A Weekend On The Hudson
August 14, 2011 9:54 PM - Legion
In my last article for lifeinbkln.com I brought up the question of what makes living in New York City so special and whether or not this city was a net importer or exporter of culture in this day and age. I purposefully left that question open for readers to discuss and to consider. With this article I hope to add some food for thought by bringing up New Yorkers of another age with names which are undoubtedly familiar to most Americans. They are names synonymous with wealth and privilege, with history and with the fortunes of this city and of our nation as well. Many of their homes remain as a testament to the way they lived. As a sort of living history book for later generations to enjoy and breathe in while walking well worn paths etched by time. Paths still redolent with the gilded age flower gardens continuing to bloom faithfully beneath the canopy of trees hundreds of years old and who alone can hold all the weight of history within their enormous girth.

A trip to the Hudson Valley is a trip back in time. Just over one hundred miles from the madding crowd of Brooklyn sit majestic and well preserved mansions of another age. They line the East bank of the Hudson river and invite visitors to explore the way families like the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers lived. It takes just under 2 hours to get to Dutchess county which is where the majority of these great mansions are located but even the trip there is enjoyable as it winds through the low lying Catskill mountains made famous by artists of the Hudson River school and authors like James Fenimore Cooper, Edith Wharton and Washington Irving.

My first stop was Clermont (photograph above), the ancestral home of the Livingston family. The patriarch was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the serene home perched high over the Hudson hosted the likes of George Washington and seven generations of the Livingstons. The grounds are well manicured and the home is quite secluded at the end of a winding road through heavy forest. This home was also the launch site of the first Steam Boat which was developed by Robert Fulton and one of the Livingston clan. There are reproductions of the steam ship housed in the visitor center, objects found during archeological excavations nearby as well as a touching short film narrated by the last Livingston to live in the house;
Honora Livingston, who passed away in 2001.

Next stop was Springwood, home of the Roosevelts in Hyde Park. This is a major national historic site and is currently undergoing much renovation on the grounds of the Presidential library. The 290 acre site includes the Roosevelt mansion where FDR grew up, Eleanorís residence Val-Kill and of course the Presidential library which FDR himself had planned to house the wealth of historical documents pertaining to his 4 terms as President. I really enjoyed looking into his childhood room to see his bed, diplomas, photographs on the wall as well as his wheel chair down the hall.

The library in the mansion looks like the Roosevelts just stepped out for lunch. Even his dog Falaís favorite blanket is still laid out. There is a reproduction of FDRís oval office in the Presidential Library building just as it was in 1940. Historical papers such as the actual legislation which he signed to enact the Social Security program fill rooms spanning different eras from the Depression to WWII. The Presidential tomb sits at the center of the family rose garden and consists of an enormous rectangular marble stone which seems to glow in the sunlight.

Down the road from the Roosevelt mansion, about a ten minute drive away, is the stately entrance to the McKim, Mead and White designed Vanderbilt mansion. The estate is comprised of hundreds of acres sitting high above the surrounding landscape. The drive up to the house includes a stone bridge over a creek and a winding road up a hill. The house is practically hidden from view by the surrounding trees until one reaches a flat stretch at the base of a large green field. Looking West from that point the imposing mansion is then seen full on, giving the visitor the feeling of being instantly transformed into a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or lost somewhere in an old European estate. The National Park Service runs hourly tours of the house during which you can see the priceless antiques and artwork inside. There are hiking trails throughout and convenient scenic lookout points from which to take in the beautiful surrounding countryside across the Hudson.

My short weekend family trip ended at Locust Grove, home of the American artist and inventor Samuel Morse (most notable for the ďMorse CodeĒ and telegraph machine). This is a beautiful, Italianate villa designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, the great 19th century architect also known for designing the New York Customs House which still stands as the image of Wall Street. The visitorís center has an excellent little gallery of Morse's art work on display. Outside of the actual home which contains fantastic examples of 19th century furniture and art and within the forested grounds of this estate, are numerous hiking trails, gardens and the sounds of locusts and cicadas everywhere. In one corner of the property, right by a brook, is the family pet cemetery with small headstones denoting beloved animal companions with names like Penny and Petey. Morse himself is actually interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

In between visits to old mansions there are a multitude of things to do from antiques shopping in towns like Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie to a drive-in movie theater in Hyde Park showing two features for the price of one beginning at 8:30 every night. If you are lucky, you can call ahead and get reservations to dine at one of the restaurants in the famous Culinary Institute of America (CIA) located just south of the FDR home.

There are too many homes and mansions to visit in one trip including but not limited to names like Olana, Montgomery Place, Staatsburgh, Wilderstein and Kykuit (the Rockefeller Estate).
Not to be missed are the opportunities to sit with the family and have a good old fashioned picnic on the grounds of one of the State Parks. Several of the homes are run by the NY State Park system which makes certain that the picnic areas are well maintained with ample parking and clean facilities. While sitting back on a sunny summer day, looking at the trees above and the river below with the sounds of a cool breeze teasing the leaves above, you can almost make out the faint sounds of a bygone era still echoing between the banks of the Hudson.

August 14, 2011 10:52 PM - Not_Logged_In

The What

I love the smell of napalm in the morning...
Edited at August 14, 2011 10:52 PM
August 14, 2011 11:15 PM - Legion
DAMN, What
you are harsh!
August 15, 2011 7:23 AM - BoerumHillScott
As I mentioned in a post last week, the number of old rich families in New York is much greater than other place I have lived.

I also think that these homes are all part of a dynastic culture that while not completely dying out, certainly does not have the level of importance to society that it did 100 years ago.

I am also impressed at how much these families have done to preserve the rich history of their ancestors. I have a good friend who is an PhD history professor specializing in early American Republic, and he spent several weeks this summer at these homes, going through their archives.

Today, a resting successful businessmen is much more likely to donate his documents to a university than to expect his family/foundation to maintain them and provide access to the public.
August 15, 2011 8:56 AM - denton
lol what. Nice write-up, Legion.
Edited at August 15, 2011 8:56 AM
August 15, 2011 9:11 AM - Not_Logged_In
Anonymous: Lets talk about HOW they got the money!!
Steal, lie and cheat! Stop worshiping thieves!!!!

The What

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
August 15, 2011 9:14 AM - gay smurf hoodlum
nice pictures, nice article, but still just leaves me feeling poorer than i felt before. can't someone do some intensive house tours of the projects or something!?


August 15, 2011 9:39 AM - petebklyn
if anyway makes the trip up there....don't forget the new walkway over the hudson bridge (can bike on it also)...for great views of the river.

The Vanderbilts I don't really consider a NewYork/Hudson Valley family except I think Livingston descendant married into them. Their mansion in HydePark/Staatsburg was just one of the many homes they partied at.

August 15, 2011 10:38 AM - Legion
I see what you're getting at What:
"...behind every great fortune is a great swindle." or something to that effect.

Here's an interesting tid bit of information that I picked up on the Roosevelt house tour.
The Roosevelts and the Delanos both made their fortunes in trade.
One family specifically made its fortune in trading Opium with China.
Seems like there are still fortunes being made trading Opium although it's not as easy these days, that's for sure.

I wouldn't call it "worshipping thieves" to acknowledge the history of a place and perhaps even find it fascinating. Nor is it necessarily an endorsement of how those fortunes were made. These historical sites remain for the future to judge but at the same time they are structures built by Man and that in itself tells a story.

I often say that the study of History is the study of a long line of cultural domination of one group over another.
The Great Pyramids at Giza weren't built by contractors. The great Wall of China wasn't built to beautify the scenery. Same goes for the cities of Tikal and Chichen Itza.
In fact, by studying pre-history it's understood that we certainly "didn't start the fire". In fact, Homo Sapiens is defined by the use of fire as a tool or weapon. Recent information tells us that our human ancestors quickly dispatched competing hominids like Neanderthal man to the point of extinction. And that wasn't the only group!

We can certainly learn from our mistakes, but we won't do it by ignoring history.
Edited at August 15, 2011 10:38 AM
August 15, 2011 7:11 PM - minard lafever
I have visited all of these houses, even some that are not open to the public, and they are very specific to the history of New York. Unlike most other parts of America, New York was for a long time an oligarchy controlled by maybe four hundred rich families many of whom could trace their wealth back to royal patents, or land grants. I really enjoy the architecture and landscaping, my favorite is Wilderstein, the home of FDR's dearest friend and confidante, Daisy Suckley.
Part of the enjoyment for me is to appreciate how nutty these families were. They were totally off-the-wall. British nobility is famous for being eccentric but they get a run for their money from the overly inbred Hudson Valley families where as the saying goes, insanity doesn't merely run in the family, it gallops.

Edited at August 15, 2011 7:11 PM