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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Historic Hudson Valley

Winter Antiques Show Loan Exhibit: Historic Hudson Valley by Rob Schweitzer
by Rob Schweitzer

Founded as Sleepy Hollow Restorations in 1951 by noted philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), Tarrytown-based Historic Hudson Valley is a collection of National Historic Landmarks that serve as distinct, robust platforms for fulfilling the organization’s mission of celebrating the region’s significant history, architecture, and culture. The organization owns and operates five sites that are open to the public, and administers the tour program at Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stretching from lower to mid-Hudson Valley, Historic Hudson Valley preserves the following five sites:


Washington Irving’s Sunnyside
Fig. 1: The eclectic architecture of Sunnyside reflects Washington Irving’s time spent abroad. Image courtesy Historic Hudson Valley.
Fig. 1: The eclectic architecture of Sunnyside reflects Washington Irving’s time spent abroad. Image courtesy Historic Hudson Valley.

Purchased from Washington Irving’s descendants in 1945, Sunnyside is in Tarrytown on the border of the Village of Irvington, an eponym for the famous author (Fig. 1).

Sent to Tarrytown as a young boy to escape an epidemic of yellow fever in New York City, Irving (1783–1859) was so impressed with the Hudson Valley’s landscape and lore that he drew upon the region to write The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle years later while living in England. The first American to make his living from his pen, when he returned to the Hudson River Valley in the 1830s, it was as an internationally recognized writer, diplomat, world traveler, and celebrity.

In 1835, collaborating with his neighbor, artist George Harvey (1806–1876), Irving expanded a small cottage in stages, combining his sentimental interests in the architecture of colonial New York and buildings he knew in Scotland and Spain. The author fashioned for himself a three-dimensional autobiography. The spaces inside the architecturally eclectic structure — a riot of influences from his time abroad — contain Irving’s possessions and represent the writer’s many talents and passions. Set snug against the Hudson, Sunnyside was the area’s first celebrity home and significant tourist attraction even in its early days. Best remembered today as the creator of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s prolific output of both fiction and nonfiction made him a nineteenth-century literary ambassador between the new nation and the Old World and convinced skeptical Europeans that Americans were capable of high artistic achievement.

Despite protestations that he was a mere “humble man,” Irving relished the limelight, courting his celebrity and even encouraging it. He loved sitting on the piazza facing the Hudson, waving to sightseers passing by on boats, eager to catch a glimpse of the famed author. The house itself quickly became iconic, its image used on everything from cigar boxes to sheet music.

With Sunnyside, Irving started a trend. In 1840, he wrote to his sister: “My residence has attracted others; cottages and country seats have sprung up along the banks of the Tappan Sea [sic], and Tarrytown has become the metropolis of quite a fashionable vicinity.”


Philipsburg Manor
Fig. 2: The primary buildings at Philipsburg Manor include, from left, a mill, manor house, and barn. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.
Fig. 2: The primary buildings at Philipsburg Manor include, from left, a mill, manor house, and barn. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.

Once the seat of a powerful 57,000-acre commercial and trading empire, in 1937, Philipsburg Manor had fallen into receivership and could have been lost forever to development if, in 1940, John D. Rockefeller Jr. hadn’t made his first historic site purchase, acquiring the property with the intention of sharing it with the public (Fig. 2).

Visitors to the site learn its story from the perspective of the enslaved Africans who lived and worked there. Today, it is the only staffed living-history museum dedicated to educating people about slavery in the colonial North. More than three hundred years ago, Frederick Philipse, a successful businessman, politician, and head of one of the wealthiest New York families, whose fortune was made in part through the slave trade, began building Philipsburg Manor. Employing enslaved men and women was a vital part of the north’s twin economic engines of agriculture and commerce, and Frederick and his son Adolph shipped hundreds of Africans to English colonies in North America and the West Indies. At the time of Adolph Philipse’s death in 1750, more than eleven thousand enslaved people were in the colony of New York alone, and probate records show that Adolph owned twenty-three slaves who lived at Philipsburg Manor. Though slavery was common in all the colonies at the time, it was unusual for a family in New York to have more than one or two slaves.


By telling the story of slavery in the colonial north, Philipsburg Manor plays a crucial role in the public’s understanding of the history of race relations in this country. In the past, interpreters addressed the issue of how the Philipses’ slaves were treated by suggesting that taking care of one’s “investments” made good business sense. The modern interpretation dispels the misconceived but popular notion of Northern slavery as benign.


Union Church of Pocantico Hills
Fig. 3: Stained glass windows by European masters Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall transformed the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, where the Rockefeller family has long worshipped. Photography by Jaime Martorano.
Fig. 3: Stained glass windows by European masters Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall transformed the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, where the Rockefeller family has long worshipped. Photography by Jaime Martorano.

Built from local stone and dedicated in 1922, this unassuming country church has been the Rockefeller family’s longtime house of worship in Pocantico Hills, just up the road from the family seat of Kykuit (see final entry). Acquired by Historic Hudson Valley in 1984, the church has an active congregation and is also home to masterpieces by two of the twentieth century’s most prominent artists.

Painter and sculptor Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was unwell when he accepted a commission from the Rockefeller family in August 1954 to create a rose window in honor of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. On November 4 of that year came the news that Matisse had died, the fate of the rose window unknown. Belatedly, a letter arrived from Matisse, revealing the design and his pleasure with it. The stained glass memorial to Mrs. Rockefeller turned out to be his final work of art (Fig. 3).

Seven years later, David Rockefeller, youngest son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his wife, Peggy, approached Marc Chagall (1887–1985) about a second memorial window for the church, this time dedicated to the memory of John D. Rockefeller Jr. The resulting masterpiece, The Good Samaritan, became the first of an expanded Chagall commission for nine windows, which depict biblical scenes in an extraordinary display of technique and color. Far different from Matisse’s abstract window, they nonetheless deliberately echo his colors and approach and pay homage to his work (Fig. 4). “I really think that the Chagall windows added to the beautiful Matisse have made this simple and, in many respects, modest church one of the most beautiful sanctuaries that I know anywhere. In a sense, the simplicity of the background makes the windows stand out all the more,” David Rockefeller has said about the church.

The windows are the subject of Historic Hudson Valley’s first smartphone and tablet app, making its debut at the 2012 Winter Antiques Show.

Fig. 4: Stained glass windows by European masters Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall transformed the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, where the Rockefeller family has long worshipped. Photography by Jaime Martorano.
Fig. 4: Stained glass windows by European masters Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall transformed the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, where the Rockefeller family has long worshipped. Photography by Jaime Martorano.


Van Cortlandt Manor
Fig. 5: The eighteenth-century house at Van Cortlandt Manor reflects the wealth and prominence of the family. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.
Fig. 5: The eighteenth-century house at Van Cortlandt Manor reflects the wealth and prominence of the family. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.

For nearly two hundred years, Van Cortlandt Manor was the primary residence of prominent Dutch patriots, but like Philipsburg Manor, it too was threatened with development in the twentieth century. In 1953, John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased the property and, a year later, purchased additional contiguous land. After much restoration, it opened to the public as a museum in 1959.

For the original Van Cortlandts, the manor house (Fig. 5) showcased their possessions, symbolized their status, and served as the center of their social, political, and economic world. Later generations of Van Cortlandts preserved their ancestors’ documents, clothing, tools, and household furnishings, which now constitute one of the finest household collections on the East Coast. Few American houses dating from the eighteenth century contain any of their original contents. But the Van Cortlandt collection did not survive intact. A large portion of the manor house contents were auctioned during the early 1940s. A decade later, as part of the property’s initial restoration, curatorial sleuths tracked down and acquired many original furnishings. As a result, visitors can envision the daily lives of the Van Cortlandt family and their hired help, as well as the tenant farmers and enslaved and free Africans who labored on the estate during the New Nation period of 1780–1820.

The 175-acre property is at the confluence of the Croton and Hudson Rivers, in the fittingly named Village of Croton-on-Hudson. In addition to the manor house, there is a reconstructed tenant house and a restored ferry house that served as an inn and tavern. In the 1950s, several long-vanished outbuildings, including a manor office, privies, ice house, and smoke house, were identified from their archaeological remains and reconstructed. Although the property is much smaller than its original 2,500 acres, Van Cortlandt Manor preserves the essential elements of the original development and illustrates the influence of the natural setting on the layout of early colonial sites.


Montgomery Place
Fig. 6: The mansion at Montgomery Place includes elements designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.
Fig. 6: The mansion at Montgomery Place includes elements designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. Photography by Bryan Haeffele.

Montgomery Place is a perfect reflection of nearly two hundred years of continuous family stewardship, with an abundant collection of original furnishings, books, portraits, and buildings. The 375-acre property features a landscape influenced by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852) and a mansion (Fig. 6) with elements designed by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892). Constituting a large portion of the tiny hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson in the mid-Hudson Valley, it is an amazingly intact example of Hudson Valley estate life.

As she approached her sixtieth year, Janet Livingston Montgomery decided to build a new, stylish Federal house on land she purchased in 1802. Here she established a country estate with a productive farm and commercial nursery.

When her sister-in-law Louise Livingston and niece Cora Livingston Barton inherited the property, they employed the leading architect of the day, Alexander Jackson Davis, to design additions to each side of the structure, converting the original, relatively austere Federal house into a classical revival mansion.

With work completed on the house, attention turned to the landscape. Between 1845 and 1860, the two women created “pleasure grounds” much praised by Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s first professional landscape architect. Later descendants added terraced landscaping, a rough (or “wild”) garden with an artificial stream and woodland plants, and a hedged ellipse with a pool for aquatic plants.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Historic Hudson Valley recently created American Arcadia at Montgomery Place, an ambitious effort to examine the changing relationship between Americans, landscape, and nature over time, using its enormous body of documents and artifacts for this new interpretation. The first-person voices of the women who shaped the estate can be heard clearly in 150 years worth of their correspondence, contracts, architectural and garden design sketches, and accounts.


Kykuit
Fig. 7: Kykuit was home to four generations of Rockefellers. It is now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Historic Hudson Valley provides tours. Photography by Mike Hales.
Fig. 7: Kykuit was home to four generations of Rockefellers. It is now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Historic Hudson Valley provides tours. Photography by Mike Hales.

Historic Hudson Valley also provides public tours of Kykuit (Fig. 7), home to four generations of Rockefellers. Kykuit is an exquisite six-story hilltop house and expansive estate built in 1909. Its dramatic architecture and carefully designed outdoor spaces embody an era that embraced the Beaux-Arts style. Kykuit, which means “lookout” in Dutch, was commissioned by Standard Oil founder and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) and designed by the leading country-house architects of the day, William Adams Delano (1874–1960) and Charles Holmes Aldrich (1850–1929).

Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), hired architect William Welles Bosworth (1868–1966) to plan the formal gardens. For Kykuit, Bosworth took as his model the Italian approach to gardens, which he termed “the origin of all subsequent garden tradition.”

With commanding views of the Hudson and the Palisades mountains beyond, Kykuit includes a vast collection of world-class decorative arts and classical sculpture, which largely reflect the tastes of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who lived at Kykuit after the death of his parents. But the property also has an impressive collection of modern art, thanks to his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and their son Nelson A. Rockefeller, governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and vice president under Gerald Ford.

Nelson, his wife, and their children were the third and fourth generations of Rockefellers to live at Kykuit. An avid modern art enthusiast like his mother, Nelson augmented Kykuit’s original collection with works by Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Gaston Lachaise, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Constantin Brancusi, Aristide Maillo, and Andy Warhol. After his death in 1979, the estate became the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and was opened to the public for tours in 1994.


Historic Hudson Valley is the loan exhibit for the 58th Annual Winter Antiques Show in New York City, from January 20–29, 2012. For information about the exhibit and show visit www.winterantiquesshow.com. For information about Historic Hudson Valley call 914.631.8200 or visit www.hudsonvalley.org.


Rob Schweitzer is director of public relations, Historic Hudson Valley, Pocantico Hills, New York. All images courtesy, Historic Hudson Valley.

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