Rockefeller estate in the country is open for tours Home on the Hudson

September 03, 1995|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,Knight-Ridder News Service

POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — *TC Pocantico Hills, N.Y. -- In the entryway of Kykuit, the incredible Hudson River estate of the Rockefellers, stand three priceless Chinese porcelain figures dating to the seventh-century T'ang dynasty.

The figures are encased in Plexiglas. The Plexiglas, though, is not there to protect the objects from tourists; it was put up years ago by Nelson Rockefeller to protect them from his kids.

These are the same children who would sometimes sit around an inlaid gaming table in the drawing room used by their great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and play pickup sticks. If one of the sticks fell off the table, it would land softly on an invaluable 17th-century Turkish rug.

The drawing room is across from the office used by successive Rockefellers -- John D. Sr., John D. Jr., and Nelson. It is where Junior could kick off his shoes and relax and where Nelson would watch football on the color television hidden behind a bookcase.

Kykuit, you see, was not built by one of the world's richest families simply to be a showcase. Unlike the extravagant turn-of-the-century Vanderbilt country estate up the river in Hyde Park, it was not meant to be used for a few weeks a year during the entertaining season.

Kykuit -- a Dutch word meaning "lookout" that rhymes with "high cut" -- was built as a home. And home it has been to four generations of Rockefellers.

A year ago, Kykuit, which today includes 87 acres, was opened to the public for the first time. The ticket price is quite high: $18. But if you consider that you're getting an art museum, architectural showcase, landscape and sculpture-garden tour, and antique coach and automobile museum rolled into one, the cost doesn't seem too bad.

The tour covers all eight rooms of the first floor, the basement art gallery (which contains everything from Picasso to Warhol), the coach house, and the expansive gardens, dotted with works from the world's best-known sculptors (Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, to name three).

The upstairs, however, is off limits; it's still used by guests of the Rockefellers. Likewise, the playhouse, with its gym, tennis courts and pool, and nearby nine-hole golf course, continues to be used by the family. Happy Rockefeller, Nelson's widow, lives on the adjoining grounds.

But don't expect to simply drop in on them. Virtually every ticket for Kykuit has been sold through the end of October, when the tours end for the year.

In addition to Kykuit, a trip to this village and next-door Tarrytown affords an opportunity for the visitor to see how the 18th- and 19th-century landed gentry lived. Some of the finest Hudson River Valley estates and manors are within a few minutes of each other.

In Tarrytown, there's Sunnyside, the homestead of Washington Irving, who made this area famous with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Practically next door is Lyndhurst, an honest-to-goodness castle. few miles away, off U.S. Route 9 in North Tarrytown, is Philipsburg Manor, a 17th-century milling and trading complex. And a few miles past that, still on U.S. Route 9, in Croton-on-Hudson, is Van Cortlandt manor, home of the Van Cortlandts from the early 1700s to 1945.

However, let's first deal with the Rockefellers.

A country escape

Kykuit sits on a 500-foot rise above the Hudson River. The land was bought by John D. Sr. in 1893 and was planned as a country escape. The original 400-acre parcel -- which eventually grew to 2,000 acres -- included a dwelling that the family used until it burned in 1902.

That year John D. Jr. asked architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, known for their grandiose country mansions, to draw up plans befitting a man of John D. Sr.'s wealth and stature. The senior Rockefeller, however, didn't want anything so ostentatious and asked another architect, Dunham Wheeler, for some preliminary sketches. The result was a compromise: Delano and Aldrich got the job, but had to use the modest floor plan of Wheeler.

The elder Rockefeller eventually turned over the construction of Kykuit to his son, then in his late 20s, almost as a test to see how the younger Rockefeller could handle himself. The results were mixed. When John D. Sr. and his wife moved in, in October 1908, they complained that the guest bedrooms on the third floor were too small. They were also upset about the noise and smoke from the kitchen, which was under their bedroom. So father and son set about to completely redesign the home, a task completed between 1911 and 1913.

But while the exterior is completely different, and the third and fourth floors altered, the ground floor is changed very little from the original.

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