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Historic Hudson Valley
(An Historical Feast in Westchester County)
How to Get There
The five sites operated by Historic Hudson Valley in Westchester County (each discussed in full below) are all relatively close together: Sunnyside is 1 mile south of the Tappan Zee Bridge on Route 9; the Union Church of Pocantico Hills is 1 mile east of Route 9 on Route 448; Philipsburg Manor is 2 miles north of the bridge on 9—and it is from here that you visit the Rockefeller estate; and, for Van Cortlandt Manor, continue north on 9 to the Croton Point Avenue exit, then go 1 block east to South Riverside Avenue, turn right and, about a half-mile farther, you will see the entrance directly ahead. There also are summer cruises from New York City and Weehawken, New Jersey, that include Kykuit, Philipsburg Manor and Sunnyside. Reservations are required. For information on tours, call 914-631-8200. For Kykuit reservations, phone 914-631-9491. For information on boat trips, call 800-533-3779.
Hours and Admission Prices Kykuit is open daily, except Tuesday, April-October 10-5. Admission: Adults, $20; senior citizens and students, $17. Reservations are required, and you should call well in advance as tours sell out quickly.
The three restorations, Sunnyside, Philipsburg Manor and Van Cortlandt Manor, are open daily, except Tuesday, 10-5. Closed for the months of January and February and on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Single-visit ticket: Adults, $8; senior citizens, $7; students 6-17, $4. Van Cortlandt Manor is closed in March; the other two are open weekends only in March. The Union Church of Pocantico Hills isopen April-December, weekdays except Tuesday, 11-5; Saturday 10-5; Sunday 2-5. Tour price, $3. Other times by appointment. For all reservations and information, phone 914-631-8200.
A word of advice: Don't be as ambitious as I once was and try to see several of the sites on the same day—that's exhausting.
Historic Hudson Valley, chartered in 1951 by the state of New York as an educational institution, was founded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The project began in 1937 when what is now Philipsburg Manor was to be torn down and replaced by a housing development. Mr. Rockefeller stepped in and purchased the house in 1940. Then, in 1945, a collateral descendant of Washington Irving decided to sell Sunnyside. Again Mr. Rockefeller came to the rescue, buying not only the house but many of the original furnishings as well. Finally, in 1953, Van Cortlandt Manor became available and it, too, was added to the restorations project and opened to the public in 1959 after the staff of colonial Williamsburg had restored it. In 1984, the Union Church of Pocantico Hills was opened for tours and the latest, and undeniably spectacular, addition, is Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson, a 400-acre estate opened to the public in 1988 (see page 138).
Today the overall collection of Historic Hudson Valley includes about 12,000 fine and decorative pieces as well as paintings, drawings, prints, textiles and such from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all offering an unparalleled glimpse of life in the Hudson Valley over a period of 300 years. It is a remarkable undertaking that has been perfectly realized.
Kykuit (Pocantico Hills)
I suppose the Rockefellers come as close to a nationally recognized and admired family as this country can offer. They have achieved this eminent position through a pattern of public generosity and philanthropy while maintaining a respectable and dignified—for the most part—private life that simply does not make for "sexy" media coverage. And now, as the fourth and fifth generations are coming to the fore, one thinks more of the family than of any individual. (I was once told that the Rockefellers' staff sometimes request that when the family is mentioned, it be referred to as The Family. It makes an odd kind of sense.)
Kykuit—it rhymes with high cut and means "lookout" in Dutch—was built for John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and is the only house he ever built. John senior's brother, William, was the first Rockefeller to settle in Tarrytown (in the 1880s), although the Rockefellers have a long association with the Hudson River Valley, having originally settled there; outside Germantown, which is between Rhinebeck and Kingston, is an old Rockefeller homestead still known as the Rockefeller Tavern. Today it has been divided in half as two private houses.
John senior began buying this land, 30 miles north of New York City, in 1893 with the purchase of 400 acres, which included the site of the present-day house. Until 1902, when it burned, he lived in a rather undistinguished Victorian villa. He moved into another house on the estate, and it was then that his son, John junior, began to try to convince his father to build a house on Kykuit Hill.
The house the senior Rockefellers eventually built was modest by Gilded Age standards, and when you see it today, even though you know it has 40 rooms, it still seems reserved, even modest, when compared to the Vanderbilt mansion further up the river; but, then, the Vanderbilts had a building mania. And the house you see today is not the house that was originally built, which was even simpler. In fact, four architects—Dunham A. Wheeler, William Adams Delano (a distant cousin of John junior's wife), Chester Holmes Aldrich and William Wells Bosworth—were eventually involved, as was the interior designer Ogden Codman (see page 134).
The first house, which was completed in 1908, was thoroughly revised from 1911 to 1913 and reflects more the intention of John junior, as John senior would have been perfectly happy with something simpler. (John junior once expressed his intentions by noting that "I frequently said to the architects and decorator that my ideal for the house was to have it so apparently simple that any friends visiting Father, coming from however humble houses, would be impressed with the homeliness and simplicity of the house, while those who were familiar with beautiful things and appreciated fine design would say, 'how exquisitely beautiful!' This was the result obtained."
When John senior died in 1937, John junior moved in; the superb Ming and Qing porcelains you will see are from his collection. His son, Nelson A. Rockefeller (whose own collection of Chinese ceramics is here), former governor of New York and vice-president under Gerald Ford and the most colorful of the Rockefeller brothers, moved in upon his father's death in 1960. It was he who put the most interesting stamp on the estate. And it was he who initiated the effort to give the estate to the public by willing his one-third interest in the house and property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon his death in 1979.
Fifteen years later, the remaining Rockefeller brothers, David and Laurence, worked out a deal with the National Trust that gave the Trust total ownership of Kykuit and its immediate surroundings of 87 acres in exchange for the Trust's one-third interest in the entire property. In addition, the Rockefellers have agreed that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund will maintain the property, while Historic Hudson Valley is in charge of the public tours.
The House, Art Collection and Gardens The van approaches the house along a gently rising road. The landscape along the first part is serene and totally unpretentious, with open spaces of lawn, handsome specimen trees, and occasional glimpses of pieces from Nelson Rockefeller's spectacular collection of twentieth-century sculpture, all of which—it should be noted—were placed by Nelson himself. (It is said that he would sometimes hover over the landscape in a helicopter while figuring out where a certain piece would look best.) And then, there you are, at the forecourt of the house.
The house is generally described as Georgian Revival. Fair enough, but I had the immediate feeling—reinforced by the interior—that somehow this was a Dutch house, not so much in style but in the overall character. Perhaps it is the slight feeling of restriction, as if the house were forced to fit into a limited space. In any case, the interior also has that feeling of Dutch stolidity and restriction. Nothing wrong with it; in fact, it is a part of the complete lack of vulgarity that this house displays, but it also is a definite part of what sets the house apart from others of its time.
The tour of the living quarters of the house only includes the first floor, and although interesting—the absolutely splendid Tang Dynasty bodhisattva figure set in a window that offers one of the great views to the Hudson two miles away is almost worth a trip in itself—it is the gardens and the art collection assembled by Nelson that is the real reason to come here.
The gardens were designed by William Wells Bosworth, who once worked with Frederick Law Olmsted. He began designing them in 1907, and here all sense of narrowness and restriction drops, although there is a clear and formal order of terraces, paths, pools, beds, fountains, an allée of linden trees . . . each garden is its own formal room, providing views and settings unique to its own space. And throughout, usually each piece perfectly sited, is the highlight of the visit, the sculpture collection. The names roll off, a listing of twentieth-century masters that includes Picasso, Calder, Arp, Lipchitz, Noguchi, Nadelman, Tony Smith, Moore, Giacometti, Maillol, Nevelson and many more. My favorite, both because of its great beauty and its stunning placement framing a Hudson River vista of lawn, trees, sky and river, is Max Bill's "Triangular Surface in Space."
As for the art collection, Nelson converted part of the basement and underground passageways into galleries where he could display his collection of more than 100 works by virtually every major American artist active in the 1960s as well as such preeminent European artists as Braque and Picasso. It is a wonderful display of his enthusiasm for the art of his time and the catholicity of his taste. It, too, is worth a visit. And that brings up my one complaint about this tour: There's too much to see in the two hours allotted. I would hope Historic Hudson Valley could eventually set things up so that there could be this kind of overview tour and then, perhaps, one that would concentrate primarily on the house, gardens and sculpture, and another that would concentrate on the house and paintings.
In any case, it's not over yet, for before you leave there is a visit to the coach house, where there is a nice collection of historic carriages and cars.
The approach is much the same as Henry James described it years ago, "a deep, long lane, winding, embanked, overarched, such an old-world lane as one scarce ever meets in America. . . ." It sets the mood for your arrival at this fanciful, endearing confection of a house.
I sometimes think that if I could have my choice of any house on the Hudson, this might well be it. Irving himself described it as "a little, old-fashioned stone mansion all made up of gabled ends, and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat." It is all of that; if a house could be called "good-humored," it would perfectly describe Sunnyside.
Washington Irving (1783-1859), America's first great writer and still one of our best-loved if only for his short stories based on life in the Valley such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," bought this estate on the banks of the Hudson in 1835. At that time the house was a simple farmhouse built in the seventeenth century when the land was still part of Philipsburg Manor. (In the eighteenth century it was owned by a branch of the Van Tassel family that Irving would immortalize in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.") After Irving purchased it he immediately began remodeling to create his own romantic vision of a house with the help of George Harvey, an artist and neighbor whose own home Irving much admired. When finished, it looked almost exactly like what you see today, with those wonderful weather vanes that Irving had taken from old houses in New York City and Albany, Dutch-stepped gables and a wisteria vine over the front door. As for the whimsical, pagoda-like tower off to the right, Irving added that in 1847.
The interior is completely without pretension, with small, rather modestly furnished rooms made for good conversation and convivial friends. The most interesting to me is the library with its well-worn, rich leather volumes, a red-curtained alcove with a divan where Irving could catch forty winks, and the wonderful, massive desk, a gift to Irving from his publisher, G. P. Putnam.
The dining room, to the left of the entrance hall, is particularly inviting, especially at Christmas when the table is set and decorated with sprays of holly, nuts, fruits and candy, while a large red bow encircles it.
In planning your visit, be sure to leave some time for strolling about the grounds. You'll enjoy the pond Irving created and called "Little Mediterranean" and you certainly should not miss some of those wooded paths that open up onto views of
the river, here at its widest point and looking very awesome
When you do leave, it's worthwhile to continue south for a few minutes to Irvington to see the Presbyterian Church to your right on North Broadway. It was built in 1869 by James Renwick, Jr. (1818-95), whose most famous building is St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City but who also designed the Renwick Gallery and the first building of the Smithsonian Institute, both in Washington, as well as Grace Protestant Episcopal Church in New York. The Romanesque Presbyterian Church here in Irvington, with its exotic cupola and rough-finished stone work, has the added attraction of windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a onetime resident of Irvington. (For an appointment, phone 914-591-8124.) Just to the south is the Gothic St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church (1853-63), in charming contrast to its more elaborate neighbor.