In the land where all men are created equal, the Hudson Valley has been a special place where actual lords have presided over quasi-feudal manors, where industrialists have erected a string of chateaus as their country seats, where a landscape painter built himself a Persian castle on a mountaintop. The regal beauty of the river seems to have invited this attention. A tour of houses along its length, maintained as museums and open to the public, provides a panorama of successive generations of Americans rising to self-exaltation.
In the 1600s, when the Hudson was the road into a near wilderness, the Dutch in New Amsterdam and then the British in New York sought to populate the land by issuing feudal, European-style baronies on vast tracks up and down the river. The lord of a manor could lease plots of his land to tenant farmers, and the tenants could be required to pay stiff annual rents in perpetuity to keep their homes. A few of the old manor houses still survive.
The shrewd Frederick Flypse arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in the 1650s as carpenter to Gov. Peter Stuyvesant; by 1693 he had made himself into one of the most powerful international traders in New York. He had also bought from Indians 52,500 acres along the Hudson—and the governor made the land his manor. Two centers of the manor still survive amid the suburban sprawl: a manor hall in Yonkers and a manor house and mill farther north, in Tarrytown. The Tarrytown establishment is maintained by Sleepy Hollow Restorations, an organization founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1937 when developers planned to tear down the house. There you can see the manor’s northern outpost as it appeared in the very early 1700s, and you are likely to be struck by how hard and simple life was then, even for a powerful landowner. The house is a compact, unadorned, whitewashed, native-stone building. Two floors each contain four rooms, with bare plank floors, low ceilings, thick walls, and sparse furnishings. Beside the house is a reconstructed wooden gristmill. The mill was the focus of this outpost. Tenants were required to sell their wheat and corn through the lord and paid their annual rent here. The Philipses—Frederick anglicized the name when New Amsterdam became New York—chose the wrong side to support when the Revolution came, and all their manorial lands were confiscated.
The Livingston lords fared much better. Their long dynasty began with Robert Livingston, a Scot reared in Holland who arrived almost penniless in Albany in 1674 and by 1686 had acquired not only wealth but also the lordship and manor of Livingston, a 160,000-acre swath running ten miles along the Hudson and clear through to Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The first lord’s descendants backed the patriot side in the Revolution, and the manor survived virtually unchanged, though scions of the founder could no longer be called lords. His great-grandson Robert R. Livingston, the most prominent of many public figures in the family, administered the oath of office to President Washington, served as the first U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and as minister to France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Clermont, his home, stands as a state historic site on former manor land in German town, about two-thirds of the way to Albany. Built in about 1730, it is an elegant Georgian house, large but restrained, set on a broad, rolling lawn with sumptuous views of the river and the Catskill Mountains beyond.
Here and there in it you’ll see remarkable mementos of the family’s great days: a letter from the chancellor’s mother to General Washington requesting that her servants be excused from the war to rebuild the house; an 1800s handbill from the opposition urging tenant farmers to rise up against their lords. The first successful voyage of Robert Fulton’s steamboat was a trip up the Hudson in 1807, and the first stop was at the home of his patron, Robert R. Livingston. You can still see the landing where the vessel docked. Livingston Manor endured, divided among family heirs, until the 1840s, when a statewide tenant revolt finally put an end to the ancient leaseholding system.
The first American who acquired fortune and international fame through literary achievement was Washington Irving, and he, too, built his dream house by the Hudson, just outside Tarrytown. The house began in the late 1600s as a tenant farmer’s home on Philipsburg Manor land; Irving bought it in 1835 and remade it into a “little, old-fashioned stone mansion all made up of gabled ends, and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat.” He renamed it Sunnyside. The place is cheery and warm throughout; there are only hints in it of the stern New York Dutch home of a century before.
If Irving’s home is playful, that of the landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church, near the town of Hudson, is almost manic. Church, another one of America’s first internationally lionized cultural figures, bought a hilltop above the river in 1867 and had Calvert Vaux design a Moorish villa for it. But he worked in so many of his own ideas that he remarked, “I can say, as the good woman did about her mock turtle soup, I made it out of my own head.”
Church spoke of the home, hilltop, and views beyond as together composing a work of living landscape art. He named the house Olana, which in Persian meant a treasure house or fortress, and he threw up turrets and towers of multi-colored brick and slate. He planned the road to the house so it would lead from one great view to another—“I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio,” he wrote—and cut a lake into the hillside where the scene wanted improvement.
The Hudson reached its peak of popularity as a front yard for the moneyed toward the end of the nineteenth century, when its east bank became known as millionaire’s row. Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, one of America’s earliest and finest Gothic Revival mansions, was designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis for William Paulding, a mayor of New York City. It was owned after 1880 by the supreme railroad plunderer, Jay Gould.
From the outside the house looks almost small—Gothic arches and spires usually adorn more majestic buildings. But inside (you enter through a vestibule that has a fifteen-foot-high vaulted ceiling, eleven-foot-high doors, and two carved bishop’s chairs bearing the Jay Gould coat of arms) everything is grand and theatrical. In nearly every room the lavish marble and bronze and leather are really wood and plaster and canvas, brilliantly disguised in the best high-style fakery of the day. Most of the furniture is outright playful. Davis designed chairs and tables and beds and bureaus to intermingle Gothic patterns with details from the house’s natural surroundings —twining oak leaves and acorn finials. Gould reached the peak of his power during the time he lived at Lyndhurst and did a good deal of business there. His big Wooton desk is fortresslike, with a wall of forty metal containers that looks like part of a bank vault.
Gilded Age grandiosity reaches a pinnacle at the 1896 mansion of the goldrush banking heir Ogden Mills, in Staatsburg, New York, a sixty-five-room Renaissance chateau with fourteen baths, twenty-five all-different marble fireplaces, a forty-foot-long dining-room table, forty outbuildings, and a six-foot-high safe in the pantry for the silver. The Millses lived here for about two months each autumn, when they weren’t at another of their places in New York, Paris, California, or Newport. The house was really not a home so much as a large hotel, laid out to accommodate guests and their servants by the dozens and to hold balls for crowds of hundreds. All the antiques here are real, and prominently displayed in one airy room is a large silver platter inscribed “To my friends Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills, as a slight token of appreciation for their generosity and courtesy to me, and their real service to the American Expeditionary Forces in the gift of their beautiful Paris house for my headquarters while in Paris. John J. Pershing.”
Across the Hudson and downriver in Newburgh, the house where another general stayed makes a contrasting impression. It is a plain, one-story Dutch building of seven small rooms, with whitewashed walls and open hearths. This was George Washington’s home and headquarters during sixteen uneasy months beginning in April 1782, after the British had surrendered at Yorktown but before the Treaty of Paris. The close, unadorned quarters seem to embody the spirit behind the letter Washington wrote there to a colonel who suggested he make himself king of America: “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”