After two decades of concerted effort by a private, entrepreneurial board and 200 volunteers, the exterior of Wilderstein has finally been restored back to its original Victorian splendor: its clapboard, shingle and brick walls, witch’s hat tower, capacious gables and sprawling veranda, climaxing in a hipped-roof porte-cochere, once again outlined in pumpkin, green, plum and cream.
In 1991, when the private restoration organization took over the house upon the death of 100-year-old Margaret Suckley – the last of three generations of Suckleys to reside at Wilderstein – the glass was missing from the tower windows, the slate roof leaked badly and the clapboards were rotted; last painted in 1910, the place looked like the quintessential haunted house. Today it is perhaps the finest example of the eclectic Queen Anne style in the Hudson River Estates district.
The landscaped grounds were designed Calvert Vaux, who embellished them with rustic gazebos and viewing seats: an echo of the romantic fairytale structures that he created for his most famous project, Central Park. His son, Downing Vaux, did the Shingle-Style gatelodge. Other outbuildings include a wonderful turreted carriagehouse and Colonial Revival potting shed.
Suckley wasn’t quite Miss Havisham; in fact, she was a cousin and confidante of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, accompanying him on his travels, helping him design the library at his Hyde Park estate and giving him his Scottie, Fala, who was the subject of a book that she subsequently wrote. But the dilapidated state of the house spoke of a painful loss – in this case, of the family fortune, which had been made in export trade and real estate.
In 1852, Thomas Holy Suckley purchased the property, a former sheep meadow with striking views of the river and Catskill Mountains, and retained architect John Warren Ritch to erect an Italianate-style villa on the site. His son, Robert Bowne Suckley, and Robert’s wife, Elizabeth Philips Montgomery, hired Poughkeepsie architect Arnout Cannon to enlarge and update the house in 1888.
Cannon added a third floor, the multi-gabled attic, five-story circular tower, porch and the imposing porte-cochere. The interior was similarly redone in an eclectic fashion: It has a Gothic entry hall, Louis XVI parlor and Flemish library. “Each room has a different theme, and there’s a lot of detail, with beautiful windows and molding,” said executive director Gregory Sokaris. “The decorative attention is quite extraordinary.”
So far, the entry hall, library and dining room have been restored, all of which contain their original furniture. Having been owned by the same family for more than 150 years, Wilderstein is that rare bird that has been preserved with its complete original contents, including a treasure trove of diaries, letters, books, receipts and thousands of photographs. The archives include ships’ logs, bills and memorabilia from business ventures in Haiti in 1802 through 1806 and trade during the War of 1812.
Restoration continues, with the elaborate plaster ceiling of the parlor currently being repaired. “It’s a very different place than it was 15 years ago, though it hasn’t lost its mystique,” said Sokaris. “People can understand the architectural intent of the building and how the family lived in its heyday.”
To help raise funds as well as public awareness, Wilderstein holds an annual Yuletide Tea, which this year will be held on Saturday, December 10 at 1 p.m. After enjoying homemade cakes, cookies and finger sandwiches in the Gate House and browsing the museum store – which is stocked with books, old-fashioned toys, souvenirs and other items related to Hudson Valley history – visitors will be led on a tour of the house, which will be decked out in holiday splendor.
The Tea costs $30 for adults and $20 for children, and reservations are recommended, since space is limited; call (845) 876-4818. Wilderstein is also open for tours during the Thanksgiving weekend from 1 to 4 p.m., as well as on weekends in December, along with Monday, December 26 and Tuesday, December 27. Tours cost $10 general admission, $9 for students and seniors and free for children under 12.