Beauty on the Hudson

Boscobel House and Gardens was just awakening from its winter slumber when WAG chose a less than weather-friendly day for a visit. The otherwise beautiful view from the bluff above the Hudson River in Garrison was blurred by sheets of rain as a monsoon — Hudson Valley-version — whipped in unchecked from the west.

The unrelenting cold pricks of rain pelted Fran Hodes, a docent, and me as we reached the front of the house. She, seemingly unperturbed by the vile storm, spoke to the architectural beauty of its three-bay recessed portico topped by a pediment. I interrupted her and suggested that the charms of the inside of the house would be more amenable to me. Federalist architecture is best appreciated on a dry day, I thought.

And with that in mind, I returned a week later on an unseasonably warm April afternoon. What a difference. The view that Steven Miller, the executive director of Boscobel, had rhapsodized about on that earlier bleak day was now in its full glory. The yellow ochre of the house was radiant in the afternoon sun, contrasted by the deep green of the vast lawn. The just-budding craggy apple trees guarded the still-dormant rose garden where tulips and the pink flowers of the weeping cherry trees added dashes of bright color.

It’s hard to believe that this beautiful home was once on the verge of being demolished.

As the story goes, Boscobel — which is Italian for “beautiful woods” — was originally built over a four-year period starting in 1804. It was States Morris Dyckman, a Loyalist who became rich working for British quartermasters during the Revolutionary War, who came up with the idea for what he thought would be his Westchester estate. Using his fortune, Dyckman bought 250 acres of riverfront property in Montrose, about 15 miles south from where the home is now sited.

Unfortunately, with just the foundation in place, Dyckman died at age 51 in 1806. It would be up to his wife, Elizabeth, to oversee the completion of the house in 1808. It remained in the family until 1888 when it went through a succession of owners until Westchester County bought it and turned it into a park with ballfields, a campground and picnic areas. In 1945, the federal government purchased it and the property and created what would become the Franklin D. Roosevelt Campus of the Veterans Affairs Hudson Valley Health Care System.

In 1946, the house, in less than stellar shape, was sold for $35 to a demolition contractor. The façade and some interior wood were bought by a Long Island family, who planned to use the pieces in a home they were building.

Seeing Boscobel as “too fine a national treasure to lose,” historian Benjamin West Frazier and several friends raised $10,000 to buy the house and have it dismantled by a house mover. All the pieces would lie secure in area barns, sheds, garages and ice houses until 1955, when Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of The Reader’s Digest in Chappaqua, took the restoration project under her wing. Forty-five acres were bought in Garrison and in 1957 ground was broken. Boscobel opened in the fall of 1961 with Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in attendance.

It was in 1975 that the interior of the house was redecorated following the discovery of 2,000 pages of the Dyckmans’ inventory. The task was overseen by Berry Tracy, curator of decorative arts in the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Miller calls the interior an example of “the lifestyle of the rich and famous of 1805.

“The curator didn’t want the furniture to look old and shabby. We wanted to restore it to the way it was.”

No words can accurately describe what one’s eyes can espy in a tour. Maybe it’s the intricacy and richness of the wood furnishings, the silk tassels of the bed canopies or the tea sets. Each visitor spots something different, the docent says.

Since being named executive director in April 2013, Miller has initiated a program that reaches out to area grammar schools within a half-hour’s drive of Boscobel. Using a special docent, Miller says she takes the words on the pages of the children’s history books and brings them to life. The program has been so successful, Miller is reaching out to corporations to obtain an endowment to pay for transportation costs to entice more school districts.

Funding Boscobel is helped by visitors who arrive on buses such as those of Tauck Tours, which makes the home a regular stop on their trips through the Hudson Valley. To attract the young and older, Boscobel hosts a military re-enactment day, candlelight tours in December and also has a 1.25-mile hiking trail that also affords great view of the Hudson Highlands and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Also augmenting the historic site’s coffers comes from playing landlord to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which is in its 30th season. Boscobel also earns funds serving as a wedding venue, as well as hosting photo shoots for commercials and print ads.

Whether it’s looking across at the highlands or West Point, or down below to the river carving a jigsaw pattern in Constitution Marsh, “People are mesmerized by the view,” Miller says.

“I wish we could copyright it.”

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