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Valley of the Rich and Famous

Along the Hudson River, Blazing Autumn Colors Saturate a Countryside Dotted by Mansions Once Owned by Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Roosevelts.

September 13, 1998|COLMAN ANDREWS | Colman Andrews is the editor of Saveur magazine and co-author of "Saveur Cooks Authentic American," to be published in November by Chronicle Books

Like most L.A. natives, I've had to listen for years to Easterners saying Southern California doesn't have any seasons. Anyone who's lived here knows that is complete nonsense. And anyone who has resided in the New York area, as I have now for almost four years, knows that the much-vaunted "four seasons" include several months of 100% humidity and temperatures in the 90s, five months of gray days enlivened by an occasional blizzard or ice storm, and a couple of springtime months of hay fever. But that does leave two months that are rather spectacular: September and October. Autumn. In this respect, the East Coast surely is superior to the West Coast.

If you haven't seen the fall foliage of New England in all its fulgent glory, you are missing something extraordinary. Photos and travelogues show the blazing hues of yellow, orange, red and even luminescent brown that illuminate the countryside each year. But what two-dimensional media can't convey is the sheer scale of it all, how the autumn colors dominate the landscape, filling the crisp air with visual heat.

I remember the first time I saw it, driving from Boston to New Hampshire many years ago. Coming over a rise, I was almost blinded by a raging sea of colors stretching off in three directions--a nearly unbroken flaming mass. This was one of those wonders, it occurred to me, that folks have in mind when they suggest that Americans should see their own country before running off to Bali or Bari or some foreign place like that.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 4, 1998 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
An incorrect phone number was given for the New York state fall foliage hotline ("Valley of the Rich and Famous," Sept. 13). The correct number is (800) 225-5697.

What's more, you don't have to plan a whole trip around New England landscapes to experience this glorious foliage. The lower reaches of the Hudson River Valley, beginning a few miles north of New York City, is in some ways a better place to immerse yourself in fall colors than deepest New England. For one thing, the broad silver-blue band of the river provides a handsome visual counterpart to the intensity of the turning trees; for another, the valley boasts an unusually rich population of non-arboreal attractions, including museums, parks, country inns and antique shops.

What it is perhaps best known for, though, are its many spectacular old mansions, a number of which are open to the public. These once belonged to wealthy and celebrated American families such as the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts and are largely responsible for the region's reputation as a kind of "Valley of the Rich and Famous." And since people who build great houses tend to situate them to provide great views, these estates are particularly good places from which to view the glories of autumn.


The Hudson River Valley is long and wide, stretching from New York City up through the Catskills to the state capital of Albany, and from the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders on the east side to fabled Woodstock and beyond in the west. The river itself, named for 17th century British explorer Henry Hudson, is a broad and deep channel that for centuries has been a major thoroughfare for trade and travel.

It is precisely because it was so accessible by boat, and later by train and car, from Manhattan that the valley has attracted the wealthy, the powerful and the creative. Two U.S. presidents were born there: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Van Buren. Other celebrated Americans who were born or lived and worked in the region were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many other notable figures of the Revolutionary period, showman P. T. Barnum, naturalist and artist J. J. Audubon, explorer John C. Fremont, Commodore Oliver Perry ("We have met the enemy and they are ours"), telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, Robert Fulton of steamboat fame, writers Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe and Edith Wharton, architect Stanford White, artists Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and Edward Hopper, industrialist and financier J. P. Morgan and various Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and other early American multimillionaires.

When I took my two daughters--Maddy, 8, and Isabelle, 5--on a tour of some Hudson River Valley estates recently, I thought it appropriate to begin in Hyde Park at the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born on the family estate in 1882. The property is called Crum Elbow, from the Dutch words for "crooked elbow," a sailors' reference to the jut of land it sits on, just above Poughkeepsie. Roosevelt spent much of his life in that house, bringing his bride Eleanor there and raising five children in its rooms. During his long and difficult presidency, Roosevelt repaired here whenever possible, drawing strength and solace from this peaceful place. The property is flat, almost ranch-like. The house, most of which was constructed in 1916, is large and comfortable, and its grayish stucco exterior and pale-green shutters suggest a certain modesty.

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