With fall sweeping in, our thoughts turn to day trips and weekends upstate. One especially worthy destination is the Rockefeller estate at Kykuit, which is less than an hour from Manhattan, near Tarrytown.
The word Kykuit comes from the Dutch, meaning "lookout," and the stone mansion that John D. Rockefeller Sr. built on the site in the early 1900s, 500 feet above the village of Sleepy Hollow, is more remarkable for the exquisiteness of its location and the balance of its design than for its size. At 36,000 square feet, it would appear modest next to the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore House (179,000) or Hearst’s San Simeon (60,000), which reflects the lifestyle of its original owner, who was far from ostentatious despite his spectacular wealth as the founder of Standard Oil.
The mansion and its creatively landscaped lawns and gardens, overlooking the Hudson River, served as the home to four generations of Rockefellers, culminating with Nelson, the New York governor and vice president, and his wife and children. The governor’s avid interest in contemporary painting and sculpture (partly passed down from his mother Abby, co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art) gave rise to one of the estate’s abiding charms—the stunning collection of art in a wide variety of styles that manages to fit in with the classical architecture of the house.
In addition to showing the Rockefeller offices and living areas, and providing a sense of daily life on the estate, several of the available tours highlight the choice, placement and significance of the art both inside and outside the home, which includes sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi and Aristede Maillol, among many others. Most of the tours also visit Nelson Rockefeller’s own personal creation: the basement gallery. Here are scores of fascinating works from the mid-20th century, including tapestry recreations of some of Pablo Picasso’s most beloved paintings, woven under the supervision of Picasso himself. Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Andy Warhol and many other artists are represented as well.
Among the out-buildings on the grounds is the former coach barn. Now hosting gatherings of global policy makers and conferees, the building still has space to showcase some of the conveyances the Rockefeller family used through six-plus decades living at Kykuit. From a variety of horse-drawn carriages (which Rockefeller Sr. loved to race) to Model T’s, to a fishtailed Cadillac and a limousine Nelson Rockefeller used as governor, it's an evocative vehicular history of a family, and a nation.
Tours to Kykuit range from one and a half to three hours, and take place through November 8, before resuming again next year. See hudsonvalley.org for tickets and driving directions. Cabs can also take you from the Metro-North Railroad station at Tarrytown to the Visitor Center at Philipsburg Manor, where the tours originate.