Touring the Great Estates

Would your children enjoy seeing an estate where a president served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England? A fabulous 50-room mansion which was sold to the government for a dollar? The home of a painter who is better known as the inventor of the telegraph? A cottage which was once used as a furniture factory and later served to entertain world leaders? In 1966, Congress declared the Hudson River Valley a National Heritage Area. Many of the beautiful great estates here, with their magnificent views of the Hudson River, were built and decorated by famous architects and designers as country retreats for families of enormous wealth. All are open to the public and are within 75 miles of mid-Westchester. Among them are Locust Grove (the home of Samuel F.B. Morse) in Poughkeepsie; Staatsburgh (the home of Ogden and Ruth Livingston Mills), in Staatsburgh; Springwood (the birthplace of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Top Cottage (FDR’s private retreat), Val-Kill (the home of Eleanor Roosevelt), and Vanderbilt Mansion (the home of Frederick William Vanderbilt), all in Hyde Park.

Locust Grove Perhaps the least known of these historic houses is the 150-acre Samuel F. B. Morse Historic Site, also called Locust Grove. It was originally a Georgian house built in 1830 for John and Isabella Montgomery, who sold it to artist and inventor Samuel Morse. Morse added two wings, a porte cochere (roofed shelter), a four-story tower and a billiards room, and turned it into a Tuscan-style villa. William and Martha Young added a dining room wing when they bought the estate in 1901. Morse was known originally as the artist and portrait painter who founded the National Academy of Design. He is remembered today, however, as the inventor of the telegraph and the Morse code. Children will enjoy using hands-on telegraph equipment. With clicks and clacks, they’ll dispatch a wire from a sending to a receiving station within Locust Grove. They’ll learn about Morse’s famous first telegram, “What hath God wrought,” which he sent from Washington to Baltimore in 1844. They can practice Morse code in the Visitor’s Center. Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark, displays paintings, decorative arts and furniture owned by Morse and the Young families. You can tour the Heritage Vegetable Garden, first planted more than two centuries ago, and take a self-guided tour of the main and geometric gardens, the carriage house, a waterfall and an old tool house. Children’s games are included in a Civil War Encampment on May 22 and 23. At five family-oriented concerts held on summer Sundays, large open spaces allow kids to run and play freely. The Morse Historic Site is located on Route 9 in Poughkeepsie, about 60 miles from White Plains and 2 miles south of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Admission: $7; $6 seniors, college students; $3, ages 6-18. (845) 454-4500,

Staatsburgh State Historic Site Formerly known as the Mills Mansion, Staatsburgh is an elegant country estate about 5 miles north of Hyde Park. It’s a wonderful place to take the kids because it’s surrounded by 1,000 acres of parkland and offers hiking trails, camping, horseback riding, biking and views of the Hudson River. Staatsburgh has an impressive history, going back to 1792 when Morgan Lewis, quartermaster general in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, bought 1,600 acres of Hudson Valley land. In time, his great granddaughter, Ruth Livingston, married a prominent Hudson Valley philanthropist and financier, Ogden Mills. The present mansion dates from 1896 when architect Stanford White remodeled and enlarged a 25-room house built in 1832. The new mansion had 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms and was decorated in the fashion of 17th and 18th century France. Its furniture was gilded and carved, and its art treasures came from the Far East and Greece. Gladys Mills Phipps, a granddaughter, gave the house and 192 acres to New York State in 1938. Extensive restoration was necessary and is still ongoing. The historic site, now known by its original name, Staatsburgh, is open from April-October 31 with limited hours in December. The adjoining parks, Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial and Margaret Lewis Norrie, include two 9-hole golf courses and a restaurant. Family events include tree planting, hiking and camping, and the Environmental Center has a display of turtles and fish. Fall and winter events include a car show in October and a scavenger hunt, story reading and ornament-making in December. Admission: $5 adults; $4 seniors, students; $1 children 5-12. Camping season runs May-October.

Springwood The birthplace of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is officially named Springwood but most people call it Hyde Park, the town where it’s located. The original farmhouse was built around 1800 and an early owner added a 3-story tower and a large covered porch. FDR’s father bought Springwood in 1867, enlarged it and built a carriage house. FDR and his mother, Sara, added a tower, fieldstone wings, a flat-roofed third story, and a terrace. It was on this terrace that Roosevelt greeted his supporters and Hyde Park neighbors on the four occasions that he was elected president. Springwood was modest compared to other Hudson River estates, but it was large and elegant enough to be used to entertain dignitaries from around the world. You can view the formal dining room, the room in which Roosevelt was born, his boyhood bedroom and his office. The bedroom he used during his presidential years looks out over the Hudson River and remains as he left it on his last visit shortly before his death in April 1945. You can visit the house, the library and the museum, and walk through the grounds, gardens and trails. The buildings and land were donated by the Roosevelts to the American people. President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, are buried in the Rose Garden. Children get a chance to become Junior Secret Service people in a program aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds. To earn a badge, they tour FDR’s home, learn their way around the grounds and interview visitors. School groups interested in programs on “Growing Up at Springwood” (for 4th graders) and “Hard Times and the Making of a President” (for 6th-8th graders) should contact Dawn Mantan, National Archives, at (845) 486-7751. FDR loved Springwood and its beautiful grounds. During his fourth term as president, when World War II was raging, he said, “All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River.” Springwood is on Route 9 in Hyde Park, about 70 miles from White Plains. Admission: $14; under 17 free. Open year-round 9am-5pm. Administered by the National Park Service. (845) 229-9115.

Top Cottage A National Historic Landmark, this small, wheelchair-accessible stone cottage was Roosevelt’s private retreat for many years. He used it, he said, to “escape the mob.” Top Cottage, designed in FDR’s favorite Dutch Colonial style, was built on Dutchess Hill. He could sit on the porch and enjoy the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains. It was here that the famous — some say, infamous — hot dogs were served to the King and Queen of England by the President and First Lady as a “sample of typical American food.” (Turkey and ham were also served). Top Cottage can be reached only by shuttle bus from the FDR Home. Tours are given at 10am, 1 and 3pm, Thursday-Monday from May-October. Admission: $8; under 17 free. Administered by the National Park Service. (845) 229-9115.

Val-Kill Just a short distance from Springwood is Val-Kill, the modest Stone Cottage which was Eleanor Roosevelt’s sanctuary and the only home which she considered her very own. Her story, as told here, will appeal to teenage girls interested in learning about the struggles of early feminists. Eleanor Roosevelt was not a quiet, retiring First Lady; she traveled extensively and reported back to the President on the plight of the country during the Depression years. During World War II, she visited wounded servicemen around the world. After FDR’s death, she became a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and the chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. On the property is a second, larger Val-Kill cottage where Mrs. Roosevelt established a furniture factory to provide work for local farmers. The depressed economy forced its closing after 10 years. This cottage became her home after her husband’s death and until her own in 1962. Visitors may see the Val-Kill house, the flower gardens, the pond, pool and trails. Admission: $8; under 17 free. Open 7 days a week from May-October and closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays the rest of the year. Administered by the National Park Service. (845) 229-9115.

Vanderbilt Mansion In 1895, according to The New York Times, “Frederick William Vanderbilt joined the little colony of millionaires up the river.” Along with Vanderbilt came his celebrated architects, McKim, Mead and White; fine furniture imported from Europe; carved wooden ceilings, and a fulltime staff of 60. The palatial 50 plus-room Vanderbilt Mansion, just north of Springwood on Route 9, is basically unchanged from the days when the railroad magnate lived here with his marble staircases, fine art, wood-paneled walls, Rococo ornaments and 13 rooms for visiting ladies’ maids. Fabulous old plantings, grounds leading down to the Hudson, an Italian garden, walking trails and views of the mountains are other features of the Vanderbilt Mansion. The estate was sold to the Federal government for $1. Vanderbilt offers wildlife tours throughout the summer; kids will see deer, snakes, rabbits, birds and squirrels. Families can enjoy hiking trails down to the Hudson River and can play soccer and baseball. Admission: $8; under 17 free. Open year-round 9am-5pm. Administered by the National Park Service. (845) 229-9115.

There is no admission charge at Staatsburgh if you have a New York State Empire Passport If you have a National Park Pass, a Golden Age Passport, a Golden Access Passport, or a Golden Eagle Passport, admission to tours at the FDR properties and the Vanderbilt Mansion is free.