Staycation: Wilderstein

Photo by Rolf Müller via Wikipedia

Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.

For many of us, staycations are this year’s vacations. Instead of the cottages and castles of the Continent, visit one of New York’s fascinating house museums. Each week, for the entire summer, we’ll alternate between a site in New York City, or one in greater New York State. Many of these houses are in danger of closing if we don’t patronize them. Check them out, and go visit! If you’ve been, please leave comments and suggestions, including dining or any other amenities.

Name: Wilderstein
Location: Rhinebeck, NY
Address: 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572
Hours: May to October, Thursday through Sunday, 12-4
Admission: Adults – $10, Seniors and students – $9
Children: Under 12 – Free
Directions: Amtrak to Rhinecliff/Kingston, driving directions on website

Details: Wilderstein, which means wild man’s stone referring to an Indian petroglyph found nearby, is sort of a poor stepchild in the Hudson Valley historic house family. Not as famous architecturally as Olana, nor the home of the fabulously wealthy, like the Rockefeller home at Kykuit, Wilderstein is an old house lover’s old house museum. It’s a 35 room Queen Anne mansion overlooking the Hudson, in Rhinebeck, built for the Suckley family, (pronounced Sook-ly), a wealthy family with prominent familial connections to the area. The original house was an Italianate villa built in 1852. In 1888, the original owner’s son Robert Suckley and his wife Elizabeth had the home transformed by local architect Arnout Cannon into a large Queen Anne country house. He added the third floor and gabled attic, built the five story circular tower, and added the porte-cochere and the wide verandah. They had New York designer Joseph Burr Tiffany (Louis’ cousin) design the interiors, and hired Calvert Vaux to landscape the expansive grounds. He designed gardens, pathways, and added a carriage house, and other buildings to complement the house and gardens. All overlooking the beautiful Hudson River.

The house remained in the Suckley family for the next hundred-plus years. The last Suckley to live in the house was Daisy, best known as a confident of her sixth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lived downriver at Hyde Park. She was one of the four women with Roosevelt at his death in Georgia, in 1945. She downplayed her relationship with him, but letters found after her death show a secret and deep relationship existed between the two of them. Nothing explicit, but deep, nonetheless. The family lost most of its remaining money during the Depression, and Daisy was dismissed by on lookers and staff alike as a poor spinster cousin, but she had long visits at the White House, and went for long drives at Hyde Park, in a car driven by the President with special hand controls. The only photographs of Roosevelt in his wheelchair were taken by Daisy. Their relationship, whatever it was, was very close and deeply felt.

Because of the family’s relative poverty, the house itself was unchanged since the early 20th century, and still is being repaired and restored today. Daisy herself is on tape laughing in the 1980’s, that the house hadn’t been painted since 1910, and that the painters had done a great job. Local preservationists worked with Daisy in the 1980’s to save the house after she was gone, and started giving tours on weekends. Daisy herself would greet each person at the gate. She lived in the house, in genteel poverty, until her death at the age of 100 in 1991. The house is now run by the Wilderstein Historic Site, a private non-profit group of volunteers. They are not affiliated with either the state or federal historic sites, and depend on donations. When they acquired the house, the roof was falling in, windows were gone, and the whole place was in danger of being lost. They have slowly been restoring it, inside and out. The tour does not allow visitors into the entire house yet, but what you can see is impressive, and the grounds and out buildings are beautiful. It is the scene of many weddings and special occasions. Wilderstein is one of those house museums that needs public support or it won’t survive. Visit it sometime this summer.

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