Kykuit

Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in New York's Hudson River Valley. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate in New York, is a National Historic Landmark. Since 1994, it has been open to the public under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thousands of visitors tour its impressive buildings and spectacular grounds every year. It also has a little-known connection to Wellington, Ohio.

Collier Van Buren Hemenway was born in New London in 1837. He moved to Wellington when he was forty years old, and lived in the village for nearly two decades. Hemenway was a brick maker by trade, and a highly successful one at that. He invented a piece of equipment that he called the Quaker Brick Machine, which sold across the United States. At least one found its way to Canada, and is featured in the image below.

Iron Quaker Brick Machine, purchased by the Pittman Brickyard in Newfoundland, Canada. Image from "History of Brick Making and Brickyards in the Area."

Iron Quaker Brick Machine, purchased by the Pittman Brickyard in Newfoundland, Canada. Image from “History of Brick Making and Brickyards in the Area.”

I was familiar with Hemenway’s name because in early 1881, he sold his brick yard to Noah Huckins. I assumed that selling the brick yard must indicate Hemenway was ending his business. What I did not understand was that brick yard sites were selected for their natural resources, which were then consumed over time by the operation. “Mr. C. V. Hemenway having exhausted the clay on his brick yard has purchased of Dr. Johns six acres of land, north of Liberty St. fronting on a street running north from Mill St. west to east line owned by J. S. Case,” The Wellington Enterprise reported in November of that same year. The new land must have been very rich in clay, because the brick yard was still located there in 1896, when the map of Wellington shown below was published.

Detail of Wellington Village map showing the location of the Hemenway brick yard and surrounding Hemenway "additions" of land. The family lived on the southeast corner of Liberty and Mill Streets, just across from the brick yard. From "Atlas and Directory of Lorain County, Ohio. Illustrated. 1896." Pgs. 100-101. Photo by author.

Detail of Wellington Village map showing the location of the Hemenway brick yard and surrounding Hemenway “additions” of land. The family lived on the southeast corner of West Main (first called Liberty Street, now called West Herrick Avenue) and Mill Streets, just across from the brick yard. From “Atlas and Directory of Lorain County, Ohio. Illustrated. 1896.” Pgs. 100-101. Photo by author.

The business eventually added tile manufacturing to its brick production, and at peak demand times C. V. Hemenway & Co. reportedly employed as many as sixty workers, a large number considering Wellington’s size. In addition to owning a number of buildings on North Main Street and developing several “additions” of land to the village, Hemenway also served on the town council for four terms.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, business seemed to be booming. Frequent notices were printed in the Enterprise of this flavor: “C. V. Hemenway, manufacturer of brick and tile, has an increased force and increased facilities over previous seasons as he expects to manufacture half a million more brick than ever before in the same length of time” (4-3-1889, pg. 5). Or this: “C. V. Hemenway informs us that he has sold more brick to be consumed in this place within the past three months than he has within the past four years” (11-27-1889, pg. 5). Hemenway tiles were used at the American House and Hemenway bricks built the Horr, Warner & Co. cold storage warehouse.

In 1896, however, a far better opportunity presented itself. Collier Hemenway was offered a job by the richest man in the world. John D. Rockefeller lived nearby in Cleveland–as did a significant percentage of all the world’s millionaires at the time–but his work increasingly drew him to New York. In 1893, Rockefeller had purchased nine contiguous properties on top of Kykuit Hill, overlooking the Hudson River. Kykuit (the historic site uses the pronunciation KY-coot) was an old Dutch name meaning “look out,” due to its commanding views some four hundred feet above the river. Rockefeller wanted to erect a house on the highest point, but the area was described as “a rocky crag–wild, beautiful, and utterly unsuitable for building on” (Kykuit, Ann Rockefeller Roberts, pg. 11). He needed as estate manager.

View of Kykuit grounds today with the Hudson River in the far background. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

View of Kykuit grounds today with the Hudson River in the far background. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

How Rockefeller and Hemenway met, I do not know. The oil magnate was famous for his love of what we would today call “home improvement” and Hemenway was a well-known brick and tile maker in the region, so perhaps the two had collaborated on a project at Rockefeller’s Euclid Avenue mansion. However they met, Rockefeller offered Hemenway the position, and his offer was accepted. In April 1896, Collier and his wife Orlina, together with their youngest daughter Mabel, relocated to Tarrytown, New York. “Mr. Hemenway has been employed by John D. Rockefeller to superintend an estate of over a thousand acres of land which he has recently purchased and which he is fitting up at a great expense for a family home” (Enterprise, 4-29-1896, pg. 5).

Work was soon underway. The Tarrytown Argus reported by December of that year that Kykuit’s “summit and slopes [are] alive with men and teams busy in the work of grading and preparation of the site and immediate surroundings, altogether about one hundred acres, which is to be laid out in a landscape of surpassing beauty. Over one hundred men and upwards of fifty teams are now so employed there, the former entirely of American citizens, residents of this vicinity being given the preference” (reprinted in the Enterprise, 12-23-1896, pg. 5). It is interesting that the article should focus on the ethnicity of the workers as being “American citizens,” since by the time Hemenway retired from the superintendent role in 1907, a local paper called The Sun noted that the estate employed some two hundred men, “mostly Italians,” on a campus that had grown by that time to several thousand acres (4-7-1907, pg. 1).

When Collier V. Hemenway died in 1909, at age 72, his obituary highlighted his responsibilities at Kykuit. “[H]e had charge of all the improvements recently made. He planned and built a great many of the roads, put in the new water system, built the lakes and moved all the trees…He was highly regarded by Mr. Rockefeller who admired his ability and trusted his judgment” (Tarrytown Argus, reprinted in the Enterprise, 6-23-1909, pg. 3). The New York Tribune reported on Hemenway’s funeral, principally the fact that the Rockefellers personally attended. The family was not only present in the Hemenway home for the service, but also went to nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to witness the interment. The article noted how “deeply affected” John D. Rockefeller appeared to be. “[T]ears were in his eyes all during the services. At the cemetery he remained to the last and helped to place flowers on the grave” (6-14-1909, pg. 3). As a mark of respect to their former estate manager, three hundred workers from Kykuit were said to have attended the burial.

Headstone of Collier Van Buren Hemenway at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Image from website "Find a Grave.com."

Headstone of Collier Van Buren Hemenway at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Image from website “Find a Grave.com.”

John D. Rockefeller was so notoriously detail-oriented and so intimately involved in planning the construction of the “Big House,” as the family called it, that Kykuit was not finished until 1908. Even then the billionaire was not satisfied, and immediately commenced on a series of renovations that left the house with a completely different facade. That work did not end until 1913. Collier Hemenway never saw the mansion as any member of the public may see it today. Many publications that discuss the history of Kykuit do not even bother to cover the period before construction of the house began, so Hemenway’s name is often omitted, despite his eleven years superintending the grounds of the estate. A single tribute remains. In 1914, the Rockefellers added three lakes to the property to help meet the increasing water needs of estate residents. They called them Hemenway Lakes.

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2 thoughts on “Kykuit

  1. Donna Adam

    “How Rockefeller and Hemenway met, I do not know. The oil magnate was famous for his love of what we would today call “home improvement” and Hemenway was a well-known brick and tile maker in the region, so perhaps the two had collaborated on a project at Rockefeller’s Euclid Avenue mansion”.

    Here is a little bit of “unverified trivia” for you. My grandfather’s (Wellington Ohio residence on N. Main St.) brother, Alfred Horr, worked very closely with Fredrick Goff at the Cleveland Trust Company. Alfred wrote 3 books that I have copies of. One of the books is a fictional story about the founding of The Cleveland Community Foundation that my great-uncle was quite involved with, although Mr. Goff who was Pres. of the Co. is credited as the founder. My ancestor’s story gives an account of a wealthy man who wanted to use his wealth to benefit the community, hence the very first community foundation entity structure was created in 1914. (There are now more than 800 community foundations internationally!)

    There has been a presumption that this wealthy individual was John D. Rockefeller himself. Perhaps there could have been a connection from Wellington to Hemenway to the Euclid Ave. Mansion (that was actually in the same neighborhood as the Cleveland Trust Company.) I’d love to be able to trace the true roots about this to discover more!

    I continue to LOVE reading and receiving your fascinating posts! Thank you, Donna Adam

    Reply

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