Saturday, July 4, 2009

American Leonardo

I have driven past Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie innumerable times in the last 21 years but never ventured into the former home of Samuel F. B. Morse. We arrived at Locust Grove just in time for the first tour, a private tour as it turned out. Our tour guide was a stooped and aging man who returned to the porch after showing us the house and sat peacefully on the wrap-around porch to await the next visitors. I wondered how long his rest would last. I expect he had plenty of time for a siesta.

Morse was a painter by training; after he graduated from Yale, he attended the Royal Academy in London and later founded the National Academy of Design and served as its president for 20 years. Most of us know him better as an inventor; on a trip home from Paris, he conjured the idea of the telegraph and Morse code, and he returned home to realize his vision. His invention made him a wealthy man, more so than the portraits he commissioned in New England, but he would continue to apply his artist's eye as he developed his new home in Poughkeepsie.

Morse and his first wife purchased the property in Poughkeepsie in 1847, and he set about converting the Federal house into a Tuscan style villa.  He added wings to the north and south and created an octagonal room, a porte-cochere, a billiards room, and a four story tower that faces the river.  In 1901, the property was acquired by the Young family, who continued to develop the property.  The interior remains exactly as it was the day its final owner, Annette Innis Young, passed away.

I enjoyed the tour.  The house has an interesting collection of artifacts, including Chippendale furniture, Hudson River School paintings, and English silver.  The grounds are free and offer about three miles of tranquil walking trails and gardens.  One of my favorite features was what appeared to be a community garden that was being tended by local families.  The next time you drive by Locust Grove, think about taking an hour to stop in for a visit.  It's a quick and worthwhile trip back to the 1800's.
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