A century ago, New York’s Hudson River Valley attracted some of America’s most rich and famous “” and their residences now tell their stories.
By Mort Alper
Today’s fashion is tomorrow’s memory. Estates in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island are coveted by the wealthy today. But 100 years ago, the well-to-do favored the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City. Thanks to the preservation efforts of many folks, visitors can still admire furnishings and architecture that were popular in the last century.
A trail of homes and history runs north and south along the Hudson River, so visitors can follow this route from either direction. Information about how to contact each location is listed individually. Interstate 87, part of the New York State Thruway, conveniently parallels the Hudson River Valley. Exit the interstate and travel to U.S. 9, which will take you to a majority of the following estates.
This tour starts in the center of the mansion area and travels south. Van Cortlandt Manor, on the banks of the Croton River in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, is a National Historic Landmark from the 18th century. On the grounds is a manor house, an 18th-century tavern, and a reconstructed tenant house.
This is a living history museum where guides in period clothing escort visitors through the buildings. Nearly everything in the mansion is original, including the cooking hearth and beehive oven. The grounds include heirloom vegetable gardens and ornamental herbs. The Van Cortlandt Manor is open daily except Tuesday, and admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 5 to 17. Phone (914) 271-8981 for more information.
The most renowned home in the area is Kykuit, The Rockefeller Estate. Tours for the home originate at the nearby Philipsburg Manor, where tickets are purchased; the visitors center there offers exhibits and a film about the estate. You must leave your car or motorhome at the visitors center and take a shuttle bus to the manor. Then, accompanied by a tour guide, you travel to the “Lookout” (which is what Kykuit means). And look out it does over the sloping hills down to the panoramic Hudson River. The current structure of the mansion was completed in 1913, and the nearby Coach Barn houses vintage automobiles and carriages.
For four generations the Rockefellers had lived in this part of the Hudson Valley. The house was first used by John D. Rockefeller until his death in 1937; it then became a spring and fall retreat for his son, John Jr., and his wife, Abby. When he died in 1960, his son, Nelson, then governor of New York, lived at Kykuit with his wife, “Happy,” and their two sons, Nelson Jr. and Mark. Kykuit was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The sons were the last Rockefellers to live in the house, which passed into the hands of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Kykuit’s Italian-modeled gardens offer an outdoor museum consisting of 70 eye-catching pieces of art, including works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and Pablo Picasso. In 1906 John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the famed oil tycoon, hired William Welles Bosworth, who had supervised the restoration of the famed French palace of Versailles and other European treasures, to plan the formal gardens. Bosworth’s creation is considered one of the best surviving Beaux Arts gardens in the United States.
Upon entering the four-story mansion, you’ll feel as though you’re in a museum. Paintings, elegant Royal English dinnerware, antique Chinese ceramics, and other works of art fill the rooms. You expect to see a museum guard. Yet, during Nelson’s residency, Kykuit for the first time became a home inhabited by young children. No rooms of the house, including the art galleries, were off-limits to the two boys. They learned early on to appreciate and enjoy art “” to live with it, rather than keep it at a reverential arm’s length.
Although traditional in architecture, Kykuit was very modern for its day. A generator in the coach barn brought electricity to the house, which also was equipped with central heating, a central vacuum system, an internal and external telephone system, and an Otis elevator. But, unlike many large country houses of the period, it has no ballroom. John D. Rockefeller and his wife were strict Baptists who allowed no dancing or drinking in the house, and they entertained only on a modest scale. A 1909 House Beautiful article stated that Kykuit’s drawing room was “entirely removed from the elaborate and overdone schemes often found in the homes of American millionaires.”
The Rockefellers’ cooks sent the family’s food from the kitchen upstairs to the dining room via a dumbwaiter, which still exists, as does the warming oven. One of the more intriguing places is a service tunnel that leads to the lowest floor in the mansion, where deliveries were made.
You don’t expect to go into a basement (where the home’s bowling alley used to be) and discover five galleries displaying some of Nelson’s art collection, but that is where they are. More than 100 works, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s by American artists, can be perused. They include large tapestries depicting Picasso’s works and portraits of the Rockefellers created by Andy Warhol.
Kykuit is open daily except Tuesday, and tours depart the visitors center at Philipsburg Manor between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Admission to Kykuit is $20 for adults, $19 for seniors, and $17 for children; it is not recommended for children under age 10. Tours fill quickly, so visitors are urged to arrive early in the day. Phone the visitors center at (914) 631-3992 for more information. Those who tour Kykuit receive a coupon for a $5 admission fee to Philipsburg Manor, and weekday Kykuit visitors receive free admission to the Union Church (both of which are described below).
After touring Kykuit, enjoy Philipsburg Manor, a bridge to the past. The stone mansion is an early 18th-century Dutch-American manor house furnished with artifacts. Guides in period costumes bring history to life, as does an operating gristmill; an oak-timbered dam; and a barn with oxen, cows, and sheep. The manor was a milling, farming, and trading complex owned by a family of merchants. The site is of particular interest because of the size of the slave community that once lived there, and the highly developed nature of the commercial property. Philipsburg Manor is open daily except Tuesday, and admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 5 to 17. Phone (914) 631-3992 for more information.
While you’re in this area, be sure to see the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, located near the Philipsburg/Kykuit complex. This non-denominational chapel of worship with a pyramid-shaped roof and a small bell tower is home to several works of art commissioned by the Rockefellers. Eight magnificent stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall illuminate either side of the church, and a large rose window by Henri Matisse glows above the altar. The church is closed on Tuesdays, and visitor admission is $4. Church activities may pre-empt visiting hours. Phone (914) 332-6659 for more information.
Travel south a few miles to see Lyndhurst, one of the most dramatic examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. This home, designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, had several owners through the years: New York City mayor William Paulding, a merchant named George Merritt, and railroad tycoon Jay Gould. It remained in the Gould family until 1961, when its ownership passed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Surrounding the mansion’s gardens are landscaped grounds with a rose garden and memorable views of the river. The house is furnished in Gothic, Beaux Arts, and French 19th-century styles featuring works of art once part of Gould’s private collection. Additional components are ribbed and vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.
You can take a self-guided brochure tour, or embark on an audio tour of the mansion and grounds by picking up an audio player at the Museum Shop. Guided tours are offered three times a day on weekdays and more frequently on weekends. Lyndhurst is open Tuesday through Sunday and on holiday Mondays. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $4 for students ages 12 to 17. Phone (914) 631-4481 for more information.
Lyndhurst is not far from the former home of one of America’s beloved storytellers, Washington Irving. Irving lived at Sunnyside from 1835 to 1859, and although his home doesn’t have the decor or costly artistic items found in the Hudson Valley mansions, the historic cottage provides insights into his life. Irving enlarged and remodeled this riverfront home himself. It is set at the bottom of a grassy hill next to the Hudson River and was originally constructed in the late 18th century as a tenant farmer’s cottage.
Irving never acquired a great deal of wealth even though he was famous in the United States and Europe. Costumed guides give the tour a theatrical feeling as they lead you through his cottage. The home is filled with personal possessions, including his writing desk and his many books. Ivy and wisteria that he planted still enrich the home’s exterior. Woodland walks and scenic picnic areas add to your visit to this National Historic Landmark.
Irving is best known for writing The Sketch Book, which includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” He never married or had children, and, after establishing his home, shared it with his brother and his five nieces.
Irving’s fame made Sunnyside famous, too, and the image of his home could be found on lithographs and in magazines, as well as on cigar boxes, sheet music, and ceramic pitchers. Aside from writing, Irving had many interests, such as landscape design and even European diplomacy “” he was appointed minister to Spain by President John Tyler in 1842.
Sunnyside is open daily except Tuesday, and admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 5 to 17. Phone (914) 591-8763 for more information.
These are only a few of the historic homes that can be found in the Hudson Valley. In the region just north of this area, you will want to visit:
- The home of famed landscape artist Frederic Church, Olana State Historic Site
- Montgomery Place, a 434-acre estate with a mansion
- Historic Clermont Mansion, the oldest of the Hudson Valley estates
- The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cousin and friend, Margaret Suckley, called Wilderstein
- Mills Mansion, a 65-room home built in 1896 that is part of a New York state park
- Val-Kill, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
- The 1895 home of Frederick Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
- Locust Grove, The Samuel Morse Historic Site, which offers a visitors center with exhibits as well as tours of Morse’s home
- The Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, which, along with the Roosevelt residence, includes the FDR Presidential Library and Museum
Your visit to the beautiful Hudson River shoreline and the valley’s historical past will be a memorable travel highlight. Be sure to investigate all of the possibilities.
A nonprofit group called Historic Hudson Valley provides information about Van Cortlandt Manor, Philipsburg Manor, Kykuit, Union Church, Sunnyside, and Montgomery Place. Contact:
Historic Hudson Valley
150 White Plains Road
Tarrytown, NY 10591
Another source of information is “I Love New York,” the state’s official travel information bureau. In addition to the state guidebook, which contains campground listings, the travel bureau offers a “Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area” map brochure. Contact:
I Love New York
30 S. Pearl St.
Albany, NY 12245
(800) 225-5697 (CALL NYS)