November 13, 2011

#65 Hudson Valley: Part 2

Hudson Valley - continued 

Saturday I drove to the Hudson Valley and toured the Rockefeller's Kykuit. On Sunday, I drove to Hyde Park and toured Frederick Vanderbilt's estate. This estate is the most complete and well preserved property from the "Gilded Age" the was the time period that the Newport Mansions were constructed. New money gazillionaires were trying to look like old money, and they built, and built, and built like crazy. This property tour was pretty much the best I've ever been on. The property is held by the National Parks Service (in fact, it was the 7th acquisition of NPS), and was deeded to NPS by Frederick's heir. Because it was occupied almost until donation, and it was left as-in for the 18 -24 months after Frederick's death it was left almost exactly in tact. The niece was left money to maintain the estate, so the original servants continued to work the property. Many of those employees were hired by the NPS and continued in there job responsibilities. They were also extensively interviewed about the workings of the house and property, the life-style, etc. A wealth of first hand information not usually preserved. The biggest reason this was such a great tour was that a- the guide was knowledgeable and excited about the subject matter, and b-there were a total of 3 people on the tour. This meant that we got a lot of personalized time and attention, lots of extra information and behind-the-scenes tidbits. It was absolutely fascinating. Frederick built this estate as a country retreat and it should be noted that it was the smallest and least grandiose of all the properties built by the Vanderbilts. He lived there seasonally with his wife until her death, and then he became a full-time resident. At the time of his death he held more wealth than all the other Vanderbilts put together. He hated the spotlight and was often described as reclusive. His family had been part of a huge public trial/spectacle when his grandfather left 95% of his wealth to Frederick's father, the other siblings sued. During this time, Frederick also got married, the family didn't endorse the marriage (she was quite a bit older, was divorced, and was divorced from Frederick's first cousin) and he was estranged. In fact, so bitter (or maybe just over-the-terrible-family-ness) about the estrangement, the lawsuits, and the press Frederick left his fortune primarily to his wife's niece, and to several servants, and miscellaneous other beneficiaries but not one was named Vanderbilt. Despite the estrangement, there were nephews who absolutely believed that Frederick would feel compelled to leave the money to them as to continue the Vanderbilt name, fortune and legacy. They were devastated by his will.

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One of the things that really struck me while listening to our guide give us the background on the family, society, and the time period was that 95% of the country's wealth was controlled by about 1% of the population. This had led to a devastated economy (The Great Depression, anyone?) and a restless middle-class. FDR was president, and he was looking at the most challenging period in American history. (Any of this sound familiar?) FDR created jobs (by creating federal work projects, roads, dams, etc.), began socializing health care (medicare, medicaid) and retirement (social security), and establishing estate tax (especially on the wealthy). FDR (who was actually Frederick's neighbor) raised the income tax, and established the estate tax. At the time of Frederick's death the estate tax was the highest it has ever been. He paid just around 50%.