Little Van, Big House
Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
Having safely deposited our daughter in Williams-town, Massachusetts, for the summer, my alluring wife and I decided to shunpike our way back home to Washington—a picturesque way to describe avoiding metropolitan New York, Interstate 95, the New Jersey Turnpike, and their attendant horrors. This meant descending south from the Berkshires into rural New York State on the east bank of the Hudson River. It also meant finding ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the 1830s.
Martin Van Buren
The quiet, two-lane highway that transported us across the line from Massachusetts into Columbia County, New York, was considerably more rural in character than I had anticipated. In Hancock, Massachusetts, we stopped at a small, slightly overgrown, cemetery, enclosed in a rusted iron fence, whose oldest gravestones dated from the late 18th century. Although we were closing in on some early Dutch settlements and Washington Irving country, the names were all English, and the tombstones featured those postmortem exhortations you tend to find in New England: Death is a debt / To Nature due / Which I have paid / And soon must you. That was on the headstone of a woman who had died at my present age.
In fact, so pleasant was the driving, and so somnolent the villages and tiny farms, that we got lost somewhere in Columbia County and pulled into an intersection to inspect the road sign. It indicated that, if we made the appropriate turn, we would soon find ourselves in the town of Kinderhook. That was enough for me.
As every schoolboy around the time of the Civil War could have told you, our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, was known in his day as Old Kinderhook—there is a theory, in fact, that the expression “OK” derives from the phrase—based on the name of his hometown. And so, on the assumption that there might be some remnant of Van Buren still extant in the place, we headed there.
I should begin by saying that, Old Kinderhook aside, the town is immensely charming, a few miles east of the river, with a plentiful supply of elegant Georgian and Hudson River Bracketed houses—and, to satisfy my mortuary needs, a graceful Dutch Reformed cemetery, full of Stuyvesants and Van Santvoords and Vliets—and Martin Van Buren and his family. Signs along the main road directed us to the Van Buren homestead, called Lindenwald, now owned by the National Park Service.
I should also say that the mere survival of Martin Van Buren’s residence is a story in itself. It went out of the family shortly after his death in 1862, and was recovered from private ownership—and a history as boarding house, commercial establishment, and storage facility—as recently as the 1970s. The cast-iron tub in which the president bathed was found in an outlying field—a trough for horses—and the Parisian wallpaper he had installed in 1839 was revealed under decades of grime. Van Buren seems to have had an eye for gadgetry, and by an architectural miracle, his wood-paneled flushing toilet, metal pipes, and assorted built-in devices, had remained untouched or been buried in additions. A surprising number of family furnishings also survived in the region or in households of innumerable Van Buren descendants.
I confess to mixed feelings about the National Park Service and guided tours, but the docent who led our knot of five visitors around—a retired middle school English teacher named Lou Miressi—was entertaining company. Long resident in Hyde Park—President Franklin Roosevelt’s hometown down the valley in Dutchess County—he explained, in answer to my question, that he was originally from the Bronx. (As I had guessed, listening to his singular inflections.) Best of all, he was the ideal interlocutor for somebody like Martin Van Buren: An unabashed enthusiast of the house and its historic occupant, full of stories and details of the president’s life and career, he was a uniformed evangelist for America’s eighth president.
History has been more neglectful than hostile to Van Buren. Andrew Jackson’s faithful protégé, a founder of the modern Democratic party, and first boss of the New York machine, he served one presidential term (1837-41), and it was blighted by the Panic of 1837. He was defeated for reelection by the Whig William Henry Harrison, lost the Democratic nomination in 1844 to James Knox Polk of Tennessee, and ran a fourth time in 1848 on the Free Soil ticket. A transitional figure between the towering Jackson and the pre-Civil War presidents, Martin Van Buren has a place in the history of American political parties, though not particularly as a representative of any doctrine or policy.
His residence, however, is no small monument, and walking along its tilted floors, and up and down the narrow staircase, I sensed the 5′6″ specter of Little Van.