Historic Houses, Glorious Gardens

By Anne Levin

A century ago, touring impressive homes and gardens was a popular warm weather pastime. Just read up on Edith Wharton or Henry James, both of whom were known to spend weeks, if not months, being driven from one Gilded Age estate to another—perhaps gathering details for their novels.

You don’t have to be a novelist to feel the urge to snoop around palatial homes and gracious gardens. Within short distance of New York City, there are several of these remnants of an earlier era that are open to the public. Some are opulent, while others are simpler and focused on history. Many hold special programs throughout the year.

Here are details on four very special, very different homes and gardens of note. From the urban Ballantine House in Newark to the wisteria draped Van Vleck estate in Montclair, each is unique and worthy of a day trip.

Those wisteria at the Van Vleck House & Gardens peak during mid-May, but there is plenty of foliage to admire throughout the year at this former private estate that has been open to visitors since 1993. Six of the original 12 acres of property are available for viewing, wandering, and experiencing nature.

“The courtyard just explodes in robin’s egg blue flowers when the wisteria blooms, and we have wonderful azaleas and rhododendrons, too,” says Chuck Fischer, director of the site which is run by The Montclair Foundation. “We have trees, flowers, and shrubs blooming all the time. What’s unique about this place is that it was never created as public gardens. This was a private home. The family decided to cultivate a unique, eclectic group of trees and shrubs and plantings that is unchanged. We maintain the integrity of the property and it is a place where people come to relax.”

Wealthy businessman Joseph Van Vleck Sr. moved his family to Montclair to escape sooty Brooklyn in 1868. The house he built was one of several that have been on the grounds over the years. The surviving, U-shaped Italianate villa was built by descendant Howard Van Vleck, whose heirs gifted the house and grounds to The Montclair Foundation 22 years ago.

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The private gardens are open daily, dawn to dusk, and the house is used for meetings, retreats, and fundraisers. “It’s a unique 1916 limestone building, just two stories,” says Fischer. “No alterations have been done. We don’t have tours of the house, but you can pretty much see what’s inside by looking through the windows.”

Several events are held during warm weather months, including outdoor concerts and a film festival. The property is at 21 Van Vleck Street in Montclair. Visit www.vanvleck.org for information.

After the television series “The Roosevelts” aired on PBS last fall, the Hyde Park National Historic Site that was a beloved refuge for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his family was suddenly inundated with visitors. Not that this landmark, which is made up of three separate sites, has suffered from low attendance. Part of the National Park Service, Hyde Park, which is 90 miles north of New York City, has long been a tourist magnet.

“We were inundated with visitors after that series ran on TV,” says Scott Rector, Hyde Park’s chief of interpretation. “But that was wonderful. People love it here and it was great to see so many flocking to us. The great thing about Hyde Park is the sense of place. We focus on that and why it was so important to FDR. Throughout his entire life, this is where he got so much personal relief and satisfaction.”

Along with Springwood, Roosevelt’s lifelong home, the site boasts the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum; Top Cottage, where he went to “escape the mob” at the big house; Val-Kill, the private retreat of Eleanor Roosevelt; and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, which illustrates an opulent way of life modeled on the English country house.

“Most people who come here are interested in Roosevelt, but we have three national historic sites, all of which have beautiful gardens,” says Rector. “And that surprises people. We have 16 miles of trails for hiking, too.”

There is a free shuttle service between the properties from May through October. The Hyde Park Historic Site is on Route 9 in Hyde Park, New York. Visit www.nps.gov/hofr/ for more information.

Smaller but no less significant is the Durand-Hedden House and Garden in Maplewood, a historic house museum that explores the past through nature, architecture, music, food, social life, and other activities. Past programs have ranged from carving wood from a fallen ash tree on the property to Civil War brigade re-enactments.

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