Westchester’s Gilded Age Estates: Eating, Drinking and Playing Like an Aristocrat
The Rockefeller lifestyle may be a thing of the past, but the structures it left behind retain the grandeur and elegance lacking in these workaday times.
Lyndhurst and Linden Court (presently known as the Biddle Mansion at Tarrytown Estate and Conference Center) housed private bowling alleys. Pictured is the wine room at Cellar 49 in the Biddle Mansion—meals are served where ball and pins once cracked.
Photo Courtesy of Tarrytown House
It’s hard to remember, now that Westchester is so heavily developed, but the green triangle between the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River was once carved into the private estates of millionaires. By day, the robber barons and titans of industry (with names like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Gould) toiled in the urban engines of money, making deals that eventually shaped American history. By night, these magnates swept north to Westchester castles via opulent yachts and personal rail cars and lived in the style of the European aristocrats whose dwindling family fortunes they’d surpassed.
Times change, fortunes fail, and new money’s ostentation can feel—by prosperity’s second or third generation—a little vulgar. Currently, few, if any, of Westchester’s Gilded Age estates are lived in as intended by the iconic architects who designed them. Once envisioned as pleasure palaces that held the promise of luxuries and endless amusement, most of Westchester’s Gilded Age estates have been abandoned, destroyed, mothballed, or repurposed as film locations, museums, and schools.
But not all of them. Read on to learn how to enjoy Westchester’s remaining Gilded Age estates as they were designed—as architecture and landscape best suited for eating, drinking, and aristocratic pleasures.
It’s hard to party in a National Trust Historic Site, particularly a palace designed by AJ Davis that also just happens to be a functioning, furnished museum. Generally speaking, museum administrators frown when you stroll over to the sideboard, pick a glass from the collection, and pour yourself a drink. Happily, Lyndhurst offers its carriage house and sculpted lawns for private events, though site fees apply (con gusto), and caterers are limited to just four choices. Of course, you could also just wait for warm weather, and then spread a blanket loaded with an insanely lavish picnic—catered by anyone at all, even yourself.
635 S Broadway, Tarrytown (914) 631-4481 lyndhurst.org
Equus at Castle on the Hudson
Formerly known as Carrollcliffe and built between 1897 and 1910 by General Carroll, the son of a Civil War general, the crenellated formerly private estate that perches over Tarrytown endured a long period of disuse after having once been used as a boys’ boarding school. Happily, one of Westchester’s most magnificently sited houses now operates as the restaurant/hotel complex Castle on the Hudson. From its lawn and terrace, you’ll enjoy a sweeping view of the Hudson River that magically omits the glow of downtown Tarrytown. At Equus restaurant, look for a lavish (and lavishly priced) Frenchinflected menu served in a regal setting that includes a glorious carved granite mantel scavenged from a Scottish castle. After dinner, modern-day robber barons might retire to this hotel’s upper floors, where, following a night of dreaming on thousand-thread-count sheets, a massage in the hotel’s new spa awaits. Thailand-based Thann Sanctuary Spa, which was ranked as one of the world’s top spas by Condé Nast Traveler, is slated to debut at the Castle in late May. Also, for the real tycoon experience, don’t miss trail riding in the nearby Rockefeller State Park Preserve with horses provided by Fox Hill Farm stables.
400 Benedict Ave (Tarrytown Hotel, 914-631-1980; Equus, 914-631-3646); castleonthehudson.com
[Editor’s Note: As of press time, we learned Castle on the Hudson is closing for renovations until May.]
A perennial Westchester wedding favorite, Le Château was commissioned by J.P. Morgan from Grosvenor Atterbury, the same architect who was responsible for the Rockefeller barn complex that eventually became Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The Tudor-style house and its extensive South Salem land was named Savin Rock when it was built high on a hill in 1907, and was awarded to Reverend William S. Rainsford, the retired head of St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York. Several decades after Rainsford’s death, the estate was repurposed as a restaurant and catering hall, and now it’s one of Westchester’s most elegantly housed bastions of classic French cuisine. Look for intimate rooms, cracking fireplaces, and the aristocratic pleasures of foie gras under sauces reduced until they shine like lacquer.
1410 Rte 35, South Salem (914) 533-6631; lechateauny.com
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture
Blue Hill at Stone Barns may be the number-one stop on America’s foodie pilgrimage circuit, but Chef Dan Barber’s object lesson in delicious, sustainablyraised food is not the only reason for a visit. In the early 1930s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., commissioned architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design the regal fieldstone barn complex in a castle-evoking Norman style; the barn’s initial purpose was to provide fresh milk for the large Rockefeller family who lived in on their estate in Pocantico Hills. (Members of the Rockefeller family still occupy homes in Pocantico, while the estate’s main manse, Kykuit, is now a house-museum run by Historic Hudson Valley.) While well-heeled diners have replaced stamping, snorting livestock, dairy is still a focus of the Rockefeller barn complex. However, most of the dairy served at Blue Hill at Stone Barns now originates at another family’s inherited farm: the Barber family’s Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires. When dining at BHSB, make sure to arrive early and wander around the stony complex in the fading sun—and don’t miss a peek into Union Church of Pocantico Hills (just down Bedford Road) to see the stained-glass windows that the Rockefeller family commissioned from Chagall and Matisse.
630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills (914) 366-9600, bluehillfarm.com
Though more modestly scaled than Lyndhurst, Whitby Castle shares that property’s architect, A. J. Davis, who designed the Rye estate as a private residence in 1852 in the then-popular Gothic Revival style. Just as in 1852, the pretty miniature castle overlooks a wide lawn that slopes to a picturesque Long Island Sound inlet. Its proprietors claim the building contains stones from Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century ruin in North Yorkshire, England.
The property stayed in private hands until 1921, when it was combined with an adjoining estate and repurposed as the Rye Country Club. In 1965, the City of Rye purchased the property, and, sometime thereafter, renamed it Rye Golf Club. Though the golf club is membershipbased, the Castle and its restaurant are open to the public. In summer, look for a Whitby Castle Sunday ritual: Bloody-Mary-fueled brunches on the patio, overlooking golfers, rolling lawns, and the sun glinting off Long Island Sound.
330 Boston Post Rd, Rye (914) 777-2053 ryegolfclub.com
Cellar 49 at Tarrytown House Estate & Conference Center
Once named Linden Court, the large stone mansion that preceded the property’s present Biddle Mansion was the private home of philanthropist (and an heiress to the Duke tobacco fortune) Mary Duke Biddle. She purchased the estate from her neighbors, owners of an adjacent, circa-1840 white porticoed house called Uplands (now named the King Mansion, included at the Tarrytown House compound). When Biddle died in 1960, her descendants sold Linden Court, which their mother had united with Uplands a year prior, to the African nation of Mali, which used it as a diplomatic retreat. The combined property was later acquired by Robert L. Schwartz, former New York bureau chief for Time magazine, who developed the estate into one of the first purpose-built executive conference centers.
Mary Duke Biddle’s subterranean bowling alley (located in Biddle Mansion) has been rechristened Cellar 49, a restaurant/wine cellar serving a democratic steakhouse and tavern menu. Look for echoes of the building’s past in its wood beams and rugged brickwork, though, sadly, bowling is no longer permitted.
49 E Sunnyside Ln, Tarrytown (800) 553-8118, tarrytownhouseestate.com
Julia Sexton is a New York-based restaurant critic, food writer, and blogger whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Her first experience of the Gilded Age estates of Westchester was as a girl visiting her father’s top-floor office in Reid Hall, a formerly private McKim, Mead & White residence that is now a part of Manhattanville College in Purchase.