Idle Hour

150 Idle Hour Boulevard, Oakdale, Long Island, New York

Built in 1900, for William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920). After the original Idlehour burned down in 1899, Vanderbilt wasted no time in employing the son of its architect, Richard Howland Hunt, to build him this L-shape Beaux-Arts mansion slightly closer to the Connetquot River. Warren & Wetmore were employed between 1902 and 1904 to add the palm court and bachelor's quarters which included an indoor tennis court, fives court, smoking room etc. Costing $6 million, it contains 110-rooms which included 45-bathrooms and a garage large enough to hold 100-cars. Covering 70,000-square feet, it is purported to be the 15th largest house in the United States, tied with Woodlea and Lynnewood Hall. Before it was complete, Vanderbilt relocated to France with his new wife. In later years it was home to an artist's community and then a cult before its leader was jailed. Today, it is still best associated with Dowling College....

This house is best associated with...

William Kissam Vanderbilt

W.K. Vanderbilt I, Railroad President & Racehorse Owner, of New York & France

1849-1920

Anne Harriman

Mrs Annie (Harriman) Sands, Rutherfurd, Vanderbilt

1861-1940

Having lost Idlehour which his family had enjoyed for the previous 20-years, and determined not to lose another, Vanderbilt had the new Idle Hour built with 10-inch steel beams and concrete faced with 20-inch walls of brick and limestone. The lawn in front of the double-gabled facade with cloisters slopes down to the river from where stone steps contnued down to a mahogany deck on the water's edge. A keen yachtsman, Vanderbilt had this part of the Connetquot dredged to allow the mansion direct access by boat.

In 1901, Vanderbilt employed Warren & Wetmore to convert the newly built conservatory into a Bachelor's Quarters - etiquette of the time dictated that bachelors (of which Vanderbilt was then one) could not sleep in the same vicinity as married guests. On the lower floor was the fives court and smoking room (separated from the entrance hall by a Gothic oak screen) and above were guest rooms for the bachelors. An indoor tennis court was added the following year as was the Palm Court, constructed with 10-tonnes of glass.

While the first house had been built as more of a family hunting retreat, the second was designed to impress. The ballroom was decorated with 24-carat gold leaf; the stair hall was finished in prized carved Caen stone; a sculpture by Karl Bitter of “Diana, the Huntress” was integrated above the fireplace in the dining room; the living room was dominated by the ornate Aeolian organ and Jacobean plasterwork ceiling; and, the oak library was retrofitted from a chateau in France. Yet, despite its vast size, astronomical cost and some beautiful architectural features, critics at the time were generally underwhelmed.

All the original outbuildings survived the fire and Vanderbilt kept adding more, eg., shipping over a building from England that housed the bowling alley. Vanderbilt was particularly delighted as the slates were covered in moss that gave it an air of antiquity, but much to his dismay the workmen who resurrected it scraped it all off, and he had to send for another shipment of old mossed-slate! Other "English" touches included a maze, and all the men employed in the stables were brought over from England. Inside the house, all the staff wore the Vanderbilt's maroon livery with gold buttons.

The Idle Hour Artists Community

Having divorced his first wife, Vanderbilt was re-married in 1903 to Anne Harriman. In the same year - a year before the final touches had been completed at Idle Hour - he relinquished himself from his business responsibilities and retired to France and the Chateau Vanderbilt to concentrate on racing and breeding horses. He and Anne returned to America during the World War I before going back out to France where he died in 1920. Idle Hour was left to his youngest son, Harold, who maintained it until 1923. Two attempts to sell it ended in foreclosures and an attempt by Edmund & Charles Burke to develop much of the estate for housing was also unsuccessful. From 1926, the mansion, stables and 26-acres became home to the Idle Hour Artists Community.

The Idle Hour Artists Community was established by Mrs Lucy Pritchard Thompson, her son William A. Thompson III, and architect Betty Miller. They divided the stables into apartments and sold them to those who joined their community along with a piece of land. They soon counted 30-members who included among them Harry Alan Weston, DeWitt Reed, George Elmer Browne, Neil Z. Bryan, Myron Van Brunt, and "Broncho Charlie" Miller who for a long time before had performed in Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

Schafer's Cult at "Peace Haven"

In 1937, the mansion and carriage house were acquired by the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians and Idle Hour was rechristened "Peace Haven". The Fraternity was a front for a cult led by James Bernard Schafer that by the 1930s had attracted thousands of - mostly middle-aged female - followers. In 1939, Schafer adopted a three-month old baby "Baby Jean" and proclaimed he would give her eternal life through his own studies into metaphysics, and a special diet of vegetables. He told the papers the baby would be raised in the same nursery in which Consuelo Vanderbilt had been raised, but that was yet another attempt to grab the headlines as Consuelo grew up not here, but at Idlehour.

Things began to unravel for Schafer when Baby Jean's mother sued him and reclaimed her. He was then convicted of stealing from one of his followers and in 1942 was jailed at Sing-Sing during which time he had to sell Idle Hour to cover legal costs. He and wife committed suicide in 1955 when trying to start up another cult at West Nyack.

From Dairy to Dowling... and another Fire

In 1947, the mansion, carriage house and 23-acres were purchased by National Dairy Research Labs. In 1963, they were bought by Adelphi University of Garden City and the estate became its Suffolk campus. In 1968, this became Dowling College, but just six years later (1974) the house Vanderbilt had tried so hard to make fireproof suffered another devastating fire: the smoking room, main staircase, plasterwork ceilings, dining room, living room etc., along with the silk-lined and tapestried walls were all lost. The fire-damaged exterior was restored by the Fortunoff family but its exquisite interiors - except for Karl Bitter's "Diana" that was restored by a member of the art department - were lost.

Idle Hour at the Present Hour

Dowling College went bankrupt in 2018 and that year the mansion and its remaining 105-acres was purchased by Mercury International LLC of Delaware, an affiliate of NCF Capital Ltd. Many of the outbuildings have since become residential homes, eg. the clock tower, and the old tea house overlooking the river is now a restaurant called Riverview.

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 25/12/2020 and last updated on 09/10/2021.
Image Courtesy of Mapio.net; Oakdale (Arcadia Publishing) by Chris Kretz and Dianne Holliday; Historical Nomination Form for the William K. Vanderbilt Estate, Connetquot Library; Spinzia's Long Island Estates; Idle Hour, TraduccionesGarantizadas.com; New York Digital Heritage Collections

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