Ah, the Rockefeller family.
John D., founder of Standard Oil, was a simple man. No drinking, no smoking, no gambling, no dancing. Actually that last one I could see. When he commissioned Kykuit, named for the hill where it sat/sits (and dutch for “lookout”), John D. envisioned a modest 32-bedroom farmhouse surrounded by porches. A simple man, John D. arose at 6 every morning and worked straight through until 10am before hitting his private links for a round of golf.
It wasn’t until John D’s son, John Junior, inherited the house that it took on the opulence “Junior” deemed “commensurate with the prestige of the family”. The porches were no more, and the house was restyled “in its present Classic Revival form”. (Source) The house, at various times, boasted a pipe organ, a glassed in porch (now open-air), and twin swimming pools, and grew a hole between the first and second floors (called an “oculus”).
How do I know all this? I paid attention on the tour.
The Rockfeller Estate would be amazing enough if it were just a romantic park to walk through, but I must admit, despite my usual disdain for tourguides, being able to picture the families inhabiting the spaces on the property does enhance the experience.
What You Need to Know – The Tour
Kykuit is maintained by three separate companies, but the visitor relations are entirely the wheelhouse of Historic Hudson Valley, who…how should I put this…take their charter of curating access very seriously. There’s no visitor access, in fact, save through tours the HHV group leads. Here’s what you need to know-
Book tickets in advance. If possible book online. (Site link above). Adult tickets will run you $25-a-head, $28 for weekends. It’s worth it.
When you show up for the tour, come 15-30 minutes in advance, and go to Phillipsburg Manor at 381 N Broadway, Sleepy Hollow, NY. Once you pick up your tickets a bus will take you to the property.
Get the Selected Highlights tour, which spends the most time on the grounds, and the least in the house. The house is lovely, the house will give you a sense of the people who lived there, etc., you don’t need more than 45 minutes in the house. It’s a house. What the highlights tour gives you is a good 90 minutes on the expansive, haunting, William Bosworth-designed grounds.
Yes, there’s Greek revival-to-spare, but the most alluring parts of the grounds are the subtle sections, like the Picasso-esque statue garden at the house’s right flank.
The bus ride from Phillipsburg Manor takes about ten minutes, and when you enter the grounds and wind past the private golf course you get a sense of the scale of the place. The bus empties out with mansion ahead, Greek revival sculpture and 20-mile-vista behind.
You’re hustled into the house, and it’s about 45 minutes of milling around behind exhibit ropes while the guides go into detail. If you’re a history buff you’ll love it, but even attention-span-challenged folks like myself will find something of interest in the house leg.
Afterward, you’re led out a side door, and the real tour begins.
The designers took care to ensure “every window faces something beautiful”, and what a vantage point atop Kykuit Hill affords naturally, grounds designer William Bosworth took care to enhance. Take, for instance, the unrestricted view off the back patio directly to the Hudson River, and the Palisades (the famous rock outcroppings that frame the river’s west side) beyond. There’s a town in between – Sleepy Hollow – but Bosworth planted trees strategically so that any evidence if its existence is invisible from the house.
The grounds tour makes a 360-degree sweep of the gardens surrounding the house. Directly behind, down the stairs from the Greek revival fountain, is a sweeping green.
Around the side of the house is the gazebo and the Grotto, a cool, clammy subterranean chamber where Nelson, the grandson of John D, used to host Halloween parties.
William Bosworth used geography to great effect here, with sweeping stone staircases and winding paths.
The tour concludes in the rose gardens, which overlook the private golf course.
All told, you’ll spend about 2.5 hours from boarding the bus at Phillipsburg Manor to your return. I’d recommend eating a medium-sized meal just before boarding if you’ve got an appetite, because food is NOT prohibited on the grounds. (Only bottled water is permitted, and only outdoors.)
If you’ve got a spare afternoon, Kykuit is definitely a getaway worth your time and money. The views are therapeutic, and you’ll enjoy a glimpse into the life of one of New York’s most famous families.
Just like Lyndhurst down the road, Kykuit is reachable in about an hour from Brooklyn or lower Manhattan in light traffic. There are several possible routes so use the google maps app traffic tool to check which route is least congested.
From Brooklyn – either north to the most direct entrance to the BQE (to the triborough – RFK – bridge, to the Deegan)
or the Hugh L Carey (battery) tunnel to the west side highway (9A) to the Sawmill River Parkway.
From Manhattan – west siders take the west side highway to the sawmill.
East siders can take the FDR to Harlem river Drive to either the Deegan or the West Side Highway via the cross Bronx (be sure to get off before the bridge!) to the Sawmill.
From Grand Central, take the Metro North – train 8843 towards Poughkeepsie. Jump off at Tarrytown – it’s about 35 minutes on the express – and walk to Philipsburg Manor at 381 N Broadway, Sleepy Hollow, NY. It’s about 8 tenths of a mile, or a little over 15 minutes.