Standing before the classical façade of Kykuit, the Rockefeller mansion in Sleepy Hollow, New York, I understand that the uber rich have always been with us. We can only hope that some leave a legacy of artistry, institutions, and important buildings like this one.
John D. Rockefeller (JDR), founder of Standard Oil and widely considered the richest man in modern history, was at the top of the pile of gilded age wealth. Thankfully, he and his fellow captains of industry enjoyed conspicuous consumption, including building fabulous estates.
Just over 100 years ago, Kykuit was conceived by JDR, designed and built by his son John D. Rockefeller Jr., and then later filled by grandson Governor Nelson Rockefeller with world-class paintings and sculpture. Thanks to the philanthropy of the family, the forty room mansion with views of the Hudson River, stunning gardens, and art, is open to the public.
It’s worth a trip!
Just over 30 miles from Norwalk, there are several tours of Kykuit offered by Historic Hudson Valley. The Classic Tour includes: the main floor of the house; the underground art galleries; the Inner Garden and West Terrace, with views of the Hudson River (along with the outdoor sculpture collection); and finally, the mammoth Coach Barn with its collection of antique carriages and classic automobiles. The 2 ¼ hour tour ($25) is the one to take if you’re a first-time visitor.
A short bus ride from the everyday bustle of Sleepy Hollow takes you uphill to the private world of Kykuit. Through the gates, the jitney travels a winding road through park-like grounds to the house at the top of the hill. Our group of a dozen gathered between the Oceanus fountain and the classical façade of the house. Joan Austin, our clear-voiced and very knowledgeable guide, introduced us to the estate. She described how it was built and rebuilt by succeeding generations with English style landscapes and Italianate formal gardens. The house, while filled with art and antiques, was still very much a lived-in family home.
As we entered the house Joan pointed out the Brancusi and Giacometti sculptures casually tucked into the modest front porch – great art which was part of daily life for the Rockefellers. The stunning view of the Hudson River framed by a massive picture window, is the first thing you see across the width of the house along the central axis. It’s an unforgettable moment, the result of artfully crafted architecture and landscaping.
To the right in the hall, is an evocative painting of the Oceanus fountain dashed off by John Singer Sargent, Joan explained, while he was working on a formal portrait of JDR.
Ogden Codman, Jr. designed the interior of the house, patterning each room after a different period of English style. On the left is the dark wood-paneled office for JDR, a man-cave of the day, where Nelson later installed a TV and stereo. To the right is the lighter, more feminine parlor, designed for Mrs. Rockefeller in the Adam style.
The central music room has a spectacular open ceiling oculus flooding the interior room with light. The William Kent style dining room, where kings and presidents have dined with generations of the family, is dominated by the Sargent portrait of JDR. The table can seat up to 24 but was the everyday family dining room, too.
The comfortable Kent-style living room is dominated by a Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington and a Joseph Ames portrait of Lincoln painted from life. Tucked in a corner is a Rodin sculpture.
The whole house is an Aladdin’s treasure of museum quality art. Jr. collected Chinese ceramics, Nelson collected 20th century painting and sculpture, and JDR collected the money to make it all possible. Miro in the music room, Sergeant in the dining room, Picasso in the stairwell, and Asian pieces all around, there’s fabulous art everywhere you look. In the basement, Nelson’s underground gallery is lined with 20th century paintings, sculpture, and tapestries – his personal and much-loved collection.
During the house tour, the gardens and views beckon through the windows. Walled on four sides, the Inner Garden is a formal layout of fountains, sculpture, lawns and shrubs with a tea house, temple of Venus. The fourth wall is a line of interlocking trees framing the beautiful view of the Hudson River.
Situated on a bend of the river, just north of Tappan Zee, the house has vistas up and down the river and across to the Palisades. The best views are from the west terrace where the family would gather and dine if the weather was warm enough.
Joan peppered her presentation with insights about the family. Kykuit was a family home until 1979, part of a larger Rockefeller estate, where many family members still live. Descendants can still be glimpsed on the grounds enjoying their heritage.
Sunset Cove was Joan’s recommendation for lunch after our tour. Right on the water, just under the Tappan Zee bridge, and only 10 minutes from the visitor’s center, it satisfied our itch for more river views. Too breezy to dine on the dock, we could watch the bridge construction work boats come and go from our table by the window. A calamari salad for Marsha and fish tacos for me were tasty and satisfying. I wanted to stay and watch them build the bridge, but we had to get going.
We only scratched the surface at Kykuit and Sleepy Hollow. There are other tours that explore the house and gardens in more depth. Fall, as the leaves turn, is the most popular season. We’re hoping to get back soon.