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Reading 3: Home at Last

In 1797 Peter Van Ness, Revolutionary War veteran and a local public figure, built the mansion in which Martin Van Buren was one day to dwell. Van Ness's son, William, inherited the property in 1804 and retained it for 20 years, after which it was purchased at auction by William Paulding, Jr. It was from this owner that Van Buren acquired the estate in 1839.

Soundly defeated in his quest for reelection to the presidency in 1840 by William Henry Harrison, Van Buren remained confident as he made his way homeward to Kinderhook. In four years' time, he was certain, the "sober second thought of the people" would return him to the presidency. Although he had not intended to retire to the estate so soon after purchasing it, his interest in the political storms of the old days began to subside once he was there.

Two of Van Buren's heroes--Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson--as well as other previous presidents, had retired to the life of a gentleman farmer. Van Buren had visited Monticello and the Hermitage, the great houses of Jefferson and Jackson, and he may have felt that living in such a house and pursuing the occupation of farmer was the appropriate way for an ex-president to spend his retirement.

He set about making his piece of the Hudson Valley into a productive farm as well as a fashionable estate. By 1845 he could gaze proudly on more than 220 acres of cropland, as well as formal gardens, ornamental fish ponds, wooded paths, and outbuildings of all kinds. In the main house, he removed the central stairway to create larger rooms on both the first and second floors--an idea he borrowed from Jefferson's remodeling of Monticello. From France he ordered 51 vividly colored wallpaper panels that formed a mural-like hunting scene in the downstairs hall. He also put in an indoor bathroom. Along with his fine new furniture and Brussels carpets, he embellished the house with portraits of some personal friends--Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson.

In 1849 Van Buren invited his son Smith Thompson and his family to move into the house with him. Smith Thompson was to help manage the estate and was allowed to make alterations to better accommodate his growing family. He quickly hired one of the best-known architects of the time, Richard Upjohn, who had won his fame designing churches. The architect added more pipes for running water, and many rooms, but made even more alterations to the exterior of the house. Upjohn changed the exterior appearance from an 18th-century Georgian house to a mid-19th-century Italianate-style villa. A four-story brick tower, a central gable, attic dormers, and a new front porch soon appeared. When Smith Thompson had the house painted yellow, the neighbors wondered if Van Buren would tolerate such an extreme alteration. The indulgent father was not at all upset: "The idea of seeing in life the changes which my heir would be sure to make after I am gone amuses me."

Van Buren lived happily at Lindenwald until his death in 1862. In a letter to an old friend he wrote: "The evening of my life is passing far more quietly and agreeably than I could have hoped." On July 24, 1862, as General Robert E. Lee prepared to invade the North, the man who had fought to defuse the sectional tensions between North and South, and who had succeeded in forming a national party of disparate factions, died at Lindenwald. His last words: "There is but one reliance." His tombstone stands unobtrusively among those of his family, friends, and neighbors at rest in Kinderhook Cemetery. It is a simple obelisk, its inscription fading away with the passing of years.

1. Why would it have seemed appropriate to Van Buren to retire to a farm with a great house?

2. How did he modify the house and grounds at Lindenwald?

3. What changes were made after Smith Thompson and his family moved in with Van Buren? How did Van Buren respond to those changes?

4. How does Van Buren's gravestone reflect his personality?

Reading 3 was compiled from the National Park Service visitor's guide for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site; Bill Harris, Homes of the Presidents (New York: Crescent Books, 1987); John Niven, Martin Van Buren: Romantic Age of American Politics (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); and John P. Platt, "Historic Resource Study, Lindenwald: Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, New York," National Park Service, 1982.

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