History (etc.) still inhabits Tarrytown

By JOHN BLOOM  |  July 8, 2003 at 2:25 PM
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TARRYTOWN, N.Y., July 8 (UPI) -- One of our hallowed Fourth of July traditions is to go clomping around historic sites being reminded of things we should have remembered from freshman survey, then made to feel midget-like and plebeian in comparison with the elegant titans of old.

I'm not sure exactly what masochistic urge this satisfies-

"Hey, everybody, let's go visit the old house where the Junior League dresses up like characters out of an Edith Wharton novel!"-but it's sufficiently deep in our collective national psyche that we not only do it, but we nod solemnly every time the overzealous docent holds forth on the significance of each fleur-de-lis on each well placed doilie.

(Is it my imagination, or are these women surreptitiously rewriting American history with a neo-feminist subtext? The patron of the house might have been off fighting wars, founding nations, or commanding the financial markets, but by God the whole ball of wax was held together on the day the ferocious missus commanded the landscape architect to preserve the larch canopy next to the stone parapets of the carriage house. We're made to believe that, were it not for the foresight and willpower of these wives, the National Trust for Historic Preservation would not exist today-a thought that can occasionally make us flat-footed gawkers wish the doyennes had not been quite so long-lived. "Mrs. Livingston outlived her husband by 34 years, which was not at all uncommon for the era.")

I speak, of course, of Tarrytown, which I regard as sort of the American Ur of "Great Historic Places" tours. When New Yorkers seek out one of those "back to history" weekends, they speak of going "up the Hudson," not quite knowing what lies up the Hudson but certain that if they just keep driving, or seeking out bucolic railroad stops, or travelling by throwback ferry boat, they'll encounter all sorts of fabulously quaint and picturesque flora, fauna and forgotten manor houses of special antiquity.

Inevitably they end up in Tarrytown, which has made a cottage industry of catering to antiquarians-so much so that the neighboring city of North Tarrytown recently changed its name to Sleepy Hollow, even though Sleepy Hollow's creator, Washington Irving, lived in Tarrytown proper. (Presumably they're claiming that, although his residence may be in the rival city, his stories are set in their own woodsy glens and coves.)

For years the prime local attraction was in fact Sunnyside, the odd gabled cottage built by Irving in 1835, draped in wisteria, and expanded in idiosyncratic ways throughout his lifetime. But the fact is that, except for his two greatest stories ("The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle"), people don't read Irving much anymore, and we're at least three generations removed from the time when he was considered the patriarch of American letters. Supposedly the director Tim Burton scouted locations around Tarrytown while preparing his "Sleepy Hollow" movie, but he pronounced it not authentic to the period and decamped for Ireland-quite a slap in the face to those locals who insist on preserving every fern in its original 19th-century condition.

Fortunately for the local economy, the dwindling interest in Irving was replaced in 1992 by the opening to the public of Kykuit (an Indian word pronounced with a long "i" followed by "cut"), which is the six-story neoclassical stone mansion on top of the highest hill here where four generations of Rockefellers spent their summers. Every brochure now is about the Rockefellers-which is as it should be, since they were the patrons of historic preservation in the area for over a hundred years. They saved Sunnyside. They preserved four other historic structures. And when the wooded cliffside Palisades, on the opposite bank of the Hudson, were threatened with commercial development, the Rockefellers simply bought the entire forest so that it would always remain green and undisturbed.

Kykuit was deeded to the National Trust after the death of Nelson Rockefeller, and for the first few years tourist interest was so overwhelming that you had to make reservations months in advance to get onto the grounds. A decade later that's no longer true, but they still don't allow private cars or any wandering around without supervision. I would hope they loosen up this policy in the future, because the main attraction of the place is not so much the elegant drawing rooms and China collections and formal gardens, but the way Nelson Rockefeller placed his colossal collection of modern sculpture throughout the hilly landscape.

Around every bend you encounter a Brancusi, or a Calder, or a Henry Moore, many of them gargantuan, but so artfully situated that they seem to blend seamlessly with the environment. The effect is almost enough to snap your head back. The sculptures seem to be growing up out of the ground in such a way that you can't imagine them being anywhere else. Those universities in Japan that hand out Ph.D.s in flower arranging would do well to study this achievement, which is not so much a triumph of tasteful art collecting-after all, every captain of industry accumulates masterworks for his mansion-but a monument to taste itself. Since they're all modern works, many of them abstract, and they're set in a pristine outdoors that is groomed but otherwise untouched, it's a distinctly American garden design, hinting of the frontier itself but a frontier enhanced, not conquered, by western civilization.

The rest of Kykuit is breathtaking as well-terraced gardens in the old Beaux Arts style, Italian fountains, and a marvelous display of oversized Picasso tapestries-but I wasn't able to find a tour guide who could tell me exactly why the Rockefellers decided they didn't want the place anymore. Obviously there are still plenty of Rockefellers around, and this is definitely the summer homestead, having been built by the founder of Standard Oil in the 1890s. My guess is that they were felled by that bugaboo of all American fortunes-estate taxes. Unluckily, they didn't hold out a decade longer, which would have been time enough for President Bush's attack on the "death tax" just last year. (In an odd bow to political correctness, the Kykuit bookstore sells Ida Tarbell's "History of Standard Oil," the muckraking classic which basically portrays John D. Rockefeller Sr. as the greediest bastard in the history of humankind.)

The Rockefellers endowed an organization called Historic Hudson Valley, which maintains five other properties besides Kykuit. These include the Rockefeller church-Union Church of Pocantico Hills-which has stained glass windows by Chagall and Matisse. But the most intriguing property to me is Philipsburg Manor, which has been preserved as it looked in 1750, complete with black slaves doing cooking demonstrations, as it was one of the largest slave plantations in the north.

They don't call it a slave plantation, of course. They call it a "milling and trading complex" that used the labor of "enslaved individuals." It was owned by Frederick Philipse, a Dutchman who got a royal charter for 52,000 acres in 1693 from William and Mary, and then conned upwardly mobile Europeans into becoming tenant farmers there. The tenants in turn used slaves to grow corn and wheat, which was ground at the company gristmill and shipped downriver to Yonkers, where Philipse lived, and Manhattan, where he ruled. Everything was going along swimmingly until the Revolutionary War, when Philipse chose the wrong side and lost everything through confiscation, including the land on which Kykuit and Sunnyside now sit.

Philipsburg Manor, as they call it today, is a misnomer. The manor house is little more than a boxy utilitarian sleeping space for overseers and other employees. The Philipse family obviously didn't live here, and from what you can see today, it was probably a fairly miserable place, what with the slave labor and the stench of animals and the beginnings of American-style agribusiness. I'm sure it was never so quaint as it looks now, with its wooden bridge across the millpond and wandering goats and sheep and oxen and volunteers in spotless period costumes. Anything less romantic would obviously disturb the ladies from White Plains.

There is one Tarrytown estate, though, that has never received a nickel of Rockefeller money, and there are good family reasons for that. Lyndhurst, which bills itself as "America's premiere Gothic Revival mansion," is everything that Kykuit is not. Kykuit is neoclassical in every respect-even the modern sculptures look properly balanced and placed-whereas Lyndhurst is assymetrical, turreted, gabled and a little spooky, like something out of the Brontes or, more to the point, "The Story of O." It's the home of creepy old Jay Gould.

The estate was actually designed in 1838 for William Paulding, mayor of New York City, who entertained the Marquis de Lafayette there on his triumphant return to America. It had one other owner before Gould acquired it in 1880, and it had the good fortune to be mantained by the same landscape superintendent for 40 years-Ferdinand Mangold, who worked for German King Leopold before taking over Lyndhurst duties in 1864 and continuing to plant things until his death in 1905. Mangold was a Romantic of the first order, so the grounds are wild with mixed species and crooked trails that make the whole thing a sort of eclectic woodland that exists nowhere in nature but is all the more forbidding for its odd juxtapositions of lindens, beeches, oaks, rare shrubs and botanical varieties imported from abroad.

The house itself is full of warrens, cubbyholes, fake doors and shelves, and faux surfaces that are painted to look like wood or marble but are actually just frescoes-a headache for curators, who have to continually touch them up. You can imagine Gould, the most despised man on Wall Street, plotting his sinister financial manipulations in the various studies and smoking rooms of his fake cockeyed castle, then calling for his carriage and his confederates. Although the New York Central Railroad ran directly across the edge of his property, he never rode on it, travelling the 24 miles to the city by carriage rather than contribute a nickel to the empire of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Gould trust, unlike those of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, pretty much expired when Gould died in 1892, with the old conniver spending his last tubercular years at Lyndhurst. The great fortune passed into the hands of his eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard, who continued to outfit the property with modern innovations like a bowling alley and the world's most lavish indoor swimming pool, as well as distinctly feminine touches like the Rose Cottage, a child-sized house built for the play activities of her nieces and nephews.

After Helen Gould Shepard's death in 1938, the estate passed to her younger sister, Anna, who had married a European title holder and become the Duchess de Talleyrand-Perigord. She lived in splendor in France and rarely visited Lyndhurst, maintaining it only as a place to occasionally entertain visitors in America. When she died in 1961, the National Trust inherited it as well.

Gould ruled Lyndhurst during the heyday of his fame and fortune, around 1884, when he controlled Western Union, the New York Elevated Railway, and the Union Pacific. Oddly enough, he was a naturalist, supervising the building of the largest private conservatory in America (which would later contribute many of the foundation plants in the New York Botanical Garden) as well as orchards that nurtured such forgotten apple species as the Roxbury Russet, the Northern Spy and the Ben Davis.

On the Fourth of July, there are picnickers who come to Lyndhurst, even though the patriotic speeches and main festivities are at Sunnyside, where a recent tradition is a game of Town Ball, an early version of baseball played in the 19th century. It would be too ironic, I suppose, to have the current custodians of the republic declaiming about freedom and progress from the grounds of the estate where Gould once spent his ill-gotten gains. But of all the Tarrytown monuments to our past, I have a special fondness for Lyndhurst. It's the closest thing we have to European castles, places where the bloody rule of the sword led to the foundations of towns and cities. No city grew up around Lyndhurst, but questions about Gould still make the docents a little nervous. A dose of reality injected into our annual patriotic sojourn is perversely refreshing.


John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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