Building Castles in the Sky: Kykuit, an American dynasty’s Mount Olympus

Oceanus Fountain 

Imagine this: you’re enthroned on Mount Olympus, gazing down to observe the masses of scrambling humanity below, the world at your feet.  A dazzling picture greets you:   elegant gardens cradle rose patches, weeping cherry trees sway in the breeze; sparkling brooks flow past massive boulders, water  ripples, reflects in pools and splashes from fountains; sprawling,  manicured lawns feature grand sculptures that only a Hercules had the strength to place.  And over the horizon, like a broad brush-stroke, the winding expanse of the Hudson River forms the backdrop.  Surrounded by such treasures, you can’t help but feel god-like.  After all, you are in the former home of mortal Olympians– Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate near Sleepy Hollow, New York.

In May, a girlfriend retreat brought us to this bountiful refuge.   A few days before our trip, I read  a witty and eloquent essay, “What Donald Trump Gets Wrong about the Woman Card” in the May 16, 2016 Times magazine edition, written by Susanna Schrobsdorff.  She writes  of women’s connections–one of the “…few advantages of the double X.”   My friends and I are bonded by a common love of flowers, gardens, history, art, architecture and travel.  Our annual get-aways give us time to reconnect.  Through  storytelling we  share insight, wisdom and humor, pillars of support that foster courage, build strength and provide sanctuary; essentials that all mortals, even titans,  need to deal with life’s challenges.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., (JDR, Sr.), a self-made giant of Industry who rose to prominence during America’s  industrial revolution, created Kykuit as his retreat to escape from the daily stress of empire- building the Standard Oil Company.  What started as a modest affair — a three-storied stone house,  eventually grew to a 40-room, priceless art-filled mansion as JDR Junior revised and expanded the plans to suit his mental picture of a home worthy of his father’s stature.

Kykuit oozes power and wealth.  The treasures on display in both gardens and the house  are priceless.  Yet, if you compare it to mammoth, flamboyant, filled-to-excess, “Gilded Age” American mansions, for example, Biltmore House of Asheville, North Carolina or the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, Kykuit  retains an elegant yet home-like character.  The rooms, designed on a small, country house scale, feel inviting, warm and intimate.

On our 3-hour Grand tour we followed  Peter, our guide, through the house, gardens and art galleries.  Inside,  I fell in love with the tranquil Alcove Room.  A T’ang Dynasty Bodhisattva statue stands center-stage in front of a large floor-to-ceiling window, which, when raised allows you to step onto the West Porch.  I imagine many a lucky person sat on the sofa, entranced by the blissful view of the Hudson River in the distance.

We admired the upper inner and  brook gardens, serene with Asian touches of bronze lanterns and draping, leafy boughs.  We strolled to the Temple of Venus to pay tribute to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  In contrast to the forceful abduction of Aphrodite by Hephaestus,  we willingly ventured underground to explore the grotto, a cool stone and tile haven directly beneath the temple.


Our group lingered on the West porch– the view is grand; the sky appears endless and light bouncing off the river casts a wide glow.  Little wonder that so many American artists of the Hudson River School: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand; Frederic Church fell under the spell of this valley.


Over time, Kykuit became an art-filled haven  for four generations, including former governor of New York and Vice-President of the United States, Nelson A. Rockefeller.  Today, it is a part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Controversy surrounds JDR, Sr.; he gained his wealth courtesy of questionable practices, often at the expense of lesser men.   No doubt, sitting on his hill-top retreat at Kykuit, Rockefeller  felt as indomitable as Zeus, god of the sky.   Fortunately, a King Midas he was not.

JDR, Sr. was a religious man, heavily influenced by his mother who believed in thrift, hard work and charity.  These values, instilled in childhood, remained a part of him; he gave to others even when he had little to give.  As he acquired his wealth he also  learned early on the benefit of shared blessings and the responsibilities associated  with supreme power.   JDR, Sr. was known for his extreme philanthropy.  To this day the Rockefeller Foundation is counted as one the largest in the U.S.

It is  magnanimity such as this that allows a mere mortal like me to marvel at the magic that is Kykuit, to dream, to build my own castle in the air, even if just for the briefest of moments.



Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow.

Kykuit: The House and Gardens of the Rockefeller Family, by Henry Joyce

2 thoughts on “Building Castles in the Sky: Kykuit, an American dynasty’s Mount Olympus

  1. Linda Krause


    This was so enlightening. Thank you! I remember you loved the place, and now that I know more, I understand. Didn’t realized the rooms weren’t massive, thus cozier. And certainly didn’t realize JDF Sr was generous. Always thought of him as a greedy titan. Thanks for setting me straight and for the gorgeous photos! Keep up the good work!





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