Recently I took a much anticipated guided tour of the Fortunoff Building on the Dowling Campus in Oakdale. Ever since my times visiting friends going to college there I was awed by the beauty and elegance I saw there. At the time I knew very little about the building though it held a fascination for me. Since then I have come to learn about the Vanderbilt family and their Idle Hour summer estate. But this tour was a great surprise, one that has never been offered before to my knowledge. I just could not pass up the chance.
Me and James, our 13 year old, arrived almost an hour early which left us plenty of time to poke around. The building was empty and quiet so we took our own tour first, strolling through the cloistered garden, the long walkways, and poking our heads into many of the rooms. Thankfully we had a chance to take a full set of pictures before the tour even started, which left me free to focus on the history and architecture on the tour.
William K. Vanderbilt I purchased the land in 1876 and commissioned the first house to be built, which was finished in 1878. It burned down in 1899 on William K. Vanderbilt II’s wedding night. So far, no surviving pictures of the interior of the first house have ever been found. Because of that, Vanderbilt received little insurance money for the fire.
The building we toured is the second house which was built in 1901. The second mansion is arrow shaped, pointing a direct line to the Southside Sportsman’s Club, now Connetquot State Park .However much of this second house was damaged in a 1974 fire and was recreated to some extent though the recreated parts pale in comparison to the original.
Our first stop was the master stairway which traveled up in a wide spiral pattern, leaving a gap in the middle to hand a chandelier. Diane, our tour guide showed us photos of the original staircase which was a bit more ornate than the one rebuilt after the 1974 fire, but held to basically the same architectural ideas.
We stopped quickly by the original entrance doors. William K. Vanderbilt I had his initials carved in ironwork over the door. As we found out throughout the tour, there are actually 28 “V”’s hidden throughout the mansion.
Next was what would quickly become my favorite room. We came to the dining room which was also called the “Hunt” room. I am not certain if that name is because many of the guests here enjoyed hunting, or whether it was named after the architect who designed the mansion.
What struck me immediately was the beautiful statue of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt looking down from above the fireplace, bow in hand. She is nearly life size at a height of 5’3’’. This room too was touched by the 1974 fire but only one of the pieces of wall paneling was damaged. Diana, being built of one whole piece of marble, was able to withstand the heat, though it took some time for the natural coloring to return. Recently during a wedding, half of her bow was broken off.
Just to the right of the fireplace is a hidden door which once led to the butlers’ pantry but is no longer used. You can just barely see the separation in the wooden paneling if you know where to look.
Following along we came to the living room, which looks more like a grand ballroom. From the old pictures our tour guide showed us it used to have a variety of different seating clusters that could be moved out in case of a dance or more formal event. The room was also known as the music room. We could see a grand piano off in a corner, but hat we didn’t know was that the room used to house an aolian pipe organ. Inside and around the fireplace were organ pipes looking almost like a smaller version of what you might find in church. I can only imagine the sound echoing through this large room. Unfortunately the pipes and organ are gone but the fireplace is still a thing of wonder. Sculptures are sprawled all over the mantle including several female statues.
Through the door on the right side of the fireplace is Mrs. Vanderbilt’s “Gold Room”. Much of the mansion was designed around hunting and more masculine activities so this was one of few places reserved for women. It was completely untouched by the 1974 fire and is now the personal conference room for the president of Dowling University. It is usually locked but we were given rare access for the tour. The room is decorated with light cream colored paneling decked out by 18 carat gold trim in elegant designs. It is rumored that Mr. Vanderbilt had armed guards overseeing the installation of the gold trim.
We doubled back and went through the left side door by the fireplace in the living room. Symmetrically opposite the Gold Room was Mr. Vanderbilt’s library. All of the original books are gone but the shelves were still populated.
Above each and every shelf was a beautifully carved cartouche depicting images from a certain subject. We easily identified one or music and science and our guide pointed out many others. The paneling is from France and what appears to be wood paneling above the bookshelves is actually plaster.
Back outside we reached the Cloistered Garden, surrounded on all four sides by walls. In the center was a marble fountain and on each corner were statues representing the seasons. The statues are not original to the house, having been installed within the last 10 years, yet they still lent to the beauty of the garden. From the garden we could see an area where the roof went up higher than the rest of the mansion. These were the original bachelor quarters which were later expanded.
Heading back inside we visited the conservatory. This was one of my favorite rooms surrounded on nearly all sides by tall windows including the ceiling. The sun bathed the room in warm golden light. During the time Vanderbilt lived here it was fashionable to have at least one foreign room in your mansion. This room was decorated in a Turkish style. Fabric was put up so that it almost appeared that you were walking into a tent. There were two fireplaces in the room which were never used. But the chimneys helped the heat to escape. The far door at one time was the end of the mansion but it was later extended to add more bachelors’ rooms and a tennis court. Women most often did not step beyond the conservatory in those days.
We wrapped the tour up in the hallway near the cloistered gardens. Above our heads was a very long wooden canoe base which belonged to the first crew team in the 1960’s. Our guide left us with a few more interesting tidbits. Vanderbilt was rumored to have built the Oakdale train station though it has not been proven. The original kitchens in the mansion were in the basement which is rumored to be large with many corridors to get lost in.
There are many other surviving structures from the Vanderbilt era around Oakdale. For instance the East gatehouse can now be found at the Ice Palace near 7-11. There was some talk about arranging a walking tour for a future date in the fall. It was a wonderful tour overall and I learned quite a bit about Vanderbilt and his mansion. It is amazing to think of all the reminders that still survive after all that time. I hope that this historical heritage will still be in place for students for many years to come.