Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Rockefeller's Beautiful Mansion

The front facade of Kykuit, with a classic Italian style of architecture
We marked the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence yesterday by taking the train to Tarrytown to visit the Rockefeller mansion called Kykuit.

You can't go to the home on your own -- you must join and tour and it's quite strict, emphasizing that you can't take children under five years of age; the guides and staff get nervous when they see babies. Oh and don't bring big bags too -- a knapsack could be considered too big to bring on the grounds.

Our guide was mainland Chinese with the name tag DD Huang, a woman in a red sleeveless dress with tightly curled long hair. Unfortunately for us, her English was not fluent and so many of us on our tour had trouble understanding what she said. Her proficiency in the language also made her warnings sound particularly stern and unapologetic which to some seemed rude or condescending at times.

The back of the home with an extensive garden around it
Nevertheless, this is what we understood from the tour:

John D Rockefeller was the eldest son of six children, but his childhood was difficult. His father was a con man and kept a mistress, having two daughters with her.

Rockefeller was taught by his mother to work hard and he was academically good in school. At 16 he went to business school learning bookkeeping and this skill and talent would serve him well later on in life.

He and his brother William made their money in oil refining, co-founding Standard Oil together and buying up the competition to practically become a monopoly.

William had built a house in the Hudson Valley and suggested John D take a look. He was entranced by the view looking over the Hudson River and bought the land in 1893.

In 1906, John D Rockefeller together with his son Junior, planned and oversaw the construction of Kykuit, which in Dutch means "look out" or "overlook". They moved in two years later.

A swan gracing a pond that leads up to the tea room
Today visiting the house it is a mix of East and West, as John D Rockfeller Sr decorated it, followed by his son Junior and grandson Nelson, who became a senator.

There are a lot of Chinese antiques in the home, as Junior made some trips to China and bought many things, from the pair of stone lions that greet visitors at the front door, to Tang and Qing Dynasty ceramics, even carpets and upholstery have Chinese themes.

In the living room there is a headless Bodhisattva statue, a graceful body, that must have been a serene looking person.

We saw many rooms in the house, except the bedrooms, but the drawing room, the office, dining room, and music room -- that used to have a pipe organ installed in there and was subsequently replaced with a large colourful painting by Joan Miro.

There's also a lot of modern art in the home, particularly in the large garden that includes a swimming pool. There are many sculptures placed around the greenery that contrast with the classical Italian style of the home. Unfortunately we didn't take the garden tour that includes seeing all these pieces.

Modern art pieces contrast with the traditional-looking home
However, we did go into the basement where we saw several tapestries designed by Picasso specifically for Nelson Rockefeller, who had bought a number of his paintings. But because Picasso was a Communist, it wasn't politically correct for them to meet directly.

Nevertheless, Picasso agreed to allow his paintings to be modified into tapestries as long as they were not the same size or colours as the originals. Apparently some 18 of them were completed by a French weaver before Picasso passed away.

There's a mini museum in the home, filled with works by not only the Spanish artist, but also Georges Braque, Toulouse-Lautrec, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder.

We also saw the changing room complete with a shower that was a precursor to today's modern jets, with a series of pipes that would have spewed water at the body in the middle, as well as the stables complete with a number of carriages and garage with a fleet of antique cars, as well as the home's own gas pump.

It's a pity we weren't allowed to photograph anything inside the house, but outside... another of these strict rules we had to follow.

A view of the Hudson River that Rockefeller fell in love with
But we preferred the view outside as well as the lush greenery. There was also a nine-hole golf course there too -- we spied some Rockefeller descendants whizzing around in golf carts -- their own private space. It turns out several of the Rockefeller families live on some parts of the estate today.

Rockefeller is also well known for his philanthropy, donating to medical research, higher education and the church.

It's hard to imagine someone today could amass as much wealth as the Rockefellers, though people like Li Ka-shing, Cheng Yu-tung, and Stanley Ho Hung-sun come close.

However the trio don't even come close when it comes to being a visionary in philanthropy and creating foundations, and donating land to benefit Hong Kong much, save for universities giving them naming rights to new buildings. Yawn.

We may never see anyone with the same moral stature as John D Rockefeller Senior. While he may be accused of conniving business practices, he did a lot of good not only for New York but for the various communities in the city and around the world in acts of charity that continue today.


  1. Why was there a Mainland Chinese guide at Kykuit? Was/is she a student intern?

    1. We don't know exactly, but she was middle-aged and married...