Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Picnic That Won the War, the Royal Visit, the Hot Dog Summit of 1939, and Hyde Park on the Hudson Movie

The 1939 “hot dog summit” between Franklin Roosevelt and England’s King George VI in Hyde Park is the subject of a new movie, Hyde Park on the Hudson. PLUS: The history of Wilderstein, Daisy Suckley’s family home in Rhinebeck

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wildersteinWilderstein, the former home of Daisy Suckley. See the gallery below to view more photos of the mansion’s interior, correspondence between the president and the king, and still shots from the new movie

Photograph by Gregory J. Sokaris

Victorian Vanguard

One of the Valley’s architectural gems was the lifelong home of Daisy suckley, FDR’s close companion

This month’s release of Hyde Park on Hudson will no doubt spark nationwide interest in the life of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. But those who wish to learn more about Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin — and close confidante — need look no further than Wilderstein, the Suckley family’s grand Victorian residence in Rhinebeck, which was Daisy’s home for most of her long life.

Although not as easily recognized as names like Livingston and Astor, the Suckley (pronounced SOOK-lee) family was “very much a part of the ‘Hudson River Aristocracy,’” says Gregory J. Sokaris, executive director of Wilderstein Historic Site. In the late 18th century, patriarch George Suckley earned a tidy fortune in the export trade, which was eventually passed down to his children, one of whom was Daisy’s grandfather, Thomas Holy Suckley. In 1852, Thomas purchased about 30 acres on a bluff above the Hudson and built a modest home; the family christened the estate Wilderstein, or “wild man’s rock,” after a stone carving by a 17th-century Native American was found on the property.

In 1888, George’s son Robert (Daisy’s father) inherited the property and house. Dissatisfied with the original Italianate structure, Robert hired Poughkeepsie architect Arnout Cannon Jr. to remodel the house in the then-fashionable Queen Anne style. Cannon reconfigured the entire first floor; expanded the verandah, added a porte cochere and — most noticeably — an impressive five-story circular tower, whose large windows offer panoramic views of the river and the Catskills. 

Joseph Burr Tiffany — a cousin of renowned decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany — was hired to design the interior. Each of the rooms had a different architectural theme; the walls of the entrance hall, for example, were covered in quarter-sawn oak paneling and tooled Florentine leather, creating a dark atmosphere that, says Sokaris, the Victorians found “romantic.” Other embellishments included stencilled walls, elaborately decorated plaster ceilings and stained glass windows throughout the main floor.

daisy suckley and fdrDaisey Suckley sits alongside FDR for a Hudson River cruise aboard the USS Potomac in 1937

Photograph courtesy of Black Dome Press

Wilderstein’s landscape was designed by Calvert Vaux, one of the creators of New York’s Central Park. The traditional Romantic layout included an intersecting series of roads, walking paths, and trails shaded by ornamental trees and shrubbery; two gazebos and benches marked the spots with the best views of the Hudson. A proponent of technological advancement, Robert even built his own power plant on the property; in 1891, Wilderstein became one of the first private houses in the nation to have electric lights.

Both inside and out, Robert Suckley had spared no expense in creating a dramatic mansion befitting his family’s social station. “Quite honestly,” Sokaris admits, “he probably overspent.” Unfortunately, Suckley’s deep pockets were soon significantly depleted. “The family fortune disappeared shortly after Wilderstein was finished,” says Sokaris. “There were several financial panics in the late 1800s, and the Great Depression hit hard. But most significantly, Daisy’s brother Henry — the one most poised to take over the family fortune and administration of the estate — died in 1917.” In 1921, Robert himself passed away, and Daisy slowly took over his role as head of the household. While her other siblings moved to Europe or married and settled elsewhere, she continued to live at Wilderstein until her death in 1991 at age 100.

For the greater part of a century, however, the house was left virtually untouched. By the 1990s, it was in desperate shape: the roof was leaking, the tooled leather in the foyer was peeling away from the wall, and black smoke from the fireplace covered the stencilled library ceiling. A grassroots effort to give the estate designation as a historic site gained traction in that decade, and in 1994 the Wilderstein Preservation received a grant to restore and paint the tower. In the succeeding 18 years, extensive restorations have been made throughout the building, and to the grounds as well. A visitor today can see the mansion essentially as it appeared in the 1890s — right down to the furniture, china, and family photographs (one of which is Daisy’s rare shot of FDR in a wheelchair). “One of the strengths of Wilderstein is the collection,” says Sokaris. “The family saved everything. We have almost too much stuff.” Of the main rooms on the first floor, only the white and gold salon has yet to be refurbished. The room’s faded paint and torn silk damask wall covering “speaks to the ‘genteel poverty’ that was characteristic of many of these estates on the Hudson River,” Sokaris explains. “The family lived here year-round, and while they had a lot of the trappings of wealth, they also had many of the same problems that people are experiencing in this economy. And I think people connect with that.”

Hollywood’s current interest in Daisy Suckley “is going to be good for us,” Sokaris believes. Visiting Wilderstein is “a really nice way to spend an afternoon. The landscape and views are beautiful, and the architecture is unique. People don’t know what to expect when they come here, and they’re blown away by the experience. I hope they will tour the house and say, ‘Wow! That was really cool!’”

» Visit Wilderstein Historic Site in Rhinebeck, NY


Photographs from The Picnic That Won the War, the Royal Visit, the Hot Dog Summit of 1939, and Hyde Park on the Hudson Movie

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