50 Rooms, Hudson View (Plus Tinsel)
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Uncle Freddie's country cottage was exactly where a country cottage should be: framed by trees on a breezy bluff overlooking the broad blue Hudson River. Still, the cottage was unlike any I'd ever seen. It was big. Really big.
It seems the Vanderbilt kids of the early 1900s measured things a little differently from ordinary people. Frederick Vanderbilt's neoclassic mansion in New York's majestic Hudson River Valley was perhaps a bit more modest than other family palaces like the Breakers or Biltmore. Nevertheless, the house contains more than 50 rooms, staircase railings sheathed in crimson velvet and Venetian frescoed ceilings. Hardly cottage standards.
The banks of the Hudson are studded with similar retreats once owned by captains of industry and politically influential families we all learned about in history class, including the Rockefellers, the Goulds and the Roosevelts. They are the castles along America's Rhine, as the Hudson is sometimes called, and they stand as testaments to a time when excess was the height of style.
Today, more than a dozen estates are open for public snooping. They are part of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, a protected region of private and public land that spans more than 150 miles of riverbank and includes 3 million acres of woodland trails and parkland. To tour the mansions is to visit unique little museums full of Picasso tapestries (the Rockefellers' Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow), authentic Duncan Fyfe furniture (Boscobel in Garrison) and Tiffany lamps (Lyndhurst in Tarrytown) without confining oneself to a sterile, regimented environment. The homes are living, breathing spaces with ticking clocks and creaking floorboards.
It would take a week to see all the estates at a leisurely pace, but a weekend visit including four to six estates is very doable and will leave time for shopping and dining in pretty villages such as Rhinebeck, which is rich in historic architecture and boutique shopping.
Although the Hudson Valley is known for its autumn vistas of wooded hills ranging the palette of fire, the winter reveals the region in yet a different light -- by the twinkling of candlelight and Christmas lights. The scent of cinnamon and pine fills the halls of many mansions, which are festively adorned for the holidays. Wilderstein, the orange-red Queen Anne-style residence in Rhinebeck that last belonged to Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, close companion to neighbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt, takes on the trappings of a Victorian Christmas. The rooms inside Lyndhurst, the Gothic castle in Tarrytown where New York City mayor William Paulding and later railroad magnate Jay Gould sought respite, display exquisitely decorated interpretations of fairy tales. And Staatsburgh, a hilltop mansion with all the stateliness of the White House, is a favorite wintertime destination for families toting sleds.
Traveling north from Manhattan on a recent weekend, I drove up the New York State Thruway, Interstate 87, to begin castle-hopping in Hudson, an art-minded town just south of Albany, and to follow the river southward, mostly on the eastern bank, meandering down the Taconic Parkway and Route 9 -- one of the prettiest drives I've ever taken. There are views of the Hudson's tree-lined riverbanks, of the gossamer blue Catskill Mountains, of ancient willows bent over woodland brooks that appear so idyllically beautiful I was forced to swallow all the criticisms I'd had of the 19th-century artists who painted this region. Previously I had dismissed the work of the Hudson River School -- the landscape painters whose collective work is widely recognized as the first coherent American art movement -- as unrealistically pastoral. Now I saw that they were extraordinarily accurate.
Only an artist could have dreamed up Olana, the northernmost estate I visited. Glittering with gilded stenciling and multicolored masonry, the Middle-Eastern-inspired home looks like nothing you should find on the edge of the Catskills. Yet it blends harmoniously with the natural landscape, each pointed-arch window framing a view with artistic sensibility. Olana's master and designer, Frederic Edwin Church, was one of the most successful artists in the Hudson River School.
Traveling west to east on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, you can see Olana's tower among the trees like the turret of a castle. Named after an ancient Persian treasure house and inspired by Church's travels to the Mideast, Olana is the architectural star of the heritage area. It stands in stark contrast to Thomas Cole's home, Cedar Grove, on the opposite bank, a modest yellow Federal-style home also open to the public. Cole was not only the founder of the Hudson River School but also Church's teacher. If homes are indeed an indication of success, it seems the student outshone his master.
An Alternate Reality
Heading south to Germantown, Clermont is an elegant white Colonial Revival home with a front door that faces the river, recalling a time when the Hudson was the highway by which 18th-century guests arrived. The home's interior has been arranged to reflect how its last residents lived in the 1920s. Honoria Livingston McVitty was the last of 17 generations of Livingstons to inhabit the estate, and the heritage staff consulted her about its history before her death in 2000, just nine years shy of a century old. The kitchen was the only room about which McVitty could not advise, according to guide Edward Moynihan, because she claimed she'd never set foot in it. "I guess if she wanted to steal a cookie from the cookie jar," Moynihan said, "she had a servant steal the cookie."
Touring the estates is stepping into an alternate reality. There is a placard at Staatsburg h, an estate south of Clermont, that says Ruth Livingston Mills, who married wealthy financier Ogden Mills, inherited a 25-room house that she expanded into the current 79-room beaux-arts temple because it "was neither sufficiently commodious nor impressive enough for her society visitors." (I don't know about you, but I need at least three dozen rooms to adequately entertain, too.)
A day of exploring this excessive lifestyle can muddle your perception of luxury. I stepped through the white-columned portico of Springwood, the Roosevelt mansion in Hyde Park, at the end of my first day of touring, just after visiting the Vanderbilt mansion full of ornately gilded furniture and marble columns. I peeked into a dozen rooms, some sheathed in rich wood paneling, others cloaked in expensive Oriental-style rugs, and heard myself say, seriously, and with a shrug, "Modest."
Painters often set their easels on the edge of the Boscobel property in Garrison, south of Hyde Park. Though the main house is lovely, with bi-level balconies decorated with white wooden swaths, it is the natural landscape that usually inspires these artists' hands. Boscobel's bluff offers one of the most stunning panoramas in the valley: West Point Military Academy stands on the opposite shore, the green patchwork of Constitution Marsh lies in the foreground, and the river bends straight into the horizon, disappearing through the peaks of the Hudson Highlands.
In the fall, Boscobel's orchard is laden with several varietals of apples, and bagfuls are harvested and sold in the gift shop. Most of the estates in the valley began as real agrarian estates and then transitioned into "gentlemen's farms." I imagine the landlords waved their gloved hands limply in the direction of an empty field and said things like, "Kale. I want kale planted there."
|Even the butler's pantry at the Queen Anne-style Wilderstein, in Rhinebeck, N.Y., gets dolled up for the holidays.(By Robert Scriber)|
Visitors can sample the bounty of the still-tended fields, sold just down the street at the Montgomery Place Orchards Farm Stand. There are multicolored heirloom tomatoes and different kinds of apples and squash, but be sure to purchase several jars of their irresistible seedless black raspberry jam. I have been regretfully nursing a single jar, spreading its jewel-toned jam only on slices of really deserving bread.
At the southern end of the heritage area, the grounds of writer Washington Irving's country manor in Tarrytown, named Sunnyside, are often described as romantic, with a winding stream leading to a waterfall and a pond Irving called his "little Mediterranean." In December guides give candlelit tours of the manor, lead visitors in carols on a circa-1830s piano and read aloud some of Irving's Christmas-themed tales.
Irving set one of his most famous stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in a town very close to Sunnyside. It's little wonder that the haunting tale of the headless horseman seizes the imaginations of local children in the months when the wind howls and the leaves crunch under foot. It seems the Hudson Valley is home to many ghosts -- those of legend and those of legendary men -- and all you need to do to find them is to step through their front doors.
Nicole Cotroneo last wrote for Travel about celebrity-spotting in Nashville.