The House the Rockefellers Built A Tale of Money, Taste, and Power in Twentieth-Century America

Robert F. Dalzell and Lee Baldwin

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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Though George Vanderbilt's 255-room Biltmore had put the American country house on the money map, John D. Rockefeller, who detested ostentation, had something simple in mind when he built the granite-clad Kykuit, high above the Hudson River. It was his son John Jr. and daughter-in-law, Abby, who added their classical tastes and a spirit of noblesse oblige into the equation. Simultaneously grand and restrained, the Rockefellers hoped that Kykuit would represent the ideal blending of great wealth and democracy.

The authors take us inside the house and the family that built it to observe how that vision played out over a century of building and rebuilding—the ebb and flow of events and family feelings, the architecture and furnishings, the art and the gardens. At Kykuit, John Senior could be with his children and grandchildren and indulge his passion for golf, though in later years he seemed to find life there excessivley formal and spent more and more time elsewhere. After his father's death, John Junior made it his goal to keep the home unchanged, while Abby, with her love of family and opennes to new ideas, devoted herself to giving it renewed life and warmth. Their son Nelson used it for political entertaining on a grand scale and brought to it his extraordinary collection of the modern art his mother had taught him to love, but which his father had always disliked. Nelson also—against the wishes of his family—initiated in his will the process of opening the house to the public, which it did in 1994.

Built to honor the senior Rockefeller, Kykuit would also become the place above all others that anchored the family's memories and their public legacy. The House the Rockefellers Built reveals the tastes of a large family often sharply at odds with one another about the fortune the house symbolized.


Praise for The House the Rockefellers Built

"This is a book about a great house, to be sure, but more about the conversations taking place inside it, which the Dalzell's have recovered with perfect pitch—conversations about what to do with the greatest fortune in American history."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

"The creation of a house is not unlike the raising of a child. Lee and Robert Dalzell have brilliantly brought to life the complexities, constraints, and compromises that underlie the drama surrounding the building of Kykuit and have continued the story through the years that followed with equal finesse."—Pauline C. Metcalf, author of Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses

"Closely researched history of Kykuit, the Hudson Valley mansion built to make the Rockefeller name and fortune stand for something other than unbridled greed . . . The Dalzells cover five generations of Rockefellers, focusing on the patriarch (called Senior here) and his son (Junior), at least as far as the mansion is concerned, while taking a stab at linking it to issues surrounding American country houses of the Gilded Age. What was different about Kykuit, the Dalzells claim, was the Rockefellers' moral aspirations, their insistence that the house be not only useful and fashionable, but good . . . The Dalzells chronicle every tussle over control of the house's planning between Junior and Senior and, later, between Nelson and his four brothers over Nelson's overflowing art collection."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


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,...

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  • Robert F. Dalzell and Lee Baldwin

  • Robert F. Dalzell is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College, and is the author of Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made and Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism.

    Lee Baldwin Dalzell was for many years the head of the Reference Department at the Williams College Library. The two collaborated on George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America.