Kykuit is a Dutch word meaning “lookout.” John D. Rockefeller appropriately used it as the namesake for the 1908 mansion he built 500 feet above sea level on the banks of the Hudson River. “JDR” Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and widely considered one of the richest men in history, originally purchased 400 acres at the start of the twentieth century.
Kykuit was home to four generations of Rockefellers until JDR’s grandson Nelson, upon his death in 1979, left Kykuit to the National Trust for Historic Preservation instead of his own children. Now, the Historic Hudson Valley nonprofit coordinates public tours and the house remains as it was in 1979. We’ve been members of the HHV for a couple of years and enjoy exploring their properties and program. One of our most favorite fall traditions is the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor. You can read about our adventures at the Blaze here.
Kykuit is only open for public tours from early May through mid November.
My personal opinion is that tours are appropriate for older children, unless you have a very patient historian for a child. My 8 and 10 year olds were fairly attentive, but after about an hour, they complained they were tired of standing. Our tour guide was wonderful; she was the first tour guide hired almost 20 years ago and was full of anecdotes. She engaged the children with fun facts and questions and did not hover over them.
Visitors cannot drive directly to Kykuit. Visitors must park at the Philipsburg Manor Visitor Lot and take a timed bus to the estate.
During the fall, when the area and Historic Hudson Valley properties are especially busy, you will need to park farther away in the overflow lot and follow the path to the manor.
There are several tour options, lasting between 2-4 hours. I strongly recommend making reservations online, especially on weekends and during the fall season. You will not need physical tickets when you arrive for the tour.
There is a separate area to check in for tours. Instead of a physical ticket, visitors must wear a sticker with their tour time displayed. Most tours have a 15-18 person maximum.
The Visitor Center includes a gift shop (with a whole section devoted to children), restrooms, coat check, and a cafe counter offering drinks and snacks. There is an area with about a dozen tables to eat lunch.
There are also complimentary lockers to store personal belongings. Visitors may not bring backpacks or large items on the tour. Water bottles are allowed.
There are very few places and chances to sit on any tour and visitors are not permitted to take photos inside the home and coach barn. Be sure to use the restrooms at the Visitor center, as there is no access on the tours.
Top 10 Things to See on the Classic Tour at Kykuit:
1. The sculptures, 70 in total, displayed throughout the property. The most popular one is a copy of the Oceanus Goddess fountain, (the original is in Florence Italy) which greets visitors as they arrive at the front of the mansion. Many of the sculptures were collected by Nelson Rockefeller and are strategically placed to maximize views of the whole property.
2. The gardens, modeled in both the English landscape style and the Italian formal style. The gardens are rumored to have cost more than the building of the house.
3. The fountains; there are over throughout the property and of them are still functioning. Continual restoration of many of the fountains
4. The reversible nine hole golf course, commissioned by JDR, who was an avid golfer.
5. Several first floor room, including JDR’s office, Abby Aldridge’s drawing room, the music room, dining room, and library. There are six levels to the house, but most tours stay on the first and lower level.
6. The china room, with at least nine sets of china on display. The Rockefellers had several additional sets in their collection.
7. The art collection, on display in the lower level. Most popular is the collection of 12 Picasso inspired tapestries, weaved to look like famous Picasso paintings, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller.
8. The golf room, with state of the art (for the time) shower, bath tub, wooden lockers, and sitting room.
9. The coach barn, which houses a conference center, is part of the Classic and Grand tours. The barn was actually built before the house in 1900. There are at least 15 carriages and at least 12 cars on display, as well as several horse saddles and other equestrian equipment.
10. Something you won’t find in the mansion that you would expect in mansions of the time period is a ballroom and grand staircase. Because the Rockefellers were staunch Baptists, they did not partake in drinking, smoking, or dancing.
If you have some time in the area, stop by Washington Irving’s Sunnyside estate, another property overseen by Historic Hudson Valley, for a tour. Irvington built the house when he escaped the threat and spread of tuberculosis in New York City, and spent his life writing inside the house. In the fall, the estate comes alive with a variety of activities, including puppet shows, crafts, literary scavenger hunts, and opportunities to dress in period costumes and test period lawn games.