RENSSELAER, N.Y. -- The sun dances like diamonds as one looks from the east side of the Hudson River. The reflections are so brilliant that on a sunny day sunglasses are a must, especially for the drive beginning on Route 9J out of Rensselaer to points south in Columbia and Dutchess counties.
One of the grander, private mansions along the way is Callendar House in Clermont, between Tivoli and Barrytown, which was built on a bluff overlooking the river in 1794 by Henry Livingston. The house has a Federal-style core, with one-story wings added in 1828. The veranda across the west front dates from around 1830. In 1860, the house was purchased by American Express founder Johnston R. Livingston, and his heirs lived there until the 1970s. As a result this privately owned house remains very much the same as when it was built.
The present owners have appointed the house with French antiquities recalling the Livingston family's love of France.
Callendar House is one of the many mansions built between the late 1700s to the early 1900s that dot the landscape along the Hudson River from Albany to as far south as Yonkers. In between these massive, groomed residences are stately, yet smaller privately owned mansions that are situated in parklike settings, many of which are marked only by pillared drives and "keep out private drive" signs.
A sense of grandeur
Driving down along the river, one can't help but sense the majesty and grandeur of this early era of great wealth that built so many family country seats.
Although many of these estates are hidden from the road, they are still visible from the river, or at least sections of the house and groomed acreage.
"Much of the river front was cleared for farming and for the views," said Ruth Piwonka of Kinderhook, who is a regional historian. "There are beautiful views going east over the Kingston Rhinecliff Bridge. You don't see many landmark houses, as they are obscured by trees and shrubs that have grown up over the centuries, but you do see a groomed patchwork quilt of tilled fields. It's very impressive."
The land on the east side of the Hudson River undulates in low, rolling hills with excellent soil for growing crops and grazing animals. The east side of the river also offered better access to the river than the west side. It's also the side of the river that the railroad first went through in 1851, creating a new and faster mode of transportation to and from Manhattan, especially in the winter when the river froze.
The railroad may have been a convenience, but it often cut the estates off from the river, as well as river access to the general public.
"Because of the low elevation of Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, the tracks almost came through his living room," said Winthrop Aldrich, deputy commissioner for historic preservation for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
"Irving sued, but the railroad had eminent domain. Some landowners were paid for what they lost."
These country estates, many of which evolved from Dutch land grants, were built along the river in areas that were originally settled along the estuaries and tributary streams by Native Americans. The Dutch were the first to colonize the east side of the valley in the 17th century after Henry Hudson's exploration.
With the area rich in timber, fur trapping and natural resources, the Dutch West India Company established a system that flourished in Holland since the Middle Ages, that of the feudal manor.
Much of the Hudson River was settled by the late 17th and early 18th centuries with humble farmhouses. Merchant landowners were soon constructing grander dwellings.
The first patroon to invest in this New World manor was Amsterdam diamond merchant Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, who purchased the acreage in the mid-1600s that makes up today's area of Albany and Rensselaer counties.
Following the first patroon's lead, 18 other manors were created by the English between 1664 and 1715 that at one time consumed huge tracts of land. Among them were Livingston Manor (160,000 acres to eventually close to 1 million acres) in Columbia County; Philipsburg Manor (originally comprised of 52,000 acres) in the Village of Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County; Van Cortlandt Manor (originally 86,000 acres) in Croton-On-Hudson, Westchester County; Van Rensselaer Manor (700,000 acres), just north of Albany and Beverwyck Manor, in North Greenbush.
Aldrich lives at Rokeby in Barrytown, the river front estate his family has held title to for 11 generations.
"There were about 400 of these grand estates along the Hudson River," Aldrich said. "Today, less than half survive. I find that people who are moving here to buy these homes, when they become available, do so because they are interested in American history, enjoy older houses, want to be on the river for the view and are in many cases trying to create a world for themselves and their future generations, just as the Livingstons did.
Many properties subdivided
"Very few people buy these grand homes on speculation," Aldrich said. "The ideal is to put down roots and keep a home for generations. It's a marriage where you have to work at the upkeep, but these dwellings repay it time and time again. It's not a turnkey operation."
However, in the 20th century many of these properties have been subdivided.
In the 1940s, Edgewater another estate in Barrytown and a small amount of acreage was split off from it's original tract. Author Gore Vidal owned it for almost 20 years, before selling it to financier Richard Jenrette in 1969, who has since restored the house while making aesthetic additions.
Architectural styles flourished along the Hudson River Valley, as many of the estates were designed by the most distinguished architects of their time. Most notable were Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing. Other architects and landscape designers to leave their mark were Richard Morris Hunt, Calvert Vaux, Richard Upjohn and Frederick Law Olmsted, and McKim, Mead and White.
The largest concentration of estates, which remain largely intact, lies along the east bank of the river between Poughkeepsie and Hudson. It was designated as the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District in 1990.
This district features 40 rural mansions that were established between 1790 and 1940 on land grants made to the Livingstons, Schuylers and Beekmans in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Within the historic district, there are nine sites that are open to the public. They include:
Clermont, the oldest of the mid-Hudson estates, built by Chancellor Robert Livingston in Germantown.
Montgomery Place, an Alexander Davis design in Annandale-On-Hudson.
Locust Grove, in Poughkeepsie, another Davis design built for painter and inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. Morse.
Wilderstein, in Poughkeepsie, an imposing late-19th century frame country home in Rhinebeck.
Olana, in Hudson, the home and studio of Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church.
Mills Mansion in Staatsburgh, a superb neoclassical, Beaux-Arts mansion in Hyde Park by McKim, Mead & White.
Vanderbilt Mansion, built in the early 1830s at a cost of $3 million.
Springwood, the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Val-Kill, the private country retreat of Eleanor Roosevelt and the FDR Library & Museum.
After the great stock market crash of 1929 and later, World War II, construction of huge estates nearly ceased along the Hudson. In the years to follow, many of these grand homes would fall into disrepair, be subdivided or demolished. Several were turned into educational or charitable institutions or broken up into apartments or condominiums.
Eventually, there was a renewed interest in these residential guardians of the river. Many have been renovated and converted back into picturesque country homes or donated to the state.