COVID is a crisis of spirit for many who have experienced the fear of an unseen enemy, the loss of livelihood, or, at worst, the loss of a loved one. But, in this particularly lovely section of the world, a spectacularly beautiful garden and estate has been opened as a refuge for those seeking serenity and surcease from the strife.
Wethersfield, the home of the late Chauncey Devereux Stillman (1907-1989), sits atop the highest point in Dutchess County, and reflects the lifestyle of a wealthy—very wealthy—gentleman farmer of the mid-20th century. Stillman’s grandfather, James Stillman founded what is now Citigroup, and Chauncey Stillman, himself, was a director of an oil and mining enterprise. An avid horseman, he first experienced the rural beauty of Dutchess County while riding with the Millbrook Hunt and eventually realized the potential of the land. In 1937 he bought two old dairy farms and began to flesh out to his vision of a country estate.
The estate and gardens he carved out high on his hill is “an unknown treasure” containing acres of formal gardens, expansive views of both the Berkshires and the Taconics, miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding and (in a normal year) even an art collection and a stable museum full of classic carriages from the days before automobiles.
In most years, visitors to the site pay admission for a guided tour of the mansion, stables and garden or can opt to pay a small charge for a self-guided tour of the grounds. This year the buildings are closed but access to the grounds and trails is being offered free of charge for those who wish to breathe in the peace and quiet of leaf-covered allées, to gaze at the distant, Taconics from across the reflecting pool or to stroll the Peacock Walk along the upper terrace. (Yes, there are peacocks in residence, including one wild bird who likes to admire himself in the reflection of the house’s windows—one proud peacock, indeed!)
During COVID admission is waived because everyone deserves some serenity. This place has been a respite for years and years and years. It’s one place you can go and feel everything is well.
Stillman would have approved. While undeniably privileged in his own life, growing up during the Depression and serving in the Navy in World War II developed in the businessman a sense of compassion. In what some might view as a betrayal of his class, he believed in “distributism,” an economic theory asserting that the world’s productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated.
Only a year after purchasing the Amenia estate, Stillman created the Homeland Foundation (now the Wethersfield Foundation), to reflect his specific philanthropic interests, including “to display art and period furniture; to sponsor religious, charitable, scientific, and literary programs; to use for cultural activities; public outdoor recreation and scenic enjoyment; protection of natural environmental systems; conservation, cultural, intellectual, religious, and recreational purposes; preservation of natural wildlife; and to make other contributions and gifts, but only if made for exclusively public purposes.”
At his death, Wethersfield became the primary asset of the foundation.
His gardens, one traditional Italianate and the other a wilderness garden, are designed almost like rooms, each being different, and reflect Stillman’s vision. He liked classical 17th-century Italian garden design and, as a bit of an anomaly for his time, he embraced its classical style.
As one strolls through the gardens, each turn reveals a new treasure. Italian sculpture and frescoes figure prominently in formal landscapes, with their emphasis on straight vistas, water—still or moving—and even architecture in the form of terraces and temples. It is little wonder that in 2014, the Dutchess County Economic Development Corp. named the Wethersfield Garden & Estate the 2014 winner of its Business Excellence Award for tourism.
One would think that such a splendid retreat would be overrun with visitors but its remote location has kept it off the radar for many visitors to Dutchess County. To reach it, one wanders along narrow country roads, past fields and ponds, old houses and farms, before turning on to Pugsley Road to climb the last mile to the estate. Even before entering the estate, the visitor is engulfed in the mid-summer beauty lying before his or her eyes in vistas that stretch way into the blue-tinged Taconics.
The estate itself encompasses some 1,000 acres. It is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays this year from noon to 5 PM. The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. In normal years, the estate also hosts a multitude of events, from concerts and plein air painting days to horse meets.
Wethersfield is located at 214 Pugsley Hill Road, Amenia, NY; 845-373-8037; website click on the link below.