Touring the gardens of Kykuit can make you feel 'rich as Rockefeller'

In New York's Hudson Valley, the gardens of the Rockefellers' Kykuit estate can enrich your gardening experience.

Courtesy of Lois J. de Vries
The grand facade of the Greek Revival Rockefeller home at Kykuit near Tarrytown, N.Y., is covered with wisteria. Family and guests still live on the upper floors, even though the first floor and art galleries are open to the public.
Courtesy of Lois J. de Vries
Breathtaking views of the Hudson River are visible from the upper terraces of Kykuit. Stands of mature trees screen out Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, two towns that lie between the Rockefeller estate and the river.
Courtesy of Lois J. de Vries
On a lower terrace, paired stones, trees, classical statues, and meticulously trimmed evergreen hedges provide an example of symmetrical balance in a formal style garden. This scene can easily be duplicated (on a smaller scale) in any residential garden.

The classic tune promises that, if we just stay On the Sunny Side of the Street, we'll be "rich as Rockefeller."

On a recent trip to see the great houses of the Hudson River, we treated ourselves to a tour of Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate. It was a brilliantly sunny spring day and, after a month of rain, the gardens were lush and green. For an hour or two, we could at least feel as rich as the Rockefellers.

Why not learn from the experts?

Spectacular setting

Kykuit (Dutch for "lookout") sits atop the Pocantico Hills, near Tarrytown, N.Y., affording spectacular views of the Hudson River. The design of the formal gardens was originally commissioned to the famous landscape architect who also designed New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead.

But John D. Rockefeller Sr. wasn't happy with the result and soon began redesigning the property himself. Ultimately, landscape architect William Welles Bosworth was called in to finish the work, creating the Beaux-Arts style gardens visitors see today.

In all, Bosworth created seven distinct gardens at Kykuit, including a Japanese garden, a morning garden, and a rose garden.

Many examples of formal design

While many of the fountains and classical sculptures are from the original period of construction, former New York Governor (and, later, US Vice President) Nelson Rockefeller changed some of the garden terraces and incorporated a number of monumental sculptures into the surrounding landscape.

For those who appreciate formal garden design, Kykuit offers many examples of the use of axes and focal points, mass, scale and proportion, perspective, controlled views, symmetrical balance, etc. [To see examples, scroll through the three photos at top. Click on the arrows at the right base of the first and second photos to go back and forth among them]

For gardeners, Kykuit is a good reality check on how much garden (or how little) we should aspire to, if we want to manage it ourselves.

Shortly after we returned home, our wall of rhododendrons came into bloom and I was thrilled to see that, though not so numerous as those at Kykuit, ours looked splendid. If riches are counted in rhodies, we're doing just fine.

If you go:

Tickets for Kykuit tours can be purchased through Historic Hudson Valley , which also manages ticket sales for nearby historic Philipsburg Manor and its vegetable and medicinal gardens, and Washington Irving's home and Romantic-style landscape, Sunnyside . Tours at both Philipsburg and Sunnyside are conducted by costumed guides.

Be forewarned that, while it is possible to visit all three sites in the same day, it is an exhausting schedule. Plan on returning to your hotel room to catch your breath, or going out for a relaxing dinner afterward.

For armchair travelers:

For armchair travelers and history buffs, the book, "Great Houses of the Hudson River," edited by Michael M. Dwyer, is an excellent reference. The exquisite photos and exacting histories and descriptions in it inspired and motivated our trip.


Lois de Vries, a popular speaker at regional flower shows and garden clubs, writes from her home in rural northwestern New Jersey. To read her other posts at Diggin' It, click here. She's a field editor for Better Homes and Gardens and Country Gardens magazines and has been a contributing editor for other national publications. She was awarded the Jefferson Presidential Award for public service in environmental work. Click here and here to read about her garden design and environmental ideas and her holistic approach to gardening.You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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