Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
Bookmark and Share

Back To The Age of Innocence

From Vanderbilt to Roosevelt, New York's Hudson Valley estates are a showcase of wealth, ambition, history and greed

On the east bank of the Hudson River, between Poughkeepsie and Hudson, NY, is the most remarkable concentration of historic great estates in North America. Even more remarkable is the link that many of them bear to one family. Most of the estates are open to visitors for at least part of the year and make a perfect short getaway from Toronto or Montreal, especially when fall colours along the river are at their peak.

In 1686, Robert Livingston, an ambitious Scot, secured a Royal patent for 64,000 hectares of land in what is now Columbia County, NY. It was the beginning of a dynasty that still survives. Reinforced by frequent intermarriage between cousins, family estates grew rather than diminished and many stayed in the same ownership for almost 200 years.

With the advent of income and inheritance taxes, as well as the effects of the Depression, the excessive lifestyle of the Gilded Age faded. Few of the largest estates were destined to stay in private hands; although, at least one of the smaller ones was still inhabited by family members as recently as 10 years ago. Gradually, properties were willed to the state or acquired by heritage organizations. In 1990, 29 kilometres of the Hudson River was designated one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country. The beauty of this stretch of the Hudson is enhanced by its high banks and views of the Catskill Mountains. These great houses were designed so the homeowners could see the river, and the home could be seen from the river.

Seven generations of the Livingston family lived at Clermont, the oldest of the mid-Hudson estates, between 1728 and 1962. Until the early 1800s, it was a four-day trip up the Hudson from New York City to reach the original two-storey mid-Georgian house. The family was involved in trading throughout Europe and the Caribbean, and at one point the estate covered over 300,000 hectares. The Livingstons owned everything they could see across the river, including about one-third of the Catskill Mountains.

The most well-known member of the family was Robert R. Livingston Jr. (1746-1813), known as Chancellor Livingston. A member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, he served as the first US Secretary of State. As Chancellor of New York state, he gave the oath of office to George Washington as the first president. Because of the family's prominent role in the fight for independence, British troops came up the Hudson in 1777 and burned Clermont to the ground. Four years later, however, the Livingston family proudly entertained George and Martha Washington in the gracious drawing room of the rebuilt house.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Clermont was one of the most celebrated private estates in America. Enlarged with the addition of a third storey in the 1870s and redecorated in the Colonial Revival style in the 1920s, the house appears complete with Livingston family furniture acquired over 200 years. Clermont has a quiet understated elegance, particularly when compared to some of the later mansions on the river front. (Open (April to October, Tuesday to Sunday and holiday Mondays, 11am to 5pm. Entrance off Route 9G, 13 kilometres north of intersection with Route 199.)

Originally owned by Henry Livingston (1714-1799), Locust Grove was acquired by Samuel F. Morse in 1847. Despite training as an artist, Morse became famous for perfecting the electromagnetic telegraph and for inventing Morse Code, which was used as a universal means of communication until only recently.

Morse hired prominent architect A. J. Davis to transform the existing Federal-style house into a Tuscan-style villa. Expanded in every direction, the new design had an octagonal central block and a four-storey tower to accommodate Morse's growing family.

Today, the outside of the house shows signs of deterioration, but the interior is rich with ornately carved furniture and Dutch marquetry. Much of the furniture, including Sheraton and Chippendale pieces, came from later owners of the property, although it's the Morse name that's most closely associated with the house.

Between the villa and the Hudson River are almost five kilometres of hiking trails. This area was designed as a park with clusters of trees, stone walls and water-features incorporating views of the river and distant hills. Though overgrown for many years, the area is now being restored to its original character. (Open daily, May to October. Located on Route 9, three kilometres south of Mid Hudson Bridge, Poughkeepsie.)

The most northerly of the mid-Hudson estates was designed by artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) as his home and studio. Church was one of the most important artists of his time; he rose to prominence with a dramatic painting of Niagara that illustrated the swirling power of the falls with a vividness never seen before. Church often sketched the panorama from the viewpoint that became Olana, and when he acquired the property, he set about planting thousands of trees and creating an artificial lake.

When Church and his wife returned from their travels in the Middle East, their original plans for a ch"teau-like house were discarded in favour of a richly decorative Moorish design. The result is the most whimsical and eccentric of all the Hudson River estates. Olana was created as a blend of art, architecture and landscaping unmatched by any other property in 19th-century America. The rich colours of the interior were mixed on the artist's palette, while furnishings were chosen not for their value, but for their visual effect. For example, from the front entrance it's possible to view the distant Catskills framed by the verandah's columns.


The artistic heart of the house is Court Hall, patterned after a Turkish mosque with Moorish arches and stencilled wall ornamentations designed by Church. The slightly elevated stair hall, leading off Court Hall, was often used as a stage by visitors that included Mark Twain. In later years, as Church's career faded, there was little interest in the man who had once been America's most famous artist. He turned more and more to creating his art in the woodlands and vistas of Olana, saying, "I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio." (Open April to October, Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm. Entrance off Route 9G, two kilometres south of Rip Van Winkle Bridge.)

Comparatively modest by Vanderbilt standards, Hyde Park was one of many mansions owned by the immensely wealthy family. Buying the already landscaped property from Catherine Livingston in 1894, Frederick W. Vanderbilt razed the original house and spent $US3 million on a steel-framed mansion clad in Indiana limestone. The house was, and remains, a showplace of nouveaux riches excess. With gilded salons copied from Versailles, marble columns, huge tapestries and an exact replica of the King of Spain's bedroom (complete with crown), the house was built to impress and intimidate lesser mortals who came calling.

As many as 60 employees maintained Hyde Park, although the family visited only briefly in the spring and fall. A feeling of cold anonymity pervades the house today: bookcases are filled with texts that appear to have never been opened, and there's a sense that this setting of ostentatious display was never a home. When Frederick Vanderbilt died in 1938, childless and one of the richest men in America, his neighbour, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arranged for the public acquisition of the mansion as an intact example of the Gilded Age. Hyde Park opened to visitors in 1940. (Open daily year round from 9am to 5pm. Entrance on Route 9 in the village of Hyde Park.)

The lifelong home of Franklin D. Roosevelt stands in stark contrast to the Vanderbilt mansion a short distance away. It's the only presidential home where a commander-in-chief was born, grew up, married, raised his family and was buried. It evokes personal memories at every turn. And the Livingston connection? Franklin's wife Eleanor was a direct descendant of "Chancellor" Livingston.

When Roosevelt was born here, the house was a modest Italianate villa. In 1915, when FDR was in his early 30s, the house was expanded into its present Georgian-Colonial style with 35 rooms and nine bathrooms.

FDR was an inveterate collector and, according to guide Charlotte Scholl, he operated on the principle that "more is not enough." The main hall is adorned with stuffed birds and hanging prints of naval battles, the library -- the largest room at Springwood -- served as the heart of the house. The walls are oak-panelled with a fireplace at opposite ends. The room is decorated with family mementoes and comfortable chairs and has a warm feel to it. Signed photos of friends and guests, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, rest on the grand piano. The desk at which FDR worked on his stamp collection sits in front of a corner window.

One of the most evocative glimpses of life at Springwood is the dining room, where FDR's chair is set back from the table at an angle that gave the president easy access from his wheelchair.

Another is the simple device, designed like a dumb waiter, that allowed him to haul himself up by ropes to reach his bedroom on the upper floor.

Close to the house is the first modern presidential library that vividly recalls the life and times of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century: life at Harvard, the Depression, the New Deal, the unprecedented four inaugurations and World War II.

Three kilometres from Springwood is Val-Kill, the private country retreat of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was never comfortable at FDR's home when his autocratic mother was alive, so she used Val-Kill as a refuge whenever she was at Hyde Park and her husband was away. When Roosevelt died and left Springwood to the nation, Val-Kill became the centre of Roosevelt family life at Hyde Park: Eleanor entertained a wide range of world leaders in the quiet country setting. Today, the personality of one of America'

s most beloved women is all around you at Val-Kill. (Open daily year round, 9am to 5pm. Entrance on Route 9 in the village of Hyde Park. Val-Kill: open daily, 9am to 5pm, April to October, weekends only November to March.)


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Post a comment