Although his career took him to Washington, D.C., and Great Britain, Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States, always returned to his birthplace of Kinderhook, New York, just south of Albany.
He retired to his hometown, spending his years in an estate that he envisioned as a sort of northern Monticello. The elegant house and surrounding lands, which he dubbed Lindenwald in honor of the site’s many linden trees, were purchased in 1976 by the National Park Service and are now open to the public.
Van Buren generally is less well remembered than other early presidents. He was not a wartime leader like Washington and Lincoln, not a military hero, and lacked a colorful personality like Andrew Jackson. If anything, there has been a sense of negativity surrounding him: His administration presided over the worst economic depression America had yet seen, The Panic of 1837, as well as the forcible removal of American Indians from their homes in the East, leading to the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
His enemies gave him nicknames such as “The Fox of Kinderhook,” and “The Little Magician.” But those who knew him well liked him and were loyal. His supporters included Andrew Jackson, who preceded Van Buren as president, and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who became a bitter critic of Jackson over tariffs and states’ rights, but continued to support Van Buren. Van Buren’s proponents point out that these events were largely out of his control. To his credit, he initiated the independent treasury system and opposed the extension of slavery to new territories.
Van Buren was born to Abraham and Marie Hoes Van Buren in 1782, the final year of the Revolutionary War. His parents, well-off though living modestly, owned a tavern that was Martin’s boyhood home. Tavern life brought him into constant contact with all kinds of people, which no doubt contributed to his noted affability, social agility, and courtliness. His ancestors had come to the Hudson River valley 150 years earlier from Holland. As a young boy, Van Buren spoke Dutch, learning English when he began attending school. Demonstrating an aptitude for debate, Van Buren decided to become a lawyer and began his apprenticeship at age 14, as a clerk to a local attorney. By 20, he had completed his apprenticeship in New York City and was admitted to the state bar.
Van Buren’s law practice in Kinderhook flourished, and he became active in local Democratic-Republican Party (this party was a precursor to today’s Democratic Party) politics. He was elected state senator in 1812 and appointed attorney general of New York the following year. For the next eight years, Van Buren immersed himself in the rough-and-tumble party politics of New York.
Meanwhile, Van Buren had married Hannah Hoes, a distant relative on his mother’s side. They had four sons, the last of whom was born in Albany after the family moved there in 1812. Although their marriage was a happy one, it was short-lived. Hannah died in 1819, when she was 36 years old. The elder two boys were already enrolled in Albany Academy; the younger two were sent to live with Hannah’s sister, Christine. His sons remained in various academies until adulthood, seeing their father mainly on holidays.
Van Buren was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821. During the next seven years, he helped form the Democratic Party. He also managed the campaign of the party’s first presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson, ensuring his sweep into office in 1828. In the same year, Van Buren was elected governor of New York, a post he held only 71 days, until Jackson appointed him Secretary of State. He resigned from that position under political pressure in 1831, but Jackson immediately appointed him ambassador to Great Britain. The Senate refused to confirm his appointment. He became vice president to Jackson in his 1833 reelection and then president in 1837. But all his efforts weren’t enough to help him gain re-election in 1841. Opponent William Henry Harrison took advantage of a fiscal depression to paint Van Buren as an addled, used-up man whose extravagant tastes were in stark opposition to his own man-of-the-people image.
Before his term ended, Van Buren bought a house with 137 acres of land in Kinderhook. Judge Peter Van Ness built the brick Georgian house in 1797, but Van Buren must have known that this property once belonged to his paternal grandmother’s family.
In May 1841, Van Buren moved into the house full-time and immediately set to work improving it. He removed a stairway in the wide center hall, which he then had papered with 51 vividly colored panels imported from France that composed a scene entitled Landscape of the Hunt. The hall became his dining room with luxury set of table, reclining chair, and other furnitures. where he entertained friends and visiting dignitaries. He also added a bathroom where he invited guests to “wash off the impurities of Mammon.” Outside, he planted a large garden, built a greenhouse, installed fruit orchards, and dug a deep well to supply a series of fishponds. His farmhands successfully grew vegetables and tended livestock. Despite his continuing involvement in politics during these years, which included another run for the presidency as a Free-Soil party candidate in 1848, he listed his occupation as “farmer.”
The greatest change to Lindenwald occurred in 1849, when the house was completely remodeled. Van Buren had offered Lindenwald to his youngest son, Smith, if he would live in it and get involved in managing the farm. Smith agreed under the condition that he be allowed to expand and improve the aging house. With his father’s approval, Smith hired Richard Upjohn, an architect known for designing churches (his best known is Trinity Church in New York City). Upjohn returned a design based on the emerging Italianate style, with hints of his earlier Gothic work. Chief among the design elements were a four-story tower, a central gable, attic dormers, and an elaborate porch. The finished house was painted a bright yellow. The elder Van Buren said: “The idea of seeing in life, the changes which my heir would be sure to make after I am gone, amuses me.”
The new plan also called for kitchen stoves, running water, a furnace, and many additional rooms, making Lindenwald quite luxurious. With few exceptions, Van Buren spent the last decade of his life close to home. He died in 1862.
The house passed out of family hands only a year after the president’s death. At various times, it was used as a private residence, a nursing home, and an antiques shop. When the National Park Service acquired it in 1976, it was in poor condition. Park Service conservators spent years restoring the house before it was opened to the public in 1982. The interiors reflect the period between 1850 and 1862, with numerous documented family pieces of furniture, and elegant wallpapers reproduced from original fragments. Van Buren himself would feel quite at home in the restored center hall: His large dining table and carpet have been exactly reproduced.