George Washington Vanderbilt was born in 1862
to William Henry and Maria Louisa Vanderbilt. George’s family
descendants arrived in America around
1650, emigrating from Holland and settling on Staten Island, New
York. The Vanderbilt's were prosperous as farmers but that
was all about to change. In 1810 George’s grandfather,
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) decide to make a change in the
family vocation. At 16 Cornelius borrowed $100 from his mother
in order to build a ferry service on New York Bay. That vision
of taking to the waterways turned into a trade business that consisted
of a fleet of 100 steamboats making trips to Europe and Central
This farsighted venture of Cornelius, yielded
him a fortune and brought him the enduring title of “Commodore.” Some
50 years later and in control of such wealth, the “Commodore” invested
in railroads including the New York Central bringing into his coffers
a second fortune the sum total of $100 million. When the “Commodore” departed,
he was considered the wealthiest industrialist of the time. During
his life the “Commodore” started a family tradition
of philanthropy which was continued on by Cornelius’ son
William Henry, who inherited most of his father’s $100 million.
William Henry (1821-1885) was George Washington
Vanderbilt's father. The “Commodore” wasn’t
so sure William Henry had his sense for business, although driven
by his father’s example of stepping higher than the last
Vanderbilt, William Henry doubled the family’s asset as a
The Vanderbilt’s became known for living
a life of privilege, wealth, education, travel and having a taste
for the fine arts. William Henry was known as an astute collector,
displaying his collection of 200 painting in his 58-room mansion
in Manhattan. He was also known as a philanthropist, displaying
considerable generosity when it came to worthy causes like endowing
the now known, Medical School of Columbia University and funding
the Metropolitan Opera in 1883.
George Washington Vanderbilt was the youngest
of eight children in the Vanderbilt family when the mansion at
640 Fifth Avenue was completed in 1881. It was considered
the largest and most splendid house in Manhattan. Here, George
was exposed to the latest modern conveniences, refrigeration and
telephones as well as a glass-roofed stable courtyard to exercise
William Henry’s beloved trotting horses. The Manhattan
mansion was decorated in European style, accenting the architectural
design of the mansion.
Growing up as a child, George was quiet and intelligent,
he showed little interest in the families financial business. George
was drawn to his father’s cultural interest. He began displaying
this interest at an early age, by creating his own collection of
books and artworks including overseeing the designs of his private
quarters and personal library at their Manhattan mansion.
George knew the quality of the “finer things.” He
enjoyed reading books, traveling the world, and a study of the
arts. George experienced the development of the famed Fifth Avenue
mansion and was a natural when it came to overseeing and housing
a collection of fine arts. Eventually he would inherit the
mansion and all its contents.
The lives of Cornelius “Commodore” and
William Henry Vanderbilt are a fascinating slice of American history. In
a land of opportunity, they became a royal family. Wealth,
power and influence led then into the world of the socially elite. A
world that often made it difficult on the newly wealthy. The
Vanderbilt's proved that new American fortunes overrode the order
of old society bloodlines.
With his inheritance from William Henry’s
fortune, George took to an even greater height, the qualities the
Vanderbilt's displayed in regards to their personal American aristocracy.
It was in his nature to be a perfectionist, a
nature that would manifest his dream of a self-sufficient country
estate that would rival none other.
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