Variety In The Valley

An exploration of the Hudson Valley reveals a rich history and surprising contrasts

New York

Cover Story

April 27, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

In the abbreviated argot of Manhattan real estate ads, I have a "Riv Vu." Meaning that from my Upper West Side apartment, I can see the Hudson River.

This far south, the Hudson's majesty is nearly overshadowed by skyscrapers, and must also defer to the Atlantic Ocean, whose tides sweep upriver for miles each day. However, the view always entices and makes me pensive.

Sure, the Mississippi River may be longer, and the Colorado more scenic, but only the Hudson meanders through a valley haunted by the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller, Benedict Arnold, Edgar Allan Poe and even the Buddha Bodhisattva.

Discovered by an Italian sailor named Giovanni da Verrazano, the river is named for Henry Hudson, a British explorer of the Dutch East India Company who in 1609 arrived on the North American coast while trying to find a passage to the Far East.

After dallying in the Chesapeake Bay, he turned north and sailed his ship, the Half Moon, through New York harbor and north to what is now Albany.

The winterlong journey was hard, so much so that the crew mutinied and set Hudson adrift in a dinghy. He was never seen again.

Poor Henry, the Hudson's first ghost. I thought of him recently while gazing yet again at my watery back yard and decided that some exploration of the manor houses, museums, monasteries, restaurants and organic farms that fill his namesake valley was long overdue.

So, on a brilliantly clear day, when winter and spring were doing battle, and warmer temperatures were for the moment winning, I drove up the Henry Hudson Parkway and past the George Washington Bridge. The jagged, rocky cliffs called the Palisades rose up behind me; the city and my life there quickly disappeared from view.

To the manor born

I soon arrived at Tarrytown, a village Washington Irving made famous with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and where he built his famous home, Sunnyside. Irving once wrote, "I thank God I was born on the banks of the Hudson!"

His statement reflects the exuberance of the Romantic Movement, which flourished in the 19th century's early decades. The Romantics (Wordsworth, chief among them) found nature to be their chief source of inspiration, and celebrated it in poetry and prose.

Irving is not much read today, despite having created enduring characters such as Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, giving a name to New York City's basketball team, the Knicks ("Dietrich Knickerbocker" was Irving's first pen name), and spawning a Johnny Depp movie: Tim Burton directed Sleepy Hollow in 1999.

In his day, however, Irving was the first American writer to gain international fame and fortune. He wrote tales celebrating the Dutch residents of early New York, and distinctive designs from this time period -- gabled roofs, weathervanes and irregular window sizing -- are evident at Sunnyside.

Perched above the Hudson River, this house's architecture merges with the landscape in a way that was considered altogether new. Hailed as the ultimate manifestation of the "romantic spirit" in America, illustrations of Sunnyside appeared in prints, magazines and newspapers, and it was analyzed as carefully as one of Martha Stewart's residences might be today. It's a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

Not that Irving's is the only noteworthy home here. As steamship travel became more efficient -- Robert Fulton launched the first financially successful steamboat on the Hudson in 1807 -- and especially after the New York Central Railroad was built along the river's banks four decades later, the Hudson Valley became an increasingly desirable place for wealthy New Yorkers to build country estates. Most are now museums open to the public.

There's Kykuit, a Dutch word meaning "lookout," which John D. Rockefeller built on an exposed hilltop 500 feet above sea level; it became home to four generations of his family. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, erected Locust Grove. Clermont was home to Robert R. Livingston, who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Hyde Park was built by the Vanderbilts. Olana is the masterpiece of Frederic Edwin Church, one of the foremost artists of the Hudson River School of painting.

All these mansions are constructed on the Hudson's Eastern Shore, or the "sunny side." I toured several of these pleasant spots before crossing over to the Hudson's darker, more forbidding western shores, en route to West Point Academy.

Go, Army!

Arriving after dusk, I found searchlights trained on me. Machine-gun toting guards slowly scrutinized my driver's license, then the interior of my car, trunk, and under the front hood. Operatives from Al Qaida will have a difficult time sneaking into America's first military school.

The Thayer Hotel, on West Point's campus, is named for Sylvanus Thayer who, starting in 1817, instituted a strict educational training and code of conduct for cadets, most of which is still in force today. (An early casualty of this new curriculum was Poe, who lasted only six months of his first, or "plebe," year in 1830.)

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