Like most L.A. natives, I've had to listen for years to Easterners saying Southern California doesn't have any seasons. Anyone who's lived here knows that is complete nonsense. And anyone who has resided in the New York area, as I have now for almost four years, knows that the much-vaunted "four seasons" include several months of 100% humidity and temperatures in the 90s, five months of gray days enlivened by an occasional blizzard or ice storm, and a couple of springtime months of hay fever. But that does leave two months that are rather spectacular: September and October. Autumn. In this respect, the East Coast surely is superior to the West Coast.
If you haven't seen the fall foliage of New England in all its fulgent glory, you are missing something extraordinary. Photos and travelogues show the blazing hues of yellow, orange, red and even luminescent brown that illuminate the countryside each year. But what two-dimensional media can't convey is the sheer scale of it all, how the autumn colors dominate the landscape, filling the crisp air with visual heat.
I remember the first time I saw it, driving from Boston to New Hampshire many years ago. Coming over a rise, I was almost blinded by a raging sea of colors stretching off in three directions--a nearly unbroken flaming mass. This was one of those wonders, it occurred to me, that folks have in mind when they suggest that Americans should see their own country before running off to Bali or Bari or some foreign place like that.
What's more, you don't have to plan a whole trip around New England landscapes to experience this glorious foliage. The lower reaches of the Hudson River Valley, beginning a few miles north of New York City, is in some ways a better place to immerse yourself in fall colors than deepest New England. For one thing, the broad silver-blue band of the river provides a handsome visual counterpart to the intensity of the turning trees; for another, the valley boasts an unusually rich population of non-arboreal attractions, including museums, parks, country inns and antique shops.
What it is perhaps best known for, though, are its many spectacular old mansions, a number of which are open to the public. These once belonged to wealthy and celebrated American families such as the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts and are largely responsible for the region's reputation as a kind of "Valley of the Rich and Famous." And since people who build great houses tend to situate them to provide great views, these estates are particularly good places from which to view the glories of autumn.
The Hudson River Valley is long and wide, stretching from New York City up through the Catskills to the state capital of Albany, and from the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders on the east side to fabled Woodstock and beyond in the west. The river itself, named for 17th century British explorer Henry Hudson, is a broad and deep channel that for centuries has been a major thoroughfare for trade and travel.
It is precisely because it was so accessible by boat, and later by train and car, from Manhattan that the valley has attracted the wealthy, the powerful and the creative. Two U.S. presidents were born there: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Van Buren. Other celebrated Americans who were born or lived and worked in the region were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many other notable figures of the Revolutionary period, showman P. T. Barnum, naturalist and artist J. J. Audubon, explorer John C. Fremont, Commodore Oliver Perry ("We have met the enemy and they are ours"), telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, Robert Fulton of steamboat fame, writers Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe and Edith Wharton, architect Stanford White, artists Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and Edward Hopper, industrialist and financier J. P. Morgan and various Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and other early American multimillionaires.
When I took my two daughters--Maddy, 8, and Isabelle, 5--on a tour of some Hudson River Valley estates recently, I thought it appropriate to begin in Hyde Park at the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born on the family estate in 1882. The property is called Crum Elbow, from the Dutch words for "crooked elbow," a sailors' reference to the jut of land it sits on, just above Poughkeepsie. Roosevelt spent much of his life in that house, bringing his bride Eleanor there and raising five children in its rooms. During his long and difficult presidency, Roosevelt repaired here whenever possible, drawing strength and solace from this peaceful place. The property is flat, almost ranch-like. The house, most of which was constructed in 1916, is large and comfortable, and its grayish stucco exterior and pale-green shutters suggest a certain modesty.
Inside, it is a real house, human in scale, well-appointed but not pretentious. (Interestingly, Eleanor Roosevelt's bedroom is nearly as spare as a nun's cell.) The house features original paintings, objets d'art and furniture, including the bed Roosevelt was born in. Particularly poignant are two of FDR's wheelchairs--ordinary wooden kitchen chairs with the legs cut off and wheels attached. Roosevelt is said to have found them more maneuverable than the conventional kind.
Touching in a different way are the simple gray-marble funeral monuments set into the grass in the middle of the pretty little rose garden. Roosevelt and his wife are buried here, again unpretentiously, reunited with the land that nourished them both. "All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River," Roosevelt said in 1944, and the next year he did, to stay.
"Why was Roosevelt so great?" Maddy asked as we strolled the grounds. We found the answers near the house, in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, a building that Roosevelt himself helped design. More than 40,000 books and an extensive collection of presidential papers, photographs, manuscripts, recordings and films are cataloged here, and the museum displays everything from campaign posters to FDR's Ford convertible, which had special hand controls to allow the polio-stricken president to drive.
The grounds at crum elbow are thick with trees that turn color as gloriously as any in the season, but the topography of a neighboring estate, this one neither modest nor unpretentious, provides far more stunning vistas when the autumn burns. This house was built for Frederick William Vanderbilt, grandson of the famed Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt; Grandpa made a fortune running commercial steamboats along the Hudson and later founded the New York Central Railroad.
Erected between 1896 and 1898 at the then-astronomical cost of $660,000, the Vanderbilt estate would never be mistaken for a ranch. Luxuriously landscaped by earlier owners, the grounds had been neglected by its previous owner when Vanderbilt bought it. He promptly cleared and replanted the land, built bridle trails and bridges and added a coach house, gatehouses and greenhouses to the existing gardener's cottage and tool house. Then he perched a splendid beaux-arts mansion on the brow of a hill overlooking the property and the Hudson beyond. The Vanderbilts were prodigious builders, with massive mansions in numerous corners of the Eastern Seaboard, but this was one of the smallest, with a mere 54 rooms and 14 bathrooms. Nonetheless, it is impressive, bespeaking unimaginable personal wealth. The Greek Revival dwelling was designed by Charles Follin McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the most prestigious and influential New York architectural firm of its time.
European craftsmen were imported by the Vanderbilts to fashion intricate wood and stonework; the fresco'd and carved wooden ceilings recall those in the palaces of France and Italy; tapestries, Oriental rugs and antique furniture--worth a small fortune--fill the rooms. Frederick's bed is set beneath a decorated canopy that could surmount a monarch's throne; his wife Louise's is surrounded by a wooden railing, like that around the altar in a baroque church. The interior decoration and furnishings are said to have cost twice what the house did--and it's easy to believe. "Is this a hotel?" Isabelle asked as we left. I told her it wasn't, but it occurred to me that the closest thing I'd seen to this sort of portmanteau grandeur was in some of the palace hotels of Italy and France--the Danieli in Venice, say, or the Negresco in Nice.
When Frederick Vanderbilt died in 1938, he left the place to a favorite niece, Margaret Van Alen, but she had mansions of her own. At the suggestion of neighbor FDR, she donated it to the United States government as a monument to the Gilded Age.
The Vanderbilt property is separated from the Hudson only by a railroad line, and views of the water and the wooded shores beyond are unparalleled. The extensive parkland around the mansion is thick with trees and shrubs, and there are formal Italian gardens descending to Crum Elbow Creek. Estates of this kind seem like whole small private worlds; the very rich have always isolated and buffered themselves, but not very many have done it in such beautiful and at least ostensibly natural 600-plus-acre cocoons.
After seeing those two estates, we spent the night near Hyde Park in the city of Poughkeepsie, mainly because a sort of hybrid country inn-motel-B&B; called Inn at the Falls had been recommended by a friend. I'm not sure that I'd choose the place for a romantic getaway, but it was perfect with the kids. The architecture is modern-anonymous, the rooms decorated in approximations of English, pan-Asian and American-country style.
Poughkeepsie itself boasts some admirable 19th century architecture in its several historic districts, but much of the town is depressed and dreary. One thing not to miss, however, is the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at nearby Vassar College. When English-born brewery heir Matthew Vassar founded what was then called the Vassar Female College in 1865, he endowed it with more than 400 works of art from his personal collection. Today, in a sleek Cesar Pelli-designed complex opened in 1993, the Vassar treasure trove of art has grown to 14,000 items, many of them gifts from alumnae. Like one of those small private or municipal collections one sometimes finds in Europe, this one is eclectic in the true sense of the word--a selection of the finest examples of assorted genres.
Four perfect tabletop-size sculptures in Plexiglas cases in the entry hall--one each by Lynn Chadwick, Walter de Maria, Nancy Graves and Barbara Hepworth--set the tone. Like so much else in this collection, they are small but superb--intelligently chosen and attractively displayed. Elsewhere in the gallery are works ranging in period and origin from ancient Egypt to '90s New York City. Tiepolo, Brueghel the Younger, Cezanne, Alexander Calder, Francis Bacon, Georgia O'Keeffe, Picasso and Mira, and contemporary-trendy Ross Bleckner are among the many names represented.
The Hudson River Valley's other unexpected art collection is that at Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate in the town of Sleepy Hollow, close to New York City at the southern end of the valley.
John D. Rockefeller was chairman of Standard Oil--and as such the owner of about 95% of all U.S. oil refineries--in 1893 when he bought Kykuit (it is pronounced KI-kit, and it means "lookout" in Dutch). He and his son, John Jr., eventually built a 50-room neoclassical-style mansion, a private nine-hole golf course and a playhouse that conceals two tennis courts, two swimming pools, a bowling alley and a billiard room behind an English country facade.
The last Rockefeller to live here was John Jr.'s son Nelson, onetime governor of New York and vice president of the United States, and an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts. Both the house and grounds are filled with showpieces from his collections. Unfortunately, I had to return here on a separate Hudson River Valley visit without Maddy and Isabelle, as it is not recommended that children under 12 join the tour.
On the road leading up to the house and in various surrounding gardens and park-like expanses are 120 or so pieces of sculpture, many monumental in scale. Calder, Maillol, Marini, Arp, Lipchitz and others are represented outside. Inside, in rooms designed and furnished mostly in various 17th and 18th century English styles, are many more sculptures (Giacometti, Brancusi, Rodin, a 7th century Chinese bodhisattva figure), Chinese ceramics from several dynasties, rare porcelain and paintings of all kinds.
The majority of Rockefeller's modern and contemporary pieces, however, are downstairs in a network of converted tunnels under the house. The art-savvy visitor may be forgiven for gaping--at the Picassos next to the Motherwell not far from the Larry Bell; at the Calder tapestries, the Lautrec lithographs, the George Segal figures, the Warhol portraits of Rockefeller and his wife, Happy. One whole room is filled with tapestries based on famous Picasso paintings that Rockefeller commissioned, with the artist's blessing, from Provenal weaver Jacqueline Durrbach.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of art on the estate, though, is a living one: At the request of John D. Rockefeller Jr., one whole portion of the property, below the west-facing terrace, was planted to resemble a Hudson River School landscape that might have been painted by Thomas Cole or Frederick Church. The view is so perfect, so visually satisfying, that the effect is almost eerie.
One day, during the trip with my daughters, we visited one of the Hudson River Valley's most pleasant places: the 19th century village of Cold Spring. It sits between Sleepy Hollow and Hyde Park and is easily accessible--just an hour and a quarter by train from Manhattan. Cold Spring's most beautiful building is the elegantly simple little Chapel of Our Lady, which appears in many paintings by the 19th century Hudson River School of artists.
The town's more secular attractions include a main street lined with antique and gift shops, several delightful little inns and a handful of good restaurants. Down a red-brick garden path from the street, for instance, past a cigar shop that seems somehow incongruous here, is the fresh little Dolcigno Tuscan Grill and a serious antique shop called Country Mouse, which offers reasonably priced American antique furniture and a good collection of opulently floral Limoges ceramics, among other items. At Once Upon a Time, dolls and toys are a specialty.
The riverside landing at Garrison, the next village south from Cold Spring, played a part in the movie "Hello, Dolly!"--standing in for Yonkers in the 1890s. This town's big attraction is the Boscobel Restoration, a property dating from the early 19th century and long held by the socially and politically prominent Dyckman family. The opulently furnished and appointed New York Federal-style mansion eventually became the property of the U.S. government, which in 1955 apparently decided it owned one grand Hudson estate too many and sold the structure for $35 to a contractor, who sold off the house's accouterments and made plans to tear it down. The desecration caused a community outcry, and money was raised--most of it from Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of Reader's Digest--to rescue the mansion, move it a few miles to its present site and restore it to its former glory.
The interior is full of exquisite decorative detail and includes many pieces of furniture by celebrated 19th century cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. Outside are smallish but intensely colorful and fragrant gardens, including a formal rose garden and an unusual herb garden built around four bell-shaped bee skeps--inverted straw basketry forms that originally functioned as beehives. My girls were so fascinated by these that I had to buy a small reproduction of one in the Boscobel gift shop for our own garden.
The views of the Hudson River from the bottom of the garden are particularly broad and stunning. Filter out the odd speedboat and some large modern buildings on the west bank and you could be looking at another of those Hudson Valley School landscapes, a composition of billowing clouds, lush islets and promontories, and forests of red oak, sycamore, hemlock, black birch and more, alive with levels and degrees of color. Even Maddy and Isabelle, who by this time seemed to be getting a little tired of Hudson River views, admitted that it was something special. "I like it better than the house," Isabelle said.
Writing in the early 1930s, historian Paul Wilstach said of this part of the Hudson Valley in autumn that it flames "the whole gamut of yellow and scarlet, as if consumed by an epic fever." A recent observer, author Tim Mulligan, is even more carried away by the fall foliage: "It is the kind of scenery that draws you into its very essence, making you forget everything but the verity of those old cliches concerning water and seasons, life and death, and--I have got to say it--truth and beauty." That may seem a bit extravagant, but then so, sometimes, is autumn in the Hudson River Valley.
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Guidebook: Exploring the Hudson
The Hudson River Valley features more than 20 historic homes open to the public, including those of Samuel B. Morse, Washington Irving, Martin Van Buren and Edward Hopper as well as those included here, museums of high and low arts, public gardens, wineries, antiques shops and galleries, outlet stores, golf courses and restaurants offering every level of sophistication. The listings below are selective.
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for the Hudson River Valley is 914. Room rates are for a double for one night. Prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: By car from New York City, the most direct route is via Route 9. It is also possible to visit by train: The Hudson Line of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad from Grand Central Terminal (popularly but improperly called Grand Central Station) goes as far as Poughkeepsie. One recommended day trip by train would be to Cold Spring. Tickets are $15.50 to $20.50 round trip; for seniors and those with disabilities, the fare is $10 round trip; (212) 532-4900.
Where to stay: Hudson House, 2 Main St., Cold Spring; 265-9355. Built in 1832 and listed as a historic landmark, the inn has rooms attractively furnished in Early American style and an ambitious dining room. Rates: $150 May-November; $105 to $125 December-April. No children under 12. Breakfast included; dinner, $60 to $90. Inn at the Falls, 50 Red Oaks Mill Road, Poughkeepsie; 462-5770. Rates: $140 to $175, continental breakfast included. Pig Hill Inn, 73 Main St., Cold Spring; 265-9247. A charming little B&B; surrounded by restaurants and antique shops and handsomely furnished and decorated with antiques. Rates: $110, breakfast included.
Where to eat: Culinary Institute of America, Route 9, Hyde Park, 471-6608. This is the premier professional cooking school in America, and students--some obviously destined for great things--cook at four different restaurants. Prices range from $50 to $60 at St. Andrew's Cafe to $80 to $100 at Escoffier, The American Bounty and Catarina de Medici Restaurant. Dolcigno Tuscan Grill, 91 Main St., Cold Spring; 265-5582. Simple pasta, salads and grilled Italian specialties; $40 to $60. Hudson House, 2 Main St., Cold Spring; 265-9355. Pasta, lamb, chicken and beef dishes; $40 to $50. Xaviar's at Garrison, Highlands Country Club, Route 9D, Garrison; 424-4228. Top-of-the-line establishment with excellent contemporary American food and an award-winning wine list. Fixed-price dinners; $150. No credit cards.
What to see and do: Boscobel Restoration, Route 9D, Garrison; 265-3638 or http://www.boscobel.org. Admission: adults, $7; seniors, $6; children 6-14, $4; children under 6, free. Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Route 9, Hyde Park; 229-9115, http://www.academic.marist.edu/fdr. Admission: adults, $10; under 17, free. Kykuit, Pocantico Hills, Sleepy Hollow. Tours begin from the Philipsburg Manor visitors' center on Route 9, leaving every 15 minutes and lasting about two hours. Admission: $18. Reservations are essential and must be made at least a week in advance; 631-9491, or make a reservation online at http://www.hudsonvalley.com. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie; 437-5632 (for a recorded schedule of exhibitions). For special events, call 437-5632. Vanderbilt Mansion Historic Site, 519 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park; 229-9115. Entrance by guided tour only. Admission: adults, $8; under 17, free.
For more information: Two good guidebooks to the region are "The Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains: An Explorer's Guide" by Joanne Michaels and Mary-Margaret Barile (The Countryman Press, $16 paper). "The Traveler's Guide to the Hudson River Valley," by Tim Mulligan (Random House, $14 paper).
Fall foliage reports and brief listings of hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs;, restaurants, museums, historic homes, antique shops and more are available on the Round the Bend Online Travel Guide, http://www.round thebend.com/hudson/hudshotl.html.
There is also a New York state fall foliage hotline, (800) 225-2484.