New York: Hudson River
Daniel Emberley, November 2004
Michael and I took off for the Hudson River last week. We were teased by its attractions last year, when we stopped at the Rockefeller estate on our way to Montreal. This time we took four days to concentrate on the Valley.
This is lushly beautiful landscape. Even we urbanites were knocked out by the incredible views. The mountains over the farms over the river look just like the Hudson River School paintings that tried to capture the same.
This was not peak period. Most of the foliage was down, but that made possible vistas that are obscured by overgrown trees a lot of the year. Some museum hours were curtailed, a lot of places closed for the winter the next week.
There are three main north-south routes. The NY Thruway is a superhighway on the west side of the Hudson. Route 9 is the first major road to the east; it is heavily commercial, and becomes Main Street in a lot of the towns. The Taconic Parkway, despite the name, is essentially another freeway to the east of settlement on Route 9. We did most of our driving on 9, but used the highways for express routes when time was tight.
Metro-North Railroad, the commuter line out of Grand Central, goes up the east coast of the Hudson, on landfill the Vanderbilts got New York to create after the Civil War. So, the train stations are always downhill from downtown, adjacent to the river. You could presumably do this tour by train, but it would be difficult to get from the stations to the museums/sites without a car.
There are many bridges north of the Tappanzee; getting back and forth across the river was not a big deal. EasyPass makes all of them go quicker.
We stopped short of Albany. There is lots of cool stuff there and north through the
Adirondacks, which will have to wait for another trip.
Food is excellent, and usually not expensive. We found decent diners, Italian food, matzo balls, and more, rarely having to eat at a corporate chain. Local restaurants are a hoot, if only for eavesdropping on the Italian-Jewish-ethnic former New Yorkers who have made it big and moved north to the commuter suburbs.
Wednesday, November 10
We got an early start and headed up 95, with our usual relief at having the EasyPass work from our rental as we went through the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore. We took the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan, drove across and uptown to the Cooper Hewitt. This was a mistake; we should have gotten off at George Washington Bridge. Now we know. There’s a handy parking garage just south of the Museum off 91st and Madison; we ditched the car and walked up. Cooper-Hewitt is the design museum of the Smithsonian, in the former Carnegie mansion. They were showing “Design <> Art”, furniture and house wares made by Modern artists. Some amazing raw plywood desks, beds, and tables by Donald Judd, and dishes by automobile-wreckage artist John Chamberlain. Out of town via Henry Hudson Parkway and Tappanzee Bridge to West Point and Bear Mountain. We’d hoped to stop at West Point and check out the campus, but due to time had to settle for views from the mountain above.
Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, is acres of a hilltop landscaped to display large sculpture. We arrived just before twilight, in time for the last tram tour of the day. The grounds are walkable for we hearty city-folk, but you could see how the heavy suburban set would appreciate the lift. Major pieces by Calder, Louise Nevelson, Mark DiSuvero, George Rickey, and Kenneth Snelson all stood out (think the same guys as in the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn, but with trees and views). The folks at the visitors center warned us against crossing the grounds in the dark to get back to our car, but the sunset was great, and it was just a 10 minute walk. It would be spooky at night, with the only light the moon bouncing off a few stainless steel sculptures for guideposts.
New Windsor is a service town for West Point. Lots of fast food, and a great Kmart where we supported Martha Stewart by upgrading our dishes. Found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet that was remarkably good, and crashed at an EconoLodge.
Thursday, November 11
We crossed the Hudson on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, aka the Hamilton Fish Memorial (Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was the New York hostess who invented the socially elite “400”). Up through Poughkeepsie to Hyde Park. There are three mansion/historic houses there run by the National Park Service. We started off at the Vanderbilt Mansion. This had the best river views of the three, and was the grandest house of the trip: McKim Mead and White in the style of a French palazzo via Newport. Great guide. She explained that Stanford White kept a warehouse in Brooklyn with pieces of rooms from European estates for clients. You could get a Venetian ceiling installed in a Louis XV dining room, and White would import Italian workmen to install, make more panels as needed, and get it all to work.
On a completely different scale, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill is a country cottage that FDR built for her in the 1920’s. She and feminist friends used it first as a factory to teach unemployed farmers to reproduce Colonial furniture, and later turned it into a personal retreat. Eleanor lived here off and on for 40 years, through life as Governor’s wife, First Lady, and UN representative. The house is amazing for how laid back it was. She would invite, say, Pakistan’s president up for the weekend, but of course, had never learned to cook, so they’d spend days in high-level negotiations while she served scrambled eggs on Franciscan china from Macy’s. The whole place looked a bit like Archie Bunker’s living room. This house was one of the ones that invented the pseudo-Colonial style in the 1930’s that Sears Roebuck would bring into all our lives in the 1950’s.
The FDR Home & Library are just up the road a piece in Hyde Park. This was definitely Sara Delano Roosevelt’s domain. She and son FDR played amateur architect with a Dutch colonial mansion in a style that can only be described as “attempted Palladian, bad”. The architecture is not the thing, though, the history is, the walking of halls where you were preceded by Churchill, Ickes, Hopkins, King George IV, and the panoply of 1930’s power. On the grounds is the FDR Library, the first presidential library, planned and used as an office by FDR while he was still president. Smaller than the current version of a presidential library and archives, the whole complex could fit on one floor of the George Bush Library in College Station.
We’d hoped to tour the Vassar campus in nearby Poughkeepsie, but ran out of time. We checked into a Super 8, with views of the FDR home across an abandoned drive-in theater, and got dressed for dinner.
The Culinary Institute of America is housed in a former seminary on the south end of Hyde Park. The college campus is beautiful, with river views. The draw, though, is the restaurants, where student chefs work in the kitchens and dining rooms. You need to book in advance: a month before our trip, we were only able to get reservations for one night out of the two we’d requested. Worth doing, we were in American Bounty, which specializes in regional American cuisine (others focus on French, Italian, and pizza/bistro fare). Was it the best meal we’d ever eaten? No. Was it the best we’d ever had on a college campus? Definitely. Beware the tipping policy: CIA tacks 15% onto every bill, which goes to the college, not the student/servers. If you want to reward them, you need to do it on top of the assigned gratuity. As our waiter wistfully expressed, he’d never seen a patron dispute the policy, but hoped to see a customer do so.
Friday, November 12
Rhinebeck is north on the river, a town of Victorian homes centered on the Beekman Arms, one of the oldest inns still in operation in the U.S. It’s apparently very affluent, but we saw other towns more to our liking. Our goal was Olana, the home designed and built by Hudson River School painter Frederick Edwin Church in the 1870’s. The house is a Moorish fantasy as interpreted by an American painter. A little Walt Disney, not an Islamic reproduction so much as an American home inspired by a foreign culture. It was very comfortable and welcoming, despite the snow that had followed us up and frosted the grounds.
The guides at Olana had recommended we head north to Hudson for lunch. This was a brilliant suggestion. Hudson must once have had factories, but now its economy is based on escaped New Yorkers. From Tribeca and Chelsea, to be precise. It seems every artist in the city with the wherewithal is buying businesses and houses in the town, which is a convenient stop on both Amtrak from Penn Station and Metro North from Grand Central. There does not seem to be a town-gown antagonism. The shopping is cool and funky, the restaurants varied and good. We had lunch in an earthy-crunchy café, and stocked up on baked goods at Nola Bakery. Walking Warren Street, the commercial strip, we saw a great space, a former department store that had been converted to selling 1940’s-70’s furniture. The owner was a sweetheart, encouraged us to explore the non-sales floors above to see the pre-air-conditioning ventilation/skylight system. There we saw a Donald Judd desk, in use by one of the owners, just like the ones we’d seen at the Cooper Hewitt, except very used. Turns out that this was Judd’s personal desk. He’d sold it to the owner when he closed his New York studio to go to Texas. Talk about getting close to the masters!
Across the Hudson from Olana in Catskill is Cedar Grove, home of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole. We’d hoped to drive the grounds, but time was against us. Hopping the Rip van Winkle Bridge, we crossed the river, barreled south on the Thruway, and got to Beacon with an hour before closing. The Dia Foundation was established to buy, hold, and show works of art that were too large for other art museums. Their anchor is in New York’s Chelsea, but they are big funders of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and major art installations from the last fifty years around the country. They recently converted a Nabisco box factory in Beacon into a museum. The installations are breathtaking. Most of the basement is devoted to video and sculptures by Bruce Nauman, whose retrospective at the Hirshhorn a few years back could fit into a corner of the space. More Donald Judd boxes, Chamberlain sculpture from abandoned cars, Fred Sandback string pieces, and a corridor of Dan Flavin lights that puts the current National Gallery show to shame. You can walk into and really immerse yourself in giant Richard Serra rusted steel labyrinths. A lot of this art is stuff that you greet in corporate campuses with a big “uh-huh”, but here they worked really well. You can skip the Blinky Palermo room, the best thing about him is his name <smile>.
Saturday, November 13
We took the Taconic south to Tarrytown, on the east side of the Tappan Zee Bridge and a quintessential commuter suburb of New York. The Tappan Zee itself is a widening of the Hudson; that meant shallower waters, which meant a bridge could be built here. The landscape around the River here is some of the best we’ve ever seen.
Lyndhurst was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1838 for a mayor of New York; it was eventually the home of Jay Gould and Jay’s daughter, the Duchesse de Talleyrand. It was one of the first and best Gothic Revival cottages built in America, greatly expanded to belie the cottage appellation. Terrific glass, and, because it grew into wealth, rather than being built all at once by a robber baron, surprisingly homey. An enormous greenhouse expanse in the gardens has lost its glass, but the metal frame remains, an engineering marvel.
Writer (“Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “Tales from the Alhambra”) Washington Irving’s home, Sunnyside, is just down river from Lyndhurst. It’s small from today’s perspective, but was a grand home in the 1840’s when Irving hosted other literary and social greats. Reminds me a little of the contemporaneous Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts. It was wonderfully sited along the river, in the period before the railroad was put through. It helps you appreciate what was lost when future homeowners built on the heights, to avoid seeing and hearing the trains.
The Rockefeller home, Kykuit, is up on the highlands here. They built the Union Church of Pocantico Hills as a non-denominational chapel for the family and neighborhood. The children gave stained glass windows by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall in honor of their mothers. The effect is quite beautiful, and surprisingly restrained. I’m not a big fan of Chagall, but the late autumn light through his windows brought the place to life.
Lyndhurst, Sunnyside, Union Church, Kykuit, and several other properties are run by Historic Hudson Valley. Stop by their visitors’ center at Phillipsburg Manor to ask about discounts for multiple buildings, or watch for dollar-off coupons (we picked up a handful at Lyndhurst). Kykuit, which we reported in our Canada trip required advance reservations, no longer does; you can book entry at Phillipsburg.
At 3:10, we left Union Church and wondered “what to do next?” The last tours of the day had already left from the two other estates in the area. We looked at the map, and decided to head north to Ossining, because Michael liked the sound of the name. Dan knew Ossining as the 1950’s enclave of John Cheever, and was expecting a sort of Chevy Chase/Weston, MA uber-suburb. We were surprised and pleased by what we found. Ossining is home of Sing Sing prison, where NYC’s water supply, the Croton Aqueduct, can best be appreciated, and a well put-together town with a lot more authenticity and heritage than the Cheever image implied. A visitors center shares space with a Boys Club-type social service agency, with exhibits on the aqueduct and prison. A walking trail above lets you walk the aqueduct (here buried underground), checking out the 1840’s industrial world in a modern nature preserve. Plus, they have mock-ups of prison cells you can take your photo in, so of course, we did.
We’d booked a room at the Dolce Tarrytown House. This is two mansions, the 1820’s King and a 1900’s Duke heiress’s pseudo-Gothic castle, connected by dull 1970’s modern wings into a conference/retreat center for corporations. It’s just off the road that leads to Sunnyside, up the hill. We got a Marriott-like modern room, which gave us permission to stroll the historic houses. This was one of the first complexes specifically assembled for conferences, it sort of works. Because we were not with a function, food was not readily available, so we got back into the car for downtown Tarrytown. They have a very walkable retail/restaurant district, where we had a great Italian meal at Lago di Como. The best sepie, Venetian squid, we’ve had outside of Venice.
Sunday, November 14
A quick run down Taconic Parkway to Henry Hudson to Major Deegan Expressway, and a half hour later we were at our friends’ apartment near Columbia University for breakfast. It’s amazing how quickly one can get from the suburbs into the city when there is no traffic; this must be what Robert Moses thought was supposed to happen with all the highways he built. Great fun visiting with Bonnie and Caleb and their two daughters. We’d hoped to hit the Jacques Torres chocolate store in Brooklyn, but a quick web check told us they were closed on Sunday. Instead, we stopped at the neighborhood Hamilton Deli for sandwiches, got onto the George Washington Bridge, and were back down I-95 for the return home.