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The Kykuit Estate: An Embodiment of the Intellect and Creativity of the Rockefeller Family

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 27, No. 1

Kykuit is the Rockefeller estate nestled in the Pocantico Hills of Westchester County, twenty-five miles north of New York City. Appropriately named “Kykuit,” the Dutch word for “lookout,” the estate provides views not only of the Hudson River, but of the vast stretches of land the Rockefellers owned and carefully landscaped. Kykuit was constructed with the intention of being a safe, serene haven amid the family’s political, social, economic, and philanthropic endeavors. Four generations lived in the estate; however, John D. Rockefeller Sr., John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Nelson A. Rockefeller left the most distinct individual impressions.

Since 1905, Kykuit has been an embodiment of the intellectual and creative endeavors of the Rockefeller family, changing most dramatically after Nelson obtained ownership in the 1960s. In December 1991, according to the former Vice President’s will, Kykuit was bestowed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rockefeller estate was opened to the public as a historic site. Historic Hudson Valley provides tours, which share the historic significance of Kykuit with those interested in the Rockefeller family, twentieth-century architecture, gardens, and modern art.

The estate is the product of the intersection of intellectual and aesthetic philosophies of three generations of Rockefellers. It was built with the intention of appearing simple and dignified. Kykuit’s construction began in the mind of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, in the late 1800s. He purchased the land in the Pocantico Hills in 1893. Construction of the house began in 1905, after a series of discussions and disputes between John D. Sr., John Jr., and the architects. Senior primarily wanted to build the estate as a comfortable domestic refuge for his family. He desired a T-shaped building, designed to take full advantage of the Hudson River and afternoon sunlight, with an office and drawing room at the entrance, a large central space, and a library, tea room, and dining room extending beyond the central living space. He envisioned the house as the focal point of the estate. Junior and his wife, Abby, wanted to build a setting for family life, but also saw the estate as a symbol of classical beauty.

The architects, Chester Holmes Aldrich and William Adams Delano, were educated at Columbia and Yale, respectively, and later went on to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in France. The Beaux-Arts style was focused on preserving the aesthetics of the Classical period. William Welles Bosworth was hired as Kykuit’s landscape architect; however Frederick Law Olmsted contributed to the design as well. Bosworth, like Aldrich and Delano, was a skilled American architect who obtained his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École des Beaux-Arts. He also worked on the restoration of the Palace of Versailles and Notre-Dame de Reims, projects partially funded by the Rockefeller family. Although these men were well-trained and educated, they often had to concede to the artistic demands of the Rockefellers, most notably John Sr.

In 1906, Kykuit’s construction was threatened by the lack of structural steel; however, John Jr., who served as the force behind initiating and carrying out the construction process—he oversaw decisions regarding heating, plumbing, and brands of appliances—contacted the president of U.S. Steel and received assurances there would be enough material. Senior and Junior were both united in their financial and emotional investments in a home that was proving difficult to construct. Despite these difficulties, Kykuit’s basic structure was completed in 1907; soon after, John Jr. and Abby began considering the interior of the house, ultimately admiring the work of Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton, authors of the influential book, The Decoration of Houses. Junior and Abby began working with Codman on the interior plans that same year, and purchased wallpaper, carpets, and other decorations for the home. In 1908, the first stage was finished. From 1913 to 1915, the estate underwent a series of renovations. By 1915, Kykuit was complete, embodying the tension between rigid formality and the rustic, with an overall stately appearance. The home served as a gathering place for family as well as notable political and social figures.

Nelson Rockefeller assumed ownership of Kykuit in 1961, after his father’s death, and he left the most notable and lasting impression on the home, embodied by his collection of modern art. (Although John D. Rockefeller 3rd was Kykuit’s rightful heir, he conceded the estate to his brother.) Upon acquiring Kykuit, Nelson had the foresight to preserve its historical integrity. He kept the original furniture and pieces of art, including a collection of Chinese ceramics obtained by his father. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington remained on the walls, placed there by John Sr. and Jr. and representative of the historical and political legacy they most admired. In an adjacent room, a T’ang Dynasty marble bodhisattva still sits before a large window overlooking the Hudson River; the piece belonged to Nelson’s mother. Meandering through the rooms reveals Kykuit’s identity as an aggregation of various cultures and eras spanning from Chinese Dynasties to the nineteenth century in the United States.

Nelson brought the collection into the twentieth century. Instilled with a deep appreciation for art by his mother, he collected a variety of avant garde and modern pieces. According to contemporaries and scholars, Nelson’s desire to collect and display art was pure, in the sense that he did not do it to show off his wealth or intellect. The process of acquiring and displaying became therapeutic and was the product of his philanthropic desire to share art with the public. He often lent pieces in his collection to museums. Nelson appreciated art because of its strength and ability to evoke emotion and engage the viewer. However he did not enjoy subtlety in artwork. His collection is dominated by the work of Abstract Expressionists because he admired their boldness.

While the contents of the collection at Kykuit are astounding, the siting of the sculptures, paintings, lithographs, and etchings is just as fascinating. Nelson became consumed with placement in an attempt to ensure that each piece was properly and most effectively displayed. He was pleased when he discovered that the house’s basement would be the ideal space for his collection. He also carefully analyzed and rearranged sculptures on the landscape surrounding the estate.

Kykuit’s basement art gallery, which is included in the Historic Hudson Valley Classic Tour, consists primarily of paintings, etchings, and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. One corridor consists primarily of Picasso tapestries, commissioned by Nelson from 1955 to 1974 and created by Madame J. de la Baume Durrbach with the approval of the artist himself. The famous medieval Unicorn tapestries were a valued possession of the Rockefellers and may account for Nelson’s interest in commissioning these modern counterparts. The Unicorn tapestries would have most likely found their place on the walls of Kykuit’s basement; however, they were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art during Nelson’s childhood, exemplifying the Rockefeller family’s philanthropic spirit.

The sculpture collection is one of the most visually and physically astonishing facets of Kykuit. Nelson collected sculptures from 1935 to 1970, and although he often gave the works to museums, 120 remain at the estate. There are ninety works in the outdoor collection, seventy-one bought by Nelson, who clearly favored Reg Butler, Gaston Lachaise, Aristide Maillol, and Eli Nadelman, each of whom have three sculptures on display. Other notable sculptors include Jean Arp, Constantine Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and Isamu Noguchi.

Sculptures were acquired through dealers, by having casts made, and most notably through relationships that Nelson fostered and cherished with artists over the years. In 1962, Gaston Lachaise’s Dans La Nuit and Man became the first two sculptures in Nelson’s collection, obtained through his promotion of Lachaise’s artistic endeavors. Lachaise later contributed Woman Standing, another famous piece. Aristide Maillol contributed Torso and Bather Pulling Up Her Hair; Moore contributed Nuclear Energy and Knife Edge, while Calder contributed Spiny and Large Spiny.

On a typical Kykuit tour, the first three sculptures encountered include Oceanus, a replica of a Florentine fountain, which stands at the house’s entrance; Bird in Space by Brancusi; and Woman by Giacometti. The latter two pieces are unconventional and abstract, whereas the fountain is a classical piece. These sculptures and their proximity to one another exemplify the intersection and tension between Classic, Gothic, European, and Modern styles at Kykuit. The rest of the sculpture collection is placed carefully throughout the gardens, whose design Bosworth based on Italian and Renaissance garden models, fusing English, French, and Italian aesthetics. Together, the gardens and sculptures reflect orderliness, clarity, and definition.

The Kykuit estate is both a microcosm of the domestic and international legacy of the Rockefeller family and a unique collection of artistic expression representing the simultaneous alignment of tradition and rejection of its rigidity. Each sculpture and painting, paired with the intricate presentation of interior furniture and exterior landscape, serves as an extension and embodiment of the family’s intellect and creativity. As such, Kykuit is a treasured historical resource in the Hudson Valley.

—Maxine Presto, Marist ’10

Learn more about Kykuit, including hours and directions, visit www.hudsonvalley.org.Wilderstein Historic Site

October; the grounds are open year-round from 9 a.m. until dusk. www.wilderstein.org; 845-876-4818

Works Cited

Philip, Cynthia Owen. Wilderstein and the Suckleys: a Hudson River Legacy. Rhinebeck, NY: Wilderstein Preservation, 2001.

Ward, Geoffrey C., ed. Closest Companion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. Wilderstein Historic Site. Jan. 2001. Wilderstein Preservation. 5 Sept. 2007 <www.wilderstein.org>.

 

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