The History of the Rockefeller Family in Westchester

Halfway through a three-hour tour of the Kykuit mansion, the former home to four generations of Rockefellers, it became apparent that I was going to need to use the bathroom—a large mug of iced coffee purchased at a Tarrytown café was to blame. My guide, Corinne, a woman of perhaps 94, eagerly led me to a marble bathroom enclosed by velvet ropes, telling me this may have been where John D. Rockefeller had spent a great deal of his time. When, after several high-decibel explanations, she gathered the nature of my request, I was ushered away from the tour by two elderly women carrying walkie-talkies, taken down a long flight of wooden stairs, through a cavernous servant’s kitchen, past the subterranean art gallery—complete with works by Picasso and Warhol—and, finally, down a dimly lit hallway that smelled of wood varnish.

One of the women, identified by a plastic name tag as “Rose,” dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a polo shirt, stood guard at the bathroom door, her walkie-talkie crackling with instructions from an unknown male voice, while the other disappeared up the stairs. I had the feeling that Rose suspected I might attempt to lift a memento from the bathroom as a keepsake—perhaps the sterling-silver pull-chain from the toilet or one of the gilded faucet handles from the marble sink. But no, I was not planning to pocket a piece of Rockefeller history. In truth, the grandeur and opulence of the mansion had exhausted my senses and I was grateful for a quiet moment of reflection.

Kykuit, the Hudson-side estate that housed four generations of Rockefellers. Photo © Bryan Haeffele

I thought back to the beginning of the tour. After passing though a security checkpoint manned by three uniformed guards, the bus began the mile-long uphill trek to the mansion’s front gate. The rolling lawns that preceded it were unlike any I had ever seen—not a blade of grass seemed overgrown or out of place; the mow pattern reminded me of the parallel light and dark rows commonly found in the outfields of major-league ballparks. Noticing my interest in the lawn, Corinne eagerly launched into a story about a man who, a few years back, had attempted to walk on the grass without permission. “He was quickly subdued,” she said.

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As we reached the front gate, a man dressed in blue gardening overalls emerged from the ground. Corinne explained that the property had been constructed with a sophisticated set of subterranean passageways with pipes that ran water to the many fountains on the property—the largest being a 30-foot replica of Giambologna’s Oceanus Fountain that was built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Hudson.

The views from Kykuit were astounding—possibly the best in Westchester. The Hudson sparkled like a thousand stars lit up in the night sky. Surrounding towns, including Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, looked as if civilization had yet to move in, the treetops hiding any sign of human life. I felt like a time-traveler whisked back to a bygone era. This must have been the view that had inspired John D. Rockefeller to purchase land in Westchester in 1893. New York City, where the majority of the Rockefeller family resided, was just 28 miles away and a horse-drawn carriage could make the journey to the estate in less than two hours. It was the perfect family retreat, a temporary escape from city life.

As we entered the giant stone mansion, I turned and took one final look at Westchester and its surrounding environs. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened in the 120 years since the Rockefellers had arrived in Pocantico Hills. Their name was synonymous with money and power, but was there more to their legacy? What kind of mark had they left on Westchester? Who were the major players? How is their presence felt today?

Surprisingly, most of my questions would be answered by a single photograph taken 75 years earlier at the Tarrytown train station.

Photo courtesy of Corbis

On May 25, 1937, a group of men (five brothers accompanied by their father) gathered on the north platform of the Tarrytown train station. Each man wore a three-piece suit and polished black leather shoes, most adding a neatly folded pocket square and a tall felt homburg. Their neckties were nearly identical, each knotted in a simple yet elegant half-Windsor. The day was unusually hot for May, well into the 80s, but the group seemed unfazed by the burden of their formal attire. Before the next train pulled into the station, an enterprising photographer bunched the men together for a last-minute photo.

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On the left is John Jr., the father, smiling and bespectacled, his arms loosely crossed. To his left are sons David, on summer break from graduate school at Harvard, staring mournfully down the tracks; Nelson, the future governor of New York and eventual vice president under Gerald Ford, gazing sternly into the distance; Winthrop, a former Yale student (he had been expelled from the university in 1934 because of allegations of salacious behavior) and future governor of Arkansas, peering impishly over his brother’s shoulders; Laurance, a prominent philanthropist and venture capitalist, lost in his own thoughts; and John III, the oldest of the brothers, flashing a broad grin, as if posing for a Macy’s catalog. Sadly, he would die, 41 years later, in a horrific car wreck just half a mile from where this photo was taken.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., comissioned a replica of Giambologna’s fountain to elevate the Hudson to the level of the Nile, Euphrates, and Ganges. Photo © Bryan Haeffele

If you had been a bystander at this scene, you might guess this rowdy bunch was headed to New York for a lavish dinner party at The Plaza. But, in fact, these six men, the famous Rockefeller boys, have come to collect the body of one of the richest men in the world, John D. Rockefeller, the former president of Standard Oil, founder of the family fortune, and the nation’s widely-recognized first billionaire, who had died at his estate in Ormand Beach, Florida, at the age of 97, two days earlier. This moment, sealed in time by a single photograph, marked the beginning of the second phase of a legacy that would, in the 75 years that followed, imbue a profound and indelible effect on the place we call home.

Take a look at David. He’s the chap standing next to his father with his fist tightly clenched. At 21, he’s also the youngest of the brothers. If he looks like he is doing his best to force a smile, it’s probably for good reason. After all, he is flanked by his father, who was notorious for presiding over the family with an iron fist, and his domineering brother Nelson, who largely ignored him during their childhood years. A shy boy, David has just started to emerge from his shell after completing a year of graduate economics work at Harvard. At the end of the summer, he will set sail for London to conclude his graduate degree at the London School of Economics.

Upon his return from London, he enrolled at the University of Chicago (founded 47 years earlier by his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller) to complete a PhD in economics and, after a tour of service in the army, began a long career in banking that would conclude with a 12-year tenure as chairman and CEO of the Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., and The Chase Manhattan Corporation in New York City. David would be blessed with excellent health, outlive all of his siblings (the last to die was Laurance in 2004), and become the sole patriarch of the Rockefeller fortune, playing a central role in efforts to preserve the wealth for future Rockefeller generations and continue the family’s global philanthropic efforts. Speaking of the train station photo, David recalled in his 2003 memoirs, “Looking at that picture today, I find it remarkable how well it captured our relationships with one another, where we were in life, and, perhaps, where we would all be going.”

Photo courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, created by David Rockefeller and daughter Peggy Dulany.

Perhaps David’s most significant contribution to Westchester was also the most controversial. In 2001, he, along with his daughter, Peggy Dulany, made plans to open the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The 80-acre farm in Pocantico Hills, a hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant, donated by David to the Stone Barns Restoration Corporation, was designed to be wholly self-sustaining, with a for-profit restaurant and café serving to offset the costs of a nonprofit organic farm and agriculture education center. As part of an effort to finance the tremendous cost of the project—which had soared to nearly $30 million by late 2002—the final component of David’s proposal called for building a 75-room hotel and a number of luxurious private houses on a 94-acre parcel of land within the Rockefeller estate.

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This caused an uproar within the closely knit and notoriously private Rockefeller clan. In a 2002 New York Times article, an anonymous family member was quoted as saying, “The hotel is absolutely unacceptable. We are already up in arms, but quietly. I feel like this [the Rockefeller estate] is the Central Park of Westchester and that none of it should be developed.” Writer Ben Cheever weighed in, too: “This land is public, or has been treated as public for decades. It isn’t our backyard. It is Westchester’s backyard, New York State’s backyard. It is America’s backyard.”

The squabble eventually was resolved when Dr. Lucy Waletzky, daughter of Laurance Rockefeller, donated $4.7 million to the Stone Barns Restoration Corporation, allowing it to gift the 94-acre portion of land that had been allocated for commercial development back to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, thus ensuring the land would remain untouched. (Dr. Waletzky, who resides in Pleasantville, could not be reached for comment.)

Fortunately, the plans for the farm and restaurant went forward and, today, the four-star Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a world-renowned farm-to-table restaurant with James Beard Foundation Award-winner Dan Barber at the helm. Westchesterites and out-of-towners alike enjoy visits to the farm, which boasts more than 1,500 chickens, 100 Berkshire hogs, and 200 varieties of organic crops, and has grown into a full-blown agricultural center dedicated to connecting Wetchester residents to the land again.

The Rockefeller State Park Preserve was established by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., as an escape from the City.

“David Rockefeller and his daughter Peggy Dulany were committed to creating a place that takes inspiration from the agricultural history of this land but looks to the future of our food system,” said Jill Isenbarger, Stone Barns’s executive director. “Farmers, educators, chefs, and food citizens at Stone Barns Center are working to change the way we eat and farm—not only in Westchester, but across the nation. Thanks to the Rockefeller vision, we are educating a new generation of farmers and eaters to care about the land that provides our food, today and for the future.”

Today, at 97, David lives both in New York City and at Hudson Pines, his 166-acre estate in Pocantico Hills, where he breeds and sells elite Simmental cattle to domestic ranchers. He often can be found dining at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where he sits at a special table that overlooks the farm’s rolling pastures. David has lived contentedly in Westchester for nearly a century. “The more I visit friends on Long Island and Connecticut, the happier I am that the family settled in Westchester,” he told the New York Times in 2002.

My second journey into the Rockefeller legacy took me to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville, with my mother as my guide. Each weekend, she escapes her cramped New York City apartment and flees to the miles of bucolic hiking trails that make up a large majority of the Preserve. It’s a place where cellphone service is virtually non-existent and life seems to fade to a time when things were simpler. There are icy brooks, perfectly soothing to tired feet, and shady sitting areas designed specifically for bird watching. (With 180 species of birds, the park recently received an “Important Bird Area” designation by the National Audubon Society.) A 22-acre lake, aptly named “Swan Lake,” is often inhabited by painters quietly sitting with their easels and brushes; there is a fern garden maintained by local volunteers, and a gravel path taking hikers across 13 bridges as they walk parallel to Gory Brook. It is reported that Martha Stewart, who lives in the county, is often spotted on the path piloting her horse and carriage. “I love it up here,” my mother declared.

This type of sanctuary, especially in southern New York, is becoming more and more of a rarity. John D. Rockefeller had bought the land over the course of seven years (1893-1900)—eventually expanding the Pocantico Hills estate to more than 3,000 acres. Over the years, much of the land has been deeded back to the State of New York as part of the family’s extensive efforts to preserve the natural beauty of Westchester.

To David’s left is his brother Nelson, the shortest of the brothers but also the most charismatic (take notice of his double-breasted pinstripe suit with that silver watch chain dangling loosely across his mid section). He has a raspy voice, speaks in an authoritative and confident manner, and considers himself the unofficial leader of his four brothers. In David’s memoirs, he recalled (somewhat contemptuously) Nelson’s attitude at the train station: “Nelson, also characteristically, has managed to situate himself at the exact center of the picture and stares authoritatively at the camera.” He also writes: “Even though Nelson admired both grandfathers, he thought it significant that he had been born on Grandfather Rockefeller’s birthday. He let one infer from this coincidence that he was the true Rockefeller standard bearer.”Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth seven years earlier, Nelson went on to become the governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, and the US vice president from 1974 to 1977.Besides residing in a palatial townhouse on West 54th Street, Nelson also lived in Kykuit (pronounced kye-cut) from 1963 to 1979. Completed in 1913, Kykuit, which is the Dutch word for “lookout,” rises six stories and is equipped with a large stone tunnel under the house. (The tunnel was built for trucks making deliveries to the subterranean servant’s kitchen.) John D. Rockefeller had bought the initial 400-acre parcel to satisfy a nagging desire for a quiet place to escape city life, which would include furthering his love for the game of golf; the rolling lawns of the Kykuit property feature a beautifully manicured 9-hole golf course, designed by golf architect William Dunn, which the family still uses today. John D. reportedly had developed such a passion for the game that he would have snow cleared from the course during Westchester’s frigid winter months. Today, more than 1,200 acres of the original land has been deeded by various family members to aid in the expansion of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, which receives nearly 30,000 visitors annually.

Chagall windows in the Union Church honor John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Photo © Jaime Martorano

Perhaps the most astounding section of Kykuit is the cavernous subterranean art gallery. The space had previously been used as a bowling alley by the Rockefeller children, but, when Nelson moved in, he transformed the wooden lanes into a mini Museum of Modern Art—the Rockefellers had been instrumental in founding MoMA in 1929—with works by Picasso, Chagall, Calder, and others. There are even two original portraits of Nelson and his second wife, Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller (who today lives on a small estate in Pocantico Hills), done by Andy Warhol.

Portraits of Nelson Rockefeller and his second wife, Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller, by Andy Warhol

Kykuit’s landscape is an odd amalgamation of varying tastes expressed by the four generations of Rockefellers who resided at the mansion. Envisioned by renowned landscape architect William Welles Bosworth, the property features a beautiful rose garden, two Japanese tea houses, and several ornate marble fountains and reflecting pools. In his later years, Nelson purchased large modern sculptures done by the celebrated artists of the time (Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and David Smith were favorites) and had them delivered by helicopter to carefully selected spots on the property. Currently, there are more than 70 works surrounding the mansion.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the only son of John D. Rockefeller, contributed his own artistic sensibilities by installing the large replica of Giambologna’s fountain. Junior had commissioned the fountain in 1913 as a way to associate the Hudson River with the three great rivers that had supported human civilization: the Nile, Euphrates, and Ganges.Nelson’s single largest gift to Westchester came in 1979, the year of his death. In an effort to avoid the land being sold to outside interests, Nelson gifted his portion of the estate—which included Kykuit and a stone coach barn that today is home to the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic organization that Nelson had presided over for two years—to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, public tours of the mansion, coach barn, and gardens are operated by Historic Hudson Valley.Nelson died on January 26, 1979, in his Manhattan townhouse while “entertaining” his 31-year-old mistress, Megan Marshack. The family, who had no interest in publicizing the scandal, had his body cremated and made sure that an autopsy was not performed.

Standing on the far left is John D. Rockefeller, Jr., known simply as “Junior.” Despite his broad smile and relatively casual appearance, it is conceivable that, at this moment, he is highly distraught. After all, the casket carrying his father is steaming toward the station—in a private rail car, of course. Junior’s relationship with his father, though strained at times, was always one of mutual respect. He was considered the heir apparent to the Rockefeller fortune, which, in 1937, was estimated at well over a billion dollars. It was estimated that, over the course of his lifetime, Junior donated more than $535 million to philanthropic causes.

After graduating from Brown in 1897 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Junior moved back to New York City, joined his father at Standard Oil, and developed a fondness for Westchester. Most weekends, he took the entire family—wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, eldest daughter Abby (commonly referred to as “Babs”), and the five boys—up to Pocantico Hills, where they lived first at Abeyton Lodge (a beautiful wooden mansion that was located on the Rockefeller property until it was demolished shortly after World War II) before Junior and Abby moved up to Kykuit.

After a long career at Standard Oil, Junior focused the remainder of his life on furthering the family’s philanthropic and conservationist ventures. In 1934, he donated 700 acres of land overlooking the Hudson to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, ensuring the view from Westchester (and Kykuit) would never be marred by rock quarrying or commercial development. In all, Junior donated roughly $10.255 million to the preservation of the Palisades.

Junior also founded Sleepy Hollow Restorations in 1951, which was renamed Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) in 1987. It was established as a nonprofit organization that would acquire, restore, and maintain historic properties along the Hudson. Today, HHV maintains a number of important Westchester sites, including Washington Irving’s Sunnyside in Irvington, the 300-year-old Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, and the HHV headquarters and library at 639 Bedford Road in Pocantico Hills.

Additionally, Junior was instrumental in the founding of the Pocantico Hills School, which is housed in an elegant two-story brick building constructed in 1931. Over the years, many of the Rockefeller children have attended, and today the family is instrumental in creating programs for students designed to instill conservationism. “Historically, they have had a tremendous influence on our school,” said Adam Brown, who is the supervisor of curriculum and technology at the Pocantico Hills School. “Their influence is everywhere, and, in terms of our school, we have special relationships with organizations tied to the family, such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund [RBF], which has created a year-round gardening program where we use the greenhouses on the property of RBF as well as raise beds they have built with timed irrigation systems.”

Brown, who is a resident of Pleasantville, went on to say that the greenhouse on the RBF property serves as a living classroom for the students. “There are table and chairs and easels, surrounded by everything that the kids are growing. In fourth grade, colonial America is very much part of the social studies curriculum, so we do a colonial unit where they study medicinal herbs, aromatic herbs, and culinary herbs. They grow them and actually create herbal vinegars, and healing salves, and sachets that all have historical meaning. Back at the school, the food that is harvested even shows up at the cafeteria! We cook soups and make salads and provide produce to our family consumer science classes, which may be doing a culinary unit. It’s really a special relationship that we cherish.”

Junior died of pneumonia on May 11, 1960, at his estate in Tucson, Arizona. As they had done twenty-three years earlier, after the death of John D., the brothers gathered at the train station to receive the body. Junior’s body was cremated and the ashes were interred in the family cemetery in Tarrytown. To honor their father’s memory, the brothers commissioned artist Marc Chagall to create a stained-glass window based on the parable of the Good Samaritan to be installed in Union Church. Today, the church is home to nine Chagall windows and a rose window by Henri Matisse. The rose window—the last work completed before the artist’s death in 1954—had been spearheaded by Nelson to honor the life of his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who had been good friends with Matisse.

Union Church’s pastor, Paul DeHoff, says that the windows and the Rockefellers’ involvement have played an integral role in the continued prosperity of the church. “But, on the other hand, people are people. We have good music, a charming setting, and the windows. Windows even by Matisse and Chagall do not a church make. They lift us and help us transport us to other beauty.”Laurance is second from the right, wedged in between brothers Winthrop and John III. He was named in honor of his grandmother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. He was less flamboyant than Nelson and had more confidence than David. He had graduated from Princeton five years earlier and went on to Harvard Law School for two years before deciding to focus his attentions on venture capital. At the end of his career, it was estimated that he had earned a net profit of $59 million during the 29 years he ran his New York-based investment firm, Venrock, Inc.

Laurance was known not only as a shrewd businessman but also as a world-renowned conservationist, even following in his father’s footsteps as the president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. In 1999, he donated 920 acres of land, today known as Rockwood Hall in Sleepy Hollow, to the Rockefeller State Preserve. Laurance died at his home in New York City on July 11, 2004.

The Rockefellers, says Union Church’s pastor, Paul DeHoff, “are very genuine, kind people. They were raised with a sense of responsibility. The family has always been involved, very present, enabling, and supportive.”

Wrote David in his memoirs: “The Rockefeller philanthropic tradition was simple and unadorned. We have been greatly blessed as a family, and it was our obligation to give something back to society.”Today, several members of the family still reside in Westchester, including many of the brothers’ children and grandchildren. And, while they are active in several philanthropic organizations throughout the county, the organizations set forth by the previous generations of Rockefellers run, as originally designed, autonomously. “The biggest problem with people who are generous enough to give their land is that they don’t provide any money to maintain them into the future,” says Susanne Pandich, manager of public programs at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico Center.

“In contrast, the Rockefellers have provided for these organizations so they can continue to be an asset to the community well into the future.”

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