It could be one of Dutchess County’s best kept secrets. The Wethersfield Estate and Gardens is off the beaten path — well, gravel road — near the village of Amenia. Just the right amount of privacy and bucolic splendor make it the perfect getaway for an early 20th century industrialist, particularly one who enjoyed horse riding and generally communing with glorious nature.
Chauncey Devereux Stillman came to the region to experience the Millbrook Hunt and decided to stay. He purchased a couple of abandoned farms in 1937, comprising a few hundred acres, on which he built a comfortable mansion. He called it Wethersfield, a tribute to the town in Connecticut where his ancestors landed early in the early 18th century.
Eventually, Stillman’s real estate holdings grew to over 1000 rolling acres with twelve ponds and 20 miles of carriage trails and stunning sunsets. And when he converted to Catholicism in the 1950s, Wethersfield became a tribute to a higher purpose, a “place where true, good, and beautiful things are vibrantly conserved.”
A stroll through the Italianate garden surrounding the graceful mansion reveals the very intentional structure and composition of this stunning property. Situated at the top of a hill, the home and farmland offer unmatched views of God’s glory. Visitors can wander through the well-trimmed hedges and outdoor rooms, and be surprised at every turn, particularly when the greenery suddenly opens to a panorama of the countryside. They can hike or ride the trails that weave through the property, or simply pack a picnic and lounge on the lawn overlooking one of the ponds named after Stillman’s daughters, imagining all the while what it must have been like to actually live here.
Matthew Speer, Wethersfield’s current Program Director, says that there’s an interest for almost anybody who comes here, because Stillman himself had so many interests. He cites the carriage-driving and equestrianism, the fox hunting (the Millbrook Hunt has their opening hunt here every year), and conservationism. “He built twelve ponds on the property to preserve water and implemented agricultural methods to conserve the soil. In some ways, these were revolutionary in his time and in this area, such as contour strip farming. He made efforts to encourage wildlife on the Estate.”
The Main House — a modest dwelling by some standards — was designed and built by Bancel LaFarge in 1938-39. A Georgian-style colonial brick residence with a brownstone entrance, it sits in nature rather than above it, as so many grand mansions do. Filled with period antiques, paintings and murals, statuary and iconic religious references, its rooms are flooded with natural light and a sense of refined-yet-casual hope.
Stillman’s vast art collection includes works dating from the 15th to the early 20th century, including Baroque-style frescoes, 18th century French candelabras, and an entire extension called the “Gloriette” where more artworks are on display for contemporary visitors to behold. He took his adopted religion seriously, even installing a small chapel room near the entryway. Yet the commanding structure feels like a home, a place where the inhabitants could relax their work-a-day activities, if not their morals.
Speer describes Stillman’s long association with Pietro Annigoni, who created some of the wall-sized murals in the mansion (and who was a favorite portrait painter of the British royals). “Being a patron of the arts was something he inherited from his family,” says Speer. “He bought his first painting portraying the Hunt at Windsor Park while still at Harvard. He started as a Naval Intelligence Officer in WW II. He did needlepoint work! Chauncey Stillman was a magnanimous man, a philanthropist for many causes, including grants to educational institutions.”
The Carriage House is situated at the bottom of the hill next to the road. It’s currently used as a small museum and events room, along with Foundation offices. Stillman’s collection of 22 carriages is lined up along both sidewalls, all shined and ready to go for the various purposes his family, guests, and work-hands might have had at any given time. Historical photographs and artwork celebrate the equestrian culture that the founder so appreciated, and also document significant visitors to the estate—some, no less noteworthy than members of the British royal family.
Upon Stillman’s death in 1989, the Wethersfield Foundation (originally called the Homeland Foundation) took charge of honoring the patriarch’s mission to maintain the estate’s facilities and grounds, and to assure that they would be open to the public and available for community use. To that end, the estate is often the venue for a variety of seminars, retreats and events that are both educational and entertaining.
“It’s a joyful experience to share the house with people,” says Speer. “As beautiful as this place is, when you work here every day, you begin to lose a bit of the initial wonder. But when you welcome people into the house and they ask if they can play the piano, and they fill the house with music—it’s as if you’re seeing the place again with their eyes. It feels less like a museum.”
The Wethersfield Institute, founded by Stillman in the 1980s, continues to promote agrarian thought, Catholic intellectual and artistic life, and service to the community. It is a non-profit organization attached to the Estate, where Catholic teachings and practices are explored and the rich cultural dimensions of the faith are penetrated. It hosts conferences and workshops, and holds public lectures at the Estate and in New York City.
An annual Community Day put on by The Friends of Wethersfield invites visitors to discover the beauty of the grounds and garden while taking part in various activities. “We had an equestrian event in the morning and the parading of the Millbrook Hunt hounds—a great event for everybody, especially the kids. I’d like to hold more events that are open to the public. Bishop Peter Byrne recently came and held a Eucharistic procession for the Feast of Corpus Christi. We processed around the garden, an event that was open to the public.”
Speer foresees expanding the Foundation’s programming to include restoring a working farm on the property, a dream that seems only fitting. Throughout Stillman’s fifty years of residency at Wethersfield, he expanded and cultivated the Estate’s beauty and usability as “a place of personal retreat, agricultural experimentation, cultural enrichment, and scholarly conviviality.” His living heirs continue to uphold the patriarch’s mission.
Guided tours of the Main House and Carriage House require advanced reservations; $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, free for children 12 and under. Self-guided or audio tours of the Garden are available Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., June through September; $5 per person, kids 12 and under free. Trails throughout the property are accessible to equestrian and hiking enthusiasts between mid-April and mid-November, and to cross-country skiers during the winter season for as long as conditions permit. A hiking pass is $5 per person, $25 per season, and $50 for a family seasonal pass. An equestrian day pass is $20. See the website below for waivers, further information, and directions.
Wethersfield Estate and Gardens, 257 Pugsley Hill Road, Amenia; (845) 373-8037, https://www.wethersfield.org/estate