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RHINEBECK, N.Y. — There are few places in this country where you can sip beer in a Colonial inn while chatting about the new Frank Gehry building up the road. The Hudson Valley is just such a spot, a region that bridges centuries as well as it straddles cultures.

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 scaleThe 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.

Eleanor moved to Val-Kill permanently after FDR's death in 1945, saying, "I felt freer there than in the big house." Her guests included Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and England's wartime leader Winston Churchill.

The Roosevelts were not the only luminaries to build a home in the Hudson Valley. In 1895, a New York City newspaper wrote about the "little colony of millionaires up the river," referring to the lavish Hudson Valley mansions built by industrial barons. A ribbon of spectacular houses runs up the Hudson's east bank — the opulent 54-room Vanderbilt Mansion; the home of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code; two Rockefeller family estates, one with an extensive collection of 20th century sculpture; the home of Martin Van Buren, who retired there after his one term as president ended in 1841; the Persian palace of the 19th century Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church; and the home of Irving, author of the story of Ichabod Crane's encounter with the headless horseman.

Not wanting to run into such apparitions ourselves as darkness began to dim the brilliant leaves, we checked into Belvedere Mansion, just south of Rhinebeck, where my friend's wedding would be held the next day. The inn's main building is an imposing neoclassical home built around 1900 that evokes the Gilded Age, with French antiques and trompe l'oeil paintings in the public areas. Though there were several grand lodgings in the main house, our room in the detached carriage house was one of the tiniest I had ever occupied, with barely enough room to maneuver around the double bed. Fortunately, the Belvedere's grounds and public spaces provided a comfortable retreat.

We joined friends for dinner at P.J. McGlynn's, a cozy roadhouse north of Rhinebeck. The restaurant has Irish touches in its décor, and the menu focuses on lamb (raised by the owners) and steak. Reasonable prices kept the place packed with a crowd that looked to be equal parts locals and escapees from New York City.

A town made for strollingAfter the wedding the next day, Paul and I were free to roam the heart of Rhinebeck, a town that boasts 437 buildings on the National Register of Historic Sites. Rhinebeck was founded in the 17th century, but most of its architecture spans the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic and elaborate Queen Anne-style buildings snuggle together beneath regal shade trees. A sharp eye will spot old hitching posts and carriage steppingstones.

The streets are a stroller's delight, with antiques shops, galleries, restaurants and the A.L. Stickles five-and-dime, another delightful time capsule, this one from the 1950s. At the two-screen art cinema house, Upstate Films, we caught a Brazilian documentary.

We also stopped at the Beekman Arms, an inn that's operated on the spot since 1766. George Washington slept here, as did Benedict Arnold and Alexander Hamilton. It's said that the Beekman was where Hamilton and Aaron Burr began the quarrels that ended in the duel on July 11, 1804, in which Hamilton was fatally shot. We entered and tumbled through time into the lobby, which had low-slung beamed ceilings and a blazing fire. A drink in the taproom was a good antidote to the autumn chill.

Sunday morning was crisp, and, bundled in sweaters, we stopped at the Rhinebeck farmers market, overflowing with fall bounty in jewel tones of garnet, gold and deep greens. We inspected pumpkins, looking for a jack-o'-lantern canvas. Crates of apples with names we'd never encountered tempted us to fill a bag. We even found a farmer selling huge Honeycrisps, the apple that had the market buzzing.

Though you could apply the word "quaint" to much of the Hudson Valley, that wouldn't describe the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which opened last year at Bard College, about 15 minutes north of Rhinebeck. The Frank Gehry-designed building thrusts billowing stainless steel sheets into the sky. As we approached from across a meadow, it mirrored the low, lead-tinged clouds and fractured the brilliant leaves of surrounding trees into a reflected fall abstract. The undulating roof is pieced together from 5,647 steel shingles, weighing more than 6 tons, with a huge panel that swoops down to the entrance, evoking a samurai helmet — or, on a dark day as this was, Darth Vader's headgear.

We took a 45-minute tour, which included the larger of two theaters constructed as boxes inside the structure. As we sat on seats stylishly upholstered with the names of the 2003 graduating class, our guide explained how even what seemed to be purely decorative curlicue wall designs were part of the complex acoustics. I was fascinated to learn that 150 wells feed geothermal heat pumps that warm the building.

Later, as we drove toward home munching crisp apples, I wondered what Ichabod Crane would have made of Gehry's building had he encountered it in the silvery moonlight of a Hudson Valley night.

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Fall on the Hudson

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, United, American, America West and Delta offer nonstop service to New York's Kennedy airport. Northwest offers connecting service (change of plane).

To New York's LaGuardia, Continental, Frontier, Northwest, ATA, United, US Airways and Delta offer connecting service.

To Newark, N.J., Continental, American and United have nonstops. Delta, America West, US Airways and American Trans Air have connecting service.

Restricted round-trip fares to all airports begin at $198.

WHERE TO STAY:

Belvedere Mansion, 10 Old Route 9 (3 1/2 miles south of Rhinebeck); (845) 889-8000, http://www.belvederemansion.com . Rooms in the opulent main house, some with views of the Hudson River, are $275; the Carriage House has small rooms from $75 and larger rooms with fireplaces from $150. Adirondack Lodge has 10 "forest Zen"-style rooms from $175.

The Beekman Arms, Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-7077, http://www.beekmandelamaterinn.com . One of America's oldest operating inns has 13 rooms on its upper floors. Doubles $140-$300.

Olde Rhinebeck Inn, 340 Wurtemburg Road, Rhinebeck; (845) 871-1745, http://www.rhinebeckinn.com . I wasn't able to visit this 1745 farmhouse inn set by a pond, but it's recommended by locals. The four rooms are decorated in country chic, some with Jacuzzis or a fireplace. Doubles from $195.

WHAT TO VISIT:

Dia:Beacon Riggio Galleries, 3 Beekman St., Beacon; (845) 440-0100, http://www.diabeacon.org . Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays-Mondays through mid-April. Adults $10.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Home National Historic Site, 4097 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park; (845) 229-9115, http://www.nps.gov/hofr . Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Adults $14, including guided tour of house and access to library. Reserve during busy fall foliage season: (800) 967-2283, reservations.nps.gov.

Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, Route 9G, Hyde Park; (845) 229-9115, http://www.nps.gov/elro . Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays. Adults $8, including guided tour.

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, 60 Manor Ave., Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7950, fishercenter.bard.edu. Tours of the Frank Gehry-designed building are $5 and start at 2 p.m. daily.

WHERE TO EAT:

P.J. McGlynn's, 147 Route 9, Red Hook; (845) 758-3102. Serves lamb, steaks and seafood in a cozy roadhouse atmosphere. Entrees $6.95-$19.95.

Belvedere Mansion (see address above). The inn served a superb meal at our friend's wedding. Updated American fare, including lamb and duck, in a romantic setting. Open Thursdays-Sundays. Entrees $23-$32.

Max's Memphis BBQ, on Route 9 south of Red Hook; (845) 758-6297, http://www.maxsbbq.com . An upscale setting for barbecue and "new Southern" versions of seafood. Entrees $11.95-$22.95.

Culinary Institute of America, 1946 Campus Drive, Hyde Park; (845) 471-6608, http://www.ciachef.edu /restaurants. The institute has five restaurants staffed by students. They include classic French, American regional, Italian and cafe-style foods with entrees that are moderate to expensive. Some restaurants are closed on weekends; call well in advance for reservations. Tours also available.

TO LEARN MORE:

Dutchess County Tourism, (800) 445-3131, http://www.dutchesstourism.com .

Hudson River Heritage, (845) 876-2474, http://www.hudsonriverheritage.org . Has information on touring the mansions along the Hudson.

— Gayle Keck

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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