When visiting our daughter in college in Westchester County, NY, we often stayed in Tarrytown, located on the east side of the Hudson at the location of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Knowing that this attractive community was the home of 19th century American author Washington Irving, and that his home, Sunnyside, was open to the public, we had long talked about coming back to visit Sunnyside as well as some of the other historic mansions overlooking the Hudson. Last week, we actually did it.
While there is apparently no precise definition of the “Hudson Valley”, the definition we adopted (Tarrytown on the south, and exurban Albany on the north) seems as good as any. The river itself is majestic and, from its eastern banks, where we spent most of our trip, the views across the Hudson, from the lights of Nyack on its southern boundary to the Catskills as you head north, provide beautiful views.
While these panoramic views were an important part of our trip, its real focus was history – the 400 years since the earliest European presence in the area. From the Dutch settlements and exploration of the early, early 17th century, through the English/Scottish settlement during the 18th century, the Revolutionary War period of the late 18th century, the use of the Hudson as a major commercial artery of the 19th century to its commercial decline with the opening of the Erie Canal and the development of the railroad. In the meantime, wealthy New Yorkers built their mansions along the river, often for residence only in the spring and fall, as they went back to the city for the winter season, and headed to Maine in June, July and August.
Historic houses visited included the King Mansion and the Biddle Mansion on the grounds of Tarrytown House, where we stayed for three pleasant nights. In Tarrytown, there was both Washington Irving’s Sunnyside and railroad “robber baron” Jay Gould’s neo-Gothic Lyndhurst, as well as John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit, situated on 80 sculpture filled acres, which served as Nelson Rockefeller’s home while he was governor of the state, and contains much of his storied art collection. We drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge to Nyack to visit artist Edward Hopper’s boyhood home, and see an exhibit of some of his early works (we also saw Helen Hayes’ house in Nyack, purchased after her death by Rosie O’Donnell).
Heading north, we saw the van Courtland estate, which was purchased and expanded by the van Courtland family in 1688 and was even before that the site of a Dutch Indian trading post (a more rustic ‘mansion’, the site also contains a tenant house and an old tavern whose customers came across the Croton River ferry, which provided a landing site for the van Courtlands.
We saw the Vanderbilt house in Hyde Park, a 54 room mansion that was the smallest of 40 houses built by the grandchildren of the original Vanderbilt (the “Commodore”), and the Roosevelt house also at Hyde Park, where it adjoins the Franklin Roosevelt presidential library, and separate houses used as a retreat by FDR and a residence (until her death in 1962) by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Finally, we visited Hudson River School painter, Frederic Church’s house, Olana, designed in Persian style, overlooking the Hudson north of Red Hook, NY, as well as the Mills Mansion and Clermont, which was the home of the historic Livingston family. Finally, we drove to Kinderhook to see Lindenhurst, the home where Kinderhook native Martin van Buren, America’s eighth president, retired.
In addition to seeing these historic houses, we were able to eat at some good restaurants (Il Sorisso in Irvington, Swagat and Sweet Grass in Tarrytown, and the Flatiron in Red Hook) to see friends and relatives, to visit the DIA Museum (an extraordinary factory conversion) in Beacon, to walk across the Hudson on the restored railroad bridge, now a footbridge, at Poughkeepsie, and to generally tour most of the river towns in the area.
Before we took our trip, we asked friends if they had beat us to it. With the exception of a few people who had visited one or two of the houses, the typical answer was “you know, we have talked about doing that for twenty years, but haven’t done it”. Until last week, we could have given this answer as well.
This trip is highly recommended.