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New York Hudson River Valley

Hudson River Valley: Historic Mansions and Delectable Cuisine

by Susan McKee

New York City seems far away, even though it’s a mere 50 miles or so. People in this part of the Hudson River often commute to Manhattan to work, but there's no sign of the Big Apple on the streets of the sleepy towns dotting the area.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Estate Library
Franklin D. Roosevelt Estate Library

The neat and trim houses—a remarkable number dating from the 19th and even the 18th centuries—have white picket fences, gardens full of flowers and American flags flying out front. The shops are mom-and-pop operations. The pace is slow.

Winding along the river, where huge swaths are forested, it's easy to imagine a quieter time. Except that it has never been quiet along the Hudson. From the earliest days of human settlement, this river has been a vital waterway, an artery of commerce and, of course, scene of much warfare.

From prehistoric times through the American Revolution and the War of 1812, there were numerous skirmishes and battles along its banks—a subject that hasn't escaped attention. There's a museum in an old stone house at Newburgh, for example, that served as George Washington's headquarters in 1782 and 1783.

"When I visited the Boscobel garndens in June, the roses were magnificent – but the more than 150 varieties of the fragrant flower aren’t the only attraction."

Also along its banks in peacetime, some of the major players in American history built their houses. Perhaps the best known belonged to FDR. The Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National History Site in Hyde Park includes his home, but also a library and museum on its 290 acres.

This presidential library, in fact, was the nation's first – and the only one actually used by a sitting president. It was built by private subscription in 1940, and used by FDR as his "office away from the White House" during his third and fourth terms. The home, called Springwood, was built about 1800 but was much remodeled and expanded over the years.

I was surprised to find that I liked Eleanor Roosevelt's house better. Yes, she and her husband maintained separate domiciles, even before the era of "don't ask/don't tell." Eleanor made Stone Cottage at ValKill, a few miles inland from the river, her permanent residence from 1945, when Franklin died, until 1962, when she died. She always said that it was “much more comfortable than Springwood” (which, in any case, she always considered as her mother-in-law's house).

ValKill (Dutch for valley stream) is the only National Historic Site dedicated to a First Lady.

Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park
Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park

A couple of miles north of Springwood along the Albany Post Road is the Vanderbilt Mansion, also a National Historic Site. This Hyde Park mansion, built on a grand scale with an Indiana limestone exterior, was the home of the "quiet" Vanderbilt, Frederick. He and his wife, Louise, spent the winter social season in New York City, and the summer at Newport, R.I. They visited their 600-acre estate along the Hudson in the spring and fall, traveling on the "family railroad," New York Central Railroad. A visit here was like a step back in time – it's furnished as though the Vanderbilts were due any minute for a country weekend.

Boscobel, south of Hyde Park, is an historic house museum. The house itself was completed in 1808 for the family of States Dyckman, a descendant of one of the early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. Rather than representing a particular family, however, this example of Federal architecture is furnished to show the best in decorative arts of the period, with items from premier New York cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Michael Allison.

As perfect as the setting seems, it’s not the original location of the house. Boscobel was built in on the Dyckman farm at Montrose, about 15 miles south, and only moved to its present site when demolition threatened its destruction in the 1950s.

I'll admit I preferred the gardens, which in no way resemble those original to the house. When Boscobel was moved north, Richard K. Webel’s plan for the grounds called for a classically inspired landscape in the beaux-arts or "country place" style popular from the turn of the century to the mid-1930s.

When I visited in June, the roses were magnificent – but the more than 150 varieties of the fragrant flower aren’t the only attraction. Across the great lawn is a dramatic vista of the Hudson Highlands with West Point Military Academy clearly visible across the river from a belvedere outlook.

Boscobel House Historic Museum

Directly below is the Constitution Marsh Sanctuary. Although Boscobel is high above the Hudson River, the grounds are the ancient nesting site of the Snapping Turtle. These aren't the small turtles we used to be able to buy in pet stores, but the big 'uns. Supporting shells more than a foot long, they lumber up the hillside from the marsh to burrow into the dirt and lay their eggs each year. I actually saw the first mommy turtle of the season digging near the base of the belvedere, causing much consternation in the docent ranks (it seems they have a betting pool on who will see the first egg-laying snapper.)

I didn't get a chance to see Locust Grove, where Samuel Morse lived, but that's on my list for next time (you do remember the inventor of the Morse Code and so much more, don't you?) Other famous former owners of homes I also missed include Martin Van Buren, John Jay, the Philips family, Jay Gould and the Shakers.

I could have spent all my time touring historic homes, but I had to save time for the real reason I went to that part of the Hudson River Valley: the Culinary Institute of America. By sheer luck, I was able to snag a last-minute dining spot at one of the cooking school's restaurants for a meal to remember (I asked to be on the waiting list for a cancellation, and won the gamble.)

The school itself is as magnificent as any of the mansions along the Hudson, with public dining rooms as lavish as the best Manhattan can offer. (Tours are avialable; two, three or five-day "boot camps" for serious foodies can be booked as well.) As part of their training, the aspiring chefs and restaurateurs work in the industry, and spots at the table are reserved months in advance.

I was seated in the American Bounty restaurant (one of five restaurants, each with a different cuisine). The setting was lovely, the service was exemplary and the food and wine, outstanding. I started with an appetizer centered on barbecued eel, progressed to a salad with shaved fennel and artichokes, tasted a "sampling" of all three soups of the day, enjoyed sea bass on red pepper cous cous and finished with coffee and a crème brulée.

If You Go:

Dutchess County Tourism

Boscobel Restoration

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site

Culinary Institute of America
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