Wilderstein: A Grand Middle Ground
Despite the brickbats of revisionist history, FDR was a great president and his wife Eleanor a towering public figure. But their taste in architecture and design were rather lacking in, shall we say, devil-may-care fun. In fact, this deficiency, if it is one, was quite deliberate. The statement made by Springwood (commonly referred to simply as “Hyde Park”) and Val-Kill is intentional: Springwood’s restrained Colonial Revival form and Val-Kill’s country-shack appearance were reactions against nouveau displays such as the nearby Beaux Arts Vanderbilt mansion, designed (by McKim, Mead & White, with White serving as antiques acquirer) to impress with its wealth and European inclinations. To the Roosevelts such Public Displays of Affluence were counter to what they believed in, both as political figures and as people, and the only downside of this, perhaps, was the slightly austere (if not dowdy) vibe of their own personal accommodations.
Not so the Hudson River residence of Roosevelt’s intimate friend, confidant, distant cousin, and caretaker to his famous dog Fala, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, in nearby Rhinebeck. The Wilderstein estate, her lifetime home (she lived to be 100), is as grandly but unhaughtily playful, open-minded and delightful as the woman was herself, and no doubt one of the reasons why FDR himself loved to visit it and her throughout his presidency. Their friendship is the subject of the eagerly anticipated and upcoming film Hyde Park on Hudson with Bill Murray portraying FDR and the wonderful Laura Linney as Daisy, and is generating widespread interest, making the rounds of the New York Film and FilmColumbia’s Festivals, just premiering in London and due to open nationwide on December 7.
Built in stages by Daisy’s father Robert in the early 1890s after coming into his family’s large inheritance, Wilderstein falls somewhere in between other large historical mansions of the area. It was built not so much to impress (which it certainly does), but simply to give pleasure and comfort, at the time just for his family but now, as a local foundation-supported historical site, to the public at large. As opposed to picking one high-end form and sticking to it, Robert decided on local wood- cladded Queen Anne, who by all architectural evidence must have been one loose lady. Queen Anne was the most “in” and modern at the time, allowing a homeowner to do pretty much what he or she pleased, adding mod cons as needed and allowing any mix of interior decorating styles. Within the now beautifully restored, multi-formed exterior of Wilderstein, designed by local architect Arnout Cannnon, Jr. and painted a handful of warm earthy colors (the first batch of which reportedly made Daisy’s neurasthenic, controlling mother Bessie, faint), there’s a Gothic hallway with warm wood carvings, a Flemish library with gorgeous stained- glass windows, a Louis XVI drawing room, and a Jacobean dining room, to name just a few, all designed by Joseph Tiffany (cousin of Louis). Also on the grounds is a Persian inspired carriage house (currently awaiting restoration), along with other structures intermingled amongst a landscape of walking paths designed by Calvert Vaux (of Central Park and Olana fame), all with breathtaking views of the Hudson River. Capping the whole experience is an enormous turret on the main house with “candle snuffer” top that reaches out exuberantly to the sky. It’s Victoriana at its most engaging and inviting, and a visitor’s mere circle around it is a spirit-lifting (yet also oddly soothing) experience.
From the start, the experience for the Suckley family was — despite frequent absences of Robert; the Panic of 1893, which forced the family into a 10-year exile to Europe, and frequent rest cures at sanitariums for Bessie — a daily blessing. After attending Bryn Mawr, Daisy herself settled at Wilderstein once and for all and didn’t leave, except for stays at the White House and Warm Springs, until her death. “Wilderstein is a continuum through 1991,” says executive director Greg Sokaris. “A lot of things came later on in stages and we haven’t changed any of that, even the kitchen, which Daisy used until the day she died that year. She had turned it all over to a local preservation organization in 1980 and was around for the first ten years or so of it as an historic site, offering tea and telling stories to visitors.”
That attachment continued to the very end. As Cynthia Owen Philips, author of Wilderstein and the Suckleys, relates, “When Daisy was in her one hundredth year, a carpenter was hired to repair the decayed sashes of Wilderstein’s tower windows….One afternoon she climbed up the steep stairs to see what had been done. Utterly happy, she mused, ‘You know when I asked my mother where I came from, she told me I came in on a sunbeam. I think I shall go out on a moonbeam.’” —Scott Baldinger
Wilderstein Historic Site
330 Morton Road
Rhinebeck, NY 12572
The grounds are open year round, interior house tours will begin (weekends only) Thanksgiving weekend and go through December 30, then will re-open in May.
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