Celebrating 100 Years at Kykuit, the Grand Rockefeller Estate, Elaborate gardens, extraordinary sculpture, and, oh yes, a nice mansion too

This year is a major milestone for Kykuit, the six-story stone house and rolling hilltop estate, as 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of Kykuit’s construction by John D.

imagesRockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Heard of Kykuit but haven’t visited yet? You might have seen pictures of its grand, impressive stone mansion, not realizing the house is just one aspect of this storied estate, and maybe not even the primary reason to visit the homestead of four generations of Rockefellers.

For many Kykuit fans, it’s the elaborate gardens dotted with skillfully placed modern sculpture — an extraordinary collection developed and sited by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller — that make a visit particularly special.

"Here one may stroll for a mile or more along paths within easy call of the house, winding in and out through shaded walks or sunny terraces. Here are tea houses and pavilions, enclosed and open, to suit all seasons, weathers, or time of day. Just as one’s collection of books, pictures, and music respond to the varying moods and temperaments of a family, so do the diversified features of this garden."

So wrote landscape architect William Welles Bosworth in 1909 about the gardens he created at Kykuit. Ambitious, well-designed and well-maintained to this day, the 100-year-old gardens are themselves fine art that blooms, falls, and regenerates year after year.

Nelson Rockefeller, son of John, Jr. and the third generation of his family to enjoy life on this fabled estate, lived at Kykuit from 1960–1979, with his wife, Margaretta Fitler (Happy), and their two boys, Nelson, Jr. and Mark. The gardens are maintained today just as Bosworth created them, but there is one significant difference from his original design: the addition of the governor’s collection of more than seventy mid-20th-century sculptures that lend a contemporary vibrancy to a setting of quiet repose. Visitors today can see works by Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Gaston Lachaise, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Constantin Brancusi, Aristide Maillol, and many more.

The gardens include many miles of carriage roads as well as a nine-hole reversible golf course, a putting green, and long vistas looking north and south up the Hudson. The eclectic design showcases Bosworth’s training at the classically-oriented Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which inspired him to include a Roman tea house, a Moorish-inspired fountain and canal, a Greek temple, a Japanese-inspired brook garden, and numerous design elements reflecting various times and cultures throughout the many garden "rooms."

Twenty-first century visitors can experience all of it. Kykuit tours begin at its visitor center at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, itself a compelling historic site and working farm.

After Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979, the estate became the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, in 1994, the estate opened to the public through a collaboration among the National Trust, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Historic Hudson Valley, which operates the tours. Tickets can be bought online at www.hudsonvalley.org. Check that website for an up-to-date schedule and full information on all tours and other Westchester historic sites.

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About the Author: Rob Schweitzer