In 1906, John D Rockefeller—then the richest man in the world—began construction on a new summer house on his vast 3,410 acre estate overlooking the Hudson River. Rockefeller’s son, John Junior, took responsibility for the construction; but father and son disagreed from the outset over who should design the house—so they compromised by having several architects work together. The mansion was finished two years later and the result was generally considered to be a disaster: the house was ugly, the windows were too small, the ceilings too low, smoke blew in through the windows and the plumbing was noisy.
It was a crisis for the Rockefeller family: Senior and his wife disliked the house intensely, and their son Junior felt that he had let his parents down. Eventually, Senior decided to virtually demolish the house and start again. The rebuild took another five years to complete, but it ran into further problems, including threats to kidnap Senior’s grandchildren, arson and even murder on the Rockefeller estate. The new house, called Kykuit (pronounced Ky-kut)—which is Dutch for ‘lookout’—was eventually completed in 1914.
Senior pronounced himself happy with the house, which was packed full of the very latest technology which Rockefeller enjoyed— including state-of-the art telephones and telegraph, ticker tape, refrigeration and even a central vacuuming system. He was less impressed, however, with some of the statuary which his son had installed in the gardens, including a vast fountain in the forecourt (the granite bowl alone weighed a staggering 35 tons) and a marble statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, which nobody was sure was authentic or not. Each one of these features cost Rockefeller Senior more than double the original estimate for the landscaping of the gardens. With all the new technology in the house and the elaborate sculptures in the garden, it is not surprising that the construction went over budget: the house alone cost four times the original estimate, and the landscaping and gardens went 45-times over budget!
Rockefeller’s wife Cettie did not enjoy the house for long, for she died the following year. Senior went on to live for another 22 years; when he died in 1937, the house passed on to his only son, Rockefeller Junior, and his wife Abby, and they added their own unique touches to the house. After Junior’s death in 1960, his son Nelson moved into Kykuit and introduced a more family-friendly atmosphere, including two swimming pools and an ice cream parlour in the ‘Teahouse’. Nelson also installed an eclectic mix of modern art, including statues by Henry Moore, Picasso and Alexander Calder.
After Nelson’s death in 1979, Kykuit and its gardens were bequeathed to the nation and the house and grounds have been open to the public since 1994 for restricted tours during the summer months.
Secret Access Week continues with American Mansion: Secrets of the Rockefeller Estate, tonight at 8P.