Chaucer opens his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by telling us that with the prospect of Spring (“Lent” in old English) peoples’ thoughts turn to pilgrimages. For a longtime pilgrimages would be the only form of travel beyond the local area. I do not wait for Spring but get started planning a summer holiday (as the Brits call it) soon after the New Year. According to the Wikipedia article on the etymology of “vacation” in America the word replaced the British “holiday” when the industrial barons like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers would “vacate” their New York city homes for their summer retreats further north on the Hudson River. So the word carries more of the sense to empty and to get away from the pressures of work, rather than any sense of holy days (“holidays”).
I try to retain some connection to the idea of pilgrimage when making travel plans by including elements from a revered book or author, artist, historical event or person. In the travel industry I think it is called Themed Travel. Last winter I read biographies of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller by Bernice Kert and F. D. R. by Jean Edward Smith, which prompted our trip to the Hudson River Valley in the spring. Abby and John D. Rockefeller Jr. had a family house in Tarrytown known as Kykuit. Abby Aldrich was from Providence, Rhode Island, daughter of a U.S. senator, and she met John D. Rockefeller Jr. during his time at Brown University. They were an impressive partnership on many levels, especially as patrons of the arts. They were avid art collectors: she of modern art, Japanese prints and American folk art, and he of medieval art. Abby was largely responsible for the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and John D. gave the money and his collection to create the Cloisters Museum of Medieval Art. Together they worked on the Rockefeller Center providing work for hundreds of artists at the height of the Great Depression, and they restored Colonial Williamsburg and established the American Folk Art Center there. They were a powerhouse duo for the arts and many other causes including the United Nations and the National Parks. Abby’s collection of 700 Japanese woodblock prints was given to the RISD Museum in Providence and is on rotating display.
Their home in Tarrytown, Kykuit, is well worth a visit. Everything about the house from the fountain and sculpture at the head of the entrance to the design of the rooms and the lighting of the gardens, and the terraces is exquisite and a delight. The guides who provide the tours are knowledgeable and entertaining. The house witnesses to the good taste of Abby and her husband. Their good taste and patronage extended to the nearby Union Church of Pocantico Hills which is a must see because of its eight stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and one by Henri Matisse (completed just before he died).
Thirty miles to the north in sharp contrast is the Vanderbilt house at Hyde Park which is a testimony to the over the top extravagance of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad baron. The Roosevelt family house at Hyde Park by comparison is modest and restrained in keeping with the old money of Dutch merchants. His Presidential Library is at the same site and well worth a visit. The Library pays tribute not only to FDR’s momentous legacy but also to the impressive advocacy work of Eleanor Roosevelt, especially her important role in the birth of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you go there, be sure to have lunch at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where the staff in training are very attentive and the food is excellent. I learned later that Teilhard de Chardin is buried there in the cemetery by the Hudson River, since the site used to be a Jesuit seminary and community.
The Rockefeller fortune was amassed by John D. Rockefeller Sr. through Standard Oil. His son did much good with the money bequeathed to him. The Rockefeller Foundation has recently divested itself of investments in fossil fuels, providing us with a hopeful sign for the future of our world.