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America's Historic Mansions on the Hudson River

by Rod Lopez-Fabrega and Mary Ashcraft

A strip of river frontage extending along the eastern shores of the great Hudson, bordered on one end by the Massachusetts Turnpike and on the other by Route 84, has come to be known as "the emerald necklace." Along this unique eighteen-mile stretch, also known as the Great Estates Region of the Hudson River Valley, is a string of magnificent historic manor houses, each a jewel in its setting of rigorously groomed verdant fields, gardens and woods sloping gently to the river's banks. The area has produced a remarkable extended family of men and women whose individual achievements span from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to a four-year term as president of the United States.

This National Historic Landmark District contains some forty country seats, and eight of the most spectacular are open to the public and easily accessible from Connecticut for a one- or two-day weekend tour. Beginning at the northern end and no more than a ten minute drive from each other, they are the gems of American aristocracy: Olana, Clermont, Montgomery Place, Wilderstein, Staatsburgh (Mills mansion), Hyde Park (Vanderbilt estate), Springwood (Roosevelt homestead) and Locust Grove. Notably, all are strung together on a common thread: the Livingston family.

Clermont, oldest of the estates, has been the 485-acre seat of this outstanding family for more than 230 years. Robert Livingston, an ambitious Scottish immigrant in 1674,� had great commercial success in the new world, served as go-between with the Iroquois nation in matters of fur trade, at one point backed privateer Henry Morgan and, ultimately, received a royal patent of 160,000 acres from the British crown. Robert's sons expanded the family holdings to a staggering 800,000 acres--as far as the eye could see and including one third of the Catskill Mountains. The family went on to prominence in support of independence, and it was the most notable of the them, Robert R. Livingston, who was active in the break from England and helped put together the Declaration of Independence, prompting the annoyed British to burn the original mansion to the ground in the autumn of 1777.

Saving what possessions she could, Robert's widow, Margaret Beekman Livingston escaped to Connecticut, returning soon after to rebuild Claremont. In 1781 she entertained George and Martha Washington in the drawing room that, today, remains virtually unchanged. The stately Georgian-style house was expanded through the years, with the last significant changes made in the 1920's when the old Clermont was remodeled to its present Colonial Revival style. At the turn of the 19th century, a descendant, Robert "Chancellor" Livingston, also a resident of the estate, had a hand with Robert Fulton in the development of the first practical steam boat, The Clermont. Through the intervening centuries and to this day, members of the Livingston family have figured prominently in the stories of the other eight properties.

Olana, at the chain's northern end, is the most flamboyant of the mansions. Frederic E. Church, member of a prominent Hartford family, became America's most famous landscape artist and an important member of the Hudson River School of art. In the early 1860's he began transforming a poor farm perched on a high bluff overlooking the river into one of the period's most imaginatively and meticulously designed mansions. Beautifully preserved, the house stands today in mint condition, its details mirroring Church's worldwide travels from South America to Europe and the Middle East and his particular interest in Moorish architecture. He went on to make of his home and grounds "a total work of art" grounded in his impeccable sensitivity as an artist. One of his great-granddaughters is married to a direct descendant of Robert Livingston, and they live within sight of Olana on another Livingston property.

Montgomery Place, established in 1775 by General Richard Montgomery, the first hero of the American Revolution, was rebuilt through the years by his young widow, Janet Livingston Montgomery, to become the ornate Classical Revival mansion it is today together with surviving out-buildings of interest: a Classical-style coach house, an Italianate farm house and a Gothic-style Swiss cottage. Mrs. Montgomery, an astute businesswoman, also lavished great attention on the estate's 434 acres, and when she was done, she not only had a graceful and elegant home for entertaining, but also a prosperous commercial enterprise from her orchard (today, you may pick your own fruit), greenhouse and plant nursery (all still in operation.)

Wilderstein is a reconstruction in progress. A lavish late 19th century country house, the exterior coloration originally was that of a "painted lady" and is now, after much controversy, being re-finished as designed. Interiors are breathtaking in their dark, heavy woods, Tiffany panels and handsome detailing in the Esthetic-style emphasizing hand-crafted over industrially produced objects. Purchased in� 1852 by Thomas Holy Suckley, a descendant of Robert Livingston, the family suffered financial reversals and moved to Europe, but the eldest daughter, Margaret "Daisy" Lynch Suckley stayed on and achieved discrete attention as the confidant of her sixth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By all reports, the relationship was a platonic "Victorian" friendship.

Staatsburgh, the Mills Mansion is one of the great country estates of the American Renaissance (1876-1917), comparable in its interiors to many of the regal palaces of Europe. Darius Ogden Mills and his wife, social arbiter Ruth Livingston Mills carried on the life of an American aristocrat with a fortune made in banks, railroads and other businesses associated with the California Gold Rush. Embellished and expanded by famed architects McKim, Mead and White, the final result was the Beaux Arts mansion of 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms it is today. The mansion was the scene of magnificent balls, fox hunts, garden parties and all the trappings of great wealth.

Hyde Park, the correct name of the Vanderbilt estate and Springwood, FDR's homestead are two of the most visited restorations in the United States. The former is a magnificent great house in the European tradition and the seasonal residence of a scion of one of America's famed dynasties and the latter the birthplace and life-long retreat of one of our greatest presidents. Both require a special visit in order to do justice to their fascinating histories and, most especially, for the opportunity to be audio-guided through Springwood by Eleanor Roosevelt, herself. Also of interest nearby are the official FDR presidential library and museum where FDR's study has been recreated, and Val-Kill, the modest cottage to which Mrs. Roosevelt retired after FDR's death.

The last gem in the "emerald necklace" is Locust Grove, the home of Samuel F. B Morse, Yalie, painter and inventor of the telegraph and Morse code and who may accurately be classified as one of the fathers of the communications revolution. In 1847, Morse bought a property that once had belonged to his wife's great-grandfather, Henry Livingston, Jr. and then proceeded to convert the existing house to a Tuscan-style villa. In 1901, after Morse's death, the house was sold to William Young, a wealthy New York City lawyer, and the Youngs filled the house with an eclectic mix that includes many original Morse pieces. An interesting hands-on telegraphy exhibit in the basement invites you to tap a message in Morse code using a modern-day keyboard.

J. Winthrop Aldrich, a descendant of Robert Livingston, quotes a cousin who spoke for all of us when she said of her own Livingston property, "The place, from the beginning, has been loved; by those who owned it, by those who might have owned it and by many who have been only occasional guests."

GETTING THERE:

The Hudson River mansions are located along 18-miles of the eastern bank of the Hudson River between the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate Route 84. All are along Route 9G and Route 9 and are no more than a ten-minute drive apart.

From Fairfield County, the best strategy for reaching the area is to begin at the northern end of the tour and work your way down to Route 84 for the return trip.

To reach the starting point, drive north on Route 7 to Danbury, take Route 84 westbound into New York state, turn right (north) on to the Taconic State Parkway and get off the Taconic on to Route 82 (Lake Taghanic State Park). Head west on to Route 23. Continue westbound and watch for Exit on to Route 9G (if you miss the 9G exit, you are on your way across the river on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, where you don't want to be.) Head south on 9G for one mile to the entrance to Olana on the left. From lower Fairfield County (the Merritt Parkway and Route 7 in Norwalk) it is approximately a two-hour drive to Olana.

�FOOD AND LODGING:

LUNCH: The Historic Village Diner is a jump in time to the 1920s. It is one of the few remaining authentic railroad car-style "eateries" known as Silk-City Diners, with a streamlined metal dining-car styling. It is in top restored condition, and the food is good as well. After your third mansion (Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson), turn left off 9G at Route 199 for the five-minute drive to the town of Red Hook. The Diner is on the right.

DINNER: The Belvedere Mansion, described below, offers find dining in a "Gilded-Age" setting. Its lavish rooms are open to the public and not only to overnight guests. It is a popular location for wedding parties, so it is a good idea to call (914) 889-8000 in advance for reservations.

The Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) is one of the world's leading culinary schools, and dining in any of its three famed restaurants--the Caterina de Medici Room, the Escoffier and the American Bounty--is a much sought-after experience. Reservations are mandatory and should be made as much as several months in advance. The restaurants offer a splendid experience for true gourmands. Prices are commensurate with the quality: a typical meal at Escoffier can run from $50-60 per person and higher. The campus and restaurants of the C.I.A. are located on Route 9 three miles north of Poughkeepsie, just down the highway from the Morse Mansion. For information and reservations, call (914) 452-9600.

ACCOMMODATIONS: The Belvedere Mansion is actually a Neo-Classical country inn rebuilt in 1900 on the foundations of a 1760's mansion belonging to Major John Pawling. The Inn is a National Historic Landmark, and the six suites in the main house are spectacularly decorated in styles reminiscent of the "Gilded Age," with 18th-century French antiques, trompe l'oeil painted ceilings, sumptuous silk- and damask-covered walls and two with fireplaces. Prices range from $175-195 for a double. An annex offers additional--and notably less glamorous but comfortable--double rooms at $125 and several closet-sized ones for $85. All accommodations include a full breakfast.

The grounds are attractive, with a pond and gazebos, and there is a swimming pool in the rear of the property. The Inn is located on the main highway between the towns of Rhinebeck and Staatsburgh. Two-night stays are required during the summer season ending in October, but owners Pat and Nick Rebraca will accept one-night guests during the fall and winter season. Call (914) 889-8000 for reservations.

The Beekman Arms is another option for accommodations. Located in the center of the picturesque town of Rhinebeck, portions of the Inn date back to the mid-18th-century. Interior public spaces have been maintained in the 18th-century tavern style with wooden floors, low ceilings and authentic furnishings. The Inn has 89 rooms, some in the nearby historic Delamater House and conference center. Prices for a double range from $85-$150. A continental breakfast is included. Call (914) 876-7077 for reservations.

PHOTO CREDITS for all : Rod Lopez-Fabrega and Mary Ashcraft

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