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The House the Rockefellers Built: A Tale of Money, Taste, and Power in Twentieth-Century America [NOOK Book]


What it was like to be as rich as Rockefeller: How a house gave shape and meaning to three generations of an iconic American family One hundred years ago America's richest man established a dynastic seat, the granite-clad Kykuit, high above the Hudson River. Though George Vanderbilt's 255-room Biltmore had recently put the American country house on the money map, John D. Rockefeller, who detested ostentation, had something simple in mind--at least until his son John Jr. and his charming wife, Abby, injected...
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The House the Rockefellers Built: A Tale of Money, Taste, and Power in Twentieth-Century America

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What it was like to be as rich as Rockefeller: How a house gave shape and meaning to three generations of an iconic American family One hundred years ago America's richest man established a dynastic seat, the granite-clad Kykuit, high above the Hudson River. Though George Vanderbilt's 255-room Biltmore had recently put the American country house on the money map, John D. Rockefeller, who detested ostentation, had something simple in mind--at least until his son John Jr. and his charming wife, Abby, injected a spirit of noblesse oblige into the equation. Built to honor the senior Rockefeller, the house would also become the place above all others that anchored the family's memories. There could never be a better picture of the Rockefellers and their ambitions for the enormous fortune Senior had settled upon them.
The authors take us inside the house and the family to observe a century of building and rebuilding--the ebb and flow of events and family feelings, the architecture and furnishings, the art and the gardens. A complex saga, The House the Rockefellers Built is alive with surprising twists and turns that reveal the tastes of a large family often sharply at odds with one  another about the fortune the house symbolized.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…plenty of diligent research has been done by the Dalzells, both of whom are associated with Williams College. For the last 50 pages, it must be said, they've done too much research; their account of the wrangling over how to take Kykuit public is tedious and essentially unnecessary, an excessively long footnote to what is otherwise an interesting and informative book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This closely researched history of Kykuit, the Hudson Valley mansion built "to make the Rockefeller name and fortune stand for something other than unbridled greed" is too narrow in scope for most readers. The Dalzells (George Washington's Mount Vernon) cover five generations of Rockefellers, focusing on the patriarch (called Senior here) and his son (Junior), at least as far as the mansion is concerned, while taking a stab at linking it to issues surrounding American country houses of the Gilded Age. What was different about Kykuit, the Dalzells claim, was the Rockefellers' "moral aspirations," their insistence that the house be not only useful and fashionable, but good. Clean prose keeps things moving, but only the most serious Rockefeller devotees will pore over long passages detailing the process of drawing up blueprints, hiring interior decorators and strategizing housekeeping. The Dalzells chronicle every tussle over control of the house's planning between Junior and Senior and, later, between Nelson and his four brothers over Nelson's overflowing art collection. Several fine biographies exist to satisfy readers' curiosity about the Rockefeller family, and it's questionable whether there's nearly as much inherent interest in Kykuit as in Mount Vernon, the George Washington home that draws 20 times as many visitors. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The Williams College-based Dalzells (George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America, 1998) turn their considerable energies to chronicling in exhaustive detail the construction and uses of the Rockefellers' Hudson River home, Kykuit. Casual readers will no doubt be satisfied with the quick survey of Kykuit in The Architecture of Delano & Aldrich by Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker (reissued in 2003). Historians and purveyors of the shelter trade, however, will probably appreciate an entire work devoted to the construction of this historic house. The Dalzells record every decision, from choosing the site for patriarch John D.'s retirement residence in 1902 to the relinquishment of the property to the National Trust in 1991, as per grandson Nelson's wishes. At stake here, note the authors, was a thorny issue for America's newly rich: Should wealth be civic-mindedly distributed, or displayed and celebrated? While Standard Oil creator John D. (called Senior here) prided himself on living frugally, son and heir Junior was stung by Ida Tarbell's 1902 expose in McClure's magazine, which implied that Senior was stingy and had no taste in architecture. Junior suggested building a grander house near their Pocantico Hills estate and enlisted the firm of Delano & Aldrich; principal Chester Aldrich was a cousin of Junior's wife Abby. While Senior envisioned a home of comfort and convenience, Junior and Abby wanted it to be an object of beauty in classical proportions. In the end, it was grand and expensive: costing more than $2.7 million, requiring a team of designers and an army of workers, replete with elaborate statuary, European furnishings and state-of-the-art support systems.Following Senior's death in 1937, Junior, Abby and their growing brood inhabited the house, which later received a few modern touches from Nelson, the only offspring to remain after 1962. A stately study of the best-endowed historical property in America. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Literary Agency
From the Publisher
"This is a book about a great house, to be sure, but more about the conversations taking place inside it, which the Dalzell's have recovered with perfect pitch - conversations about what to do with the greatest fortune in American history."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of the upcoming American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

"The creation of a house is not unlike the raising of a child. Lee and Robert Dalzell have brilliantly brought to life the complexities, constraints, and compromises that underlie the drama surrounding the building of Kykuit and have continued the story through the years that followed with equal finesse."—Pauline C Metcalf, author of Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466851665
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 663,689
  • File size: 848 KB

Meet the Author

Robert F. Dalzell is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College, and is the author of Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made and Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism. Lee Baldwin Dalzell was for many years the head of the Reference Department at the Williams College Library. The two collaborated on George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America.
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Read an Excerpt

The House the Rockefellers Built

A Tale of Money, Taste, and Power in Twentieth-Century America
By Dalzell, Robert F.

Henry Holt and Co.

Copyright © 2007 Dalzell, Robert F.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805075441

Sic Transit . . . December 1991
It had always felt like the most private of places. Now after more than eighty years that was about to change, and though arguably the entire family was losing a part of its heritage, it was the youngest among them, the children of “the cousins,” who seemed to feel most deeply the need to mark the break. So it was that on a December night in 1991 the fifth generation of the Rockefeller family—counting from John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his wife, Laura Celestia (“Cettie”) Spelman Rockefeller, for whom the house had been built—gathered in the dining room of Kykuit for a farewell dinner. “It was an extraordinary evening where everyone reminisced about their childhood experiences on the estate,” remarked one person afterward. Someone else recalled walking through the house and gardens, “just thinking how sad it was that it was changing. It was the end. It wasn’t going to be a family house anymore. It was going to be a public place.”
In the past, the dinner served that night would have been prepared by the house’s ownstaff of servants, but since only a skeleton crew remained indoors the food was brought in by hired caterers. Still, with the china and crystal gleaming softly in candlelight as the four courses of the meal were passed to person after person, everything must have seemed much as it always had, except that this was indeed the last family dinner in the house. Two weeks later Kykuit was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be readied for a long-heralded program of public tours of “the Rockefeller Family Home.”
In May 1994, the month the tours began, the New York Times ran no fewer than three articles on Kykuit. By the time the third appeared, reservations were booked for the remainder of the year, and the newspaper was describing the attention focused on the opening of the house as “more or less akin to that surrounding the start of public tours of Buckingham Palace.” As for the place itself, the Times architectural critic, Paul Goldberger, was guarded in his assessment, but overall his verdict was favorable. “Oddly restrained, almost hesitant, and rather tight in its proportions” was one comment, yet that was tempered later in the same article by another observation: “The house’s mix of idiosyncrasy and restraint stands in welcome contrast to the self-important hauteur of the average pile of stone in Newport . . . There is nothing vulgar here, and that alone separates Kykuit from almost every other great house produced in the golden age of American wealth,” a judgment with which the public seemed to agree. “You know it really was a very livable mansion,” remarked one woman, who had come from two hours away in Connecticut to see Kykuit.
As the guides on the tours explained, it was Nelson Rockefeller, the longtime governor of New York and the last member of the family to live in the house, who had paved the way for opening it to the public by stipulating in his will that his share of the estate, along with much of his large collection of modern art, should go to the National Trust. Left undescribed on the tour, however, were the complex and often strained negotiations necessary to give reality to Nelson’s plans for Kykuit, negotiations that stretched on for fourteen years. Nevertheless, in the end his wishes were honored, and the house, together with its contents and eighty-six acres of land, passed out of the Rockefellers’ hands and into those of the National Trust.
During most of the interim between Nelson’s death and the transfer, no one lived in “the Big House,” but the family continued to hold events there, including weddings, birthday parties, christenings, and gatherings of representatives of at least half a dozen different Rockefeller charities. Several fifth-generation members even organized a seminar on the family’s history, including the life and career of its patriarch, John D. Rockefeller Sr. himself. In addition, there was that final dinner, planned by the same generation, and purposely timed to precede the annual family Christmas luncheon scheduled for the next day. Over the years the number of people attending the Christmas luncheon had grown so large that it had to be held next door in the estate’s coach barn. But after the meal, those present decided to go up to the house and hold “a simple ceremony to say good-bye to the place” they had known all their lives. Not all of them had been fond of Kykuit, and at least a few had decidedly negative feelings about it. Still, standing in a circle they shared their memories, lighting candles as they spoke, “until there was a ring of light commemorating all that had been and all that was being let go.”
Let go? Yes. An ending? Unquestionably. But not quite, perhaps, the change from private to public that some people saw, at least in any simple sense. For Kykuit’s privacy had always been more a matter of illusion than reality; given the individuals who built the house and lived there, it could not have been otherwise. The Rockefellers, particularly in the first three generations, were too rich and too prominently involved in too many different areas of American life to enjoy the luxury of privacy as most people know it. For much of his life John D. Rockefeller Sr. managed to ignore that fact, but his son and namesake discovered it soon enough, as did his children. Yet at Kykuit it had still seemed possible to will away the ever-present spotlight of public attention. That was the charm of the place. The great granite-clad house perched high on its hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, the handsome high-ceilinged rooms filled with works of art, the acres of beautifully tended gardens adorned with arresting sculptures—what else was it all for if not to serve as a private refuge, a source of pleasure for its owners and those lucky enough to be invited to see it?
What else indeed, yet neither John D. Rockefeller nor his son thought of it that way. In their eyes life was not about pleasure; it was about work and accumulation and the careful disposition of what had been accumulated. That was the lesson father taught son, as he himself had learned it from his mother, the redoubtable Eliza Davison Rockefeller. Moreover, as the family moved into the twentieth century the emphasis would increasingly shift from “getting” to “giving,” as John D. Sr. liked to put it, from constantly piling up money to using it on an ever-grander scale to do good in the larger world. The building of Kykuit both coincided with that shift and was intimately connected to it.
Writing about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the architectural historian Dell Upton describes it as both “a hermitage”—a private retreat—and a “republican” place, designed to teach those who encountered it the principles of civic virtue. Upton also sees this dual identity as characteristic of more than a few American elite houses, and certainly, given the history of its building, Kykuit meets the test. But as with so much else about the Rockefellers, the scale of things tended to change the usual formulas. Thomas Jefferson died deeply in debt, in no small part because of what he spent building and rebuilding Monticello. The day John D. Rockefeller moved into Kykuit he was widely assumed to be the richest man in the world, and the bulk of his wealth would remain either in family hands or in the hands of institutions controlled by the family.
Yet for all its durability, the Rockefellers’ wealth could not be made infinitely elastic. With each succeeding generation the great fortune was divided into smaller and smaller pieces. By the time Kykuit was turned over to the National Trust, no one in the fourth and fifth generations of the family could have afforded to live there, even if they had wanted to. In this way, too, the passing of the house from family ownership marked a change, and no doubt a poignant one for many people present at those farewell events.
To be sure, reactions varied. One person at that final dinner described stripping off his clothes later in the evening and striding naked into his great-great-grandfather’s “incredible shower with the millions of nickel-plated spigots, shower heads, and liver sprays.” A bit of good-natured fun, undoubtedly, but showers of that sort had once been badges of the kind of near-limitless wealth no single Rockefeller any longer possessed, just as being a Rockefeller had once meant—and now no longer would—claiming Kykuit as your “family seat.”
Still, the house itself survives and remains a fascinating artifact, rich in historical significance, which it is the purpose of this book to unravel. On one level, it is a story of money, power, and taste—that elusive entity, which at Kykuit was meant to both fuse the other two and lift them to a higher plane. On the subject of taste, too, the New York Times was definitely right: Kykuit is different from other houses built by the American rich. The taste that shaped it was not the taste of a particular group or class. It was, quintessentially, the Rockefellers’ taste. And what gave it its distinctive character was the underlying conviction that things, the tangible props of daily life, ought to mean something beyond the ordinary ends they served. If taste is the pursuit of excellence, excellence at Kykuit invariably came to a matter of moral judgment. It was not enough for things to be useful, or fashionable, or even beautiful; they also had to be good.
The Rockefellers were hardly alone in imputing moral qualities to physical objects. Every human culture has had its sacred totems. But their creation generally depends on long-standing, deeply rooted structures of collective consensus. In the Rockefellers’ case it all happened so quickly, fueled by energies coming from so many different directions at once, that consensus constantly eluded the family. Indeed, what most surprised us while we were working on the book was how often and how sharply they disagreed with one another in their anxious search for the proper material forms in which to clothe their moral aspirations. And from the beginning a major source of those disagreements was Kykuit itself. John D. Rockefeller Sr. had wanted to build a simple family home; his son had much loftier ambitions for the place. The same son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., disliked modern art, yet his wife, Abby, became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, and the chastely banal nudes he chose for the gardens at Kykuit would eventually have to share the space with works by Picasso, Lachaise, Maillol, and Henry Moore put there by their son, Nelson Rockefeller. Husbands and wives, sons and brothers, they all had their own opinions.
Still, they pressed on with their quest, for on a deeper level what was at stake was one of the most perplexing issues in American life: the proper place of great wealth in a democracy. The twenty years before, Kykuit’s building had witnessed, in the United States, an altogether unprecedented accumulation of riches in private hands. Should that circumstance be celebrated as a triumphant affirmation of the benefits of a social order unfettered by fixed position and privilege? Or was it fundamentally inimical to the health and well-being of such a society? “Plutocrats,” “robber barons,” “malefactors of great wealth”—the less flattering labels widely applied to the possessors of the new wealth made clear just how uncomfortable many Americans were with the phenomenon. And no family was more thoroughly condemned for its wealth and the methods that had produced it than the Rockefellers. How could a fortune the size of theirs, earned as it had been, possibly be compatible with the nation’s traditional democratic ideals? That was the question that confronted the family.
John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s answer was to live frugally and give an ever-increasing portion of his fortune away. But there were those who argued that in so doing he ignored the higher cultural values that it was also the duty of the rich to promote, for great democratic societies do not, cannot, live by bread alone. Nor was this just the view of his critics; it was also what his own son came to feel. If evidence was needed to prove that wealth and democracy were in fact compatible, “Junior,” as he was called, believed Kykuit ought to serve that end by being modest and unpretentious—no opulent palace, certainly—yet still beautiful, its architecture and contents displaying the highest, most noble values. Since the values were universal, the connection to democracy would be obvious. Obvious too, or so the family hoped, would be the fact this was the home not of greedy, self-seeking individuals but of decent, civic-minded people, determined to do good with the riches that God and the American system of capitalistic enterprise had showered upon them. And if all that seemed like a heavy burden for any house to bear, through most of the twentieth century the Rockefellers never doubted for a moment that it was possible, however strenuously they disagreed about the details.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert F. Dalzell Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from The House the Rockefellers Built by Dalzell, Robert F. Copyright © 2007 by Dalzell, Robert F.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     xiii
Introduction: Sic Transit...December 1991     1
Great Good Fortune
Heir Apparent, 1902     9
Titan, Husband, Father     24
Kykuit Rising I     47
"For the Sake of Harmony"     67
"The Fruits of the Spirit"     82
Kykuit Rising II     100
Settling Up     125
Patriarch     145
Family Seat     167
The Prince of Kykuit     196
The Gift     227
Going Public     249
Coda     279
Acknowledgments     281
Notes     285
Index     321
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