We visit a few sites that are always open to the public, but mainly we focus on places that most people never get to see. We meet with owners, architects and designers, contractors and restoration experts —including one whose specialties extend from lime plaster to pizza.
The first night, before our get-acquainted dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, our tour leader, Thomas Hayes, has arranged for us to meet with John Winthrop (“Wint”) Aldrich, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation for New York State. A member of the tenth generation of his family to own land in the area, he helped establish the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District, which extends 20 miles along the River north from Hyde Park.
Wint tells us about the Van Hoesen House in Claverick, intact but derelict, in a location that is now a trailer park. We hear the saga of the nearly forgotten Plumb-Bronson House by Alexander Jackson Davis, located on what are now the grounds of a New York State Correctional Facility; we don’t realize it yet, but this site will figure importantly in our trip. Wint shows us pictures of area churches, clubs, monuments—even a ship, the SS Columbia, now docked in Detroit.
This is our first glimpse into the history of the region, its aesthetic heritage, and the vital work being done—and urgently needing to be done— in its ongoing restoration and preservation.
Our first stop is the Charles McKim-designed Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park (1895), a little bit of Gilded Age Newport on the Hudson. While not as opulent as some of the grandest Vanderbilt country houses, these palatial interiors still have the grandeur of the Italian Renaissance. This house also has the distinction of being only one of three McKim Mead and White houses with its original furnishings. They are by designers Stanford White, Ogden Codman, Jr., and George Glaenzer.
Long before the Vanderbilts ever arrived, the romantic landscape at Hyde Park had already earned renown for its beauty. Previous owners had established ornamental flower gardens, and the influential Belgian landscape architect Andre Parmentier (1780-1830) had created one of the nation’s first expansive romantic landscape gardens here.
At the urging of an influential neighbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 212 acre property became A National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service. How interesting, to see park rangers, in Smokey Bear hats, talking about classical architectural details. As we stroll the grounds and glimpse the once-spectacular interior spaces, we can see there is a lot of work to be done here.
Next, we visit the Mills Mansion, a few miles away in Staatsburgh. A Stanford White design (1894-6), the house incorporates much of a pre-existing Greek Revival house already on the site, with the addition of two large wings and an Ionic portico on the entrance front. With its oak paneled walls, ceiling and staircase, the L-shaped living hall at the entrance has a more restrained feeling than the marble entrance of the Vanderbilt Mansion.
White retained the Paris based Jules Allard to design the dining room with its Flemish tapestries, marble walls, and late-eighteenth century reproductions of eighteenth century French furniture. The library is more English in style with gilt and oak paneling. Many of the original furnishings are still here: family portraits, tea sets, extravagant fabrics in various states of repair. We get a sense of the Old Money Ruth Livingston married to the New Money Ogden Mills, whose father had made a fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849. We are told that this house was the inspiration for the great Hudson River country house described by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth. We can see how.
As with the Vanderbilt Mansion, the siting of Staatsburgh is spectacular, facing the Hudson and the Catskill mountains to the west, across a vast sweeping lawn. It is a little disappointing, however, to see the decay of the façade. Originally white stucco, it was later treated with a grey gunite finish which has now been painstakingly removed. Decaying cornices and precast decorative elements are being restored, and the entire exterior is in the process of being faced with white stucco, as it was originally.
In 1938 the house passed from the family to the State of New York Office of Parks, with support from The Friends of Mills Mansion, established in 1988. It will require many friends indeed to restore this property to anything close to its Gilded Age magnificence.
And now for something completely different: Sneaker’s Gap in Barrytown
(1989), a modern day work in progress, inspired by early Greek Revival designs.
Geoffrey B. Carter, entirely self-taught,
began construction of this house in 1989, using only construction
techniques of the early 1800’s, with no synthetic building materials.
We visit the basement where Geoffrey shows us how he has been milling all the trimwork for the deceptively spacious, three-story interior. He and his young family have been living on the third floor, which is mostly finished, while the second and first floors and stairway are in various states of completion. Stephen Falatko, AIA, has helped with design of the floor plans, while friends have volunteered on weekends to do such chores as hauling fieldstone and hand-mixing concrete for foundation walls.
Next we come to what I have expected to be the
highlight of our trip: Edgewater (1820).
This past summer, Michael Dwyer gave a wonderful talk at the ICA & CA about
designing the guest house here. It made me want to sign up for this trip.
Edgewater’s estate manager, Arthur Carlson,
greets us as we begin our tour at that guest house, an exquisite gem of a building. It is a Greek
temple with simply one large room in the front, and a small kitchen and bath
off a central hallway to the back.
Strolling toward the main house, we pass a
magnificent series of gardens to the east, with the shimmering waters of the
Hudson a few yards away to the west. Our
first glimpse of the main house is the A.J. Davis-designed library addition
which was added in 1854. We continue on to a formal, yet inviting courtyard,
and the understated entrance, up a few stairs to a porch.
As we enter the house, we are greeted by Richard Jenrette himself, radiating the genuine joy he gets from sharing this place with others.
For the next hour or so, we are free to roam,
through literally every room in the house, taking pictures, asking questions,
getting our autographed copies of Mr. Jenrette’s Adventures with Old Houses.
Everywhere we look there is a perfect vista to the river, or a vignette of
exquisite Duncan Phyfe antiques.
The public rooms on the main floor are on a formal, north-south axis. The elegant but understated private rooms upstairs flow comfortably from one to another. In the basement, herringbone patterned bricks, laid in sand, extend throughout the clean-lined kitchen and eating area, into a garage area, framed by two free standing Greek columns. On the third floor there is a beautifully designed, meticulously cataloged 10,000-volume library.
Impeccable is the word. Everything at Edgewater seems perfect, but very comfortable as well. It has exceeded all expectations.
Our final adventure for the afternoon is Astor Courts (1902-4) in Rhinebeck, on
50 acres overlooking the Hudson River. Just a few days before our trip, it has
been written up in the real estate section of The Wall Street Journal.
Asking price: $12 million. John Jacob Astor IV originally commissioned this as a
sporting pavilion with guest bedrooms, as part of his 2,800 acre Ferncliff
Estate. It is a Stanford White design with indoor clay tennis court, and a
white marble indoor swimming pool, reportedly the first ever built for
Brooke Astor, who had lived here for a while, gave the estate to the Catholic Church in 1964. It passed into private ownership in the early 1980’s with the current owners, Arther Seelbinder and his wife, Kathleen Hammer, buying it in 2005. Sam White, great-grandson of the original architect, has worked with them on the restoration.
We enter the vast main living area: 15,000 square
feet with elaborate ceilings and molding, but somehow it feels homey. At a
reception in the foyer of the family living spaces, we hear stories of the
regrets, and, ultimately, deep pleasure in not just bringing this place back—but, indeed, taking it beyond what it originally
was, to a warm, welcoming, eminently livable home.