Bound together by books, bread: Kykuit guides connect through virtual reading group

Henry Moore’s Knife Edge in Two Pieces, one of Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite sculptures, is among the artwork that has inspired creative baking by Kykuit guide Kateri Scott-MacDonald.

The guides who regularly share details about architecture, modern art, and the tight-knit Rockefeller family during tours of Kykuit are, like the rest of us, finding ways to cope with being home. Most recently they launched a book club to indulge their love of historic storytelling and to stay in touch.

“Our book club continues to be a success, not only as a literary discussion but also as a network of support,” said Brian Langloss, a guide who would have been at the height of his fourth season at Kykuit right about now, greeting visitors from across the world who make their way to the magnificent estate every season. “Each call we check in to see how everyone is doing, and then get into the reading.”

First up were two short stories, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, an F. Scott Fitzgerald story published in 1920, followed by A White Heron, by Sarah Orne Jewett, published in 1886.

Bernice reminded the guides of the exuberance and wealth of the jazz age and grand venues like the Rockefeller’s home. “The mention of a country club across rolling hills in my mind created the Playhouse and vintage cars in the Coach Barn,” Langloss said. And Heron, he said, “is about solitude, being alone without being lonely, a familiar theme playing out now with quarantines and social distancing.”

About a quarter of the 45 guides chose to join the club, which has since taken up poetry and just dove into Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), to investigate which characters and vistas might have been influenced by the Rockefeller estate. Wharton was friends with architect and interior decorator Ogden Codman, Jr., who designed Kykuit’s interiors. Together they wrote The Decoration of Houses, and it seems that Wharton might have relied on Codman’s input when she created the built world inhabited by the van der Luydens in the Age of Innocence.

“One of the reasons the club works so well for us, and why I think our guides are drawn to our jobs, is that we’re all storytellers,” Langloss said. Their carefully researched and fact-based tours of the Rockefellers’ home, art collection, and gardens include insight into the family’s contributions to politics, business, and philanthropy.

Home-baked bread in the shape of Henry Moore’s Knife Edge in Two Pieces.

Now the guides’ personal and intellectual interactions have moved online to the Zoom video meet-ups every other week. And still, Kykuit finds a way into the conversations. About a month ago, guide Kateri Scott-MacDonald revealed the pumpernickel loaves baked to look like Henry Moore’s Knife Edge in Two Pieces, one of Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite sculptures that sits between the rose garden and golf course. She also showed off the white, unbaked pretzel dough she shaped into Granny’s Knot, Shinkichi Tajiri’s white fiberglass sculpture (1968) between the Coach Barn and the house. On another call, guide Karen Zaslow used a photo from the Kykuit grounds as her customized Zoom background. Even while away from the grounds, the guides find ways to connect and celebrate the site they bring to life every season.

Granny’s Knot, Shinkichi Tajiri, 1968.

Langloss grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi where he developed a love of historic homes, many of which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. When he moved to New York City and then to Tarrytown with his husband, “I knew immediately I wanted a relationship with that house on the hill.” He took a Kykuit tour with Connie Thiel, who shared her insight and wonderful stories, and the rest is history.

“I loved going there every weekend, connecting to my guide family,” Langloss said. “Now we’re being there for each other the best way we can.”