Sic Transit . . . December 1991
It had always felt like the most private of places. Now after more than eighty years that was about to change, and though arguably the entire family was losing a part of its heritage, it was the youngest among them, the children of “the cousins,” who seemed to feel most deeply the need to mark the break. So it was that on a December night in 1991 the fifth generation of the Rockefeller family—counting from John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his wife, Laura Celestia (“Cettie”) Spelman Rockefeller, for whom the house had been built—gathered in the dining room of Kykuit for a farewell dinner. “It was an extraordinary evening where everyone reminisced about their childhood experiences on the estate,” remarked one person afterward. Someone else recalled walking through the house and gardens, “just thinking how sad it was that it was changing. It was the end. It wasn’t going to be a family house anymore. It was going to be a public place.”
In the past, the dinner served that night would have been prepared by the house’s own staff of servants, but since only a skeleton crew remained indoors the food was brought in by hired caterers. Still, with the china and crystal gleaming softly in candlelight as the four courses of the meal were passed to person after person, everything must have seemed much as it always had, except that this was indeed the last family dinner in the house. Two weeks later Kykuit was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be readied for a long-heralded program of public tours of “the Rockefeller Family Home.”
In May 1994, the month the tours began, the New York Times ran no fewer than three articles on Kykuit. By the time the third appeared, reservations were booked for the remainder of the year, and the newspaper was describing the attention focused on the opening of the house as “more or less akin to that surrounding the start of public tours of Buckingham Palace.” As for the place itself, the Times architectural critic, Paul Goldberger, was guarded in his assessment, but overall his verdict was favorable. “Oddly restrained, almost hesitant, and rather tight in its proportions” was one comment, yet that was tempered later in the same article by another observation: “The house’s mix of idiosyncrasy and restraint stands in welcome contrast to the self-important hauteur of the average pile of stone in Newport . . . There is nothing vulgar here, and that alone separates Kykuit from almost every other great house produced in the golden age of American wealth,” a judgment with which the public seemed to agree. “You know it really was a very livable mansion,” remarked one woman, who had come from two hours away in Connecticut to see Kykuit.
As the guides on the tours explained, it was Nelson Rockefeller, the longtime governor of New York and the last member of the family to live in the house, who had paved the way for opening it to the public by stipulating in his will that his share of the estate, along with much of his large collection of modern art, should go to the National Trust. Left undescribed on the tour, however, were the complex and often strained negotiations necessary to give reality to Nelson’s plans for Kykuit, negotiations that stretched on for fourteen years. Nevertheless, in the end his wishes were honored, and the house, together with its contents and eighty-six acres of land, passed out of the Rockefellers’ hands and into those of the National Trust.
During most of the interim between Nelson’s death and the transfer, no one lived in “the Big House,” but the family continued to hold events there, including weddings, birthday parties, christenings, and gatherings of representatives of at least half a dozen different Rockefeller charities. Several fifth-generation members even organized a seminar on the family’s history, including the life and career of its patriarch, John D. Rockefeller Sr. himself. In addition, there was that final dinner, planned by the same generation, and purposely timed to precede the annual family Christmas luncheon scheduled for the next day. Over the years the number of people attending the Christmas luncheon had grown so large that it had to be held next door in the estate’s coach barn. But after the meal, those present decided to go up to the house and hold “a simple ceremony to say good-bye to the place” they had known all their lives. Not all of them had been fond of Kykuit, and at least a few had decidedly negative feelings about it. Still, standing in a circle they shared their memories, lighting candles as they spoke, “until there was a ring of light commemorating all that had been and all that was being let go.”
Let go? Yes. An ending? Unquestionably. But not quite, perhaps, the change from private to public that some people saw, at least in any simple sense. For Kykuit’s privacy had always been more a matter of illusion than reality; given the individuals who built the house and lived there, it could not have been otherwise. The Rockefellers, particularly in the first three generations, were too rich and too prominently involved in too many different areas of American life to enjoy the luxury of privacy as most people know it. For much of his life John D. Rockefeller Sr. managed to ignore that fact, but his son and namesake discovered it soon enough, as did his children. Yet at Kykuit it had still seemed possible to will away the ever-present spotlight of public attention. That was the charm of the place. The great granite-clad house perched high on its hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, the handsome high-ceilinged rooms filled with works of art, the acres of beautifully tended gardens adorned with arresting sculptures—what else was it all for if not to serve as a private refuge, a source of pleasure for its owners and those lucky enough to be invited to see it?
What else indeed, yet neither John D. Rockefeller nor his son thought of it that way. In their eyes life was not about pleasure; it was about work and accumulation and the careful disposition of what had been accumulated. That was the lesson father taught son, as he himself had learned it from his mother, the redoubtable Eliza Davison Rockefeller. Moreover, as the family moved into the twentieth century the emphasis would increasingly shift from “getting” to “giving,” as John D. Sr. liked to put it, from constantly piling up money to using it on an ever-grander scale to do good in the larger world. The building of Kykuit both coincided with that shift and was intimately connected to it.
Writing about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the architectural historian Dell Upton describes it as both “a hermitage”—a private retreat—and a “republican” place, designed to teach those who encountered it the principles of civic virtue. Upton also sees this dual identity as characteristic of more than a few American elite houses, and certainly, given the history of its building, Kykuit meets the test. But as with so much else about the Rockefellers, the scale of things tended to change the usual formulas. Thomas Jefferson died deeply in debt, in no small part because of what he spent building and rebuilding Monticello. The day John D. Rockefeller moved into Kykuit he was widely assumed to be the richest man in the world, and the bulk of his wealth would remain either in family hands or in the hands of institutions controlled by the family.
Yet for all its durability, the Rockefellers’ wealth could not be made infinitely elastic. With each succeeding generation the great fortune was divided into smaller and smaller pieces. By the time Kykuit was turned over to the National Trust, no one in the fourth and fifth generations of the family could have afforded to live there, even if they had wanted to. In this way, too, the passing of the house from family ownership marked a change, and no doubt a poignant one for many people present at those farewell events.
To be sure, reactions varied. One person at that final dinner described stripping off his clothes later in the evening and striding naked into his great-great-grandfather’s “incredible shower with the millions of nickel-plated spigots, shower heads, and liver sprays.” A bit of good-natured fun, undoubtedly, but showers of that sort had once been badges of the kind of near-limitless wealth no single Rockefeller any longer possessed, just as being a Rockefeller had once meant—and now no longer would—claiming Kykuit as your “family seat.”
Still, the house itself survives and remains a fascinating artifact, rich in historical significance, which it is the purpose of this book to unravel. On one level, it is a story of money, power, and taste—that elusive entity, which at Kykuit was meant to both fuse the other two and lift them to a higher plane. On the subject of taste, too, the New York Times was definitely right: Kykuit is different from other houses built by the American rich. The taste that shaped it was not the taste of a particular group or class. It was, quintessentially, the Rockefellers’ taste. And what gave it its distinctive character was the underlying conviction that things, the tangible props of daily life, ought to mean something beyond the ordinary ends they served. If taste is the pursuit of excellence, excellence at Kykuit invariably came to a matter of moral judgment. It was not enough for things to be useful, or fashionable, or even beautiful; they also had to be good.
The Rockefellers were hardly alone in imputing moral qualities to physical objects. Every human culture has had its sacred totems. But their creation generally depends on long-standing, deeply rooted structures of collective consensus. In the Rockefellers’ case it all happened so quickly, fueled by energies coming from so many different directions at once, that consensus constantly eluded the family. Indeed, what most surprised us while we were working on the book was how often and how sharply they disagreed with one another in their anxious search for the proper material forms in which to clothe their moral aspirations. And from the beginning a major source of those disagreements was Kykuit itself. John D. Rockefeller Sr. had wanted to build a simple family home; his son had much loftier ambitions for the place. The same son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., disliked modern art, yet his wife, Abby, became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, and the chastely banal nudes he chose for the gardens at Kykuit would eventually have to share the space with works by Picasso, Lachaise, Maillol, and Henry Moore put there by their son, Nelson Rockefeller. Husbands and wives, sons and brothers, they all had their own opinions.
Still, they pressed on with their quest, for on a deeper level what was at stake was one of the most perplexing issues in American life: the proper place of great wealth in a democracy. The twenty years before, Kykuit’s building had witnessed, in the United States, an altogether unprecedented accumulation of riches in private hands. Should that circumstance be celebrated as a triumphant affirmation of the benefits of a social order unfettered by fixed position and privilege? Or was it fundamentally inimical to the health and well-being of such a society? “Plutocrats,” “robber barons,” “malefactors of great wealth”—the less flattering labels widely applied to the possessors of the new wealth made clear just how uncomfortable many Americans were with the phenomenon. And no family was more thoroughly condemned for its wealth and the methods that had produced it than the Rockefellers. How could a fortune the size of theirs, earned as it had been, possibly be compatible with the nation’s traditional democratic ideals? That was the question that confronted the family.
John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s answer was to live frugally and give an ever-increasing portion of his fortune away. But there were those who argued that in so doing he ignored the higher cultural values that it was also the duty of the rich to promote, for great democratic societies do not, cannot, live by bread alone. Nor was this just the view of his critics; it was also what his own son came to feel. If evidence was needed to prove that wealth and democracy were in fact compatible, “Junior,” as he was called, believed Kykuit ought to serve that end by being modest and unpretentious—no opulent palace, certainly—yet still beautiful, its architecture and contents displaying the highest, most noble values. Since the values were universal, the connection to democracy would be obvious. Obvious too, or so the family hoped, would be the fact this was the home not of greedy, self-seeking individuals but of decent, civic-minded people, determined to do good with the riches that God and the American system of capitalistic enterprise had showered upon them. And if all that seemed like a heavy burden for any house to bear, through most of the twentieth century the Rockefellers never doubted for a moment that it was possible, however strenuously they disagreed about the details.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert F. Dalzell Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. All rights reserved.