March 20, 2010 was Obscura Day, a worldwide event organized by Atlas Obscura, an online directory of curious things and places from around the world. Eszter and I joined their Obscura Day visit to the Vanderbilt Museum in Centreport on Long Island, which made this my first trip to anywhere in New York outside of New York City. The tour happened to be lead by Dylan, one of the founders of Atlas Obscura. We boarded the LIRR at Penn Station (after my usual navigational challenges that come from relying too much on HopStop) and were soon speeding through some rather unattractive Long Island towns until reaching Huntington. From there, we crowded in taxis for the Vanderbilt estate.
While it’s called the Vanderbilt Museum, it’s a whole compound of buildings with a Marine Museum, mansion, gardens, natural history collection, golf course, and a boat house, all somewhat in decaying disrepair. Imagine if a little boy were designing his dream house, and this would be it. It was Spanish-influenced architecture with a medieval gate, circled by gardens that were meant to reflect Versailles. Doors had iron snake heads instead of handles and dragon heads holding knockers in their mouths.
William K. Vanderbilt II was something of a playboy, and he used to sail his giant yachts into the little harbor by his mansion. He was one of the wealthy Vanderbilts, and spent his inheritance on world travel, boating, and motor racing. He died in 1944 and left money behind to keep his home as a museum for his collected artifacts and specimens.
We started our visit with a picnic of Saint-André cheese, bread, and papaya, of which I’m sure Vanderbilt would have approved. It was so quiet there; I never realize how noisy New York always is until I’m away from it. Even when I’m at home in Brooklyn, as I am now, I hear my neighbors talking downstairs, cars on the road, sirens in the distance, and sometimes feel the rumble of the subway under Fourth Avenue. It was refreshing to sit by the ocean and just hear some distant voices and the breeze on the bare trees.
We explored outside a little, seeing the sun dial and river stone mosaics. The collection inside of the mansion was a little random, with an Egyptian mummy in one room and 19th-century oil paintings in the next. I guess this is what happens when you buy everything you need and still have some money to spare. And like I said with the house, what little boy wouldn’t dream of having a real Egyptian mummy in his living room?
There was a Moroccan-inspired indoor courtyard and a library, which had an old sedan chair in one corner. I really like these bird tiles, with their necks bent and offerings in their beaks like they’re trying to impress you.
There were also two large rooms of natural history specimens in the mansion, one full of colorful birds. (All of this taxidermy may have inspired me to write the blovel again, for you lingering fans.) I noticed a trend of some of the more fantastic birds being attributed to Fiji, and started to wonder if that was just the default country for the more outrageous finds. Probably not. I would have happily photographed each and every one of them, but there was too much to see.
There were even a couple of shrunken heads, although I wasn’t sure if they were real. It seems like most natural history collections are putting their shrunken heads in storage and pretending they no longer have them. Actually, the Vanderbilt Museum kind of reminded me of Woolaroc, fellow high roller Frank Phillips’ ranch, which also has some shrunken heads and lots of preserved animals. But while Woolaroc is packed with game trophies, the Vanderbilt Museum was more like a huge wunderkamer.
There were also some beautiful moth, butterfly, and beetle collections. I would have been interested to know if any of the specimens of animals are now extinct, because there were so many that I had never seen or heard of before.
There were a lot of ethnographic artifacts, French dueling pistols, melted glass from a volcanic explosion, an early surgical kit, and this lovely knife/gun combination that I’m surprised is not more popular in my homestate of Oklahoma. Another room had invertebrate specimens, which were less pretty than the birds, but how often do you get to see 20 varieties of shrimp? I also liked the dachshund carved from a conch shell, cephalopods, and 36-pound lobster.
We met up with the other Obscura Day participants at the Marine Museum to see the Hall of Fishes. It was full of cases of painted fish skins (this is how you “preserve” a fish), with delightful names like the Depressed Trumpet Fish and Wahoo Fish. They all had the same unfortunate plastic, googly-type eyes, that made them look crazed.
One wall was taken up by a huge ray, that the picture next to suggested Vanderbilt himself caught. I’m still not quite clear on the preservation method here. I assume that the skin has to be dried out somehow and the skeleton removed, but how much of the original creature is left after the painting and the cutting?
Our tour continued in The Habitat, which is a dark room full of taxidermy exhibits from the 1920s in the middle of which hangs a whale shark. Outside it used to be a courtyard, and recently it was discovered that a terra cotta sculpture from Italy had been buried behind the fake blue sky of a taxidermy exhibit. They cut through the wall to reveal the sculpture of Mary and Jesus, but I guess were unable to remove it, so it is behind the African hoofstock with odd veins in its face. Too bad someone decided to do a horrid paint job at some point, because the statue looks like it began as beautiful.
The Habitat was lit by the blue coming from the glass floor tiles and the somewhat unsettling lights in the exhibits. One of them of the Galapagos had a red, baked blood color that made it look like hell. All the displays were a little morbid, not just because of the dead animals. Another Galapagos exhibit had animals abandoned by European voyagers, with a gaunt burro and a goat bleating in despair. Another had two bears stumbling from starvation, with the only food being a porcupine that would sting them in the face. Above this all was the massive preserved whale shark. The 32-foot long specimen is believed to be the largest mounted fish in the world, and was caught off of Fire Island in New York. It and the rest of The Habitat had been in a great state of disrepair and the skin was actually falling off the shark until the museum got a grant to restore it all.
Down the hall were taxidermy exhibits from the 1970s, which were only slightly less creepy. At least this polar bear just looks forlorn. Some of the other animals looked elderly and thin, like dying zoo animals.
And then there was the inexplicable South American leopard mauling a North American armadillo, with both of them screaming in horror at their taxidermy fate.
The tour ended with a model of the estate in miniature, that included a pirate ship cupola on the mansion that is missing now, if it ever existed. We then caught taxis back to the train station and made it to Manhattan with time to enjoy the beautiful weather. The whole day was gorgeous and made our brief visit to the Vanderbilt Museum all the more enjoyable. I will have to check out the other Atlas Obscura locations in New York, as you know I can never get enough weird adventuring in my life.