By Susan Russo
The 3,000-acre estate of four generations of the Rockefeller family is nestled in the lovely area of Pocantico Hills, New York. The name of the estate, Kykuit, means “lookout” in Dutch, an apt name, since the vistas over the Hudson River are magnificent. John D. Rockefeller had the six-story mansion built in 1913. The architects were Delano (cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Aldrich.
The house’s interiors are beautiful, but not overly ornate, as were many grand mansions of the time. The designer was Ogden Codman, Jr., who rejected the cluttered decors of the turn-of–the-century, and created a more modest yet graceful style. Codman, who designed novelist Edith Wharton’s home in Newport, collaborated with her on a book published in 1897, called “The Decoration of Houses,” which introduced this more livable style.
You will notice on your tour of the house that there is no ballroom, a main showplace of many U.S. and European mansions. John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist, did not allow dancing or alcohol in the mansion. Mr. Rockefeller, did, however, have a small pipe organ, later removed, in a family room. In this room now reside portraits by the American painter, John Singer Sargent. A Sargent landscape painting also depicts the huge Fountain of Oceana in front of the mansion, a replica of a fountain in Florence, Italy.
Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of mostly modern artwork is exhibited in the subterranean art gallery, where the ceilings are covered with ingeniously-designed Italian tiles made by the Guastavino family, originally from Spain. These elegant ceramic tiles can also be seen outside the Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar, in the New York City Municipal Building, in Grant’s Tomb, and in the City Hall subway station. In the Kykuit gallery are amazing tapestries designed by Pablo Picasso, commissioned at Nelson’s request, and woven in France. Throughout the house and estate you will see artwork by, among others, Constantin Brancusi, Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Andy Warhol, Jacques Lipschitz, Alberto Giacometti, and Alexander Calder. Cynthia B. Altman has been curator of the art collection for the Rockefeller family, the Kykuit estate, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and our own Rockefeller University campus for over twenty years, and she also serves as an advisor to the National Trust for Historical Preservation, the International Center for Photography, and the Empire State Plaza Art Commission.
The gorgeous landscaping, designed by William Welles Bosworth, includes peaceful settings such as the rose garden, the Japanese garden and teahouse, a replica of the Greek Temple of Aphrodite and grotto, more elegant fountains, an Italianate loggia, and the swimming pool garden. On the “Classic Tour,” you will be taken by bus to the Coach Barn, which features a charming collection of the Rockefellers’ horse-drawn carriages, saddles, and classic “touring” and other luxurious cars.
Some of the private parts of the estate are “The Playhouse,” still a family retreat, and the nine-hole reverse golf course, where only the family and their guests are permitted to play.
If you have a car or can manage a fairly long walk, you can visit the family-built church, the community’s Union Church of Pocantico Hills, which is free to all. On Sundays, services are held at 9:00 and 11:00am year round. This charming stone building was enriched by the Rockefeller family with thirteen amazing windows designed by Marc Chagall, and a rose window designed by Henri Matisse. I was told by a guide that M. Matisse came out of retirement in his 80s at the request of the Rockefellers to design that window. Since the church is near the surrounding towns, one special event is a Harvest Church Fair, this year on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 16-17, from 9:00am to 4:00pm, and on Sunday, October 18, from 12 noon to 4:00pm.