The Vanderbilt legacy
The huge fortune built by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his son William did not survive the ministrations of their subsequent heirs. The temptations of living luxuriously and the rivalries between siblings, cousins, and their spouses led the family to outspend its income consistently over many years. The massive mansions which dominated Fifth Avenue, each more lavish than its predecessor, simply required too much money to maintain.
By the mid-1920s most of the mansions in Manhattan were gone, by the 1950s all were, at least as residences. One-half of the Marble Twins, built by George Washington Vanderbilt at 645 and 647 Fifth Avenue remains. It is a designated landmark and the site of the flagship store for Versace in New York. Several of the buildings were converted to other uses before demolition to make space for New York’s expansion upwards in the 1920s and 1930s.
The great country estates such as the Biltmore and Woodlea were converted to other uses, a museum and tourist attraction in the case of the former and a country club in the latter. The costs of maintaining such lavish structures and supporting the staff required to operate and maintain them were simply too prohibitive to allow them to remain private residences. The same is true of the so-called summer cottages in Newport, Bar Harbor, and the Berkshires.
While changes in tax laws, creating estate taxes and the income tax itself certainly had a part in the demise of the Vanderbilt fortune, the wealth of other great families survived. Philanthropy had a hand too, the Vanderbilts of different generations endowed Vanderbilt University, the YMCA, the arts, the sciences, medicine, and other charitable causes. But that does not explain the near extinction of Vanderbilt wealth.
The Vanderbilt fortune largely vanished because the Vanderbilt heirs spent it, on houses and estates, yachts and racing boats, limousines and luxury cars, antiques, art, clothes, parties, huge dinners, other entertainments, extensive travel, luxury cruises, and all of the trappings of the wealthy during the Gilded Age and beyond. It took four generations of Vanderbilts to erase what the Commodore created in one, but they managed.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“Commodore Vanderbilt and his family: a biographical account of the Descendants of Cornelius and Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt”, by Dorothy Kelly McDowell, 1989