Merry mansions

The turret at Wilderstein. (photo by Dion Ogust)

For many of us, ‘tis the season for holiday panic to set in, as we contemplate how little time we have left to get everything essential done by Christmas – and maybe even squeeze in a thing or two that’s just for fun. For some, the most daunting prospect during these short days of December is finding the perfect gift for everyone on our list; for others, it’s planning and preparing the perfect dinner for a mob of hard-to-please relatives. But if you’re among those who subscribe to the philosophy that people whose homes are always tidy really need to get a life, then it’s most likely the thought of all that housecleaning and finding places to hide the clutter that seems most overwhelming this time of year.

If you’ve got visitors coming, then you’ve got to bite the bullet and make the old home place fit for company. But you needn’t feel obligated to compete with Martha Stewart. If you really feel the need to be in a holiday showcase environment, why not let somebody else do the housework?

We are really lucky here in the Hudson Valley to live in a part of the country with one of the greatest concentrations of stately manses that every December are decorated to the nines in holiday finery, each appropriate to its historical heyday. In particular, the Great Estates District of Dutchess and Columbia Counties is dense with spectacular homes and historic sites that shine their brightest in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Here are some particulars on holiday tours and activities planned at popular historic destinations on the east side of the Hudson:

At Staatsburgh State Historic Site, located on Old Post Road in Staatsburg, the 79-room Mills Mansion, normally open from 12 noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, is extending its evening hours until 8 p.m. on Fridays, December 14, 21 and 28. On Sundays in December from 1 to 4 p.m., children ages 6 to 11 and their families are invited to solve a “history mystery” in the Holiday Whodunit, interviewing Gilded Age-costumed interpreters to collect clues. The program is free with regular site admission: $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, free for kids age 12 and under. Tours depart every half-hour. Park in the lot below the mansion while East Portico renovations are in progress. For more info call (845) 889-8851 or visit

The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, located at 4097 Route 9 in Hyde Park, will be lavishly decorated in Gilded Age style through the end of the year, with tours daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Regular admission costs $8, but on Sunday, December 9, entry will be free all day, with special Holiday Open House activities including refreshments and live music from 6 to 9 p.m. For more info call (845) 229-9115 or visit

Also on Route 9 in Hyde Park, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Home of FDR National Historic Site will be all decked out and running tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day through year’s end except Christmas, with a $14 entry fee. The special exception is the Open House on Saturday, December 15, when admission will be free. At Springwood from 3 to 5 p.m., an FDR impersonator will read passages from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as the late president used to do for his family. And from 12 noon to 4 p.m., the Henry A. Wallace Center will host its annual Children’s Reading Festival, featuring kids’ book authors including Ulster County’s own Iza Trapani. Readings and signings will take place at 1:30, 2:15 and 3 p.m. There will be free photos with Santa from 1 to 3 p.m., and children can make holiday cards for sailors on the USS Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt beginning at 12 noon. Refreshments will be served throughout the afternoon. For more info call (845) 229-9115 or visit

The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site at Val-Kill will also host a free Open House with refreshments and music on Saturday, December 15, from 1 to 7 p.m. Note that beginning at 4 p.m., Val-Kill visitors will required to take a shuttle from the Wallace Center at the FDR Library; there will be no on-site parking. The home will be decorated and regular tours will run Thursdays through Mondays through December 31, with an admission price of $8. For more info call (845) 229-5302 or visit

With the movie Hyde Park on Hudson about to hit a theater near you, interest in FDR’s mysterious confidante Daisy Suckley will soon be running high. Her 1888 Queen Anne-style mansion Wilderstein, located at 330 Morton Road in Rhinebeck, will be lavishly decorated and open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. throughout December. Entry costs $10 general admission, $9 for seniors and students and free for kids under age 12. For info call (845) 876-4818 or visit

Locust Grove, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Italianate villa at 2361 Route 9, just south of Poughkeepsie, is noted for its holiday custom of having a differently decorated Christmas tree in each room. This year the theme will be passages from Clement C. Moore’s beloved poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The mansion is open Saturdays through December and daily from the 26th through the 31st. Admission costs $10 for adults, $6 for kids under age 12. For info call (845) 454-4500 or visit

Further south, the Colonial-era Mount Gulian Historic Site, located at 145 Sterling Street in Beacon, will offer candlelight tours with refreshments from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sundays, December 9 and 16. General admission costs $8; seniors get in for $6 and kids for $4. For info call (845) 831-8172 or visit

Further north, the Clermont State Historic Site, located at 1 Clermont Avenue in Germantown, will be decorated this holiday season with drawings, paintings and silhouettes of past members of various generations of the Livingston family, their servants and pets, arrayed in groups with themes loosely inspired by the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Regular admission costs $8 for adults, free for kids under age 12. A special two-day “Christmas at Clermont” event starts with an Open House with free admission on Saturday, December 15 from 11 to 4 p.m. And on Sunday, December 16 from 3 to 6 p.m., staff and volunteers in period costume will pose in candlelit Tableaux Vivant recreating holiday traditions from different eras. Tickets for that event go for $10 for adults and $2 for children age 12 and under. For info call (518) 537-4240 or visit



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