The first time photographer Larry Lederman visited the gardens at Kykuit, the Rockefeller family’s historic estate in Pocantico Hills, New York, he was greeted by a sudden downpour. He found cover in a grove of giant copper beech trees, whose position on the property was plotted by John D. Rockefeller himself, the oil tycoon who lead one of America’s most prominent families.
Among the rain-slicked tree trunks, Lederman noticed a massive, fire-engine-red sculpture—Alexander Liberman’s Above II. To his left, he saw another sculpture, an eggshell-colored piece called Granny’s Knot, whose twisted form echoed the knuckled tree trunks surrounding it. “These were contemporary sculptures sitting in the midst of trees. A surprise,” writes Lederman in his new book The Rockefeller Gardens: An American Legacy (Monacelli Press, 2017). “Ordinarily, sculpture is set in an open space and given pride of place. Here the placement was intended to adorn the grove.” Taking in the whole of the space, Lederman recognized this was no ordinary grand garden. In the decades of plotting and planning the grounds, he writes, “a mind was at work.”
Actually many minds, over many decades. What Lederman’s photographs of the gardens at Kykuit and Eyrie (the family’s retreat in Seal Harbor, Maine), display is a fascinating study of one family’s sustained devotion to place, manifested in each generation’s evolving philosophy and approach to space.
John D. Rockefeller wanted to convey the American spirit at Kykuit (a Dutch word meaning “lookout,” given for the estate’s position overlooking the Hudson River), clearing vast vistas and lining them with forest. His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. sought to bring order to the grounds, imposing a Beaux-Arts formality. Meanwhile Rockefeller, Jr.’s wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was creating a mystical Asian-inspired garden in Maine, where the perennials and annuals peak just when the family gathers there each August. It was Nelson Rockefeller who incorporated the jaw-dropping modern art, which serves as a testimony to the family’s enduring appreciation of beauty—both natural and man-made.