Whether you are a tourist or a local, it’s always nice to plot an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the founder of Standard Oil and once the richest man in America, must have felt the same way.
After amassing his fortunes in Cleveland, the magnate acquired a brownstone in Manhattan in 1884 so his family could accompany him on lengthy and frequent business trips to New York City. Before long, like many wealthy New Yorkers had been doing since Colonial times (John Jay and Washington Irving, among them), Rockefeller purchased land to build a “country house” in Westchester County, only 25 miles from the city. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his then 18-year-old son and namesake, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., chose the perfect site for its construction in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills.
Named Kykuit (which means “lookout” or “high point,” in Dutch), the house occupies a commanding bluff that offers unparalleled views of the majestic Hudson River at one of its widest points, and the dramatic cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades on the opposite side of the river. Over the years, the family gradually acquired more than 3000 acres of adjacent parkland, and developed trails and roads on the property.
Four generations of Rockefellers have left their mark not only on this house, completed in 1913, but more widely — through their remarkable contributions in the fields of business, government, conservation, the arts and philanthropy. The family of Nelson A. Rockefeller, a four-term governor of New York State and Vice President under Gerald Ford, was the third-generation Rockefeller to have lived in the home.
After his death, the family turned Kykuit over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1992 — opening its doors to the public, literally and figuratively. Working in partnership with the National Trust, the non-profit Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) operates on-site tours.
Visitors can only enter the gated estate as part of a guided tour, arranged in advance. After checking in at the Visitors Center at Philipsburg Manor in nearby Sleepy Hollow, a 10-minute shuttle bus ride along a scenic road drops guests off at the impressive Oceanus Fountain that dominates the forecourt to the Georgian-style mansion. The marble figures on the granite fountain were sculpted to resemble Renaissance-style ones seen at the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
Once inside, guides reminded us that John D. Rockefeller, Sr. was unpretentious for a man of his means. He didn’t drink or dance, and was more interested in creating a comfortable home than a showplace. So unlike other mansions of the same era, this 40-room, fieldstone house with an Indiana limestone façade doesn’t boast a large ballroom or gracious center staircase. Instead, its cozy rooms are relatively modest in size.
A 2007 article in the New York Times excerpted from “The House the Rockefellers Built,” by Robert F. Dalzell Lee Baldwin Dalzell, noted:
“The house’s mix of idiosyncrasy and restraint stands in welcome contrast to the self-important hauteur of the average pile of stone in Newport.”
There are constant reminders throughout the visit that real families lived in this house. The entertainment room, the largest room on the main floor, houses a few settees and a grand piano. It served as a music room and gathering place for the family during a bygone era when kids weren’t engrossed in televisions and computers. Above this “family room,” an oculus ceiling opens to a wraparound balcony with doors to the upstairs bedrooms.
Our group of visitors was then led though a small library; a women’s conversation room across the foyer; a gracious sitting area; a formal dining room with Chippendale furniture; and a simple upstairs kitchen (with a service elevator) and butler’s pantry. Our eyes were drawn to the tasteful details throughout: sculptures, paintings, rugs, centuries old fine china in the butler’s pantry, Chinese porcelains under Plexiglas, European ceramics and elegant plasterwork that mimics fabric designs on the upholstered furniture.
Art and beauty pervade Kykuit, inside and out. Most impressive is the modern art gallery on the lower level, which once housed a bowling alley. Collected and curated by Nelson A. Rockefeller, the collection showcases the work of 20th century artists and sculptors including Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and David Smith. A series of life-size woven tapestries on the walls, commissioned by Rockefeller, portray many of Picasso’s most recognizable paintings.
The characterization of Kykuit as an “unpretentious” abode wore a bit thin as we walked along stone paths through the sprawling lawns and formal landscaped gardens. Among the abundance of flowering plants and varied deciduous trees, we caught glimpses of terraces, pools, grottos, elaborate wrought-iron gates, fountains and an Asian teahouse. There was also a private nine-hole golf course where John D. Rockefeller, Sr. is said to have played every day until he died at the age of 97. Inside the house, we entered the locker and shower rooms he used after playing.
That the entire house appears enveloped in a park-like setting is not surprising. Rockefeller initially hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (famous for co-designing Central Park in NYC) to design the grounds, although he later fired him and took up the job himself. Sculptures are strategically placed on patios and various spots on the lawn in just the right position to capture the light at different times of the day.
We ended our 2¼-hour visit with a stop at the Coach Barn, where horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars actually used by the family are on display, all in meticulous conditions. This same structure houses the offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a conference space.
It’s been said that old houses bear witness to history. As one of the best-preserved houses in the Hudson Valley, a visit to Kykuit not only offers visitors lessons in art, architecture and history but also a reminder of the seminal role of the Rockefellers as philanthropists in health, conservation and higher education.
IF YOU GO
Open May – November; Timed tours can be reserved in advance and purchased online; Check the website for hours, tours and transportation options; No photography allowed inside the house
Other nearby attractions that represent significant contributions to Westchester County by the Rockefellers include:
The Rockefellers donated the money and land for this small country church that has one stained glass window by Henri Matisse and nine by Marc Chagall
In memory of farmer and farmland preservationist Peggy Rockefeller, the family donated this 80-acre property and restored the barns that house this self-sustaining farm and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, whose menu emphasizes fresh, sustainable foods from small farms in the Hudson Valley
This state park encompasses 1,400 acres of unspoiled public parklands donated by the Rockefellers
For additional information: Visit Westchester County Tourism.