The decline of fall and the onset of winter often turns New Yorkers' thoughts away from the majestic Hudson Valley and toward Macy's and Bloomingdale's. Yes, foliage season has ended with its usual enervated sigh, and the madcap holidays are barreling toward us. But it's nice to do more than sharpen your elbows to prep for that arms-filled battle to reach the cash register, and really get into the season-appropriate spirit of grandeur. With holiday-specific programs, the historic homes of northern Dutchess County, 90 minutes north of Manhattan, are as good a mode of soul transport as any.
Time is crunched after Thanksgiving, and weather sometimes slows down travel, so let's begin with three close-set estates you could conceivably knock off in a day.
I'm partial to Mills Mansion and the
Staatsburgh State Historic Site (845-889-8851), and not only because it's a quarter-mile from my own, more modest abode. This Gilded Age former autumn home of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, dating from 1895 and designed by the legendary architect Stanford White, boasts 65 rooms -- never mind the 14 bathrooms and 23 fireplaces.
Yet the massive Beaux Arts structure is no more impressive than the rolling 192-acre grounds abutting the Hudson River: The Mills family even had enough pull to convince the powers-that-be to route the Hudson River train line around the estate.
Staatsburgh's "A Gilded Age Christmas" will feature sumptuous turn-of-the-20th-century decorations, floral arrangements and Christmas trees sporting Edwardian ornaments. The massive dining room will be decorated to recreate the 1907 wedding of Gladys Mills, and rest assured it was quite the elegant affair.
Just south down Route 9 in Hyde Park is the more famous and, yes, slightly smaller,
Vanderbilt Mansion (845-229-9115), a National Historic Site consisting of a mere 50 rooms. The guided tour of the opulent manse in all of its period-appropriate holiday splendor might make you feel as if you were Scrooged at birth.
If you're looking for something a tad more down-to-earth but equally sterling, check out the
Wilderstein Preservation (845-876-4818). It's about 15 minutes away on the outskirts of the bustling town of Rhinebeck (the holiday lights of which are a worthwhile attraction). Each weekend in December, Wilderstein's "A Silver Christmas" will showcase a glimmering collection of silver decorations, and per a two-decade tradition, the first floor will display the work of local florists and designers to set an eye-popping holiday mood.
Should the weather hold, contemplate the impressive Queen Anne-style country house from all angles while wandering the superb American Romantic landscape devised by the canonical Calvert Vaux.
History enthusiasts know the aforementioned Hyde Park as the home of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt; however, the two maintained distinct residences at least in part owing to Eleanor's distaste for her mother-in-law.
Val-Kill (845-229-9115), Eleanor's cottage getaway, will host a "Holiday Open House," on Friday night, Dec. 7th, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., showcasing the traditional Roosevelt Christmastime style; the next night at the same time, FDR's nearby
Presidential Home & Library (800-337-8474) will do likewise.
Two more remarkable residences another 30 to 45 minutes north also have seasonal splendor on offer. On Dec. 8 and 9 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the 500-acre
Clermont State Historic Site (518-537-4240) has "Christmas at Clermont Open House," which will be French Empire-themed, from textiles to furnishings: Robert Livingston of steamboat fame -- and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase -- whose family manned this property for more than two centuries, had innumerable business and cultural ties to France.
If Clermont looks to France,
Olana (518-828-0135) hearkens to the Middle East. Hudson River School co-founder Frederic Church's 19th-century landscape paintings may be as American as Old Glory, but the home he built on a majestic hilltop just south of the antiques capital of Hudson is in the Persian style -- a surprisingly exotic creation with breathtaking views of the Catskill Mountains across the river that might make you wish you could paint worth a lick. The home, decorated for the holidays, is open for tours Fridays through Sundays in December from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for
Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.