Historic estate preserves elegance of old-world culture
By Mary Ann Ebner
Enchanting with its Queen Anne Victorian mansion, Calvert Vaux-designed landscape, and family legend and lore, Wilderstein Historic Site in Rhinebeck offers a romantic stroll of a day trip for anyone who appreciates looking back and moving forward with the preservation of cultural heritage.
The historic estate that served three generations of the Suckley family garnered attention in 2012 with the release of Hyde Park on Hudson, a cinematic interpretation of select chapters of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life and his rapport with distant cousin and close confidante Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. Daisy was the last Suckley family member to live at the Wilderstein estate, and she not only left diaries and journals on the property when she passed away in 1991 at the age of 99, but maintained a legacy that lives on in the home’s authenticity.
“The home was originally built as a modest Italianate villa in 1852,” said Wilderstein Historic Site Executive Director Gregory Sokaris. “The family made extensive additions to the home in 1888 when Mr. Suckley (Robert) inherited the property and a substantial fortune.”
The family lost much of their fortune around the turn of the century, but the property remained in the hands of the family. Daisy savored a daily cup of tea in the parlor or on the veranda throughout the decades, but servants had long been relieved in those later years, and the once affluent Daisy enjoyed her final days living in genteel poverty. At the time of her death, the home was in need of extensive renovation and repair.
Retired history teacher Arnold Jones volunteers as a docent at the site. In addition to working as a tour guide, he also assists in the archives and has been helping with recent efforts to digitize the extensive collection of Wilderstein’s papers.
“I fell in love with Wilderstein,” Jones said. “When I started here, there was no paint on the building except for the tower.”
Thanks to tireless efforts to restore the mansion, which grew in its 1888 expansion to include a third floor, a striking tower overlooking the Hudson River and multi-gabled attic, Wilderstein showcases one of the Hudson Valley’s treasures of architecture, landscape, letters and décor. The exterior of the Wilderstein Historic Site has been fully restored, with the front entry doors returned to pristine condition for the 2013 touring season. The home’s interiors were designed with a mix of styles and have seen significant restoration. Meticulously shelved books line the walls, and light streams through original stained glass in the first-floor library, where family members invested countless hours reading as well as smoking, fashionable for this family of means.
“The smoke damage from the fireplace and smoking was extensive,” Sokaris said, “but the family spent a lot of time in the library, which was decorated in the Flemish style. The library holds just a small collection of their books, which includes many first editions.”
Other highlights of the interior include original woodwork and furniture. Though not yet restored, a salon appointed with white and gold furnishings illustrates the detail and opulence that the Suckley family appreciated in designing and decorating their home.
“We still have the correspondence from Mrs. Suckley and the manufacturer for the furnishings in this room,” Sokaris said. Though the silk wall coverings appear tattered and torn, plans are not in place to restore the room, and its original state provides a telling example of time’s toll.
Not to be missed on the tour is a short video produced in 1986. Daisy and her sister Elizabeth Suckley Hambley speak candidly over a cup of tea.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Daisy said regarding her home at Wilderstein. Though she enjoyed many travels throughout her life, she found herself at home in the Hudson Valley.
Wilderstein Historic Site, a little more than one hour from Cold Spring, is located at 330 Morton Road in Rhinebeck. Guided tours are available May through October from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The site is also open for holiday house tours on weekends in December. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12. Wilderstein hosts a Summer Celebration fundraiser (July 20), Fall Landscape Days (Oct. 19 and Nov. 9) and a Yuletide Tea (Dec. 14). For more information, visit wilderstein.org or call 845-876-4818.
Open May through October for individual and group tours.
Site open Thursday through Sunday.
First tour of the day begins at noon; last tour begins at 3:30 p.m.
Parking available onsite.
Limited accessibility due to historic building and grounds.
Grounds open to the public during regular hours; no tour passes required.
Tour tickets available at gift shop located onsite.
No picnic tables, but picnics with blankets are permitted on the lawn overlooking the Hudson River.
Photos by M.A. Ebner