There is a magical aura that surrounds the Vanderbilt mansion at night. Once a year, the National Park Service treats visitors to a “Gilded Age Christmas” in the form of an evening open house.
This is one of the few times that the Hyde Park mansion forgoes the $8.00 admission price and opens the estate to the holiday hungry public, continuing the “conceal and reveal” style on which the Vanderbilt’s personal taste was built upon. Driving up the serpentine, tree lined entryway to the parking area gave visitor’s a glimpse of the historic mansion awash in blue up-lighting and candle-lit front steps, alluding to a grandeur that no longer exists in our modern “McMansions” and pre-fabricated homes. Still today, the mansion causes a breath of distinction when first revealed, a pause from within, an “oh my”.
The first stop of the self-lead tour was the former guest house, now a museum shop, where visitors awaited the next ranger-escorted trek to the mansion. One gentleman in the crowd explained: “This is the house that the Vanderbilt’s lived in while the mansion was being built” which was followed by a general grumble of sarcasm from the people around him: “Must’ve been roughing it for them, how awful” another gentleman added. Naturally, I laughed, taking a small part in the middle class tradition of mocking the rich – to do so in their own home has a certain allure to we “second class citizens” that simply cannot be controlled. In turn, I am certain the Vanderbilt’s would be rolling in their graves if they knew that the common folk gawk through their home on a daily basis, so it all turns out even in the end. Cookies and punch were being served under the caribou and buffalo heads that don the walls, and free gift wrapping was offered for museum shop purchases. No one was having anything wrapped, which lead me to believe that no one in our crowd wanted to pay $25 for a Christmas ornament from the Vanderbilt museum shop, although it holds a certain allure for future conversations.
Visitors were lead to the main house in separate groups every ten minutes: “So the mansion doesn’t get overrun with people” as one Park Ranger explained. By the time our group was taken to the main homestead, some 100 winter-clad individuals were clamoring with excitement to roam freely about Mr. Vanderbilt’s home. As we approached the front stairs, our ranger escort “Kevin” stopped us and asked us to crowd around, making sure everyone could see and hear him. It was obvious that this gentleman doesn’t normally address large crowds during his daily routine; by the way he kept repeating that “the Vanderbilt Mansion usually only allows visitors to visit with a tour guide” and how lucky we all were to be able to roam about unattended, and how he creatively put his sentences together: “Welcome to the Vanderbilt Mansion, the home of the Vanderbilt’s, where tonight, you will be able to see the historic mansion without a tour guide, which is unusual for the mansion, and that being in the evening as well, because we are not normally open in the evening”.