I spent the last beautiful day of my Hudson River Valley Thanksgiving weekend visiting some of the region’s grand estates: the Vanderbilt Mansion, Clermont, Olana and Wilderstein, all within a hour’s drive of one another. These are just a few representatives of the area’s rich legacy of past wealth and present preservation. Having been on the boards of historic structures here in Salem for the past couple of decades, I am very aware of the immensity of collective effort (and the piles of cash) it takes to preserve just one property; I can’t imagine how the Hudson River Valley community manages to maintain so many.
The Wilderstein estate in Rhinebeck is referred to as the “stepchild” of the Hudson River Valley mansions in a 2007 article in the New York Times because it was the last to be transferred from the family that built it—the Suckley family, cousins to the venerable Livingstons who seem to be the foundation of all the great families of the Valley–to trusteeship. The fact that the Suckleys ran out of money about 80 years before this transfer occurred in 1991 created a considerable preservation challenge for the non-profit organization that runs the mansion today. When I first visited the house about a decade ago, it was a dreary dark brown, having received its last paint job in 1910 with very “good paint” according to the recorded remembrances of its most famous, and last, resident, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, some 70 years later. Miss Suckley was the very close friend, correspondent and confidant of her sixth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lived right down the road in Hyde Park when he wasn’t in the White House. It was she who gave him the famous dog Fala, namesake of one of Wilderstein’s most popular annual fundraising events, the “Fala Gala”.
A lot of improvements have been made to the exterior of the house in the 20 years following Miss Suckley’s death, the most striking of which are shingle and siding repairs and the return of the original polychrome paint scheme. The mansion is an elaborate Queen Anne confection, complete with a five-story tower, and it demands bright, contrasting colors! You can see the dramatic change in the house’s appearance from the images below in which my photographs from yesterday are followed by those of HABS photographer Mark Zeek, taken in 1979. I approached the house from the woods below, so it was neat to see that looming bright tower, followed by the gradual appearance of the entire facade.
The dramatic appearance of the Wilderstein mansion is accentuated by its situation, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, and its surrounding grounds, designed by Calvert Vaux. On these same grounds, close to the river’s edge, is the estate’s carriage house/garage. As you can see from the photographs below, including mine (sepia and color detail) from yesterday interspersed with the HABS images from 1979, this building has been in decline for some time. Another great challenge for the overseers of Wilderstein, but I have no doubt that they are up to it.
Addendum: a still image from the upcoming film (summer of 2012) Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Laura Linney as Daisy Suckley and Bill Murray (!!!!!) as FDR.