An Oct. 12 National Geographic channel program showcasing a mansion in New York’s Hudson Valley built by John D. Rockefeller, one of history's foremost businessmen and philanthropists, was hosted by David Applebaum ‘80, a Los Angeles architect and an outstanding alumnus of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture.
“The show is not about big or famous, it’s about stories,” said Applebaum, host of “American Mansion: Secrets of the Rockefeller Estate,” which detailed the history of the mansion and surrounding grounds built by the Standard Oil founder and philanthropist and his descendants.
“You can tell a lot a about a person and their time when you take a look at the place where they lived, raised their family, and created a life,” said Applebaum.
After retiring in 1897 as the U.S.’ first billionaire, Rockefeller turned to overseeing the construction of the mansion and its grounds as well as creating humanitarian foundations that had major impacts on medicine, education and scientific research.
Applebaum lent his expertise to the show as an “Architect to the Stars,” who has designed residences for Frank Sinatra, Diane Keaton, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Bob Hope, and is joined by other experts including a Rockefeller family historian, a New York society writer and a chronicler of the Rockefeller family’s dealings with the Mafia, who threatened the family with kidnappings.
The 40-room mansion, named Kykuit, an African word for “lookout,” was completed in 1913.
“The estate's development,” said Applebaum, “was the tug of war between a father, John D. Rockefeller, who wanted a humble home, and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who wanted to give his parents a tasteful and beautiful home.”
The tale of the mansion’s building includes quite a bit of drama, he said.
“At the beginning, father and son had very different ideas and hired four different architects, a recipe for disaster,” said Applebaum.
The preferred roof design didn’t allow for the mansion’s chimneys to be tall enough, so they would back up, filling the entire house with ash and black smoke, said Applebaum.
“The mansion’s service entrance was located directly beneath the master bedroom, allowing daily 6 a.m. deliveries of milk, coal, vegetables and whatever else was ordered to disrupt the tenants. The home’s steep-pitched roof left the upper two floors, the servant’s quarters, with four and five foot ceilings.”
The development of the mansion’s grounds is also an interesting tale.
Rockefeller Sr. hired Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park and is widely considered the father of landscape architecture, to create a design for the grounds.
“After a month, Rockefeller said ‘I can do this better than you can,’ fired him, and did the design himself,” said Applebaum. “And I have to say, he did a wonderful job. His design really takes advantage of the property. For example, he designed meandering roads, submerging them five or six feet below grade level, so you never see or hear cars. It’s really quite a special design.”
Rockefeller Sr., relenting after his wife, Laura's objections about the mansion ‘s interior, put his son in charge of the renovation which, said Applebaum, gave the junior Rockefeller the confidence to step out from beyond his father’s long shadow and become the man that did so much for the U.S., said Applebaum.
“Beyond giving hundreds of millions of dollars to charities and causes, John Jr. created New York’s Museum of Modern Art with his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and funded The Cloisters, a museum at the northern end of Manhattan and so many other things,” said Applebaum.
John D. Rockefeller III led the creation of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the home of 11 resident arts organizations including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet.
“New York City would not be the cultural icon that it is if it was not for the Rockefeller family,” said Applebaum. “John Rockefeller Sr.’s children and their children followed his example and are quiet philanthropists. The history books only tell a small part of the story and we will tell a bit more.”
Creators of the “American Mansion” concept envision it as similar to “Biography,” the long-running A&E show, which doesn’t use a host to present its details of notable figures.
“After seeing the first script the network sent an urgent message to the show’s writers and producers that they were wrong, and with inanimate buildings a host was necessary,” said Applebaum. “The network provided the show’s team with 50 names of potential hosts — tall, chiseled, model-looking guys — and no one liked any of the nominees.”
Applebaum, who describes himself as “short, balding and over 40,” has pitched design, lifestyles and green living shows after a short stint on a Bravo TV reality show, but “it’s all about the eye candy, and I never got more than a call back,” he said.
One day, Applebaum’s agent got a call from an “American Mansions” producer, who needed someone for another show he was working on.
“Just before they hung up, my agent, Paul Barrutia, asked him what his next project was,” said Applebaum. “The response was, ‘a really cool show for the National Geographic Channel, but we just have a few days to find a host. We’ve seen a bunch of completely wrong hosts but we think we need a real, working architect.’”
Barrutia asked him what kind of architect they needed and he replied, “oh, someone who knows something about mansions, but where will we find an architect who designs mansions for rich and famous clients that has any kind of on camera experience?”
“I have the only guy that fits your description,” Barrutia said.
In addition to hosting the show, Applebaum has also done research, written and rewritten scripts, art directed the show’s animation, done some filming and even carried lights, cameras, and sound equipment.
He recruited his friend, Mike Post, a composer who has won multiple Emmy and Grammy awards, best known for his theme songs to hit TV shows such as "Law & Order," "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," to write music for the show.
Applebaum, who is hoping the “American Mansion” show gets picked up for a full season, said National Geographic executives might be persuaded to continue the show if they get a lot of positive feedback once the show airs.