Rockefeller's Beautiful Kykuit Mansion Has a Homey Feel

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Well, it looks like Kick-oo-it.

"Oh, you mean Kigh-cut?" said the hotel clerk when I asked for directions to Kykuit (see what I mean?), the Rockefeller mansion high above the Hudson River just north of Tarrytown, N.Y.

"Oh, yes," I replied, kicking myself for forgetting, because of course I'd done my research and knew all about the name's provenance (Dutch for "lookout") and pronunciation (the way she said it).

But then again, maybe I didn't know everything. "You have reservations for Kigh-kout?" asked the fellow at the visitor center when we arrived for our tour. Well, um, yes, I guess that would be the same place. "I know people around here say Kigh-cut, but in Dutch it would be Kigh-kout," he explained. "I try to pronounce it the way it should be." Ah.

In the absence of an actual Dutch speaker, however, I had my doubts about all this pronunciation business. Perhaps best to just forget the name and think of it the way Ursula, our enthusiastic, energetic 70- or possibly 80-something guide, referred to it on the brief bus ride up to the house and grounds. "You're going to spend the next couple of hours," she said, "in a very beautiful place."

That it is, of course, like all the grand homes of those early-20th-century tycoons, with lush settings and opulent fittings. But I could tell (well, actually, Ursula told us) that Kykuit was different from your run-of-the-mill millionaire mansion. Set on one of the highest points above the river, 500 feet above sea level, it could really lord it over the other nearby estates. But for all its grandeur, the thing about Kykuit -- excuse me, this very beautiful place -- is that it's not all that grand.

"Have you ever been in a vestibule this size in one of these grand houses?" Ursula demanded as our tour group of 20 filled the space between the two plexiglass cases of Tang dynasty tomb statuary that Nelson Rockefeller brought back from China in the 1970s and that now guard either side of the not-so-imposing entrance.

Ursula was fond of quizzing us, so someone offered a tentative "yes?" as if hoping it was the right answer. Wrong. "You have?" Ursula pounced. "I never have. This is a very small vestibule for a house of this sort. That's because JDR was a devout Baptist and hated ostentation or showing off of any kind."

Who knew? JDR, of course, was John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate and wealthy philanthropist who built the house in 1908. And then again three years later. Well, not the whole house. Mostly the exterior, the original design of which was changed from a sort of oversize French country manor with a steep pitched roof and wraparound porches to the square neoclassical facade of Indiana limestone that we oohed and aahed at. I guess ostentation is in the eye of the beholder. That 30-foot-high Oceanus fountain just inside the gates, a copy of the famous original in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, is not what I would call unobtrusive.

I did read later, though, that JDR, while he came to love the house where his family spent the spring and fall (no worries, Ursula said, "they weren't homeless," having several other abodes), always thought it was too grand. For that we can thank John Jr., who oversaw the actual design and construction for his father, who was 74 by the time he moved into the house in 1913.

Nonetheless, Ursula was at pains to point out the many ways in which the beautiful place strives for modesty. The house is smaller in scale than "those garish Vanderbilt creations." There's no sweeping staircase on which the lady of the house might make a grand entrance before a dinner party (the stairs are off to the side and back). Of course, JDR didn't go in much for dinner parties, said Ursula. (That was more grandson Nelson's thing, especially when he was governor of New York.) Which is why it's odd that the dining room's fireplace mantel is covered in wine motifs. "In a house where drinking wasn't allowed," Ursula pointed out archly. My husband was more taken with the two porcelain vultures perched on the sideboard, framing the portrait of JDR, robber baron, hanging above it. "Somebody had a sense of humor," he noted.

I have to admit, I found all the Dutch reserve appealing. "Most people imagine that they could live here," Ursula said, and so I could. I could picture whiling away the hours in the music room, with the oculus in the ceiling opening into the upper stories. I could imagine strolling the gardens, dotted with the many works of sculpture collected by Nelson, whose family was the last to live in the house. His will deeded it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1979. And I could spend lots more time in the art gallery he set up in the basement -- where the Rockefeller children used to ride their bikes -- lingering over the Warhols and Calders and Segals and the 12 French tapestries copying famous Picasso works that he'd commissioned for the space.

"Lingering" was the word for us. Our group was a bit of an unruly bunch, I'll allow. "Try to keep up with your tour guide," another guide admonished us at one point as we straggled well behind Ursula, whose resolute, trouser-clad figure was marching off into the distance. We were still clustering on the terrace, trying to spy the river through the mists that had rolled in just as Ursula had promised they would, even though the day was cloudless and scorching. And arguing over an abstract sculpture of two women playing harps that the retired pediatrician among us insisted was actually a woman giving birth.

I scampered after Ursula, who slowed her stride. "I need a panpipe for you people," she said. We all agreed that Ursula gave a most enjoyable tour, with her bright personality and her ardor for the estate. "This is my 12th year" as a docent, she said. "But there are people who have been here even longer. We just love this beautiful place so much."

Yes, let's just call it A Beautiful Place. It's a much easier name to pronounce than that other one.

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