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Searching for a usable past in the Hudson Valley

Vanderbilt place in Hyde Park.  Image courtesy of the author.

Vanderbilt place in Hyde Park. Image courtesy of the author.

I passed a wonderful late June week traveling the Hudson River Valley from the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Park, New York, south along alternating banks of the Hudson to the Edward Hopper house and museum in Nyack. In addition to the 3rd generation Vanderbilts with their (inherited) railroad fortune, my husband and I explored the architectural and material legacy of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, financial speculator Jay Gould, West Point, the Loyalist and slaveholding Philips family, 3 generations of Rockefellers, artist/inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the writer Washington Irving, and artists Edward and Josephine N. Hopper

We were there principally to enjoy ourselves and mark an anniversary, and we did the requisite feasting, shopping, and spending that cultural tourists are supposed to do (the Culinary Institute of America, Market St in Rhinebeck, Beech Tree Grill in Poughkeepsie and Blue Hill Farms were highlights!). Continual awareness of crucial help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Historic Hudson Valley in preserving and interpreting the places we visited cemented our sense of the importance of national investment in cultural heritage.

Despite the importance of these national organizations, the Hudson Valley mansions actually tell stories of American self-making. Or perhaps more precisely, they recount the anxious work of transforming newly-minted personal wealth into lasting social eminence. From Washington Irving’s myth-rich literary oeuvre in the 1840s through the Rockefeller’s contemporary and unforgettable farm-to-table restaurant, touring the Hudson Valley invited contemplation of the nature of the United States – of the meaning of being American. Home once again, and facing Independence Day in the wake of another disastrous betrayal of the Constitution by today’s Supreme Court, it is irresistible to try to sum up what usable lessons about my country the Hudson Valley holds.

One of the most vivid came from Lyndhurst, owned by Jay Gould from 1880-1892. It was built and enlarged by previous owners out of local Sing-Sing stone, meaning granite quarried by inmates at the nearby Ossining prison! Gould bought it after being busted out of the Erie Railroad, causing a national financial meltdown in 1869 with his unscrupulous speculation, nearly ruining Western Union, and fumbling the development of public transit in New York City. Causing all this ruin brought him a fortune of some $77 million. Having abandoned his given name early in his career, Gould reveled in fakery and deception later on at Lyndhurst. One lovely yellow marble mantelpiece, purchased from an Italian noble family in need of cash, became the model for a faux marble look throughout Lyndhurst’s foyer, while a burgundy and white marble served the same function in the dining room. Though well able to afford marble, Gould delighted in the prestige and the trickery of “faux.”

“Faux” had other variations in the Valley. The Vanderbilts didn’t paint trompe l’oeil on their walls. Rather, they hoked up a feeling of timeless wealth by filling their new homes with grand items purchased from downsizing European noble houses. As the Vanderbilt mansion guides explained, lowly (American) oak went into the servants’ quarters, while the family’s rooms displayed the borrowed finery of Europe.  It was certainly a form of patriotism — making America seem great by aping the greatness of Europe.

Earlier elites, like Margaret Amstrong Astor, sniffed at newcomers’ social ambitions while herself pretending to greatness not really her own. A descendant of 17th century newcomers, the Livingstons, she was wealthy by marriage to an 18th century fur-trading and real estate empire built by a German butcher’s son, John Jacob Astor. Mrs. Astor worked hard to frustrate the social striving of the newly rich families of the Valley, using her power as a society gatekeeper to exclude them from New York’s elite “opera set.”  Apparently, the extra hundred years or so on her family fortune convinced her it was “real,” while the newer fortunes remained faux.

PIcasso tapestries at Kykuit, collected by Nelson Rockefeller, following in his mother’s artistic footsteps.  Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

PIcasso tapestries at Kykuit, collected by Nelson Rockefeller, following in his mother’s artistic footsteps. Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Down the road at Kykuit, meanwhile, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller suffered the rejection of her personal collection of modern art by New York’s Metropolitan Museum. With Mayflower roots herself and an aesthetic education from a Providence finishing school and a youthful tour of Europe, her marriage to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had supported acquiring a collection of American artists, along with works by Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec. But in 1928 the gatekeepers of taste at the Metropolitan Museum scorned modern art. Like Albert Barnes in Philadelphia, Mrs. Rockefeller found her taste ridiculed and her collection excluded by the established artistic clique.

The new tycoons fought back, undaunted by the flimsy pedigrees thrown up to stop them. Gould’s financial roistering had created such enmity between him and the Vanderbilts that Gould vowed never to ride the New York Central or to set foot on land owned by any Vanderbilt. To keep his vow without foregoing his riverside estate, he spent a fortune building a yacht that could carry him up the Hudson as quickly as the train could have, along with a special bridge over the New York Central tracks between his dockage and his home. Once across his bridge, Gould could maintain the illusion of disconnection, though one wonders what he thought of the daily schedule of trains going by under his nose.

Marc Chagall window commissioned by Rockefeller family, Union Church of Pocantico Hills.  Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Marc Chagall window commissioned by Rockefeller family, Union Church of Pocantico Hills. Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Ambitious new money also outflanked Mrs. Astor by abandoning the old Academy of Music opera house to found the new Metropolitan Opera in 1880. The Academy opera series folded just three years later.

Similarly determined, Abby Rockefeller defied the scorn of art elites (and even of her own husband) and created a new art museum. With some friends who shared her love of modern art, she rented six rooms in the Hecksher building at 5th Ave and 57th St. There the Museum of Modern Art opened just nine days after the 1929 stock market crash. She was able to attract skilled and committed executive, curatorial, and board leadership, and the fledging organization survived. Eventually, Rockefeller, Jr. changed his mind and became one of MoMA’s most generous patrons. In tribute to her, Mrs. Rockefeller’s family made a fine gift to the Hudson Valley in the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, radiant with stained glass windows commissioned from Matisse and Chagall.

The struggle over the fake and the real occurred in literature too, down the river at Washington Irving’s home, Sunnyside. Irving lived in a peculiarly charmed historical moment, born just as the American Revolution ended in 1783, and dying in 1859, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. Experiencing neither of the formative conflicts of early America, he nevertheless became the new nation’s first international voice. But the “voice” that made this son of Scottish immigrants famous was the adopted tones of New York’s Dutch founders and their bewitching “Kaatskill” mountains.

Named for George Washington, and blessed at age six by the great man himself, Irving consciously wrote as a voice of his nation. But first, a charade! He launched his initial book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by “Diedrich Knickerbocker” by fabricating a pre-publication sensation around the fictional Knickerbocker himself. Personal ads in New York newspapers announced that the feckless Knickerbocker had skipped without paying rent, leaving behind a manuscript that his angry landlord threatened to publish unless he returned and settled accounts. Public interest in this juicy story translated into instant success for the trenchant and satirical History when it did emerge. Delighted to have succeeded with “an original work [that] was something remarkable and uncommon in America” Irving went on to a splendid and successful career. Though his fame was for satirical fiction, he apparently aspired to be a serious historian, spending his last years writing a five-volume biography of George Washington. His 1859 funeral in Sleepy Hollow was nearly a state occasion, attended by thousands, including the governor and mayor of New York, and occasioning the closing of schools, businesses, and shops.

Sunnyside, Irving’s eclectic cottage, including the Spanish style toward built after his diplomatic mission to Spain.  Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Sunnyside, Irving’s eclectic cottage, including the Spanish style toward built after his diplomatic mission to Spain. Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

One could, in short, scour the Hudson Valley from north to south without finding a single cultural, financial, or political worthy there who did not invest heavily in charade. Perhaps that was and is the essential business of being American – this role-playing and assuming of identities not one’s own.

Even the Roosevelts of Hyde Park, as honorable and pedigreed as any of New York’s fine (Euro-American) families, labored mightily over appearances. Long before FDR’s own struggle with polio, his mother’s family was embarrassed when their beautiful and eligible debutante daughter, Sara, chose to marry James Roosevelt, a widower twice her age. James’ own awkward aging made Franklin in turn very protective of him, while Sara spent a frustrating adulthood trying to screen Franklin’s disability (and his unacceptable wife, Eleanor) from public view.

Eleanor herself, it seems, resolute as she was in maintaining FDR’s public image, may have been the only denizen of the Hudson Valley not invested in faking her own story. Val-Kill, the simple cottage home she and Franklin built for her in 1924 across the road from the Big House that Sara ruled, spoke of easy self-knowledge, active and joyful engagement with the world as it was, and deep affection for and loyalty to Franklin, their family, and their shared work.

So, besides the obvious point that more Eleanor Roosevelts in our world would be a good thing, are there general lessons about American character in the Hudson Valley? The local mansions might speak only to the Gilded Age, a period whose very name evokes sham display.  But including the Roosevelts for the twentieth century and Washington Irving for the early nation extends the tale to more of our national life.

The vision of American character in the Hudson Valley is hardly unmixed. On the plus side, the River itself, its extraordinary power and lasting beauty, tells part of the national tale. That grandees chose to favor the River does make prominent a love of natural settings, and of principles of taming nature central to American self-making. In addition, the newcomers repeatedly demonstrated  commendable determination in forcing older elites aside, whether in art, culture, or politics.

Philipsburg mill and manor, Tarrytown.  Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Philipsburg mill and manor, Tarrytown. Image courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

More awkwardly, though, the grandees of the Hudson Valley were almost to a person, shallow and active shams, deceiving themselves and others as much as they possibly could. Going from mansion to mansion, it’s impossible not to wonder whether their many servants led more human lives than they did. Local free servants did fairly well in terms of food, comforts, pay, and housing. Unlike their “betters,” servants’ days were filled with tasks that drew on their smarts and their strength. At Philipsburg Manor in Tarrytown, interpretation refreshingly focused on the work of the mill, farm, and household. But the refreshment sours over the fact that Philipsburg Manor was worked by enslaved people.  Meanwhile, the rich folks up and down the region seem to have spent most of their energy worrying about whether their charades were going over or falling apart. Should we be proud today to preserve, interpret, and visit these playpens? With an eye cocked to contemporary troubles, might it serve us better to critique the magnetism of the Gilded Age circus?

One of the joys of seeing historic sites, especially thematically related ones as in the Hudson Valley, is the chance to search for larger social and cultural understandings. National, regional, and private philanthropy have done a fine job giving us access to these fascinating places. Though house guides do not strive to raise the larger issues, the interpretations give visitors sufficient perspective to ask the big questions ourselves. I don’t know yet quite how I feel about living in a nation of pretenders, historic or contemporary. But I’m delighted above all things that the “faux” past remains to challenge the “faux” present, offering the chance to ponder such a question.

Dr. Holt is a public historian, scholar, teacher, and executive. She is a lecturer in history and public history at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. As a public historian, Dr. Holt seeks to build community connection and civic vitality around understanding and presenting American history. Over more than a decade in the public humanities, Holt has brought about new initiatives, improved the strategic focus and financial management of non profits, built brands, managed teams of staff and volunteers, and contributed to statewide, regional, and national discussions on the future and purpose of the humanities. She lectures in the United States and Europe, and publishes in journals of public history, museum studies, and American history.

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