Nelson Rockefeller was once the governor of New York state. He never carried cash, people said, and when I met him in the ’60s at the State Fair, I was a Girl Scout. He was eating a coney (which he did not pay for), and it made the news. Later, when I moved to Washington, DC, in the ’70s, I worked for a congressman with the memorable name of Herman T. Schneebeli who had been Rockefeller’s freshman roommate at Dartmouth,. Rocky would come by, and in his low gravely unmistakable voice say that he wanted to see “Herm, that old SOB.” I was young then and such language from a public figure probably shocked me.
Little about the Rockefeller Estate, Kykuit, shocked me until we got to the basement. Kykuit means “lookout” in old Dutch, and the estate was built by patriarch John D. Rockefeller and another of his sons, John II, called Junior. It became a Historic Trust property after Rocky died in 1979. It is located 25 miles north of New York City overlooking the Hudson at Tappan Zee. You board the bus to the gated grounds in Tarrytown.
The gardens are very beautiful, and view of the Hudson River is breath-taking, but the house is rather, I hesitate to use the word modest, but let’s just say it isn’t Vanderbuilt’s Biltmore. Rocky and his wife Happy raised their sons in this three-story house that has 40 rooms. The whole tour is tightly controlled and you never wander alone, nor is there any discussion of past tragedies or scandals that are part of the Rockefeller heritage.
The house is filled with nice stuff. Gold and mirrors and some especially graceful and beautiful Chinese figurines. Nice furniture, and some 20th Century modern art on the walls. In the living room, for example, there is a Miro over the sofa. Except it’s a copy, made bigger to fit the wall space. But then the tour guide escorts you to the basement.
It smells like a basement, and there are no windows, or if there are any, they’re high up. It’s humid and claustrophobic, but the white walls are covered with art. There are also sculptures. And white couches that the guide tells us were used when the family entertained and wanted to take in the vibe (my words).
Huge tapestries, woven by one woman in France impressed me the most. Her name was Madame J. de la Baume Durrback and it took her a year to weave each. The tapestries are all copies of paintings by Picasso, writ large and woven under his supervision. Just hanging there, in the basement! It was as if someone had a hobby (collecting modern art) and had died and no one could break up the collection or change anything. Talk about throwback. Remember the rec room–that secret hideaway in the basement? Imagine a really big one with works of art that should be in museums in the basement of a 100-year-old house
When you come above ground again at Kykuit, it’s a relief. The tour ends in the light and airy stable/carriage house. What a relief to look at cars and carriages and read about how many National Parks (20) the Rockefellers donated the land for and what they have done for conservation.
Oh, and I just read online that the tapestries are going on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art December 20, 2014 thru March 8, 2015. I’m glad they will be admired by more art lovers and will escape the rec room for awhile.