The Rockefeller Archive Center in Pocantico Hills, NY

Exploring Rockefeller’s underground treasures

Sure, walking among all those Calders and Picassos at Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, is invigorating for a little while. In a recession like this, though, you might soon start to resent people whose wealth seems to only be hung on their walls instead of invested back into their community.

Enter the Rockefeller Archive Center. A unit of The Rockefeller University in Manhattan until 2008, the Center maintains its treasures in Pocantico Hills, on a property adjacent to Kykuit and Stone Barns. It is now an independent operating foundation holding an estimated 100 million documents, from family members’ papers and Rockefeller Foundation files to the archives of philanthropic endeavors and certain papers from individuals like Dean Rusk. In other words, it’s a detailed record of how the family gave back.

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Open to scholars, the Center’s 11 vaults contain 4,500 reels of microfilm, 5,000 moving images, and 750,000 photographs. The documents largely detail the family’s famous charitable efforts, which, in the county include the building of Union Church in Pocantico Hills and the donation of the land for Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The Rockefeller University has employed 23 Nobel Laureates, mostly in physiology or medicine, including the discoverers of viral mechanisms for infection and neuron signaling.

“From the outside, though, it looks like just a very big house on a hill,” says Michele Hiltzik, assistant director of the Center, as well as its head of reference. The house was built for Martha Baird Rockefeller, John D., Jr.’s second wife. Although the mansion was fully staffed, “we understand that she never stayed overnight here,” says Hiltzik. Soon after Martha died in 1971, the family’s archives and those of the University started to move in, and the Archive was established officially in 1974.

The house contains the Center’s offices, in addition to reading rooms in Martha’s unused former bedroom. The  11 vaults are built into the hill behind the house.

Hiltzik’s favorite item among the millions of documents in the Center’s vaults is an older piece of Rockefeller charity. “With his first job in 1855, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., kept a ledger that documented the money coming in,” she
explains. The 16-year-old Rockefeller was merely a clerk in a Cleveland dry-goods store, but even then he was careful not to only earn money for himself, but to give back to his community as well. “Page three is donations. From the very beginning, he was making sure that he was giving back.”

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