On Memorial Day, my mom and I visited Kykuit for a belated Mothers’ Day. Kykuit is the Sleepy Hollow, NY estate of the Rockefeller family. It’s massive and gorgeous, and we had a great time there. Kykuit was home to three generations of Rockefellers – John D. and Laura, John Jr. and Abby Aldrich, and Nelson and Happy. The house was built in the early 20th century and inhabited by Rockefellers until the 1970s. The family still uses parts of the estate today.
The exterior of Kykuit is very impressive. It looks like a sophisticated Italian Renaissance palace with lush ivy growing up the façade. Directly across from the entrance is a massive marble fountain with neo-classical statues on it. As you drive up in the bus, it’s difficult to believe you’re in America. And if that’s true from the front, it’s a million times more true from other points of view. Just wait!
The inside of the home is elegant but surprisingly down-to-earth. Unlike in many of the grand homes of Newport, for example, I could easily imagine myself living comfortably here. The architectural details are neo-classical, but the house is filled with modern art. The two compliment each other surprisingly well. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was a great lover of modern art, and her son Nelson inherited this trait. The home and grounds are full of modern paintings, sculptures, and other works by important artists like Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Aristide Maillol, Robert Motherwell, and Joan Miro. There’s also an extensive underground art gallery displaying Nelson’s collection. My favorite was a series of tapestries based on paintings by Pablo Picasso.
I said before that the house is surprisingly down to earth. The same is not true of the gardens. They’re the real highlight of the estate, and they stretch for acres and acres. They include lots of neo-classical and modern sculptures, many fountains, man-made features, elaborate terracing, allées, and a golf course. Of course, there are also beautiful plants, flowers, and trees. Two of my favorite features were the man-made grotto, full of grotesques and modern art plant sculptures, and the believably-ancient Temple of Aphrodite. The gardens are romantic and full of picturesque views and features. There are surprises and delights around every corner, including many beautiful views of the Hudson River. I don’t have words to describe how truly spectacular the grounds are. You’ll just have to visit for yourself.
Kykuit is located in Sleepy Hollow, NY. It’s open from May through November by guided tour only. Visit Historic Hudson Valley’s website to learn about tour options and to purchase tickets. The estate (or at least parts of it) is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so you can get a discount if you’re a member.
Things to Keep in Mind If You Go
- Kykuit tours are long! The basic tour is about 2.25 hours, though I think there’s a condensed option available. To see everything I saw, you have to take the three-hour grand tour.
- As I mentioned before, the gardens are the highlight of the estate. This means that you’ll spend a lot of time outside during your visit. Tours run rain or shine, but I can’t imagine one would be much fun in the rain. So, I would advise planning ahead (as I did) to make sure you visit on a nice day,. Also, wear shoes suitable for walking on rough stone steps and unpaved pathways.
- No photographs are allowed inside the house. You can take photos of the grounds, though.
- You have to enter and leave Kykuit via a bus from the visitors’ center a few miles away. People aren’t allowed to wander around the estate unsupervised, probably because parts of the estate are still owned and used by the Rockefeller family. Visitors aren’t allowed into those private areas, but be respectful nonetheless. And don’t wander away from your tour group. It would be so easy to get lost on the grounds!
While You’re There
There are a lot of other cool historic sites in the Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown area. One other great mansion is Lyndhurst, which I visited last year. There’s also Washington Irving’s house, two 18th-century houses, the Sleepy Hollow graveyard, and a few other places. Visit the Historic Hudson Valley website for a full list. Before my tour, I stopped by the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. This small church has an amazing collection of stained glass windows. One is by Henri Matisse, and the other nine are by Marc Chagall. The Rockefeller family commissioned all of them in memory of departed family members. It’s a seven-dollar donation to get in, and it’s absolutely worth it. I truly can’t stop thinking about Chagall’s massive Good Samaritan window. It’s breathtaking!
Added 6/7/18: The one thing I found a little disappointing during my visit was that Kykuit doesn’t have a grand staircase. I definitely expected one given all the rest of the impressive architecture. That was probably because Kykuit was built with an early elevator, and that was the primary way of getting from floor to floor. It does have two sets of stairs, but they’re simple and tucked out of the way. I imagine that not having a great staircase was considered very impressive at that time, since elevators were expensive new technology. But it’s a surprising and a little disappointing to today’s viewer (or at least to me).