The Vanderbilt Family
The Vanderbilts were one of the oldest and best-known families in America. Jan Aertsen van der Bilt emigrated from Holland around 1650. Although his descendants prospered as farmers on Staten Island, New York, they lived modestly; it was only during the lifetime of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), known as the “Commodore,” that the family name became synonymous with extraordinary wealth.
Patriarch to a sizable family—including his wife of 53 years, Sophia, 13 children, 37 grand-children, and 27 great-grandchildren—Cornelius established what became the Vanderbilt custom of luxurious residences. He also began the tradition of philanthropy, contributing $1 million in 1873 to Central University, a Methodist school in Nashville; it was later renamed Vanderbilt University.
Upon his death, the Commodore left most of his $100 million estate—a sum that made him the wealthiest industrialist of his time—to his eldest son, William Henry (1821-85). William Henry took over the family empire and eventually doubled its assets. He, too, was generous toward worthy causes, funding the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 and endowing the College of Physicians and Surgeons, now the Medical School of Columbia University. The shrewd financier proved to be an equally astute collector, assembling more than 200 paintings. These were displayed in the 59-room mansion he built in 1881 at 640 Fifth Avenue—the largest and most splendid house in Manhattan.
Only one of the eight children of William Henry and his wife, Maria Louisa (1821-96), was still living at home when the house was completed—the youngest, George Washington Vanderbilt, born in 1862. Quiet and intellectual, he had been greatly influenced by his mother's cultural interests, starting his own collection of art and books at an early age. Significantly, George would inherit the house and its contents after his mother's death.
Unlike the rest of his family, however, George Vanderbilt was little attracted to commerce and fashionable society. He preferred the world of learning and travel, visiting Europe at age 10 and journeying to Europe, Asia, or Africa about once a year throughout his adult life. It was while traveling in the mountains of North Carolina that Vanderbilt first glimpsed the site for his future country home.