December and the holidays bring joy and sometimes reflection, but it is January, the heart of winter, that can become the month of rumination. The start of the year, however, is also when the days grow longer, and we appreciate the sun in a bright blue sky glistening on the snow – usually. If accustomed to snow, the absence of it offsets in that inexplicable way that setting the clocks forward and back sometimes does. January can become like this one a month played in minor key depending upon where our paths take us. With travel, like life, we may say that the timing is not right and never go, but think of 2019 as the year of heading out.
One such trip would be to the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Parks in Hyde Park, which offer not only history but the beauty of the Hudson Valley. For those interested in history, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” brings home the relatable parts of the family story as well as world events: Teddy, a young man who lost both his wife and mother within a day, Franklin, a favorite son of a doting mother and the privileged man struck by illness, Eleanor, a girl who felt that she never fit in with her peers, and Eleanor & Franklin and the dynamics of a marriage.
Springwood, FDR Library and Museum, and Top Cottage
Springwood estate in Hyde Park, New York is the birthplace and home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which the family referred to as “Hyde Park” and the “Big House”. The house is impressive, but the sweeping view of the Hudson River rivals it. One could see why FDR returned to Springwood often during his three terms as president. On the grounds are also the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the burial site of the president and first lady. The estate is beautiful with trees that FDR, a conservationist like his cousin Theodore, had planted. Top Cottage, the president’s retreat, is about two miles away and accessible via the park shuttle.
Our first visit was on an impromptu stop while traveling to the Berkshires where my friend spent summers as a boy and enjoys returning as we both do. Hyde Park in Dutchess County, part of the Mid-Hudson Valley, however, is a destination in itself with FDR’s home, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Park and the nearby Sixteen Mile Historic District in Columbia County, all part of The Hudson River National Landmark Historic District, the largest historic district in the continental US.
On this initial Springwood trip in June, we had a chance to tour FDR’s home. Among the fascinating accounts that the park ranger shared on the tour, a few stood out. Sara, Franklin’s devoted mother who owned the house and Franklin’s New York City home, interestingly, revamped Springwood to look more “presidential” years before Franklin was president with an idea like dressing for the job to which one aspires. Franklin assisted with the designs that transformed the exterior of Springwood from a pleasant “clapboard farmhouse” to Colonial Revival Style. Visitors, many political allies, could easily envision FDR in the White House.
The president, the “Great Communicator,” delivered two of his famous fireside chats from Springwood with his Scottish Terrier Fala, a favorite of children across the country, including our mother, by his side. Grown-ups, too, seemed to enjoy Fala. The FDR Library blog shares that sailors got the idea of cutting off locks of Fala’s fur for good luck on one of FDR’s WWII battleship visits. Fala had a habit of dashing off to the decks below to get treats, and he slipped by his “walking officer” on the USS Baltimore. The sociable Fala did not bark while being clipped, but FDR had to put a stop to this as the terrier looked quite shorn.
Before Fala’s antics, along the tree-lined driveway to his boyhood home, the 39-year-old Franklin pushed himself to walk farther and farther each day after being stricken with polio. Researchers speculate that the president may have had Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is a nerve disorder and not a viral disease, but that did not change what FDR dealt with in 1921. Franklin never made it to the end of the driveway, but he continued to try.
For our mother and many of her peers, FDR was president throughout their childhoods. Our mother recalls that Mrs. Branigan, a Vailsburg, Newark neighbor and an Irish immigrant, got off the bus from work one day and walked along the street sobbing. When Mrs. Branigan passed our mother’s house, she saw the little girl sitting on the porch glider, and between tears, said, “Our president is dead.” Hearing this, our mother, too, burst into tears feeling a family attachment to the man whose voice had come into their homes to reassure them during the Great Depression and World War II.
A familial warmth is part of the delight of visiting historic sites in Hyde Park and the area. Many residents knew the families who were also part of their community, and they shared life stories. After each winning election, neighbors carried torches up to the front of the house at Springwood to wish FDR well. The wonderful feeling of community in Hyde Park remains to this day.
The elegance of the Rose Garden, here blooming with peonies, befits its stately purpose as the resting place of Eleanor and Franklin. The beloved Fala is also buried nearby and daughter Anna’s German shepherd.
On another visit, we enjoyed exploring the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the first US presidential library, which we enjoyed exploring ohas the compelling pull of history. Seeing the president’s memorabilia from his White House years has a resonance beyond his delightful boyhood collections and the family photographs in his home. Historic photos come to life in the library. FDR was the first president to donate his letters to the public, leaving them to the National Archives. The innovative design of the entrance celebrates this historic boon. At FDR’s request, the library also includes the letters of the First Lady. The library also has virtual tours. Given park budgets, Top Cottage has limited tours, and after our wonderful library visit, we looked forward to seeing FDR’s retreat another time.
Top Cottage was the second home that FDR designed with architect Henry Toombs with the thought that the president would retire there after his second term. The fieldstone Dutch Colonial Revival home, in keeping with the historic houses in the area, is one of only two buildings designed by a US president and one of the first in the United States with wheelchair accessibility. Primarily, it was a peaceful getaway. Springwood was often hectic during FDR’s presidency, and well-wishers entered the grounds hoping to see the president, unimaginable with 21st-century security.
Like Springwood, Top Cottage had many famous visitors: Winston Churchill, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Princesses Juliana and Beatrix, Norway’s Crown Prince Olaf and Crown Princess Martha, and interestingly, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. On the first visit to the US by British monarchs, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were guests at the celebrated Top Cottage “hot dog summit,” where the president introduced the royal couple to American dishes at a picnic and took the king and queen on one of his hurtling car rides. The picnic had a serious and successful purpose in making the British monarchs seem relatable and more democratic as they ate and drank beer with Hyde Park staff. Months later, FDR was able to send supplies to help England after their declaration of war on Germany. All of FDR’s guests appreciated this woodland retreat from the public eye as he did and the warmth of being entertained in a home.
If we drove like FDR, we may have made it on time to tour Top Cottage, but missing the shuttle bus went from our running joke about timing, somewhat akin to having missed the rocket launch for life, to a lesson in saying good-bye to perfectionism, a good resolution. Travel writing should make people want to go to a place and enjoy it – informative fun does not have to be a dutiful treatise. And yet, we still tried. Top Cottage closes in the winter, another discovery on a different visit, which meant a great excuse to enjoy the beautiful tulip poplar trees outside the library and have lunch in the café before driving home. Other trips to the FDR historic site have brought more walks and gift shop stops for ornaments at the holidays. So a missed shuttle bus here and there has led to making the FDR historic site a regular stop like walking the grounds at the Vanderbilt Mansion.
Posting, too, went the way of the elusive Top Cottage. Even with the buffer of history, a post in the fall of 2016 was not the best time. Over the holidays, rethought this with the idea for Top Cottage as a metaphor for new beginnings, still the timing was not right, but better now with thoughts of spring visits.
Val-Kill, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s historic site, is two miles from Springwood and a little over four miles from Top Cottage. Perhaps that is part of how Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage lasted or that the demands of public life required personal space. A warm June sun, chirping birds, and beautiful flowers, show the simple residence as what it was, a haven for the first lady. With the exhibits planned by the park rangers, visitors feel Eleanor’s uplifting spirit. Practically, Val-Kill gave the first lady opportunity to work on her own projects including the development of off-season jobs for local residents, which became Val-Kill Industries. The name “Valley Stream” is from the Dutch for both the valley location and the wonderful stream that offered the Roosevelt family swimming in the summer. The grounds are beautiful with a charming footbridge and a wonderful garden with peonies in season. Val-Kill later went to Eleanor’s son Elliott, who had attended the Hun School in Princeton, New Jersey, a Garden State connection.
If you enjoy history, the tours are where you get the great tidbits. Our park ranger, part of the esprit de corps of rangers like those at Springwood, brought the beautiful mansion to life.
Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius, along with his wife Louise commissioned Charles McKim, a name partner in the country’s top architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, to build their Neoclassical-Beaux Arts home. As the Historic Resource Study for the site notes, the elegant architectural combination was unusual for a country home and is the only one of its kind in the Hudson Valley. With a newly restored exterior, visitors can now enjoy river views from the balcony in warm weather. Completion of the 54-room mansion brought the top craftsmen for woodwork and stone design, many from Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. The interior is incredible as you can see from the photos. Much of the furniture and art was brought from Europe, a trend at the time, and Stanford White was Frederick’s antique dealer. James Greenleaf designed the Italianate garden, which we look forward to seeing on another trip.
During the two years it took to build the mansion, 1896-1899, Louise and Frederick periodically stayed in the Pavilion, now the Visitor Center, to oversee building. The Gilded Age families were the generation that spent the fortunes that their grandparents had made. In the case of Frederick and Louise, they were generous as opposed to frivolous. Frederick had architect McKim build the Howard Mansion at Hosack Farm across the road for his niece Rose Anthony Post Howard and her husband Thomas Howard, a descendant of the founder of Rutgers University and Revolutionary War general, John Neilson. Rose and Thomas were the maternal grandparents of Thomas Howard Kean, the Governor of New Jersey. Well-liked in Hudson Valley, Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt did not have children and enjoyed giving gifts to those of their staff in addition to showing their appreciation for their work. Though they had their bedrooms designed as if they were European royalty, the fashion of the day, the Vanderbilts were warm and accessible. Louise herself oversaw gift-giving for the staff. They left a great deal of their fortune to charity, loyal staff, and a niece. The ultimate donation of the mansion to the public, like that of Springwood, was FDR’s idea.
The estate provided local jobs year-round with the mansion, the grounds, garden, greenhouses, dairy, vegetable garden, orchard, and a dock where guests could arrive on their yachts. The ice box is representative of how eco-friendly the property was. Long after the invention of refrigerators, Frederick kept these efficient ices boxes in use. Not only did the ice boxes operate without electrical power, but the staff who maintained the ice remained employed.
The beautiful holiday welcome, done at the initiative of the park rangers, is breathtaking. Like other Gilded Age families, the Vanderbilts had several homes where they usually spent different seasons. The mansion was their country home where they celebrated Easter and visited in the fall, though they did give Christmas gifts to staff. New York City was their primary residence and Newport, Rhode Island, Bar Harbor, Maine, and the Adirondacks, their summer retreats. (Springwood also has Christmas decorations.) In warmer weather, visitors may go out on the balcony, opened after the restoration.
The Hyde Park Drive-in, opened in 1950, is across the street from Hyde Park. An in-season classic, it is another reason to stay over in the area to enjoy the sites and charm. If you enjoy these drive-in photos, you may want to follow the wonderful Cinema Treasures on Instagram, which documents movie venues all over the country.
At the Vanderbilt Mansion, a number of loyal Poughkeepsians talked up their town, which called for a return trip first to enjoy the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The views matched “The Queen City of the Hudson,” as Poughkeepsie on the east bank is also known, which is across the river from the charming Kingston. Even on a minus-degree wind chill December day, the Hudson River was spectacular. An active park group takes year-round advantage of the trails and you can connect with them on their social media. During the holidays, the nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Husdon Bridge is lit in red and green lights at night.
The all too brief visit to the City of Poughkeepsie led to stops to admire the fine architecture and an informal tour of Vassar College. Look forward to visiting the charming Mid_Hudson Children’s Museum and more on the next visit to the city, which also has a drive-in, the Overlook.
A delight of the December return trip was the holiday cheer and navigational expertise of the area toll takers. GPS is not the same as directions shared with smiles and the admiration of a cheerful holiday pin or Santa Claus gel nails. Our family knows the area from growing up, a story for another day, but these quick chats were not only helpful, but reminders of nice visits and family stories.
As a Seven Sisters graduate, it was delightful to visit Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie. Now coed, the beautiful campus has a wonderful atmosphere and delightful shops and restaurants nearby.
Named after English poet John Milton, the hamlet in Ulster County delights with historic homes, churches, and welcoming shops in a scenic setting. With such a brief visit, look forward to another. A fun tidbit is that Marlon Brando’s “A Fugitive Kind” was filmed here in 1959. Enjoyed spectacular river views from the Milton Landing Dog Park with a truly merry Christmas tree out on the dock.
Rhinebeck charms in every season. The former “Violet Capital of the World,” later renowned for its anemones, Rhinebeck is known for its hospitality, and to this day, a warm welcome awaits visitors. FDR gave campaign speeches from the porch of the historic Beekman Arms, 1766, which hosted everyone from Founding Fathers George Washington and Robert Livingston to New Jerseyans Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson. A further New Jersey connection goes back to Robert Livingston’s brother William, who signed the Constitution and was the first governor of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. William resided at Liberty Hall, Union. Liberty Hall, now part of Kean University, was sold to Kean relatives, family of New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean on his father’s side. Alexander Hamilton was a guest at both Liberty Hall and the Beekman Arms.
German settlers from the Bavarian Palatinate named the beautiful area “Ryn Beck” in 1714, because it reminded them of their Rhine Valley home. Rhinebeck dates back to the Sepasco and Eposus, Lenape Native Americans who were later joined by Dutch settlers in 1686. The Dutch brought the Sinterklaass tradition now celebrated in an annual December nondemoninational festival. Well-known residents like John Jacob Astor IV followed the Dutch and Germans to what became “Rhinebeck”. The village, a National Historic District, is remarkable in that so much of its original architecture remains.
The photos here are from a December trip to the Village of Rhinebeck within the larger town both within the “Sixteen Mile Historic District”.
A well-known resident, Hilarie Burton, who stars in one of my favorite holiday movies, “Christmas on the Bayou,” is an active sponsor of a local charity Astor Services for Children and Families and has invested in a town business, Samuel’s Sweet Shop, both co-starring her husband Jeffrey Dean Morgan and friends Julie Yeager & Paul Rudd. Rhinebeck is also the hometown of Rufus Wainwright, whose performance at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on his tour for “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu” was so incredible that it was like being transported out of time and place. In real time, however, my friend stepped out for a snack on the boardwalk and returned for the encore. Mr. Wainwright was in competition with the PGA Tour, which is not to slight a true artist who had sold out the venue, but it helps with perspective when putting work out there.
Wilderstein and the Hudson Valley
The Hudson Valley has so much to see and do that we may never make it to Top Cottage. We look forward to discovering other sights that range from the High Falls Conservation Area to the Culinary Institute of America, which our mother has enjoyed with friends. Wilderstein, where FDR’s cousin, confidante, Fala gift-giver, and one of the first archivists of the FDR Library, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley lived, was and is on the visit list. Though arriving after dark on the most recent Mid-Hudson Valley visit, still took a loyal fan photo at the Victorian mansion with its grounds designed by Calvert Vaux, because all roads lead to Central Park and New Jersey at one time or another.
Home Travels with You
Once in a surprising turn of events, while traveling with a summer study group, we rode in a boat taxi along the Grand Canal at sunset in Venice. The sun splashed a million shades of gold along the colorful palazzi in “La Serenissimo,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice”. Inexplicably, most of the students were arguing over the rooms, but the wonderful sound of rushing water and the steady hum of the engine could still be heard between sharp words. Looking across the boat, another classmate, like me, marveled at the panoramic beauty before us. She smiled serenely. We did not know each other well. From our remarks in class, we had different opinions on things, but we both had an appreciation for our good fortune. Our classmates missed the sunset, not having noticed, or not having minded. Later, when we all returned to school, work, and occasional turmoil, my fellow traveler and I would sometimes look at each other and smile. We had shared a love of beauty.
People will surprise us. Before going on the trip, our Uncle Ray, a comedy writer for Steve Allen, Bob Hope, and Phyllis Diller, and at times, presidents of both parties, whose favorite movie preferences were lighthearted ones featuring Laurel & Hardy and Hope and Crosby’s “Road pictures,” suggested, “Watch David Lean’s ‘Summertime’ before you go. Venice looks like a dream.'” The film, if you have not seen it, is a visual love letter to the city as much as it is about lost opportunity and timing. For our uncle who was so talented that he did not easily fit in, which ultimately led to full-time work in a factory, the film may have had a particular meaning. Generous, his career advice was his life advice, “Cheap shots are easy, it’s the clever jokes that are hard.”
In a pessimist’s theory of reductionism, Serenissimo is
overcrowded, Fala was the invention of wartime propaganda, and Teddy’s bad side
is on Mount Rushmore. On a certain level, these assertions may seem
true, but it would be like describing Venice
without the light. Happy New Year.
Note: Intended for posting in January 2019.
(Sources: nps.gov, fdr.blogs.archives.gov, c-span.org/video/?429257-1/franklin-d-roosevelts-top-cottage “American History TV,” history.com, health.heraldtribune.com, hvmg.com, forbes.com, smithsonianmagazine.com, whitehousehistory.org, ushistory.org, poughkeepsiejournal.com, hrvh.com, rhinebeckchamber.com, rhinebeckmuseum.com, beekmandelamaterinn.com, wilderstein.org, usatoday.com, c-span.org, tripadvisor.com, winstonchurchill.org, providencejournal.com, aboutfranklinroosevelt.com, Wiki)
“Hyde Park: The Year from the Top” All Rights Reserved © 2019 Kathleen Helen Levey