Growing up in New York City in the early decades of the last century, both Peggy McGrath and David Rockefeller experienced the weekly ritual of travelling by car from their parents’ city dwellings to their country homes in nearby Westchester County. When they married in 1940, it is not surprising, then, that they wanted to continue this custom with their own children.
While the McGrath homes in Manhattan and Bedford were spacious, comfortable and well-appointed, the Rockefeller homes were of an entirely different order. Number 10 West 54th Street had seven floors, was the largest private residence in the city, and boasted, among other marvellous objets d’art, the legendary Unicorn tapestries.
Abeyton Lodge, for many years the rural retreat of Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was on the Pocantico Estate, one of the greatest of the grand Hudson River Estates assembled by the country’s new industrial elite in the late 19th century. If not quite Downton Abbey, Pocantico is still very impressive.
Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s mansion, stands at the heart of a 4,000-acre domain. It is flanked by impressive outbuildings — a massive Coach Barn, an Orangerie modelled on the Versailles original, and the ‘Playhouse’, a Norman-style structure with a swimming pool, indoor tennis court and other recreational activities. This Hudson Valley landmark is open to the public for tours, and the Pocantico estate is in use by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a venue for conferences and meetings, as well as public arts and education programming.
Peggy and David Rockefeller had superb, and somewhat daunting, models to emulate. Their city home —purchased in 1947 — was located on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side. Originally two separate brownstones, it had been skillfully converted into one structure in the early 1900s. It had high ceilings, a spiral staircase linking all four floors, and a large living room that stretched the full width of the back part of the second floor. The Rockefellers furnished this home with 18th-century English furniture, Persian rugs, and prize examples of their burgeoning art collection — Picassos, Cézannes, a Manet, among others. Each day, they had coffee in a first-floor room surrounded by Fauvist paintings as the sun slowly warmed and lit their back garden.
A year earlier, Peggy and David had acquired their country home, which they named ‘Hudson Pines’. The house had been designed by Mott Schmidt, a distinguished American architect who specialised in Georgian-style houses, for David’s older sister, Babs, and built during the late 1930s.
Located just outside the main Rockefeller estate, the stately home is approached by a long, curved drive that passes by stables and farm buildings, ending at a cobbled courtyard. There are magnificent views of the Hudson River. Over the years additional acreage was added and carriage roads and trails built that connected with the larger system constructed by ‘Junior’. The elegant living room housed Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, and a spiral staircase graced with three of Monet’s Nympheas led to bedrooms on the second and third floors.
In later years, the Rockefellers built three additional homes. The first of these, on the Caribbean Island of St. Barts, was designed by David’s cousin, Nelson Aldrich, and sold in the 1980s. Ringing Point in Seal Harbor, Maine — the favourite summer place for the Rockefeller family since the early 1900s — was also designed by Nelson Aldrich, in tandem with Peggy, in 1972. A multi-level cottage, it fitted beautifully into the landscape and featured a large, high-ceilinged living room that provided views of the Atlantic Ocean and the small islands surrounding Mt. Desert Island.
Finally, as Peggy Rockefeller’s interest in farming and cattle-raising grew in the 1970s and 1980s, the Rockefellers worked with Edward Larrabee Barnes to create a Norman-style farmstead in Columbia County, New York. The most intriguing feature of ‘Four Winds’ was a tall silo containing bedrooms and a small, elegant library.
Peggy and David Rockefeller, drawing on the examples provided by their parents and their own experiences, created a superb architectural legacy of their own.