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Published: December 29th 2011
Currier and Ives' Hudson in real life
View of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains from the Vanderbilt estate. This photo is taken from the same spot as the famous Currier and Ives print.
My goal for today was one of the most mythologized landscapes in the US, the Hudson River Valley
The valley is a classic glacial river valley, and very pretty.
It has inspired artists and writers for hundreds of years, and even gave its name to a painting movement (the Hudson River school
, which romanticized the American landscape).
Given its close proximity to New York City, the wealthy started building homes here as soon as the early 1700s.
The tread really took off during the Gilded Age, when there were over 75 grand estates along the river.
Most are gone at this point, but 15 that remain
are open to the public as historic sites.
Unfortunately, most only operate during the tourist season, which are definitely not the cold windy days of early March.
Three remain open year round, and I planned to see them all.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Springwood
First up was an unassuming house of great significance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
was born and spent his entire life at an estate called Springwood
The house was bought by his mother, who lived next door.
The Roosevelts were really old money, having descended from one of
Statue of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt outside Springwood
Alexander Hamilton’s business partners.
In their world, sons went to really good schools, got law degrees, and then took over managing the family real estate.
Franklin had other ideas.
He went to Groton and Harvard, which at the time instilled an ethic of contributing to the community.
FDR decided to do so by going into politics, which his social peers considered an unseemly profession.
Every American knows how that turned out
The house is remarkably low key, considering the history changing events which occurred there.
In the family tradition, taste is shown through modesty.
The entrance hall is covered in pictures of boats, and political cartoons.
Some of them are from the early 1800s and make fun of the British Empire.
When King George came to visit, Eleanor Roosevelt tried to remove them.
They stayed up.
Next to the entrance room is the formal dining room.
The chair at the head of the table is tilted.
It was set this way so FDR, who was paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, could easily slide into the seat.
The bedrooms are
Front door of Springwood
A remarkably understaded entrance for a place where history was made
FDR and Eleanor used separate rooms after his paralysis.
Eleanor insisted that the rooms have privacy, including from the Secret Service.
During World War II, a single guard had to sit in a corridor all night and watch the bedroom doors though a mirror.
Next to FDR’s bed is a black telephone.
It connected directly to the White House.
Also in the room is one of FDR’s wheel chairs.
True wheel chairs at that time were huge bulky contraptions.
This wouldn’t do for a presidential candidate who was trying to project physical health as a proxy for the health of the country.
He had his butler get several old chairs from the dining room, cut off the legs, and attach wheels to them.
When FDR covered the chair with his cloak, he looked like he was simply sitting down; giving him the effect he wanted.
A formal garden sits next to the house.
This time of year, it was all snow.
A white marble block sits in front of the garden.
The block is FDR’s grave, which he chose and designed
FDR's Hudson Valley
The view of the Hudson Valley behind Springwood. FDR slid down the hill as a boy.
before becoming president.
Next up was a house on the other end of the spectrum, a classic example of Gilded Age ostentatiousness called the Vanderbilt Estate
. Cornelius Vanderbilt
wanted to be a seaman.
His mother wouldn’t let him, so he bought a barge and ferried cargo around New York Harbor instead.
He proved to be very good at this.
So good, in fact, that he eventually dominated the shipping business throughout the eastern states.
When he was in his sixties, he became convinced that railroads would make shipping obsolete.
He bought a number of railroad companies in New York State and merged them to create the New York Central Railroad
It was the first railroad line from New York City to Chicago.
When he died, he had a fortune of 200 million dollars.
He left most of it to his second son, William Henry Vanderbilt, who he thought was the best businessman in the family.
He was right from a business perspective, because the second generation doubled the fortune in only eight years.
He was not so right from a family perspective, because his son then died.
FDR chose the location in his garden, and the design of the grave, before his death.
His will divided up the family fortune between his children, with older males getting more and younger males and women getting less.
The heirs proceeded to go on a building spree, building huge houses to showcase their position in the world.
They wanted to challenge the Astors and other old wealth
who had excluded them from New York society for decades.
During this era, people routinely spent at least a million dollars throwing a social party.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II ultimately built the Breakers
His brother George Washington Vanderbilt built Biltmore
in Ashville, the largest house in the US (a title it still holds).
His other brother William built the house I’m seeing, the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Park.
At a cost of two million, it was practically restrained.
The house was designed by the famous firm of McKim, Mead and White
Sanford White designed it to resemble a Roman Palace, as was the fashion at the time.
Having toured other Vanderbilt mansions before, it actually seemed small (it’s half the size of the Breakers, for instance).
The interiors of the public areas came from Europe.
At the time,
Vanderbilt Estate in Hyde Park
Facade of the Vanderbilt Estate. Architect Sanford White based it on a Roman palace
many of Europe’s old families were selling heirlooms to make money.
Sanford White went over and bought entire rooms, which he then kept in storage until a client wanted a house built.
The dining room, for example, once belonged to a Medici
palace in Florence.
One usual feature of this house is that much of the bedroom furniture is covered over.
The Vanderbilts had three separate houses, to match the social seasons.
The summer was spent in the social hot box of Newport.
Winter was an unending stream of formal dinners, charity balls, and classic music performances in New York City.
In between the two, they retreated here, where the largest dinner party possible was for 18 people.
The tour combines guided and wandering.
The guide takes people to a particular floor, and describes the function of each room on the floor.
We were then free to wander around and look in each room as long as wanted.
Each room, as expected, was ornate and luxurious.
The particular guide we had is very knowledgeable about the house and its history.
Vanderbilt Estate Landscaping
A portion of the landscape of the Vanderbilt Estate, which has some of the oldest trees in New York State
of the fireplaces, for example, are completely decorative; the house was one of the first built was central air heating.
It was also the first house in the area with electric lights.
Power was created by a generator on a local creek (the dam is still there) and brought to the house by a cable, which was put underground to not spoil the view.
The estate is known for its landscaping.
The grounds hold some of the oldest trees in New York State, most of which were planted by prior owners.
When the Vanderbilts bought the estate, they found the existing house way too small, but the plants were perfect.
On the drive out along the river bank, there is a parking lot with signs limiting stops to 15 minutes.
Nothing explains the reason for this.
Anyone with knowledge of early 1800s American art doesn’t need one.
This is the location where Currier and Ives
made one of their most famous prints of the Hudson River Valley, with the Catskill Mountains in the background.
On a clear day with snow on the ground, which today was, the view is
Eleanor's house screened by trees
as lovely as ever.
Eleanor Roosevelt at Val Kill
The final house is Val Kill
, Eleanor Roosevelt’s
The house was originally a furniture factory that she established during the depression to provide work for unemployed farmers.
It ultimately became too expensive to maintain, so she turned it into her cottage.
She would often come here during the day, but never slept here until after FDRs death.
The house is even more low key than Springwood.
The rooms are covered in wood paneling.
She slept on the upstairs’ porch, which was incredibly cold in the winter.
The one highly decorated room is the dining room.
Eleanor loved to entertain, and was constantly inviting people over to dinner.
A dinner party for eight could easily become twenty by the end of the day.
With that sort of demand, it shouldn’t be surprising that she had to hire a new cook roughly every eight months.
The fate of the house reveals quite a lot about the Park Service in the 1950s.
FDR willed his house to the Park Service, as long
Front of Val Kill
Val Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home after FDR's death.
as his children could stay there.
They formally transferred it in 1949, and it has been open to the public ever since.
After Eleanor died in 1962, they also offered VanKill to the Park Service.
The federal government refused, on the grounds that a First Lady wasn’t worth commemorating!
The children them auctioned off the belongings and sold the grounds.
Only when a developer threatened to tear down the estate and build condos did local preservationists persuade Congress to pass a bill to buy the estate.
It finally opened to the public in 1984.
This series of events means that the Park Service has had to track down every bit of furniture that used to be there.
They have found about half so far.
Her main office is now completely reconstructed, to the point where it looks like she has just stepped out for a few minutes.
Be sure to find the misspelled nameplate on her desk, which she kept because she did not want to offend the person who gave it as a gift.
Culinary Institute of America and Diners
Dinner in this region
Johnny D's Diner
A diner run by a pair of Culinary Institute of America graduates
involves one of two main options.
Hyde Park is the home of the Culinary Institute of America
, one of the best cooking schools in the US.
Many of their graduates have stayed in the area and opened really good, but expensive, gourmet restaurants.
Also in this area are a surprising number of diners, which are much lower on the price scale.
At the advice of the manager of the hotel I stayed at, I ate dinner at Johnny D’s Diner
It turns out that the diner run by a pair of Culinary Institute graduates, so it falls in both worlds.
The food is very good, while still being affordable.
They even offer free desert pudding with every entre.
It was a very nice place.
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