The Newtown Pentacle

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Vanderbilt Mansion 2

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

William Kissam Vanderbilt II’s great grandfather was the richest man in the world, worth some $105 million in 1877. The upper estimate of what this would be worth in today’s currency would equate to roughly $180 billion dollars. Compare this with the estimate of John D. Rockefeller’s worth at the time of his death in modern terms- the equivalent of $663 billion, or the last Tsar of Russia who was worth approx. $300 billion.


Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794-January 4, 1877) was an American steamship and railroad builder, executive, financier, and promoter. He was a man of boundless energy, and his acute business sense enabled him to outmaneuver his rivals. He left an estate of almost $100 million.

Vanderbilt was born to a poor family and quit school at the age of 11 to work for his father who was engaged in boating. When he turned 16 he persuaded his mother to give him $100 loan for a boat to start his first business. He opened a transport and freight service between New York City and Staten Island for eighteen cents a trip. He repaid the loan after the first year with an additional $1,000. He was rough in manners and developed a reputation for honesty. He charged reasonable prices and worked prodigiously.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

William Kissam Vanderbilt II’s grandfather inherited $100 million from his father- the Commodore. A railroad tycoon, he doubled his inheritance and also died as “the richest man in the world”.

William Kissam Vanderbilt II’s father inherited $55 million from his father and retired from the family business in 1903. After a nasty split with his wife (and mother of his two sons- Henry and Willie K.- her name was Alva Smith), the father retired to France to breed race horses and died in 1920.

from wikipedia

Vanderbilt’s first wife was Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933), whom he married on April 20, 1875. Born in 1853 to a slave-owning Alabama family, she was the mother of his children and was instrumental in forcing their daughter Consuelo (1877–1964) to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895. Not long after this, the Vanderbilts divorced and Alva married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

William Kissam Vanderbilt II had the well bred Vanderbilt instinct for spending the limitless fortune on houses of splendor and whimsical inspirations. He built a race track on Long Island, the first high speed road other than the Long Island Railroad. Fishermen and farmers, native to the area, commented that it was just so Willie K. could get back to the Eagle’s Nest from Manhattan quicker.

from wikipedia

The Long Island Motor Parkway (LIMP), also known as the Vanderbilt Parkway and Motor Parkway, was the first roadway designed for automobile use only.[2] It was privately built by William Kissam Vanderbilt with overpasses and bridges to remove intersections. It opened in 1908 as a toll road and closed in 1938 when it was taken over by the State of New York in lieu of back taxes. Parts of the parkway survive today in sections of other roadways and as a bicycle trail in Queens, New York.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

All around the property, a strange collection of buildings can be found. A planetarium with a Terra Cotta dome (which was actually an add on by the State of the New York in 1971, Vanderbilt needed no help imagining the heavens)


The Vanderbilt Planetarium opened in 1971 on the grounds of the Vanderbilt estate, and it is the largest facility of its kind on Long Island. The Planetarium’s purpose is to provide visitors with information about the nighttime sky. The Planetarium’s main feature is the domed, 60-foot Sky Theater. The theater’s GOTO star projector can display the sun, moon, stars and planets. It also recreates celestial events during our various Sky Shows. The projector can simulate the heavens at any moment in time, from the distant past to the future, as it appeared from any place on Earth. The projector can show 11,369 stars, the Milky Way and several deep sky objects. This allows Planetarium staff to recreate the visible night sky, as seen under perfect conditions.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

And the Hall of Fishes.

also from

The 43-acre museum complex counts among its collections not only the Gold Coast-era mansion [1910-1936], a marine museum, natural history habitats, curator’s cottage, seaplane hangar, boathouse and numerous other estate features [gardens, fountains, balustrades and pools], but also marine and natural history specimens, house furnishings and fine arts, photographs and archives, and an extensive collection of ethnographic objects that make up the former William K. Vanderbilt II estate. A portion of today’s museum – the Hall of Fish – was actually opened to the public during Vanderbilt’s lifetime. Then, as now, the museum seeks to preserve and interpret artifacts that represent his life, collecting interests and intellectual legacy.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Moorish rather than Spanish revival, the small museum forbids visitors to its second floor. Attendants and Curator alike claim that the structure is damaged by weather and the upper level is quite inhospitable to specimen and visitor alike.


The first floor of the Hall of Fishes displays a large collection of mounted animals and marine specimens. The second floor contains hundreds of marine vertebrates and invertebrates. Many of the displayed marine forms are the only such specimens in existence, collected, identified, and named by Vanderbilt and his staff.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Striking violations of architectural norms are witnessed here. Metalwork not dreamt of in the fevered mind of the hashish addict is observed. When queried, the posted guard described the madly fanciful use of iron as functional instead. Its fabricator and designer shows the skill of a Vesuvian cyclops.

from wikipedia

Samuel Yellin (1885–1940), American master blacksmith, was born in Galicia Poland where at the age of eleven he was apprenticed to an iron master. By the age of sixteen had had completed his apprenticeship. During that period he gained the nickname of “Devil”, both for his work habits and his sense of humor. Shortly after this he left Poland, traveling through Europe to England, where, in 1906, he departed for America.By 1907 he was taking classes at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and within a year was teaching classes there, a position that he maintained until 1919.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

William Kissam Vanderbilt II- it is said- on one of his expeditions, was inspired by a church he had witnessed in coastal Guatemala which influenced the whimsical design of the Hall of Fishes.

A hybrid of wholesome Catholic iconography which had become fused with the atavist worship of some lost tribal sea god, its affect is disturbing. Decadent admixtures such as this speak to declining faith in one’s own culture, and seek legitimacy in a postmodern cocktail of Barbarian and Civilized themes.


The Vanderbilt Marine Museum is the privately owned depository of the marine collections of William K. Vanderbilt, Esquire, and is located on his country estate, “Eagle’s Nest,” Huntington, Long Island, New York. It contains extensive collections of natural history and ethnological specimens, all of which were personally collected by Mr. Vanderbilt, in various parts of the world, during the past thirty- odd years.

The scientific publications of the museum consist of a series of Bulletins, designed to disseminate results of research based on the marine zoological collections, every specimen of which was personally collected by Mr. Vanderbilt, during a series of cruises in his yachts, “Eagle,” “Ara” and “Alva.” Volume I of the Bulletin series consists of reports on the fishes collected during these cruises, by Dr. N. A. Borodin.

Volume II consists of a report on the Stomatopod and Brachyuran Crustacea of the cruises of the yachts “Eagle” and ” Ara,” 1921- 1928, by Lee Boone. Volume III consists of a report of the Crustacea : Anomura, Macrura, Schizopoda, Isopoda, Amphipoda, Mysidacea, Cirripedia and Copepoda of the “Eagle” and ” Ara” cruises, also by Lee Boone. Volume IV consists of a report of the Echinodermata, Coelenterata and Mollusca of the cruises of the yachts “Eagle” and “Ara,” 1921-1928, by Lee Boone. Volume V, the present report, consists of a report of the Crustacea : Stomatopoda and Brachyura of the World Cruise of the yacht “Alva,” 1931, by Lee Boone.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Evocative statuary, owing much to pre columbian native influences, adorns the Vanderbilt collection’s housing. Hybridized and anthromorphized, the relief is icthyan, alien, and ripe with disturbing implications of some forgotten and ancestral memory.


The Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, New York is housed in the mansion once owned by William K. Venderbilt II (the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad and the Staten Island Ferry). “Willie K.” was an avid sailor and collector. He traveled around the globe, collecting artifacts and natural history specimens, some from the ocean floor by Willie K. himself, as he loved to dive.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The entrance to the Hall of the fishes, guarded by a medieval vintage fortress door of sturdy arab or north african design, which is studded with iron spikes (that have had their points ground off, for safety reasons).

More tomorrow…

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 12, 2010 at 1:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I love this series! I never thought that two of my obsessions, Newtown Creek and the Long Island Motor Parkway, would ever be smooshed together like a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, but here we are! Hooray!


    April 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

  2. […] a comment » check out the prior Vanderbilt Mansion posts: 1, 2, 3, and […]

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