Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Look At An Oil Baron's Lookout

Another touristy thing we did while in New York last week was our visit to Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate. Initially built for John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, but also used by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Nelson A. Rockefeller, a one time Vice President and long time New York Governor. The name Kykuit comes from the Dutch word for "lookout" and is pronounced "Ki-Cut" like "high cut". The home sits atop a piece of property, the highest in the area, which overlooks the Hudson River and The Palisades Bluffs.

The tour begins at Philipsburg Manor where you board a bus for the short ride to Kykuit. No photos are allowed inside the house, but there is plenty to photograph on the grounds. When you first drive up to the home with its stone walls and wrought iron gates, it's not known what lies beyond them; there are no signs and you can't see anything from the outside.

As you wind up the main drive, an enormous Tudor-style mansion off to the right comes into view. This is the "Playhouse" and contains an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a gym and a bowling alley; at three times the size of the main house, it's quite an impressive building. It was not included in the tour, but I read that it is used twice a year for family reunions and was often used as a fun gathering place for most of the family.

Nearing the front drive, the Oceanus Fountain sits off to the left. It's really beautiful in person and you don't see how perfect the setting is until you stand at the front door of the home and look directly down the drive. Only then do you see how it is framed by the trees on either side, a detail that was specifically designed to create that very effect.

Kykuit has approximately 40,000 square feet of living space, including the art gallery in the lower level. This seems like a cottage when compared to the 175,000 square foot Biltmore Estate that George Washington Vanderbilt II built in Asheville, North Carolina, making it the largest private residence in the United States.

I make the comparison because they are homes belonging to two of the wealthiest men of their time; the Vanderbilts made their money in the railroad, the Rockefellers from oil. We went to see the Biltmore in February 2007 and were in awe of its size and beauty, loving every minute of our tour and deciding right then and there to go back for a second visit.

But on our first visit to Kykuit, we learned that J.D. Rockefeller, Sr. did not like ostentation, so although architecturally beautiful with fabulous gardens, the size of the home itself was within reason. He wanted a liveable mansion. Of course, it's still about 35,000 to 38,000 square feet bigger than the homes of most of the people I know!

The interior decor of the house was beautiful with many pieces of art displayed in ways many people might not consider; a piece of Chinese porcelain placed next to an antique clock, a modern painting gracing a formal living room, a mock bookcase hiding a television, a John Singer Sargent portrait hanging above a Chinese ceramic from the T'ang Dynasty.

According to our tour guide, Nelson A. Rockefeller was responsible for the majority of art in the home. His wife Happy had a strong hand in the art also and the gallery they created in the basement of Kykuit is both unusual and suprising in that the pieces that sit below such a formal home are so modern. The gallery houses sculptures, paintings, drawings and tapestries by the likes of Alexander Calder, Toulouse-Latrec, Chagall, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso. My favorite tapestry, copied from a Picasso painting and woven in silk by Madame J. de la Baume Durrback of France, is Girl with a Mandolin.

The art though, was not just confined to the home, the gardens were just as magnificent, created by William Welles Bosworth and considered his best work in the United States. They were alive with beauty.
The sculptures lined the paths to smaller structures on the property such as this stone tea house at the east end of the inner garden.

There are over ninety pieces of outdoor sculpture in all sizes and materials, from stone and steel to bronze and plastic, represented by fifty-five artists. Some of the pieces were so large they were brought in and placed by helicopter.

There are many locations on the property that we didn't get to tour, such at the Japanese Tea House, and the Temple of Venus, but we did get to tour the Coach Barn, where a collection of automobiles are housed and where some the finest examples of horse drawn carriages can be seen. There is even a sleigh for winter, complete with a fur throw.Kykuit was probably the highlight of our Westchester County visit, as the weather was beautiful (which of course you all know means, "not hot") and the opportunity to take the tour, a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Initially when we called to make reservations, all of the tours times that we needed were sold out, but while roaming the gift shop at Philipsburg Manor, we got lucky when Ed double-checked and found that they had availability on a morning tour that left in thirty minutes. We jumped at getting the tickets and wound up with a very small group (seven people) on our tour bus.

If we were to do it again, we would definitely include the full tour of the gardens and the second level of the house. We took what was available and only wished we had more time for photographs. It's truly amazing what wealth can create; I read that a long standing witticism of the estate goes, "It's what God would have built, if only He had the money."

The good thing is, my cousin lives fifteen minutes away and the opportunity to go again will always be there. If you have a chance, make time to see this spectacular display if you ever find yourself in Westchester, it's well worth it.

In addition, I recently purchased The House the Rockefellers Built: A Tale of Money, Taste, and Power in Twentieth-Century America. If you can't get there, maybe you can read about it. And if you're interested in the book, let me know - I'll pass it on once I'm done reading it. And no, girls, it's not on the Kindle yet.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Spring In The Maritimes
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4 YEARS AGO: Sorry, no post from 5/26/05


Gil said...

Every time I see one of these places including the great estates with their mansions on Long Island, the mansions of Newport, RI, the mansions along the Pacific, etc all that runs through my head is - "How can one person or family accumulate so much wealth".

Stace said...

Clearly, J.D. and I would have disagreed about what ostentatious means. LOL.

Too bad about the Kindle thing. I could add the book to my non-fiction-to-do list.

By the way, I like your new picture at the "About Me" on the sidebar. Cute.

sheila said...

Beautiful! Love shit like this! My BIL once bought me a bottle of wine from the Biltmore Estate in NC. Very tasty.

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