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Wilderstein Historic Site

It may not be the most familiar, the most discussed, or the most publicized historic estate in the Hudson River Valley, but Wilderstein is one of the region’s true gems. It boasts a rich family history that extends from the middle of the nineteenth century until 1991, spanning the estate’s creation, its renovation, and now its preservation as a house museum showcasing architectural and design elements as well as a family story that is tied to our nation’s history.

Wilderstein’s story begins in 1852, when Thomas Holy Suckley purchased thirty-two acres, primarily used for grazing sheep, on the east bank of the Hudson River in Rhinebeck. It was a prime location, offering magnificent, open views of the river. Suckley paid about $150 per acre, and immediately began plans for a home, recruiting New York City architect John Warren Ritch. The resulting Italianate dwelling was unpretentious in its design; however, it still cost $8,500. Suckley and his wife, Catharine, settled into the house in November 1853, four months after the birth of their first child, a son named Rutsen.

Established in their new home, Thomas set about transforming the grounds. He oversaw a great deal of planting—trees, fruits, and vegetables. In the process, he changed the name of the estate from “The Cedars” to the more romantic “Wilderstein,” a mock form of German meaning “wild man’s stone.” The change was prompted by a petroglyph of a Native American wearing a headdress that was found on the property.

In 1856, a second son, Robert Bowne, was born. The Suckleys’ third and last child, a daughter named Kittie, was born four years later. For a good number of years, the Suckleys lived happily at Wilderstein, enjoying their lives on the river and traveling with ease when necessary to New York City. Tragedy struck in 1865, when Rutsen died at the age of twelve after falling from an apple tree. A somber pall enveloped Wilderstein. Though life eventually continued for the family, several years later they were struck repeatedly by heartbreak: Thomas’s sister Mary died in 1872, his brother Rutsen died in 1875, and Kittie succumbed to tuberculosis in 1879. Nine months after Kittie’s death, Catharine herself died of grief. After this string of devastation, only Thomas and his son Robert remained.

Thomas never fully recovered from this immeasurable loss; his only source of happiness lay in Robert. Robert himself began to spend a great deal of time in Manhattan, where he began courting Elizabeth Philips Montgomery, nicknamed “Bessie,” in 1882. The couple married in October 1884. They first went to Europe, where they lived for two years and celebrated the birth of their first child, Rutsen. When they returned to the United States in late 1886, they moved to Orange, New Jersey, where their second son, Henry, was born. All seemed well until February 1888, when Thomas Suckley succumbed to either a stroke or heart attack, leaving Robert as his sole heir.

Soon after his father’s death, Robert began plans to move to Wilderstein. First, however, he decided to have a grand addition and major modifications made to the house. Architect Arnout Cannon, Jr., of Poughkeepsie was contracted for the project; he set about turning Wilderstein into a luxurious Queen Annestyle mansion. The new focal point became a five-story tower erected at the house’s northwest end. A carriage house and stable, as well as a boathouse were also constructed. The home’s interior was completely altered as well, to designs provided by Joseph Burr Tiffany. A new plan for the landscape was created and implemented by Vaux and Company and a greenhouse constructed by Lord and Burnham. In the midst of these renovations, two more sons joined the family— Robin, born in 1888, and Arthur, born two years later. (The latter was the first child to be born at Wilderstein.) Both the family and the house were expanding at a rapid pace.

Misfortune soon struck the Suckley family again. Young Rutsen died in August 1890, after a short and sudden illness. Though this greatly affected the household, three small boys remained to be looked after, while improvements to the house awaited completion. So the family moved forward. Three additional children eventually completed the family: Margaret Lynch (who would be called Daisy), born in 1891, and twin girls Katharine and Elizabeth (Betty), born two years later.

The family flourished in the years that followed, but their finances did not. At the beginning of 1897, they moved to Europe as a cost-cutting measure. They spent the next decade there. (Initially, they had planned on staying for only two years.) The livestock were sold and the staff at Wilderstein was reduced to the bare minimum needed to maintain the estate in the family’s absence. While the children spent time in various schools throughout Europe, Bessie kept a watchful eye on their goings-on and Robert made occasional trips back to the States. The family did not gather together again at Wilderstein until October 1907.

The children reveled in their return to the estate, exploring and relearning every corner of their thirty-five-room home. The ground-floor rooms were particularly enthralling, each decorated in a contrasting style, including Flemish medieval, American Colonial, and Louis XVI. The children spent their summers outdoors; in winter they enjoyed iceboating on the river. As they grew, the boys were sent away for schooling; Daisy also went to prep school for three years and to college for two. Wilderstein would remain the Suckley nerve center as the children grew, though Robert frequently returned to Europe.

It was Daisy, however, who ultimately reigned at Wilderstein. Her brother Henry died in 1917, a casualty of World War One; her father passed away in 1921. At that point, Robin was thirty-two, Arthur thirty, Daisy twenty-nine, and twins Katharine and Betty (now married) twenty-seven. Daisy assumed the role of overseeing Wilderstein and monitoring her brothers, sisters, and mother. She took a job as the personal secretary of her Aunt Sophia Langdon to secure a steady income for the family in the midst of their ever-weakening financial situation. Later, she worked as an archivist for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to whom she was distantly related.

More notably, Daisy became FDR’s confidante and close companion. Though their relationship was largely overlooked for decades, this changed after Daisy’s death in 1991. While her bedroom in the Wilderstein tower was being cleared, a worn black suitcase was discovered. It turned out to be full of letters written between Daisy and FDR. The correspondence revealed a much deeper, intimate relationship between the two, triggering questions about the depth of their bond and efforts they made to guard their connection.

The letters were published in 1995 in a book compiled by Geoffrey C. Ward. Pieced together with entries from Daisy’s journals, they tell the story of her relationship with the President. The two went for long drives together on his frequent trips home to Hyde Park, while she often visited him in Washington, D.C. In his letters to Daisy, FDR revealed personal details, in direct contrast to his usual correspondences. She was responsible for giving him his beloved, well-known Scottish terrier, Fala. Together, FDR and Daisy discussed plans for spending time with one another. They even had their own spot, called “Our Hill”—a place where something allegedly happened between them in 1935 that “neither of them ever forgot,” but whose specifics are unknown (Ward, 34.) They decided that “Our Hill” would be the perfect spot for a cottage, which began as a dream including them both but resulted in the reality of Top Cottage, the retirement retreat FDR built for himself in 1938. Though the relationship eventually lost its flirtatious edge, Daisy and FDR remained close until the end. Daisy was one of four women with the President when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1945.

Daisy lived for almost fifty years after Roosevelt’s death, spending the remainder of her life at Wilderstein. In 1983 she donated the entirety of Wilderstein to a not-for-profit organization established to ensure its preservation and public interpretation after her death.

Since 1980, this organization has worked to maintain the grounds and buildings at Wilderstein, as well as the staggering number of personal effects; the three generations of Suckleys who so definitively left their mark here also happened to leave behind a wealth of letters, documents, books, diaries, paintings, furniture, and the like. All serve as a testament to the lives of the Suckley family and the times in which they lived in this beautiful place beside the river.

—Amanda Schreiner, Marist, ’08

 

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