The Facade of Kykuit
On an uncharacteristically warm Day in May, I stood in the parking lot of Philipsburg Manor, New York State’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg, waiting for a shuttle to usher me up to another Hudson Valley historic site: Kykuit, the Rockefeller family home for over four generations. Because of its picturesque setting along the Hudson River and its close proximity to New York City, Westchester County has always a retreat for Manhattan’s elite; the case of the Rockefeller home is hardly an anomaly in this respect. Numerous country estates filled to the brim with art, curiosities, family lore, and regional history, dot the county map. Many are often frequented locations of musical performances, art shows, field-trips and high school graduations. Yet Kykuit, perhaps the grandest of the Hudson River leisure estates, remains a relative unknown. As I stood there waiting for the shuttle, I became quickly aware of why Kykuit would be in regional tour books, but would not necessarily be an obvious choice for a local looking for a bit of history and perhaps Culture: Kykuit is just not an easy place to get to nor is a visit a leisurely, self-dictated adventure.
Access to the estate is both restricted and controlled, thereby limiting the ways in which visitors can experience the home and grounds of the famous Rockefeller family. All guests must buy tickets in advance for one of seven tour options ranging from the one-hour family oriented tour to the three-hour grand tour. Spots in any given tour group are limited to 15 and there are no student discounts on the $28 ticket value. Cars cannot be driven onto Kykuit’s vast grounds. Instead visitors leave their car at Philipsburg Manor and a New York State Parks bus transports them fifteen minutes through a hilly suburban town and through the Rockefeller estate. A general history of the Rockefeller clan plays through the loud speaker introducing the characters who built the home and its art collections.
Once on the grounds, the shuttle follows former carriage roads, still on an uphill course, until it reaches the highest point on the estate and the site of the Grand House, a three-story, sixty-foot by sixty-five foot stone structure in the beaux-arts style. Originally designed in 1907 under the watchful eye of John D. Rockefeller, the house was situated lengthwise along an ESE-WNW axis in order “to reap maximum benefit from the best light the seasons had to offer.” Problems with the positioning of service entrances and with the slant of the roof required adjustments to be made to the structure in 1912, not long after completion. JDR wanted a home that would allow him to take in the beautiful vistas of the Hudson River and the Palisades that the property’s elevated position offered while also being a respite from city life and a quiet spot for contemplation. This explains both the positioning of the Grand House along a particular axis as well as the rerouting of noisy delivery trucks away from the living spaces of the residence.
From an artificial grotto to a private golf course, the estate lacks no amenity. An extensive post-war art collection, housed in the poorly lit and narrow subterranean basement, speaks to the Rockefellers’ patronage of MoMA and the visual arts in general, while the extensive collection of Oriental porcelain and well appointed rooms are a testament to taste and worldliness. It is clearly the home of one of the most moneyed and powerful American families. However, despite the extravagant displays of wealth, the Hudson River Valley landscape takes center stage at Kykuit, just as JDR had intended. The main house is itself modest but the surrounding terraced gardens and hills seem endless. Today, from the porch of Kykuit, the Trump apartment buildings and the sparkling all-glass Ritz-Carlton hotel recently added to the White Plains skyline jut out above the tree line like sore thumbs. These eyesores make it apparent that before the coming of modern skyscrapers and big-name real-estate moguls to the suburbs, Kykuit was immersed in nature.
Unlike the home of Henry Clay Frick, built around the same time as Kykuit’s Grand House, the Rockefellers had not intended to turn their estate over to the public as an art museum. It was first and foremost a residence. Sculpture was the passion of JDR Jr. and therefore dominates the family’s art collection. While the silkscreen portraits of Jackie Kennedy by Andy Warhol and the extremely rare Picasso tapestries hang in the narrow basement corridors, the Rockefellers’ extensive sculpture collection is thoughtfully displayed within the surrounding gardens and rolling hills. Situated in the outdoors, with ample space to walk around pieces by such seminal artists as Picasso and Moore, the visitor contemplates the great works of man within nature, the great work of God.
All these encounters with Kykuit, its house, gardens, and art happen in a conveyor-belt like motion. The guide ushered us from one room to the next, briefly summarizing the décor or pointing to particular objects of interest. A delicately painted John Singer Sargent painting of the fountain at the Grand House’s entrance caught my eye, but I was not allowed to linger in front of the small canvas. Another group was on their way up to the house and we had to move on to the basement galleries to make room for the new guests. We moved the gardens, watching for slippery rocks, on to the golf-change rooms, and back up to the main entrance to meet the shuttle to the carriage house. There we had a short tour of the stables, the carriages, and the Rockefeller collection of antique automobiles before boarding the shuttle bound for the Philipsburg Manor parking lot. The two and a quarter hours tour for which we had tickets only ran over by three minutes. In many ways, such a controlled and hurried experience of the house contradicts its main function as a location for quiet and leisurely immersions in nature. However, it is important to note that the estate still functions as a residence for the Rockefeller family, who continues to celebrate Christmas and family events at the estate. The grounds are expansive and the Grand House small in scale, making it necessary to monitor not only the number of people within the house at any given time, but to also prevent the defacing of art works situated throughout the property. The estate is also a nature preserve, so to keep the grounds open to the public poses some potential threats to the various species of flora and fauna that make the landscape so intoxicatingly beautiful. All the same, as both an art and nature fanatic, I would have appreciated a little less “Move along” and a little more quiet time to take in the stunning summertime views of the Hudson.