By Eric Freedman
A stretch of New York’s Hudson Valley is known for its old wealth, stately mansions—and encroaching new wealth and development. Here, in and near Hyde Park, the names Vanderbilt and Roosevelt resonate with the grandeur of history and opulence, with old money that once was new.
And a few minutes’ drive south of Hyde Park in Poughkeepsie is the 200-acre Shady Grove Estate, home of telegraph inventor Samuel Morse.
Among other old families stretched along the Hudson Valley were the Rockefellers and some largely forgotten except in U.S. history books, including the Livingstons, “whose members included war heroes, political figures, and one of the five authors of the Declaration of Independence who, incidentally, swore in George Washington as the first president of the United States,” according to Historic Hudson River Towns Inc., a nonprofit consortium of local governments. Another such family, the Mills, produced a governor and a secretary of the Treasury.
In the words of the National Park Service, “For nearly two centuries, this place has been home to socially prominent New Yorkers.”
Their former mansions and estates remain reminders of an American aristocracy born not of royalty but of industry and finance and high society during a Gilded Age that was illusionary for most Americans of their times.
Census data shows that Dutchess County where Hyde Park and Poughkeepsie are located, had almost 300,000 residents in 2010, up by 6.19 percent since 2000. It’s an increasingly affluent area as well, with median household income of $71,508 in 2008-12, up by 34.70 percent since 2000.
Those pressures make it imperative to preserve what can be preserved of the land and the culture.
The natural beauty of the region has long been appreciated, although sometimes despoiled. As Historic Hudson River Towns points out, “The Hudson Valley’s lush landscapes drew artists to its beauty, inspiring the Hudson River School of painting.”
Fortunately, a mix of federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations has assumed responsibility for many of the estates. And a number of grassroots groups such as Scenic Hudson work on land protection, smart growth and protection of the river itself.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s family estate – Springwood – overlooks the Hudson River. It’s now a national historic site. Covering more than a square mile, it drew more than 147,000 visitors last year, according to the National Park Service.
Two miles away, Eleanor Roosevelt’s far more modest national historic site, Val-Kill, drew a far more
modest 43,000 visitors. Overlooking Val-Kill Pond and Fall Kill – “kill” means creek in Dutch – it includes the fieldstone cottage that was her home after FDR’s death.
The 181-acre site was also the location of her Depression-era industrial experiment, a furniture workshop intended to teach area residents a craft. The building was later converted to apartments.
It was, as the National Park Service put it, a “placid setting.” The property connects physically to Springwood but the houses are about 1½ miles away by foot.
Both are dwarfed in popularity by the nearby Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site where more than 370,000 people visited last year, according to the National Park Service. It’s only one of the industrialist family’s former homes.
There, the agency says, it “ preserves over 200 acres of the original property, including historic buildings, original furnishings, manicured landscapes, natural woodlands, formal gardens and associated documents.”
Eric Freedman is the director of the Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism