Wilderstein and the Suckleys: A Hudson River Legacy
Author: Cynthia Owen Philip
An exuberant triumph of the late-19th-century Queen Anne style, Wilderstein, located in Rhinebeck, NY, is widely regarded as one of the Hudson Valley’s most important examples of Victorian architecture. Built originally in 1852 as a modest Italianate Villa, the house was transformed in 1888 into the magnificent Queen Anne mansion on view today with its unique five-story tower, a distinctive Hudson River landmark for over 150 years. No expense was spared. The interiors—which remain virtually untouched since 1888 and include the original woodwork, stained glass, wall coverings, and furniture—were designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany, and the grounds—located on a plateau with a sweeping view of the Hudson River—were designed by Calvert Vaux, the master landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park.
Wilderstein is also widely recognized as one of the great successes of historic architectural preservation in the Hudson Valley. In the early 1980s, when Wilderstein became a not-for-profit historic site, the outside of the mansion had not been painted in almost 100 years, the roof leaked, much of the grand verandah was rotting, and the magnificent interiors were covered with soot from the many fireplaces. Today, most of the first-floor rooms have been restored to their former brilliance and the outside has been repaired and repainted in the original polychromatic color scheme of 1888. The gate house has been restored, and restoration work is planned to continue on the spectacular carriage house.
Wilderstein and the Suckleys is more than just the story of a house, however; it is also the intimate story of three generations of a Hudson Valley family that left its mark on the rich social scene east of the river in the Victorian and Edwardian ages, a time when the Hudson River Valley was home to many of the wealthiest and most politically prominent American families—the Roosevelts, Astors, Vanderbilts, and Livingstons, to name but a few of the more famous.
Into this heady environment stepped the Suckleys, heirs to a fortune gleaned from trade, shipping, and real estate, and related to some of their more famous neighbors including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Reconstructing this family’s story from the vast manuscript collection at Wilderstein—which measures more than 700 linear feet of documents including letters, journals, and checkbooks—author Cynthia Owen Philip tells the dramatic tale of the rise and fall, the triumphs and tragedies, and the everyday lives of one branch of the “American aristocracy” that once lined the eastern bank of the Hudson River, as well as the rise and near fall of “that most lived-in of all the great Hudson River houses.”
The story ends like a Hollywood movie—and, in fact, it has become a Hollywood movie. In 1991, Margaret (“Daisy”) Suckley, the last of the Suckleys to live in the then-unpainted and increasingly deteriorated but much-loved Wilderstein, died peacefully at home in her 100th year. When volunteers at Wilderstein began to sort and catalogue the house’s vast trove of artifacts, they discovered beneath Daisy’s bed a box of letters between her and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that revealed the until-then largely unknown close friendship between the two. These letters, along with her diaries, became the basis for the book “Closest Companion” by Geoffrey C. Ward. The movie, which is called “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” focuses on their relationship, starring Bill Murray as FDR and Laura Linney as Daisy.
Paperback, 144 pages
Publisher: Black Dome Press