Visit the Hudson Valley Villa Where an FDR Cousin and Confidante Lived for 100 Years


    Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

    Wilderstein, a Victorian estate overlooking the Hudson in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is sort of a poor stepchild in the Hudson Valley historic house family. The name means “wild man’s stone” and refers to an Indian petroglyph found nearby.

    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 — and an easy visit from Brooklyn.

    The original house was an Italianate villa, built in 1852 for a wealthy family with prominent familial connections to the area.

    In 1888, the original owner’s son, Robert Suckley (pronounced Sook-ly), and his wife, Elizabeth, transformed the home into a large 35-room Queen Anne country house with the help of local architect Arnout Cannon.

    He added the third floor and gabled attic, built the five story circular tower, and added the porte-cochere and the wide verandah. New York designer Joseph Burr Tiffany (Louis’ cousin) designed the interiors, and Calvert Vaux landscaped the expansive grounds. He designed gardens, pathways, and added a carriage house and other outbuildings.

    The house remained in the Suckley family for the next 100-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 onlookers 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.

    Because of the family’s relative poverty, the house itself is unchanged since the early 20th century, and is still being repaired and restored today. Daisy herself is on tape laughing in the 1980s 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 ’80s 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 nonprofit 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 outbuildings are beautiful.

    It has been the scene of many weddings and special occasions. Wilderstein is one of those house museums that needs public support or it won’t survive.

    How to Visit
    Address: 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, N.Y. 12572
    Hours: May 1 to October 31, Thursday through Sunday, 12-4
    Admission: Adults $11, seniors and students $10, children under 12 free
    Directions: Take Amtrak to Rhinecliff-Kingston, then a taxi 1.5 miles to the museum. It’s about two hours by car from Brooklyn via the Taconic State Parkway.

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