History, wealth on the Hudson Estates: Roosevelt and Vanderbilt mansions educate and delight visitors, and they're just three miles apart in New York state.

March 30, 1997|By Linda Perney | Linda Perney,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

From the road, the house doesn't look particularly imposing. Surrounded by low walls, the grounds, planted with a half-million trees, slope down to the river. At the end of a long drive sits a comfortable-looking stone-and-stucco building, its portico balanced by tiers of green-shuttered windows.

On Jan. 30, 1882, Franklin Roosevelt was born here in Hyde Park, N.Y., along the Hudson River, and the house is suffused with his personality. In the large, dim sitting room is the table where he worked at his stamp collection. In the dining room he tallied returns, election after election. In the bedroom, thrown casually across a chair, is the leash for his dog, Fala.

The museum, a remarkable collection of Rooseveltiana, is just across the lawn. Since the president and his mother were pack rats, the displays include pieces of legitimate history such as White House memos and handwritten notes, but also oddities like FDR's cradle and the kilt he wore as a child. In addition, there is the hand-controlled Ford in which he used to tool around the estate, as well as campaign memorabilia ("Hoover pressed the button/Mellon rang the bell/Wall Street sent the signal/and the country went to hell," reads one plaque).

Elephants and donkeys

Opposite the entrance is his White House desk, its top crowded with the bits and pieces of a lifetime in politics: a collection of china elephants and donkeys, miniature ships and Roosevelt's cigarettes and holder. Elsewhere, interactive displays encourage a visitor to become a temporary commander in chief. Push a button, and presidential adviser Harry Hopkins hands over the security files available to the president in 1940. You make the decision for war or peace.

Although the museum is partly devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt, the place to find the first lady is Val-Kill, the cottage her husband built for her. Since her mother-in-law disapproved of Eleanor's increasing political activism -- as well as her feminist friends -- she entertained here, at picnics by the pool (where she finally mastered her fear of water and learned to swim) and simple dinners at which the cocktail "hour" was limited to a mere five minutes.

Another world

North of the Roosevelt place on Route 9 is the Vanderbilt Mansion. Although the houses are only three miles from each other, their styles are worlds apart. This one is not as elaborate as that other family-owned palace, Newport's Breakers, but Frederick Vanderbilt's beaux-arts house -- which cost 2 million turn-of-the-century dollars to build -- might just suit a Trump.

The landscape is glorious. Set on 200 acres and surrounded by enormous pine trees, the house sits on a rise just above the Hudson, with a terrace overlooking the river. When Vanderbilt lived here, there were five greenhouses; it took 12 men to care for the gardens alone.

Inside the main house is a succession of rooms, one more grandiose than the next. The formal dining room has an intricately carved Renaissance mantelpiece, about an acre of red damask, a coffered ceiling and a Persian rug the size of a football field. The gold room, another monument to robber-baron opulence, was an attempt to reproduce 18th-century France; its delicate ceiling, painted over in 1926, was restored by the United States Park Service in the early 1960s.

Both mansions are National Historic Sites, run by the U.S. Park Service, 914-229-9115.

Roosevelt home and museum, Albany Post Road; admission for home, museum, and library: adults, $5, seniors, $4; children under 16, free.

Vanderbilt Mansion admission: adults, $2; children under 16, free.

If you go...

Getting there: Take Henry Hudson Parkway to Taconic Parkway. Exit at N.Y. Route 55 west (Poughkeepsie); follow 55 to U.S. 9 north. Alternate route: Amtrak to Rhinecliff ($36 round trip); call a cab to take you to Roosevelt House (Rhinebeck taxi: 914- 876-2010; $23). Beginning in May, Gray Line will offer tours of both mansions. (Adults, $35; children, $17.50; 212-397-2600).

Where to stay: To make a weekend of it, you can stay in Rhinebeck, at the Beekman Arms. Antique- filled rooms in the main building are a little small, but they are cheaper than those at the hotel's Delameter, Germond or Carriage houses (on U.S. 9; 914-876-7077; $95-$150). In nearby Poughkeepsie, the Inn at the Falls is a pretty hotel with views over Wappinger Creek (50 Red Oaks Mill Road; 914-462-5770; $120-$130). There is also Poughkeepsie's Holiday Inn Express (341 South Road; 914-473-1151; $79).

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