*TC Pocantico Hills, N.Y. -- In the entryway of Kykuit, the incredible Hudson River estate of the Rockefellers, stand three priceless Chinese porcelain figures dating to the seventh-century T'ang dynasty.
The figures are encased in Plexiglas. The Plexiglas, though, is not there to protect the objects from tourists; it was put up years ago by Nelson Rockefeller to protect them from his kids.
These are the same children who would sometimes sit around an inlaid gaming table in the drawing room used by their great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and play pickup sticks. If one of the sticks fell off the table, it would land softly on an invaluable 17th-century Turkish rug.
The drawing room is across from the office used by successive Rockefellers -- John D. Sr., John D. Jr., and Nelson. It is where Junior could kick off his shoes and relax and where Nelson would watch football on the color television hidden behind a bookcase.
Kykuit, you see, was not built by one of the world's richest families simply to be a showcase. Unlike the extravagant turn-of-the-century Vanderbilt country estate up the river in Hyde Park, it was not meant to be used for a few weeks a year during the entertaining season.
Kykuit -- a Dutch word meaning "lookout" that rhymes with "high cut" -- was built as a home. And home it has been to four generations of Rockefellers.
A year ago, Kykuit, which today includes 87 acres, was opened to the public for the first time. The ticket price is quite high: $18. But if you consider that you're getting an art museum, architectural showcase, landscape and sculpture-garden tour, and antique coach and automobile museum rolled into one, the cost doesn't seem too bad.
The tour covers all eight rooms of the first floor, the basement art gallery (which contains everything from Picasso to Warhol), the coach house, and the expansive gardens, dotted with works from the world's best-known sculptors (Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, to name three).
The upstairs, however, is off limits; it's still used by guests of the Rockefellers. Likewise, the playhouse, with its gym, tennis courts and pool, and nearby nine-hole golf course, continues to be used by the family. Happy Rockefeller, Nelson's widow, lives on the adjoining grounds.
But don't expect to simply drop in on them. Virtually every ticket for Kykuit has been sold through the end of October, when the tours end for the year.
In addition to Kykuit, a trip to this village and next-door Tarrytown affords an opportunity for the visitor to see how the 18th- and 19th-century landed gentry lived. Some of the finest Hudson River Valley estates and manors are within a few minutes of each other.
In Tarrytown, there's Sunnyside, the homestead of Washington Irving, who made this area famous with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
Practically next door is Lyndhurst, an honest-to-goodness castle. few miles away, off U.S. Route 9 in North Tarrytown, is Philipsburg Manor, a 17th-century milling and trading complex. And a few miles past that, still on U.S. Route 9, in Croton-on-Hudson, is Van Cortlandt manor, home of the Van Cortlandts from the early 1700s to 1945.
However, let's first deal with the Rockefellers.
A country escape
Kykuit sits on a 500-foot rise above the Hudson River. The land was bought by John D. Sr. in 1893 and was planned as a country escape. The original 400-acre parcel -- which eventually grew to 2,000 acres -- included a dwelling that the family used until it burned in 1902.
That year John D. Jr. asked architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, known for their grandiose country mansions, to draw up plans befitting a man of John D. Sr.'s wealth and stature. The senior Rockefeller, however, didn't want anything so ostentatious and asked another architect, Dunham Wheeler, for some preliminary sketches. The result was a compromise: Delano and Aldrich got the job, but had to use the modest floor plan of Wheeler.
The elder Rockefeller eventually turned over the construction of Kykuit to his son, then in his late 20s, almost as a test to see how the younger Rockefeller could handle himself. The results were mixed. When John D. Sr. and his wife moved in, in October 1908, they complained that the guest bedrooms on the third floor were too small. They were also upset about the noise and smoke from the kitchen, which was under their bedroom. So father and son set about to completely redesign the home, a task completed between 1911 and 1913.
But while the exterior is completely different, and the third and fourth floors altered, the ground floor is changed very little from the original.
And left practically untouched from the first phase of Kykuit are the gardens designed in 1906 by William Welles Bosworth, then relatively unknown, although he later went to France to supervise restorations at the palace of Versailles and the cathedrals at Reims and Chartres. Bosworth's landscaping included large fountains, terraced gardens with a swimming pool, an inner garden with a brook garden, and a semicircular rose garden.
The tour starts near the largest fountain, Oceanus, a massive structure in front of the house. Inside, the first stop is the entryway, and the second is the office, which John D. Sr. first began using in 1908, when he was 69. He conducted much of his business there until his death at the age of 97 in 1937. Nelson Rockefeller used the office to catch up on matters as governor of New York.
The drawing room has a large portrait of John D. Jr.'s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, over a smaller picture of Nelson, and visitors often remark on the son's resemblance to his mother.
An original 1908 Steinway grand piano is the centerpiece of the music room, which is where the Rockefellers usually had their Christmas tree. The china room is just that, displaying pieces from the nine sets of china used by Nelson as governor and vice president. One set was made for the Duke of Buckingham in 1815; another dates to the 1700s and was made in China for export.
The pantry contains the original "annunciator station," an early intercom system. In the dining room hangs a large portrait of John D. Sr. done in 1917 by John Singer Sargent; there is also a smaller portrait of John D. Jr. Imagine the world leaders who ate at the table: from Edward Heath of Britain to Anwar Sadat of Egypt to various American presidents.
The alcove room was used for tea; the library was also a living room. There is a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington there. The jTC long basement corridor was built for a bowling alley, but became an art gallery instead. Even the casual art lover will recognize many of the works.
Sculpture in the gardens
In the gardens -- from the Italianate teahouse to the Japanese garden to the Temple of Venus -- you'll see Nelson Rockefeller's extensive collection of sculpture. Afterward, a bus carries visitors to the coach barn, with a display of nearly 100 years of Rockefeller vehicles, from horse-drawn carriages to the governor's 1959 limousine.
In fact, buses move about Kykuit regularly because that's the only way to get in or out. To keep car traffic to a minimum, the tours leave from Philipsburg Manor, about five minutes away, every 20 minutes.
So how do you get into Kykuit? The wise thing to do is call and plan for 1996, when the tours will be conducted from April through October. There are also ferry trips from Manhattan and New Jersey that include tickets to the estate tour in the price.
But even if you can't get Kykuit tickets now, there's plenty to keep you involved here. Philipsburg Manor, for instance, re-creates daily life of the 1700s with a working farm and mill. The complex was part of a huge land grant from King William and Queen Mary of England to Frederick Philipse in 1693.
A few miles south is Sunnyside, whose grounds on the river include a number of old structures; it's a great place for a picnic. Many of Washington Irving's possessions and furnishings are still in the house. Instead of a formal tour, guides are assigned to different areas of the house, and you can move at your own pace. The ground-floor study is where Irving wrote his biography of Washington.
Lyndhurst, which has been called the finest surviving example of Gothic Revival style in the country, is kind of spooky. Its best-known resident was railroad magnate Jay Gould, who moved in 1880. One of Gould's daughters lived there until 1961, and she preserved many of the furnishings of her father.
Farther north in Croton-on-Hudson is Van Cortlandt Manor, which has been restored to its late 18th- and early 19th-century appearance. Inside the home are original furniture, ceramics and portraits, and the site includes gardens and an 18th-century tavern.
On a much more manageable scale is Union Church, just around the corner from Kykuit in Pocantico Hills. Though small, the church is a major attraction. Seems a local family commissioned a couple of artists to do stained-glass windows as memorials. The artists were Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.
The family? The Rockefellers, of course.
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: The Tarrytown/Pocantico Hills area is about 30 miles north of New York City. All of the attractions are on or just off U.S. Route 9. From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 North to the New Jersey Turnpike to the George Washington Bridge. The exit for U.S. Route 9A is right after the bridge. Take that north to Route 9, which leads into Tarrytown and North Tarrytown. (Pocantico Hills is on Route 448.) If you want to avoid the George Washington Bridge, take the Garden State Parkway to Interstate Route 87/287 East. That leads to the Tappan Zee bridge; U.S. Route 9 is just after the bridge.
The tour: Kykuit is open until Oct. 30. Tours begin each day at 10 a.m. and last about 2 1/2 hours. Tickets are $18 for adults; $16 for seniors and those 6 to 17 years old. It's free for those under 6, but not recommended for small children. Parking at Philipsburg Manor is free. Tickets for the 1996 season go on sale in December. Call (914) 631-9491.
There are two other ways to go, each with better ticket availability. Ferries leave from Weehawken, N.J., and Manhattan. The $50 price includes admission to Kykuit, round-trip transportation on the Hudson River, and ground transportation. Call (800) 533-3779. On Saturdays and Sundays, a train runs from Grand Central Station to Tarrytown. The $31 cost includes admission and ground transportation. Call the same Kykuit number for train information: (914) 631-9491.
Accommodations: In Tarrytown, there's a Marriott, a Courtyard by Marriott, a Hilton and the Tarrytown House, all in the $100-per-night-and-up range. In Rye Brook, 15 minutes east, is the Doral Arrowwood, a more expensive, full-scale resort: (914) 939-5500. The Ramada Inn and Days Inn are in Elmsford.
Information: Contact the Sleepy Hollow Chamber of Commerce at 80 S. Broadway, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591; (914) 631-1705, and Historic Hudson Valley Reservations, 150 White Plains Road, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591; (914) 631-8200.