Tucked away and out of sight from the general public, in the heart of the Rockefeller family compound in Pocantico Hills, is a rambling old mansion known simply as “the Playhouse.”
Stepping inside the Playhouse doors reveals a year-round sportsman’s delight, with a fully outfitted gymnasium, basketball court, two bowling lanes, indoor tennis court and swimming pool, billiards room, squash court, and men’s and women’s locker rooms. On the sprawling grounds beyond its doors are a nine-hole reversible golf course, croquet court surrounded by formal planting beds, two outdoor tennis courts, and an outdoor swimming pool.
The two-story Playhouse, which today is three times the size of the nearby family mansion known as Kykuit, was conceived in the winter of 1924-1925 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby, as a safe, out-of-the-public-eye recreation center for their six children. It was built next to and in the same Norman-English style as Abeyton Lodge, where the couple had lived following their marriage in 1901.
Designed by New York architect Duncan Candler, who also oversaw the 1914 enlargement of Abeyton Lodge, construction of the Playhouse began in the summer of 1925 and was completed in 1927. Later, two major additions included an indoor tennis building, in 1938, and in 1955, an outdoor pool, complete with cabanas, an outdoor kitchen, and ice cream parlor. The lavish pool was partly designed by Nelson A. Rockefeller, longtime New York governor, vice president of the United States, and one of John Jr. and Abby’s six children. (His brother, David, the last of that third generation of Rockefellers, died last year at age 101.)
Along with extensive facilities for sports and games, the Playhouse also features dining rooms and living rooms, a reception hall, and numerous period fireplaces. Up a short flight of steps near the entrance, a grand oak-paneled living room is embellished with massive fireplaces at each end with two 16th-century French limestone sculptures above the mantelpieces. These and other distinctive Renaissance pieces were part of a 100-piece Gothic collection assembled by American sculptor George Grey Barnard and purchased by John D. Jr. in 1916, with the balance of the collection being donated to The Cloisters museum in Upper Manhattan.
The living room’s unique details include a “J” (for John) carved into the oak paneling on the upper east wall and an “A” (for Abby) on the opposite end. The first initials of their six children — Abby, John, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurance, and David — were etched into the plaster ceiling surrounding the chandelier, while portraits of all eight family members adorn the walls.
The mosaic-tile indoor swimming pool, accented by potted palms and other tropical plants and three large ornamental chandeliers hanging from the barrel ceiling, is considered by many to be the most impressive part of the Playhouse. The 20-yard-long pool features four lanes for swimming laps and plenty of room for water-polo games. On the south side of the pool area, an alcove, with tables, chairs, and a large fireplace, provides a comfortable lounging space.
The indoor tennis court boasts a massive fireplace from John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s former Manhattan home at 4 West 54th Street. The Playhouse also holds wall sconces, chandeliers, and other fireplaces from the same home.
Over the years, the Playhouse has been the elegant setting for many notable functions, from intimate family gatherings to grand galas attended by hundreds. In fact, every Thanksgiving, the wives of John D. Jr.’s sons would take turns hosting dinner for the entire family at the Playhouse, where all large family parties were held, according to a 1981 New York Times article.
In 2002, New York Society doyenne and Westchester neighbor Brooke Astor celebrated her 100th birthday in the Playhouse, at an elaborate event awash in boldfaced names and hosted by longtime friend David Rockefeller.
When Nelson lived at Kykuit and was the state’s governor, the role of the Playhouse expanded to the political entertaining he was known for, according to The House the Rockefellers Built, by Robert F. Dalzell Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. Nelson and his second wife, Happy, hosted an annual cocktail party for more than 800 members of the Governor’s Club, who had contributed at least $500 apiece to the New York State Republican Party. Food and drinks were served in the Playhouse, and the ground floor of Kykuit and its gardens remained open to guests.
Important family meetings also were held at the Playhouse. Starting in 1940, the five brothers began to retreat to the Playhouse after Sunday dinners to discuss their philanthropic activities and other shared interests, according to the Dalzells’ 2007 book. After deciding that a jointly supported pool of money devoted to philanthropy would have far more impact than their individual efforts, the influential and generous Rockefeller Brothers Fund was born.
Today, the Playhouse still serves as a much-loved family recreation center and gathering place for the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations of John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s heirs.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.