Wethersfield Estate Is Reborn With Renewed Purpose
By Jamie Larson
Sitting atop the highest point in Dutchess County, the Wethersfield estate and gardens in Amenia, New York are one of the most spectacular weekend destinations in the region. Thankfully, the historic home of 20th-century American aristocrat Chauncey Devereux Stillman (1907-1989) has recently emerged from the darkest period in its history and is once again an architectural and natural gem.
After nearly two decades of financial mismanagement and a $4.3-million embezzlement scheme by former board trustees Lisk and Elizabeth Wyckoff, the assets of the Homeland Foundation (the steward of the estate) dwindled from $103 million in 1998 to $31 million in 2015. The controversy was viewed by economists as a cautionary example of how intergenerational wealth can be squandered after the death of those who initially acquired it. After making the difficult decision last year to sell off millions of dollars worth of Stillman’s prized art collection, Wethersfield’s brand-new executive director, Douglas Dewey (who has significant experience in nonprofit leadership and asset management) said the estate is finally solvent again and can refocus on Wethersfield’s mission to promote ecological and agricultural protection, and provide a space for Catholic study.
“This is a new day for Wethersfield,” said Dewey. “In every garden a little rain must fall and we got our share.”
The gardens, one traditional Italianate and the other a wilderness garden, are easy to get (metaphorically) lost in and the main house and carriage house museum are time capsules of a well-curated life. Events are held throughout the open season (this weekend offers the Aston Magna Music Festival in the carriage house June 29). Passes to the garden are $5 and self-guided audio tours are available. A guided tour of the main house, carriage house and garden is $20 for adults $15 for seniors and teens 13-18. Children ages 12 and under are free. Trails on the property are also open to the public.
With its resurrection complete, Wethersfield is also now reemphasizing its connection to the local community, Dewey said. Stillman’s traditional recreational pursuits of horse riding, carriage drives and fox hunts still draw members of the modern upper crust throughout the season, but local residents also recently flooded the estate for a successful community day. The appeal of the gardens is indisputably universal.
“We are rebuilding and reinvesting in a desire to be active within our community,” said Dewey. “Stillman, if nothing else, was known for his hospitality.”
Stillman’s grandfather (a Rockefeller contemporary) James Stillman founded what is now Citigroup and Chauncey Stillman himself was, among other things, a director of an oil and mining enterprise, Freeport-McMoRan. Though his life was indisputably comfortable, living through the Depression and serving as a naval intelligence officer in WWII informed Stillman’s compassion, framed his intellectual pursuits, and factored into his conversion from the Episcopal faith to Catholicism. (Coincidentally Dewey made the same conversion in his own life.)
Stillman was a noted patron of the arts and an intellectual who promoted all manner of natural scientific study, seeing no conflict between science and his faith. In what may have been a point of contention with his peers, Stillman also promoted the economic idea of distributism, which promoted land ownership spread throughout the entire population but also a decentralization of political and business power. Wethersfield is home to an operational farm that practices what Stillman preached.
“By no means was he enamored with socialism or communism,” said Dewey, who added it was probably difficult to qualify the nuances of his position while living through the Cold War. “He believed in the free market but he also believed strongly in patronage. He was a forward-thinking patriot.”
Now, disrobed of its scandal, Wethersfield, and Stillman’s personal legacy on display therein, has rejoined our local landscape as a gorgeous weekend destination.
“We suffered a blow,” Dewey readily admits, “but we’ve reemerged able to provide more access. Now our visitors can come out and feel good about it. We have a new board that now includes members of the family, new management and a new outlook. This place is easy to love and Chauncey Stillman is easy to admire.”
214 Pugsley Hill Rd., Amenia, NY
Open Friday–Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.