Kykuit: The Rockefeller Estate

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October is a lovely time to visit gardens that have strong architectural features and autumn leaf color. Kykuit in Westchester County, New York, offers beautiful architecture, stunning views, and world-class artwork.

photo from hudsonvalley.org

photo from hudsonvalley.org

The Kykuit estate was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family and features a grand mansion, beautiful gardens, extraordinary art, and spectacular scenery. It has been meticulously maintained for more than 100 years, and is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Kykuit is accessible by formal tours only. There are four to choose from, ranging from 1-½  to 3 hours in length, depending on how much you would like to see of the mansion;, the Coach Barn, with its collections of classic automobiles and horse-drawn carriages; and the gardens. Only the Landmark Tour and Grand Tour offer access to all of the gardens.

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Kykuit, Dutch for “lookout” and pronounced “kie-kit”, is situated on the highest point in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills, overlooking the Hudson River at Tappan Zee. It has a view of the New York City skyline, 25 miles to the south. The imposing mansion, built of local stone and topped with the Rockefeller emblem, is located centrally in a 250-acre gated inner compound within the larger Rockefeller family estate. 

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The 40-room mansion was built in 1908 by John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, and the richest man in America in his day. The initial plans for the property were developed by the company of Frederick Law Olmsted. Rockefeller was unhappy with their work, however, and assumed control of the design himself. He created several scenic winding roads and lookouts and transplanted mature trees to realize his vision. 

John D. Rockefeller with his family. John D. junior is standing in the back.

John D. Rockefeller with his family. John D. junior is standing in the back.

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In 1906, the oversight of the house and grounds was given to son John, who hired landscape architect William Welles Bosworth. Kykuit is considered Bosworth’s best work in the United States. The design is loosely based on traditional Italian gardens, with strong axes, terraces, fountains, pavilions, and classical ornamentation. The terraced gardens include a Morning Garden, Grand Staircase, Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, Japanese-style brook, Japanese Teahouse, loggia, large Oceanus fountain, Temple of Aphrodite, and a semicircular rose garden. With stairways leading you from one level to the next, the garden invites movement and views.

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John Rockefeller planned to use the house only in spring and fall, so trees were selected for their spring bloom, such as cherries and dogwoods, or for their autumn leaf color, such as the Japanese maples. Wisteria is one of the prevailing plants that ties the garden together—you first see it on the front façade of the house, and then it reappears on walls and pergolas throughout the garden. Fountains are another signature element, from the replica of a Boboli Gardens fountain with a 30-foot statue of Oceanus that greets you in the forecourt, to 39 other fountains that punctuate the garden rooms. The inner garden has a Moorish theme, with a canal and a small fountain featuring a sculpted fountainhead and bronze swans. The gardens, which took over seven years to install, were completed in 1915, and exceeded their budget of $30,000 by one million dollars. 

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Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the last private owner of Kykuit, transformed its basement passages into a major private art gallery containing paintings by Picasso, Chagall, and Warhol, as well as extraordinary Picasso tapestries. Between 1935 and the late 1970s Governor Rockefeller added more than 120 works of abstract and modern sculpture to the gardens, including works by Picasso, Brancusi, Appel, Arp, Calder, Moore, and Giacometti. He precisely and skillfully sited the art to complement the classical formality of the garden and create stunning views. Their inclusion in the garden elevated it from a beautiful classic garden to an extraordinary experience of architecture, horticulture, and art.

Photo from nymetroparents.com

Photo from nymetroparents.com

photo from vitsitwestchesterny.com

photo from vitsitwestchesterny.com

Kykuit, 381 N. Broadway, Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591 , (914) 366-6900, hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/kykuit

Hours: Oct: daily except Tues. Nov. 1–13: Thurs.–Sun., some holidays. Admission: Tours $25 and up

Bamboo Brook—a Beaux Arts Beauty

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Women landscape designers were a rarity in the early 1900s when Martha Brookes Hutcheson began her practice. I was fortunate to visit the Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center in Far Hills, New Jersey, which had once been known as Merchiston Farm—the home of Hutcheson and her husband from 1911 to 1959. Built in the late 18th century, the house was enlarged and remodeled by the Huchesons in 1927.

Hutcheson was one of America’s first female landscape architects and attended the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with Marion Coffin and Beatrix Farrand. She created landscape plans for dozens of estates in Massachusetts and Long Island. Hutcheson’s design for Merchiston Farm was completed shortly after the publication of her book The Spirit of the Garden, in 1923. 

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Native white dogwood underplanted with green hostas and white daffodils in early May

Native white dogwood underplanted with green hostas and white daffodils in early May

Hutcheson’s European travels inspired her to design her own garden in the Beaux-Arts style popular in the early 20thcentury. Drawing on European Renaissance and Baroque gardens as well as those of Islamic-era Spain, Beaux-Art gardens used formal geometry, allées and hedges, long vistas, reflecting pools and fountains, and native plants and materials. You see these design principles immediately at Bamboo Brook when you come upon the circular drive at the front of the house, punctuated with white dogwoods underplanted with green hostas. Hutcheson used a restrained color palette of greens, blues and whites, and repeated the circle motif throughout her landscape. 

Sunken circular patio in front of the house

Sunken circular patio in front of the house

Circular motif repeated in the architecture, with deutzia and centaurea montana

Circular motif repeated in the architecture, with deutzia and centaurea montana

The path from the driveway leads to the Upper Water—a pond designed to appear as a naturalized body of water. The pond has a practical use as well as an aesthetic one. It collects rain water runoff from the upper part of the property. It was placed to take advantage of both the topography and the architecture of the house, and, importantly, it reflects the plants, the house, and the sky. A winding stream leads from the Upper Water to the rest of the garden. Hutcheson was fascinated with water features and constructed an intricate system of cisterns, pipes, swales, and catch basins to supply her house, pools, and gardens with collected rainwater. 

Upper Water: a pond created to collect rainwater runoff and reflect the sky and plantings

Upper Water: a pond created to collect rainwater runoff and reflect the sky and plantings

Brook connecting the Upper Water to the circular pond

Brook connecting the Upper Water to the circular pond

When Hutcheson bought the house, she remodeled it and changed the front entrance to what was originally the back of the house. In the new back yard, the East Lawn and Coffee Terrace were designed with formal axial geometry. Informal plantings circle the oval East Lawn, which connects to the Circular Pool—a slightly sunken reflecting pool with six paths radiating from it and plantings of iris, phlox, ferns, dogwoods, and vinca. The Circular Pool was originally a farm pond in a natural hollow, which provided water for livestock. 

Coffee Terrace with lilacs and centaurea Montana

Coffee Terrace with lilacs and centaurea Montana

Garden in back of the house with amsonia, lilacs, boxwood

Garden in back of the house with amsonia, lilacs, boxwood

Amsonia and boxwood create quiet beauty

Amsonia and boxwood create quiet beauty

the Circular reflecting pool was used by the family as a swimming pool. it is 5’ deep and lined with native stone.

the Circular reflecting pool was used by the family as a swimming pool. it is 5’ deep and lined with native stone.

Beyond the lawn lies an axial garden with a white cedar allée and parterres adjacent to a tennis court and the children’s playhouse. Hutcheson placed rustic wood benches and chairs at spots where views could be enjoyed. She was a big proponent of native plants, and adapted species such as dogwood, lilac, sweet pepperbush, and elderberry to an Italian Renaissance-inspired design, and used native stone to create walls, patios, and steps throughout the garden. 

this garden connects the circular pool to the east lawn and coffee terrace.

this garden connects the circular pool to the east lawn and coffee terrace.

A semi-circular stone bench is built into the stone wall and repeats the circle motif.

A semi-circular stone bench is built into the stone wall and repeats the circle motif.

The Little House was Hutcheson’s quiet getaway. It was built over a small stream, which Hutcheson embellished with spillways and a lily pool, providing a home for water lovers such as sweetfern and iris. 

Little House built over a small stream

Little House built over a small stream

Geranium, phlox and ferns

Geranium, phlox and ferns

A straight road lined with elms and oaks extends from the house to a farm complex including a barn, garage, farmhouse, and various work yards set in an informal landscape of fields and woods. 

Buckeye in back garden

Buckeye in back garden

In 1972 Hutcheson’s heirs gave the property to the Morris County Parks Commission, and it has been restored to its 1945 appearance. In addition to the formal areas, there are numerous trails that wind through the fields and along Bamboo Brook, and connect to the Elizabeth D. Kay Environmental Center and Willowwood Arboretum. A self-guided cell phone tour provides valuable information. Bamboo Brook is located at 11 Longview Rd., Far Hills, NJ. It is open daily from 8 am to sunset.

For more gardens in New Jersey, see The Garden Tourist: 120 Destination Gardens & Nurseries in the Northeast.