By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; F07
What would Mary think?
This is what I wonder as I follow the two women up the sweeping grand staircase of the Biddle Mansion at the Tarrytown House Estate and Conference Center in Tarrytown, N.Y. The pair, in their impeccable business suits, are clearly here for a conference, checking out the meeting rooms on the second floor of the 1890s manor, discussing the facilities, locating the elevator.
Me, I'm strictly a voyeur (and a hotel guest, too, so it's allowed). I'm roaming the house after breakfast, ogling the art and photos in the warmly paneled drawing room, scanning the books and magazines in the sunny library, peeking into an elegant dining room with leaded-glass windows. And standing in what I figure was the master bedroom, with its exhilarating view of the gleaming Hudson River beyond the treetops, bemoaning the fancy but sterile carpeting that covers the floor. And even more, the PowerPoint projection screen at the far end of the roomful of padded chairs.
Oh dear, Mary, what would you think?
Mary - that would be Mary Duke Biddle, an heiress of the Duke tobacco fortune out of North Carolina, who was the last private owner (1921-1960) of this imposing, castlelike granite house. For the last year of her life, she owned the stately white-columned King Mansion just a few yards up the hill, too. Once upon a time, through the mid-20th century, these homes were the sites of lavish parties and gracious living, of tennis games on the indoor court of pink clay (imported from France) and horseback riding over the rolling Hudson Valley hills 25 miles north of New York.
Now? Well, now, as the centerpieces of a 212-room hotel and the nation's first executive conference center (opened in 1964; who knew conference centers were such a hoary concept?), they're still the site of lavish parties (and weddings, lots of weddings). You can still play tennis - outdoors only now; the indoor court has become guest-room and meeting space - and swim in indoor or outdoor pools. (Horseback riding, well, not so much: The old stables - once also home to Mary's Duesenberg - are more meeting rooms and office space these days.)
Still, it seemed a shame, I thought, as we turned into the long and winding drive up to the 1840s King Mansion, whose imposing columned portico rises up glisteningly white through the evergreens at the crest of the hill, and stopped in front of the sparklingly modern registration area next door. Two gorgeous 19th-century homes and their luxuriant grounds, overrun now by thousands of visitors a year, many of them no doubt too busy running from meeting to meeting to appreciate the splendor of the surroundings and Mary's pretty sculpture garden at the center of the 26-acre estate.
At the foot of that garden, down a small slope, the Biddle Mansion's crenellated turret stood outlined against the fading sky. We'd head there shortly for dinner at Cellar 49, the comfy basement tavern in what was once Mary's bowling alley. But first we had to find our room.
"It can be a confusing property," said the desk clerk who checked us in, and she wasn't kidding. Apart from a few (pricey and closed for the winter) accommodations in the King Mansion, the hotel quarters are all in a complex of newer buildings snaking off from the registration area. The clerk pulled out a map and marked the location of our room in what looked like a neat rectangle of interconnected buildings. Hah. Try a vast maze of hallways and levels.
Luckily, we were on the third floor of the Putnam building. "The rooms here are some of the easiest to find," said our bellman. O-kay.
The rooms are pretty standard: large and comfortable with white bedding, flat-panel TVs, free WiFi, yadayada. I was entertained by a sheet in the information binder about purchasable items. The hand-stitched bed scarf in mint green, rose and gold was sorely tempting, except that $425 struck me as a little steep. On the other hand, a Serta hotel series king mattress for $850 seemed like a steal. And the bathrobes - wait a minute! I didn't see any bathrobes in our closet. Maybe I could spring for the Rip Van Winkle souvenir Do Not Disturb sign for $5? I'd think about it over dinner.
The bellman hadn't promised that it would be easy to get from our quarters to other points on the property, and sure enough, we got royally lost trying to make our way to the tavern. My husband, of course, would probably have just kept on making random turns, but I asked a man using the computer in the atrium for directions, and he kindly escorted us the final leg.
By morning, we had our route to breakfast in the Biddle Mansion's "Winter Palace" down. Hidden behind the drawing room's double doors, this cavernous glassed-in dining area was a stunning surprise. I'd never have guessed that the house was that big. (It doesn't look it from the outside.) We sat by the window and gazed dreamily at the blue waters of the Hudson over our bagels and omelet.
When I've finished prowling around the house (most interesting feature: the portrait of Maj. John Andre, Benedict Arnold's British co-conspirator, that Mary hung prominently over the fireplace in the foyer; now why did she do that?), we take the little signposted tour of the grounds. We note the golf tee that Mary had built above the swimming pool, find the baling hook that still hangs above the door to the former stables, stroll through the herb garden that still supplies the kitchen and peer through the back windows of the King Mansion at the grand rooms now closed up for the season.
Okay, that last part's not really on the tour, but I couldn't help myself. I'm a voyeur, as I said. I wonder: All those people who walked through these rooms . . . What would they say if they knew what their sumptuous homes had come to? What would you say, Mary?
Well, given the probable alternative, I think I have a good idea:
"Just bring that PowerPoint projector right on in."