Northern Dutchess was quite the society retreat at the turn of the century and after. Many Gilded Age estates are now National Park Service properties; some are open to the public year-round. Call ahead for schedules.
Vanderbilt Mansion Rte. 9, Hyde Park; 914/229-9115; for information contact the National Park Service at 914/229-9115. In 1895, Frederick William Vanderbilt purchased 676 acres along the Hudson and began building this mansion, designed by McKim, Mead & White. Guide Margaret Laffin paints a vivid picture of country life as it is no longer lived (Vanderbilt kept a full-time staff of 40 here, even though he and his wife were there just three months a year).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site Museum & Library Rte. 9, Hyde Park; 914/229-9115. Recognizing his place in history, FDR willed his house (and the 290-acre estate) to the American people in 1943. The curators haven't shied away from controversial aspects of his presidency, including the internment of Japanese-Americans and U.S. knowledge of the Holocaust.
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site Rte. 9G, Hyde Park; 914/229-9115. The simplicity of Eleanor Roosevelt's retreat, 11/2 miles from FDR's house, reflects her unaffected personality. The humble stone cottage has played host to the likes of Churchill, JFK, and Nehru; it's mind-boggling to picture Eleanor sharing her bathroom with the Khrushchevs.
Samuel F.B. Morse Historic Site, Locust Grove 370 South Rd., Poughkeepsie; 914/454-4500. Purchased by inventor-artist Samuel Morse in 1847, Locust Grove has beautiful gardens, a good collection of 18th- and 19th-century English and American furniture (Federal, Queen Anne, Chippendale) in the main Tuscan-style villa, and an exhibition of Morse's work. Visitors can try sending messages on model telegraph machines.
Mills Mansion State Historic Site Old Post Rd., Staatsburg; 914/889-8851;. Undergoing some restoration, this 1896 Beaux-Arts mansion was designed by McKim, Mead & White as a showplace for the fall social season. Guest Edith Wharton used it as a model for her fictional Bellomont estate in The House of Mirth. The grounds are surrounded by 1,000 acres of state park with trails along the Hudson.
Montgomery Place River Rd., Annandale-on-Hudson; 914/758-5461. Also under renovation, this Classical Revival mansion is still worth a visit; the walking paths are extensive, the gardens bloom all summer, and the breeze that washes over the side porch will lull you into inertia. Come fall, there's apple-picking in the orchards.
Sponsored by the Dutchess Land Conservancy, the annual self-drive Dutchess Hunt Country Tour gives snoopy visitors a behind-the-scenes look at some of the area's private estates and farms. It's a great way to see what life in Millbrook is really all about—in two words, horses and acreage—while raising money to help preserve the countryside. Riding demonstrations and terrier races explain the traditions behind the still-thriving Millbrook Hunt. 914/677-3002; October 10; adults $28, children $10.
Antiques are big business around here; on weekends, the area is crawling with dealers and decorators from New York City and points much farther afield.
I've spent my life poking around the shops in Millbrook (even if, due to the space constraints of my Manhattan apartment, I've never seriously shopped for furniture). My favorites are the dealer cooperatives at Millbrook Antiques Mall (Franklin Ave.; 914/677-9311), Village Antique Center (Franklin Ave.; 914/677-5160), and Millbrook Antiques Center (Franklin Ave.; 914/677-3921). My best finds have always appeared when I wasn't looking for anything in particular; call it the Tao of shopping. I've acquired vintage jewelry—once, a 1933 Vassar (my alma mater) college seal ring for $75—first editions of Byron and Swinburne, and handmade 1950's couture cocktail dresses ($15, no joke).
This year, armed with a list from one of the savviest shoppers I know—T&L's former style director, who happens to have a house in Rhinebeck—I hit the road with a vengeance.
I began in Pine Plains at Balsamo Antiques (Pine St.; 518/398-9066), having been warned that I'd want everything in this restored Grange Hall building; indeed, I did. It's a curiosity shop in the best of taste: old billiard balls, bone-handled knives, English transferware, aluminum French garden vases. The furniture is in good condition; that Louis XVI settee would have been a steal at $2,600. (But it would never have fit in my building's elevator.)
I then headed northwest to Madalin (55 Broadway, Tivoli; 914/757-3634). I only wish the place had been around in my vintage-tuxedo-jacket high school days. I would have, like, totally, wanted it all: 1930's satin slips, forties floral day dresses, men's cashmere topcoats.
Hipsters love Classic Modern Furniture (Rte. 22; 914/373-7238) in Amenia. It's not my style, but the Danish designs are in perfect condition—teak and rosewood credenzas, corner cabinets, end tables, and dozens of chairs that date from the forties through the seventies.
Finally, I hit Johnson's Antiques (Rte. 22, Millerton; 518/789-3848; open Friday-Sunday), where the local dealers shop (and where Mom got our 1920's rosewood dining room chairs). The prime merchandise goes quickly, so it's best to get there when they open the doors on Friday. Last time, I waited until Sunday to visit this huge barn—loaded to the rafters with chairs, tables, bureaus, desks, and cabinets—but I still found some amazing things, such as a signed solid cherry Stickley chest of drawers for $475 and a seven-foot pine farm table for $200. The place is a gold mine. An old Blue Willow bowl for $1?Thanks, I'll take it.
Despite the prevalence of antiques, there are plenty of shops with new merchandise in Northern Dutchess, perfect for stress-free, mall-free shopping.
Michael Boris 28 E. Market St., Rhinebeck; 914/876-5625. It's an unexpected thrill to come upon sophisticated women's couture in the country. Designer Boris uses gorgeous fabrics—triple-ply silks, damask as thin as a butterfly's wing, tropical-weight wool—to create fitted 1940's-style shirtwaist jackets in taupe pinstripes, ivory silk shirts with frogging, and coral silk suits with openwork cuffs.