Truly appreciating Lindenwald, much like getting to know and admiring Martin Van Buren, requires some effort. You have to delve into the interior and take a much closer look before coming to any conclusions.
The home of our eighth president from 1841 until his death in 1862, Lindenwald sits well back from Route 9H in Kinderhook in Columbia County on the expansive front lawn of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. To the critical eye, the yellow, three-and-a-half story structure is a poorly chosen potpourri of architectural styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, and many first-time visitors look at the house’s exterior and wonder what was Van Buren and his chief architect Richard Upjohn thinking.
“Frankly, it is a little homely looking on the outside,” said Jim McKay, head ranger at the site. “But once inside, it’s a great house tour. The interior is beautiful, and this house gives us plenty to talk about. Everybody knows about the American Revolution and the Civil War, but that 80-year period between the two is a little harder to grasp. It’s all a little hazy, but this house gives us a great window into that period when America was really becoming America.”
WHERE: The Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, Route 9H, Kinderhook
WHEN: Daily guided tours given on the hour from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., through Oct. 31
HOW MUCH: $5 for adults, $12 for famiies
MORE INFO: 758-9689. The site will hold its annual benefit, Harvest Day, on Sept. 20 from 1 to 5 p.m., and closes for the season on Oct. 31.
The house, built by Peter Van Ness in 1797, was named Lindenwald by Van Buren when he bought it in 1839 because of the American linden trees that still line the Albany-to-New York Post Road in front of the mansion. He moved there in 1841 after losing his bid for a second term as president to William Henry Harrison.
“It was a cozy, 18-room house before Van Buren bought it and had Upjohn double the size of it,” said McKay. “It became a 36-room mansion. He raised the roof on the third floor and added the tower, and that’s why it’s a little peculiar on the outside. Upjohn was trying to update it and modernize it. He was trying to tie together a number of architectural styles from that period.”
Visitors today enter the mansion through a side door. But in Van Buren’s time, callers came in the front door into a huge center hallway lined with some of the beautiful 51 rolls of wallpaper Van Buren imported from France. If guests were expected, Van Buren had a nearly 20-foot-long table set up in the middle of the hallway. For smaller parties, there was an informal game room off to the left, while on the right was a bigger, more formal room where Van Buren entertained some of the era’s most famous people, including Henry Clay and Washington Irving.
The table, an accordionlike structure that folds down to a width of 25 inches, is a reproduction that was made by the park service in 1997. The original is in the hands of a private owner who loaned the table to the park service so that it could make drawings and take measurements.
“The craftsmanship that went into the reproduction was just amazing,” said Judy Harris, assistant curator at the site. “It’s very exact, and I can remember the guy that worked on it calling me up and asking me to double-check one of his measurements. They did a fantastic job.”
It is the table and the wallpaper that seem to interest visitors the most, according to Harris.
“The wallpaper was in terrible condition when the park service took over, but the conservators did a great job and were able to save it,” said Davis. “The wallpaper is amazing, and it’s great that we were able to restore it. The conservators come back every few years and take a real close look at it.”
A small guest bedroom, servant rooms and a kitchen round out the first-floor tour, and then visitors are invited to the second floor to check out the family bedrooms. The third floor, now off limits to the public and used as storage space, had three small bedrooms for Van Buren’s servant crew, which usually included eight or nine people.
Van Buren was a widower during his presidency and never remarried. All four of his sons and their wives moved into Lindenwald with him at various times, but the house was sold outside the family after the Civil War and had five subsequent owners up until the National Park Service bought the mansion in 1976.
Van Buren was born in the village of Kinderhook two miles north of his mansion, and grew up in his stepfather’s tavern.
“He enjoyed social settings, and I think part of that is from his youth and growing up at the tavern,” said McKay. “He loved sitting down across the table from someone and looking them in the eye. That was how you did politics, and he was very skilled at it.”
Although not born into one of New York’s elite families, Van Buren’s success as an attorney (he began his apprenticeship at 14) put him in the public eye and he was elected to the state Senate from Columbia County in 1812. A strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Van Buren’s political career also included stints as the state’s attorney general, a U.S. senator, and governor of New York. He was Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state and served as his vice president from 1833 to 1837 before succeeding him as president.
“He’s the man who’s pretty much responsible for our two-party system today,” said McKay. “He was a methodical, principled politician, and he had a long-term goal in mind to start his own political party. He was unfailingly polite and a very likable guy. He had plenty of political rivals in his long career, but he was friendly with most of them. He disagreed with Henry Clay on most things, but they were great friends.”
Van Buren is called the father of the modern Democratic Party, and while he is still considered a consummate politician by historians, his term as president was not a successful one.
“He was done in by the banking crisis and America’s first real depression,” said McKay. “The country hadn’t yet settled on how it was going to manage its finances, and he was suspicious of banks and the interests of big business. He was inaugurated in March and in June there was a panic in Philadelphia and New York and a run on the banks. That pretty much killed his chances at a second term.”
It was Van Buren’s daughter-in-law Angelica who served as White House hostess during his term. Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, had died in 1819.
No sense of Hannah
“I love that house very much, the proportions of the rooms and the huge hallways, but sadly there’s no real sense of Hannah Van Buren anywhere in the home,” said Carl Anthony, an author and historian at the First Ladies Museum in Ohio. “He doesn’t even mention her in his memoirs.”
While Angelica came to Lindenwald to live there after Van Buren lost the White House, she wasn’t the home’s hostess, according to Anthony.
“She was criticized while in the White House because while the country was going through a hard time, she tried to make the place too regal and too lavish,” said Anthony. “Back at Lindenwald, Van Buren was very much in charge of his own life and style. Although she came to help her father-in-law, it wasn’t like she was this grand hostess of Lindenwald.”
Lindenwald wasn’t a retirement home for Van Buren. He remained an important political figure in both national and state politics, and ran for president again in 1844 and 1848.
“He developed the first political machine, and his home was always a busy spot, because it was right on the road from New York to Albany,” said McKay. “People seemed to enjoy his company. He never had any formal education, but he had a lot of native intelligence, and people liked him because he was knowledgeable and humble. He dated a lot after his wife died and seemed to enjoy the company of women, but his one proposal of marriage to a family friend was turned down.”
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