Featured writer: Michael Stephen Wills
The first weekend of May, 2013 my wife, Pam, and I attended a New York City Ballet performance on Saturday and stayed in a family house on Long Island. The following day we stayed on “The Island” to visit the Vanderbilt Museum of Centerport.
This is the former “Eagles Nest” estate of William (“Willie K”) Kissam Vanderbilt II.
Museum visitors are first drawn to a grand Corinthian colonnade and view of this boathouse on Northport Harbor.
Vanderbilt and Gatsby
Willie K chose Centerport in 1910 for an anchorage on the well protected Northport Harbor, deep enough to his yacht the size of a destroyer class ship named for his mother, Alva.
The estate grounds are high above the harbor, the mansion and gardens designed to enhance the view.
There are superficial parallels between Willie K’s life and “The Great Gatsby.” The first suburban commuter, Willie K was an auto enthusiast. A theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” is travel back and forth from New York City to the great estates on Long Island’s North Shore. In Gatsby, while the vehicles are grand, the travel is pointless or worse. In comparison, Willie K as a pioneering automobile racer, achieved a land speed record and founded a major race, “The Vanderbilt Cup.” Gatsby, above and beyond his fictional status, is a tenuous, transient figure. Vanderbilt established this estate, grounds and museums we still enjoy today.
A short walk from the colonnade is a rose garden surrounding a pool and fountain. These Corinthian columns sized to a human scale flank a dedication bench on the northern side overlooking the boathouse through a hillside forest.
Spirit of the Mediterranean
This figure of a flourishing infant is atop the rose garden fountain. Pam and I first noticed this character of the Eagles Nest estate here, with his abundant grape cluster, and came to know him as an expression of Willie’s outlook.
To the northeast / east is a dramatic view of Northport harbor and the Long Island Sound.
The mansion and surrounding grounds were imagined by Willie K and implemented by the architects Warren, Wetmore and Pearce, over a twenty five year building campaign, from Vanderbilt’s impressions of the Mediterranean. We were gifted the day of our visit with weather that evoked the full expression of the Mediterranean spirit.
Thirty five years after the his Eagles Nest estate was completed and twenty seven after his death, the museums left by Willie K were extended with the building of this planetarium.
Located next to the Rose Garden, this planetarium was reopened March 2013 with a complete equipment upgrade.
There are several museums on the grounds, joined by graciously appointed walkways. This is a corner urn along the walk to the mansion.
The Spanish Revival style mansion is built around a central, cobblestone courtyard entered through this elaborate gate flanked by two carved sandstone urns, each at least six feet tall with pedestal.
The gated entrance is the base of a bell tower. Willie K installed in the tower a church bell he shipped from Russia. It is older than the Liberty bell.
He used to have great fun ringing the bell on Sunday mornings to disturb the sleep of his partying son and friends. That stopped when the neighbors arrived as an angry, spontaneous group to complain.
The cobblestone road leads up to the mansion, over a bridge and into the courtyard.
Here is a detail of the walk way, formed from glacially rounded pebbles very common on beaches of Long Island’s North Shore.
Across the courtyard from the bell tower is this arched entrance to the gardens along the east mansion walls. As we approached the figure to the right seemed to be a ghost, she was so still and enthralled by the view of Northport Harbor.
There are many carved stone planters in an Aztec motif such as that to the left of the archway and, in a detail shot, below.
Pam and I continued through the archway into the gardens.
With plenty of time before the Mansion tour (highly recommended) we wandered at length and had an interesting conversation with the figure of the archway, a retired lady from Smithtown (and not a ghost).
Click any photograph for a link to my online gallery.