When I was a child the hot toy was a Barbie Dream House. Yes, Barbie was living the high life and all little girls wanted to pretend they were too. At that time I didn't know real dream houses existed but more and more I am getting to visit some during my travels. For the first time I got to visit a real life dream house that belonged to the Rockefeller family; Kykuit.
Kykuit is located in Tarrytown right near Sleepy Hollow. In that area there are no fewer than five such historic and beautiful homes that you can visit. After Sunnyside, Kykuit was next on my list.
Kykuit was first completed in 1908 but due to extensive engineering problems more work ensued finally ending in 1913. John D. Rockefeller Sr., his wife Cettie, and their children would be the first owners but the home would go on to house four future generations.
Unfortunately, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Sr. died just a year after moving in but John Sr. would stay live here until his death in 1937.
In order to visit Kykuit you must go to the visitor’s center and park your car. You can purchase tickets here as well but I recommend coming with tickets in hand. Tickets can be purchased online via the Historic Hudson Valley Organization for specified days and times. This is the best way to ensure you aren't traveling all that way for nothing.
From the visitor’s center you board a shuttle bus based on your tour time (and thus type) and take an approximately eight minute drive to the estate.
The word Kykuit is Dutch for “lookout”, which is exactly what you can do from this vantage point. You can see as far to the Hudson River in one direction as you can the Sprain Brook Parkway in the other. As the shuttle drives you up the enormous and windy road to the main house you begin to understand why they didn't want you doing this yourself.
On this drive you will also get a glimpse of the Playhouse a building that remains off limits to tours as is still owned by the family. There are indoor and outdoor pools, game rooms, tennis courts, bowling alleys, just about any activity you want to participate in can be found there if you have the right last name.
The “home” is a six story stone structure that has forty rooms, twenty bedrooms, a carriage house, beautiful gardens, and countless works of art. The main house sits on two hundred and fifty acres in the center of the larger thirty-four hundred acre compound.
I took the Classic Tour which I mildly regretted later because it did not include the bedrooms. However this tour was over two and a half hours long and by the end of it I can't imagine there was still so much more to be seen. For the record that included all of the bedrooms on the second floor and apparently a below ground level of artwork and what else, more fountains.
The most important fact I can tell you about Kykuit is that this was a summer home only. The elder Rockefellers wanted a summer home less opulent than the summer cottages the Vanderbilts had in Newport (http://bit.ly/2vTNnud). By large margins they succeeded. As the modern art was added and even gifts from heads of state like the sculptures from the Tang Dynasty that surround the interior entrance, this mostly feels homey. Sure the furniture is not from IKEA but if you steer clear of the China Room the house just seems like the nicest one on the block. You know if they didn't live on a compound or had their basement converted into an art gallery that displays works by the likes of Picasso.
But my favorite parts of the home weren't inside. Sure they were gorgeous and I wouldn't have minded spending the weekend. But my favorite parts were all outdoors save for the office. As a writer I have a thing for offices. I like to see where people achieved great things in their lives. I am always modifying the fantasy office I dream of in my mind. The office at Kykuit was modified last in the 1960s and had an old television set hidden behind fake books. The last man behind the desk was former Governor (1959–1973) and forty-first Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. Despite all of that it was still a room used by the family where they watched the news of the day.
Once we stepped outside for the first time my appreciation of this estate went up a bazillion points. The beauty of the land and the art renders you speechless. No matter which way you looked there was a sight to be had. There had been two pools, one for the adults and the other for children, but they had to be drained when the house opened to the public. One former pool, now a trickle of a small pond, led to the Teahouse. When Nelson lived here he converted it to a soda fountain where all the children and their friends could get cool treats.
Towards the back upper part of the estate there was a mighty statute of the Greek God Aphrodite. She was my favorite as I am not much of a modern art lover.
The grounds seem to go on forever. I guess I have never been on over three thousand acres of land before. Nor I have been on an estate where the art was so large and heavy it had to be helicoptered in.
As we walked up and down and all around we finally made our way to our final stop in the lower level. That is where there are at least four separate art galleries. I could not believe it. It was as if I had stepped into a museum when I wasn't looking. This was the only part that did not feel like a family lived here at any time. I didn't care for the art or the fact that it was displayed this way. However I don't think they had any other way to showcase and appreciate it. I know Barbra Streisand has converted the lower level of her home into shops to display her collections of dolls. I suppose these galleries are two birds of a feather.
When we boarded the shuttle bus to return to the visitor’s center we all got a surprise when the ride ended mid-way down the drive. It turns out we were making another stop. This time we were seeing the former carriage house and garage.
Of course this is only what a garage looks like if you lived at a place like Kykuit. The building was technically two buildings that were connected by a hallway and had ina downstairs and upstairs both of which have been converted from servant quarters to conference and hotel rooms used by anyone who rents that space.
While the horses are long gone the amazing spaces where they stayed and were cared for remain, and they are gorgeous. We saw the bridles and saddles that all had JDR engraved on them. There were numerous coaches that had been used by many members of the family.
On the opposite side the cars were kept. But upon closer inspection I thought it resembled an automobile museum, similar to the one I saw at Graceland (http://bit.ly/2utmuBl). There were too many to count but all in immaculate condition.
I enjoyed seeing the fountain from where the horses used to drink as well as the indoor fuel pump. It was probably the only place at Kykuit where you were watching elements of the past change into future versions of themselves. It must have been something to have lived it.
After John D. Rockefeller Sr. died the house was passed down to his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
After John Jr.’s death the house belonged to his son Nelson, his second wife “Happy” and their family. Nelson and his family would spend the most time in the house, living there practically year round.
When Nelson died, as per his will, the house passed to the Historic Hudson Valley Organization, an institution John Jr. had helped to bring about.
However as magnificent and progressive (they had central vacuum) the home was, it did not have air conditioning. Thus extreme heat would be too uncomfortable to bear. However Nelson stayed as long into summer and into winter as weather permitted. He had a true love with this home. On the day of my visit the breeze was so lovely its hard to imagine a day when staying here wouldn't have been picture perfect.
During John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s life he was the wealthiest man in the country. In fact he was our country’s first billionaire. Despite that enormous wealth he didn't focus solely on his own interests, as I would have been tempted too. He established The Rockefeller Foundation and his sons created the Rockefeller Brothers Fund of which both are still in existence. The foundations focus on healthcare, education, children, climate change, and all other important societal issues.
John Jr.’s wife was the woman who brought the love of art to Kykuit, after all it was she who created the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC in 1929. I was just there a couple of months ago (http://bit.ly/2hUs0oI). But my visit to Kykuit taught me something I didn't already know about MOMA. The land the museum stands on was donated and had been formerly occupied by the family. Today there is a plaque where the apartments owned by the Rockefeller’s once stood, next door to the museum.
Nelson Rockefeller was not only governor he also served as an administrator at another of his family’s establishments; Rockefeller Center.
Another spot where you can find the Rockefeller name is at Rockefeller Look Out Point off the Palisades Parkway in New York State. If you stop and park the views of NYC are breathtaking. It seems the Rockefellers all had an appreciation for beautiful landscapes.
Up until his death this past March, the last living grandchild of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., David, maintained a home on the property of Kykuit as well as in Seal Harbor, Maine where the family has a history of spending their summers. After his death, David’s will granted one thousand acres of that property for conservation and preservation.
I spend most of this blog focused on the family and not just the home because I learned so much more about them on this tour. Spending so much time in a place that they loved and lived for so many generations tells you a lot about people.
I truly believe that the Rockefeller family did and continues to do much to deserve admiration from the public due to the institutions they created, the foundations they continue to support, and the lives they dedicated to public service.
Kykuit shows us the personal side of this famous family. Of course I am not the only one that feels this way. Fodor’s rated Kykuit number three out of ten best estate tours in the United States. Among the others on the list were George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, who coincidentally also on my list as well.
Now if anyone ask me “who do you think you are, a Rockefeller?” I can say with absolute certainly that I wish I was.
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