The area that hugs the banks of the Hudson River just north of New York City has been home to Algonquin Indians, Dutch settlers, British land barons, Colonial revolutionaries, Gilded Age industrialists and presidents. Its scenic beauty inspired the Hudson Valley School of landscape painters and such writers as Washington Irving, who wrote the classic American tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Now modern icons of architecture and art are making their mark among its hills and hollows.
A longtime friend had the good sense to get married in the historic town of Rhinebeck last fall, so my husband, Paul, and I planned a long weekend around the event to explore some of the valley's sights, old and new.
As we drove from our home near Washington, D.C., I had the uncanny sensation of fast-forwarding through time. Leaves on the trees were only starting to change color in Maryland, but they grew brighter and richer with ambers and crimsons as we drove north on Interstate 95.
We skirted New York City and headed toward our first night's destination, Fishkill, 66 miles from Manhattan. As we reached the New York State Thruway, the landscape opened up. The setting sun blazed off steep hills thick with golden trees.
We had chosen to stay in Fishkill for pure practicality: It is only six miles north of Beacon, and we were eager to visit the Dia:Beacon Riggio Galleries, a museum established last year by the New York-based Dia Art Foundation. I booked a room on the Web, using Priceline, in a nearly new chain hotel. It seemed that Fishkill was being gobbled by big-box businesses and malls. Only a few churches hinted at the historic town it must have been.
Art on a massive scale
The next morning, Paul and I hustled over to Beacon, an odd town that seems astonished to have a major new museum on its doorstep. Its business district had seen better days, yet a new road led to the sprawling museum, housed in a rehabilitated box-printing factory built in 1929 along the Hudson River. No doubt the influx of visitors will help the rest of Beacon catch up to its chic new resident.
The Dia:Beacon was established to display contemporary art on a massive scale in 240,000 square feet of galleries. Peaked clerestory windows flood the vast spaces with natural light, the museum's main source of illumination. When dusk descends, the museum closes.
It displays 25 artists' pieces, from the early 1960s to the present. Each gallery immerses visitors in a single artist's work. From the entrance, Walter De Maria's shiny metal squares and circles splay out across the floor, hinting at the scale of the Dia's playing field. Standouts were looming steel sculptures by Richard Serra, wedged into tight spaces that forced us to interact with and discover the pieces; intriguing plywood boxes by Donald Judd; a wonderfully sinister giant spider by Louise Bourgeois; and Michael Heizer's negative-space sculptures, which plunge geometric steel shapes 20 feet into the floor.
These last works can be viewed only from behind a guardrail unless you make reservations for a 10:30 a.m. tour of the inner area. "Our curator thought it would be fun to attach bungee cords to people so they could climb down the sides," one staffer confided. For now, all that's allowed is peering.
Fans of contemporary art could easily spend a day here, soaking up the detailed information printed on portable cards available in every gallery or puzzling over video installations on the lower level. An outdoor garden provides a fresh-air break; a cafe sells coffee, pastries, soups and sandwiches.
Outside Beacon, we hopped onto U.S. 9, a classic country road that swooped through glorious tunnels of colored trees as it traced the east bank of the Hudson River. Fourteen miles later we entered Hyde Park, a town that is justifiably proud of its most famous citizen, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Springwood, FDR's birthplace, home, sanctuary and burial site, is operated by the National Park Service; one of the nation's earliest presidential libraries is also on the grounds.
Roosevelt's imposing family home has a formal exterior, yet it's surprisingly modest inside. The house was built in the early 1800s and has had several additions and renovations. One of the first stops on our guided tour was a ground-floor room where stuffed birds and other items collected by young Franklin rest in glass cases. Considering that the 32nd president spent much of his adult life disabled by polio, I had a hard time thinking of him in the innocence of childhood, romping through the woods gathering flora and fauna.
A tiny manual elevator and self-designed wheelchair are evidence of Roosevelt's disability. The plain wooden chair fitted with wheels helped FDR conceal his inability to walk without assistance. When seated in it behind a desk or table, he appeared as if he were in a normal chair, not a wheelchair.
His simply furnished bedroom held one distinguishing feature: a bedside phone that had a direct line to the White House.
With spacious proportions, rich wood paneling and Oriental-style rugs, the combined living room and library was the most welcoming spot in the house. Roosevelt worked at a corner desk, and it was easy to imagine his wife, Eleanor, and others gathered for an evening of reading or conversation.
FDR established his presidential library while he was in office and even broadcast some of his fireside chats from the nearby building. Today it also houses a museum, which gave me insights into Roosevelt's pre-presidential life and his comeback after polio struck at age 39. FDR's most memorable line — "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" — could easily have been the theme for his own struggles.
Not far from Springwood is Val-Kill, Eleanor's retreat and cottage. As her husband told it, "My missus and some of her female political friends want to build a shack on a stream in the backwoods." The "shack" had seven bedrooms, two living rooms, a dining room, a dormitory for young people and space for two live-in servants.