By the time Martin Van Buren left the White House, returned home to Kinderhook and moved into Lindenwald in 1841, his best days were behind him, or so you might think.
A governor, senator, secretary of state, vice president and eighth president of the United States, Van Buren might tell you something different, but then as you learn when you visit the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, the man was the cleverest of politicians.
“He was amiable and ambitious, and he was a good politician, in the good way,” said Ann Scharoun, a volunteer tour guide at the site. “But I think he really enjoyed living here after his presidency. He fondly refers to his time at Lindenwald as the best in his life.”
Martin Van Buren Site
WHERE: 1013 Old Post Road, Kinderhook
WHEN: Open daily May through mid-October, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $7, free for children under 16
MORE INFO: 758-9689, www.nps.gov/mava/index.htm
It’s easy to see why. The large, yellow-brick structure, built in 1797 by Peter Van Ness, and the 225 acres that surrounded it are impressive — perhaps not as grand as his Virginian predecessors in the White House, but still presidential. In 1848, Van Buren hired famed architect Richard Upjohn to upgrade the house, and that work included amenities such as kitchen ranges, running water, a bathroom and the first central heating system in upstate New York.
On the building’s exterior, Upjohn added a four-story brick tower, a central gable, attic dormers and a new front porch. He also painted the house yellow, his efforts resulting in the house evolving from an 18th century Georgian home to the style of a 19th century Italian villa.
Van Buren played the role of gentleman farmer at the time, and loved to show off the French wallpaper he had added to the main dining room to a long list of visitors that included statesman Henry Clay and author Washington Irving. But during the decade of the 1840s he was still trying to get back to the White House.
While the original 1797 door was the main entrance on the east side of the house, Van Buren built another entrance on the north side. Both gave visitors quick access to the main dining room and a long table that could accommodate more than 20 people.
For more intimate meetings, Van Buren, often called “The Little Magician,” took guests into the formal parlor, where images of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, both Van Buren favorites, hang on the wall. The Green Room, where Van Buren often dined with family and close friends, is next on the tour, while also on the first floor is the library, complete with a series of political cartoon from the day poking fun at Van Buren, Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun.
Family bedrooms make up most of the second floor, including Abraham’s Bedroom, where Van Buren’s eldest son and his wife Angelica Singleton took up residence. It was Angelica who spent plenty of time serving as hostess at the White House during Van Buren’s one term. Her large portrait, painted in 1842 by Henry Inman, dominates the couple’s bedroom.
Lindenwald’s capacity to entertain was part of what made Van Buren such a special politician, according to Jim McKay, Chief Ranger at the MVB site.
“What he did first before anyone else was to openly embrace the need for politicial parties,” said McKay. “As much as people get frustrated these days, Van Buren was a political architect, and he knew that parties were absolutely essential because of the way our government is designed and functions.”
“I think he was a gifted and skilled politician who got things done,” added Ruth Piwonka, historian for the town and village of Kinderhook. “Today, they use politics to get in the way, and it seems they get nothing done. Van Buren used politics as a technique to get things done. He was a good politician.”
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