7.28.2006

Wilderstein: Blissfully skipping its way into irrelevancy

During the week leading up to Memorial Day, my mother and I had a corresponding day off and decided to welcome the new season with a day trip down to the Hudson Valley.[i] Our goal was to visit some of the historic houses that the region is so famous for; since we had both already made visits to the larger houses (I wrote an article a while back on my observations of the FDR house), we went a bit more obscure.

Eventually, we found our way to Wilderstein, a mansion in Rhinebeck that up to recently (1991) was the home of the Suckley family. Similar to many Hudson estates, Wilderstein was built in the Victorian Period (1852) by a wealthy businessman who had married into the Livingston Family, the ultimate patriarchs of the Valley's aristocracy. As a student of history and former professional historic interpretor, I enjoy visiting historic sites, not only for the joy of learning history, but also to see how they go about the always difficult task of public interpretation; the purpose of this essay is to pick apart not the history of Wilderstein, but the modern use of the building and land by the not-for-profit Wilderstein Inc.
Three generations of descendents of the founder dwelt in the house living lives that were basically filled with aimless diversion and substanceless fluff. One might think that I am being a bit harsh, but being student of the history of wealth and power in Victorian New York,[ii] I have no illusions that the majority of the wealthy individuals of that era 1) inherited their wealth and 2) squandered it 3) while doing virtually nothing to contribute to society and 4) exacerbating through their spending habits the suffering of the poor throughout New York and the world at large. From all that I can see, the Suckleys were no different from the Vanderbilts and other robber barons, if at a lower level of extravagance.

The final inhabitant of the house was Margaret "Daisy" Lynch Suckley, a cousin, close friend and possible lover of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Daisy inhabited the house from birth to death, 1891 to 1991, just missing her 100th birthday by a few months. She, like 5 of her 6 siblings never worked, married or bore children [iii]. During her ownership the beautiful mansion decayed almost to the point of destruction due not to lack of wealth but either to incredible eccentricity or a simple inability to function economically enough to organize the repairs; perhaps both. Great attention is given in Wilderstein today to Daisy, to the point of perfectly preserving her kitchen as she left it on the day of her death (post-it notes and Burger King Buffalo Bills glasses included). They give special empahsis to her relationship with FDR and the fact that she gave the President his famous dog, Fala.

My aim in this essay, however, is not to condemn a woman who has passed on and was raised in what I am sure was a socially stifling and stunting lifestyle, but instead to talk about Wilderstein Preservation, Inc, the non-profit started by Daisy that preserves her house. To lay out my interaction with the organization, I have taken the Wilderstein tour, perused the website and looked through their public collection, thus I have no greater knowledge that would be available to the general public.

The tour at the site was a disappointment. To its credit, the house is a beautiful one inside and out and the restoration work is impressive. Likewise, our tour guide[iv] was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and personable. The substance of the tour, however, was incredibly shallow, focusing almost entirely upon Daisy. When I tour
a place like the homes of FDR or Harriet Tubman, I expect the guide to give me the story of that person's life and how that house is a reflection of their life. However, Wilderstein is no Mount Vernon and it and its last owner are little more than historic footnotes, ancillaries to the FDR story downriver in Hyde Park. Quite frankly, I don't care too much about Daisy and I think I'm safe in saying that the majority of the public agrees with me.

Whenever historic interpreters focus solely upon an individual and his or her family history,[v] regardless of who the person was, they ignore the greater stories that the site can tell. What tales does Wilderstein have to tell about Victorian tastes or life? How is it a reflection of greater Hudson valley elite society and how is it unique? How does the genteel life of earlier periods affect life both for modern aristocrats and us ordinary folk? What statements or ideas are conveyed by the architecture of the buildings? How is the decorative craft-work or practical tools within the house typical or a-typical of the era, what effect did they have on the history of decoration or home-life in America? Why were most of the furnishings imported from Europe and what implication was there to the small amount of American furnishings one could find? One of the family members died in WWI, how was the Hudson Valley aristocracy affected by that war? What was servant life like, where did the servants come from and how did the house interact with the surrounding communities? There are so many questions that were completely unapproached in the tour, questions that could have told a story that was more interesting and meaningful to contemporary observers.

Beyond simply the tour, the greater organization seems unable to burst out of its fetishistic fascination with Daisy. Granted, the theme this year is "Daisy," but all of the events at the house surround her or the glorification of the aimless type of life that she lived (for instance the "Daffodil High Tea" and the Venetian-style "Red Ball"). There are no events exploring the broader history or context that the site, supposedly one of the few purely Victorian sites in the region. Furthermore, the organization supposedly has an incredible collection of clothes, documents and objects from the Victorian era, but seems ignorant of how to use them. There are, for instance, no events for costume designers or historical artists to have sessions looking over the period clothes or chances for photographers or historians to publicly look through the tens of thousands of photos. Granted, the archives are open to researchers, but besides this passive acceptance, there is no effort taken to utilize their archives.

To put up a contrasting site, let me divert your attention to Mount Gulian, which is downriver at Beacon. A historic house run by a small non-profit, Mount Gulian has seen a great many events including Revolutionary War battles, the founding of an important fraternal organization (The Society of the Cinncinatus) as well as daily life amongst the wealthy from the Colonial Era through to the Victorian Era. Mount Gulian, however, recognizes that it is not one of the "big" sites and instead focuses its attention locally and in putting its place in context. They have a variety of interesting and informative events; for instance, they had a discussion of the role of food in Dutch still life painting followed by a meal where the participants ate Dutch colonial foods. They are rebuilding the formal gardens for education and recreation. They have community events for children and adults, including a Revolutionary War day camp and storytelling events. The site interprets not only the history of the wealthy family, but also their servants (including a freed slave), pre-colonial Wappinger Indians and its context in Colonial and Revolutionary society. Mount Gulian is a somewhat older non-profit than Wilderstein, but also had a long and costly restoration project on its hands (Mount Gulian in fact burned down to its foundation in 1931) when it started. I feel that it is an excellent example of what Wilderstein could still become and, in doing so, be far more useful to society and its local community.

Wilderstein Preservation Inc, according to Natalie (who knows about these things) is currently struggling and I see no relief from problems given their current course. They focus upon a woman and a dog (Fala) whose memory, importance and relevance fade with every year that we move away from the FDR administration. At the same time, more and more of these historic houses are moving into the public hands in the region, creating ever increasing competition for tourist dollars. If the house continues to refuse to branch out and challenge greater questions, have a more diverse offering of events and bring the community in more, I foresee only more problems. In fact, I see that it, like Daisy before it, will slowly fade away giving little to the local community and doing little but watch the beautiful house decay.

-By Jesse

[i] Quite ironically, we were right in Natalie's neighborhood, going so far as to drive by her house once, but she was attending an event out of state and missed our visit.
[ii] I was a tour guide and later tour supervisor and assistant curator at Sagamore, a Victorian-period Vanderbilt mansion in the Adirondacks for three seasons where I helped to design tours, train tour guides and research/develop new permanent exhibits.
[iii] Let me clarify this, near the end of her life, she did spend a few years working as a curator at the FDR Library but apparently out of a dedication to the President and a personal love of archival work.
[iv] A volunteer
[v] As a tour guide and participant I have long stood by the statement that the only genealogy most people care about is there own (and sometimes not even that) and family trees should be kept to minimum on
tours.
Images from the Wilderstein Preservation website

1 comment:

NYCO said...

Sounds like the folks running Wilderstein have "BoldtCastleitis." At least Wilderstein's backstory is probably TRUE...