth

NY Examiner

Entry filed under: Get Wet, Public Waterfront, Region.


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