Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I've blogged about our vintage Bowling Alley in a previous post, but it deserves to be revisited. It is truly an architectural "tour de force," an authentic Swiss chalet with all the trimmings, reinterpreted as a bowling alley by architect James E. Ware for 19th Century millionaire Chas. F. Dieterich. The first view is from the driveway in front of the house. The next shows the stairs to the terrace above. Image 3 is a detail of the balcony that runs around 2 sides of the second floor. The 4th image shows the house as seen from the terrace. And finally, guess when it was built?
Monday, August 30, 2010
Here's the view looking to the east, with the long twin alleys clearly articulated by the shape of the building. The next shot shows one of the German exhortations to good fun and clean living that are chiseled all over the exterior walls. These have been translated for me a dozen times over the last 28 years; if only I could remember where I stashed the translations. The 3rd shot shows the exterior access (there is no interior stair) to what was originally a 2nd floor billiard room. My landlords keep the building locked, so I must wait until they next appear on the property to get some interior shots. (It's amazingly fab). The 4th image is a long shot looking north from the west lawn (if you follow that). The trees around Daheim make the Rockefeller Center Xmas tree look sapling-like. The last view is a closeup of the balcony visible in the shot above. This provides access at the end of the alleys, presumably for a pin boy.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
I spent some time on google maps yesterday, cruising around Mill Neck, Long Island at low altitude. (How great is google maps?) Conventional wisdom has it that Long Island has been completely ruined by development, but whoever said that obviously hasn't been to Mill Neck. Long Island is on my mind because of my next "Old House" article for the "Millbrook Independent." I'm writing about a charming Greek Reveval style house owned for 50 years by Mabel Brady Garvan. She only used it as a hunting box, because she mostly lived at 740 Park Avenue, and at a big place on the Island called Roslyn House, which she and her husband, Francis P. Garvan bought in 1919 from Stanley Mortimer. The first image is a postcard view of Roslyn House from the era when rich people didn't mind having views of their houses sold in local drug stores. Located just west of the Old Westbury Country Club golf course, the estate was chopped into a zillion lots and the mansion demolished in 1974. Years ago I saw an evocative aerial photo of the Meadow Brook Hounds streaming across the lawn of this place on one of their final hunts, red coated field in hot pursuit, a line of splanches from a new housing development clearly visible in the distance. The other 4 images are of two very grand houses currently for sale in my neighborhood. The 2nd and 3rd are of 18 East 68th St., 36' wide, built in 1905, and supposedly in very good private house condition. It was listed in 2008 for $64 million, and is now reduced to $39 million. The final photos are of 22 East 71st St., a whopping 45' wide, with 21,000 sq. ft. of interior space. This house has brilliant public rooms and an amazing staircase, but has also suffered a lot of institutional alteration. It sold for $19.5M in 2004, recently went back on the market for $75M, and is now down to $59M.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
I really "got into" the Van Rensselaer house in Philadelphia (see the 4 posts following this), perhaps because it was both beautiful and damaged. This may say more about me than about the house. The images above are of Thorndale, a very undamaged house in my hometown of Millbrook, NY. The top image was published in a Poughkeepsie newspaper in 1900. It shows a fashionable Victorian country place whose origins as an upscale farmhouse are still visible. The second image, taken ca. 1910, shows the same house, which has now become a high style example of the Federal (or maybe Georgian) (or maybe Classical) Revival. Whenever an exact architectural label eludes one, tack on the word "Revival" and almost anything will work. A New York architect by the name of A.J. Bodker did the alteration. The same family has lived here for 228 years.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Preservoids and Hysterical Society members - among whose numbers I count myself - refer to this building as the Fell-Van Rensselaer house. Completed in 1901 at the corner of 18th and Walnut, it is the work of the famous Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns. In 1898, Alexander Van Rensselaer had the good sense, and apparently the pedigree, to marry the recently widowed daughter of Anthony Drexel. The former Sara Drexel Fell is said to have paid for the house herself, hence the appelation Fell-Van Rensselaer house. To my eye, it exemplifies everything that is right about "Beaux Arts" houses. It is a beautifully balanced composition, erudite in its detail, gracious in scale and proportion, and totally appropriate to the lives of the people who built it. Besides finance, Mr. Van Rensselaer was a founder and longtime President of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a Board President of Drexel Institute. His wife died in 1929, he followed her in 1933, after which the house remained shut throughout the Depression. In 1942 the estate finally rented it to the Pennsylvania Athetic Club rowing association. No doubt overjoyed to at last get warm bodies in the place, they probably took whatever the club could pay for rent. Penn Athletic's tenancy wasn't long term, however, and the house was soon empty again.
In September of 1974, a photographer named George Eisenman took a series of 10 photos of the Van Rensselaer house for the Historic American Buildings Survey. It looks like he got there in the nick of time, as demolition is clearly in progress. The scale, detail, quality and much of the original layout of the house has not yet been destroyed. That big drawing room overlooks Rittenhouse Square, and one can well imagine the Persian rugs, carved tables, silk shaded lamps, gilt framed pictures and comfortable upholstered pieces that must once have sat beneath that elaborate ceiling. Compare the wall moldings in the third image with the contemporary image in the post below. The hall view was taken on the second floor. That curved railing in the distance overlooks the main hall below; the stair in the foreground rises to an unusual third floor balcony that also overlooks the main hall. There's a HABS image of that too in the post below. The last image shows a small decorated dome that was located just inside the front door. Its destruction seems particularly gratuitous.
Design Research, founded in Cambridge, MA in 1953, billed itself as America's first "lifestyle store." It promoted a fresh, innovative, often Scandinavian aesthetic in everything from furniture to clothing. We first heard of Marimekko thanks to D/R. The firm reached a high water mark in 1974 when founder/architect Ben Thompson rented the old Van Rensselaer mansion on Rittenhouse Square for the then substantial sum of $64,000/year. Old houses like 1801 Walnut St. weren't considered to have much architectural merit in the 1970s. Thompson accordingly tore out every wall, fireplace, railing and molding in the place, and substituted a sort of post-apocalyptic drama for the original Edwardian elegance. The stained and leaded glass dome over the staircase remains, but the staircase beneath it is substantially altered. Note how the marble fireplace in the HABS view of the original main hall is now truncated by the modern staircase. Ghosts of moldings scraped off in the course of alteration are visible in original condition in one of the HABS images in the post above. Design Research went bust at the end of the 1970s - possibly the victim of a curse hurled by some god of architecture. The building now houses the Philadelphia branch of Anthropologie.
One room in this very fine house has survived virtually intact. Located in the northernmost wing, overlooking what was apparently a small walled garden on 18th St., is the original dining room. Something about those swags of plaster fruit over the mantle makes me think "mealtime." This noble chamber is painted white, but the dark ceiling makes me guess there's rare (and probably dark) hardwood paneling under the paint. Maybe walnut? After all it's on Walnut St. The dings and bullet holes of modern commerce obscure neither the superb craftsmanship, nor the excellent proportions. The "tour de force," of course, is the ceiling, a remarkable depiction of the 94 doges of Venice, each in his own gilded frame, separated from his neighbors by electric lights. Venice under the doges would seem an appropriate theme for the dining hall of an early 20th Century American financier. Despite the zany decor and the light colored paint that makes the ceiling look heavy it's a beautiful room that makes the heart ache for the rest of the house.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
We drove through Germantown yesterday which, contrary to expectations, was not exactly Georgetown. Germantown Avenue is pretty beat up all the way to Chestnut Hill which, when you finally get there, is full of WASPy shops, blossoming street planters, and stone Colonial Revival mansions. Actually, I've never seen that great a concentration of free standing, upscale stone houses in one place. We went back up there today via woodsy Wissahickon Avenue, to take a walk in Wissahickon Park. Deep in the woods, a crowd of young Spanish boys was jumping off a high rock into something called the Devil's Pool, while their families bar-b-qued nearby. We zig-zagged back to central city, admiring big houses in Mt.Airy and some unexpectedly nice parts of Germantown. Lunch was at the Reading Terminal Market where a million food vendors and restaurants are clustered on a vast street level concourse underneath the former Reading Railroad train shed. I've begun to notice (OK, belatedly) that not everything is so perfect in Philadelphia. "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs are everywhere, a fair number of shopfronts are empty even close to Rittenhouse Sq., and not every great house is in particularly great shape. The house in the photos above (it's somewhere around Locust and 22nd St.) is a case in point.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
I had an epiphany yesterday while exploring Fairmount Park. Starting in the 1840s the city of Philadelphia began protecting the wooded banks of the Schuylkill River - immediately north of downtown - from the industrial blight and pollution that befell, for example, the shoreline of the East River in New York. Amazingly, Fairmount Park is still dotted with delectable country houses that have overlooked the river here since the 18th Century. I suddenly realized that this charming wooded riverfront - charming even taking into account the highways and the "iffy" public park maintenance - must look today very much like the East River bluffs on Manhattan's Upper East Side looked two centuries ago. Gracie Mansion would fit right in to Fairmount Park. So would Hamilton Grange, for that matter. There are an astonishing number of these old houses too. The first 2 images show my "hands down" favorite, Lemon Hill, built in 1800, and located immediately north of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I love the Palladian window on the entry facade. The 2nd image shows the exterior articulation of two divine oval rooms on the first and second floors that overlook the river. The 3rd image is of Mt. Pleasant, built a bit upriver in 1762 by a rich Scotsman named Macphearson. It was once owned by Benedict Arnold of all people. Image 4 is of Strawberry Mansion, named after an agricultural enterprise of a mid-19th Century owner. The original Georgian house is in the middle and dates from 1790; a judge named Hemphill added the Greek Revival wings. The eastern edge of the park is about the equivalent of 3 city blocks away. On the other side of it are boarded up stores, burnt out row houses, and a set of magnificent gates to the Mt. Vernon Cemetery whose lawns have degenerated into tangled hayfields.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Here's Jazzy on the stairs inside Lemon Hill, a country house on the banks of the Schuylkill River. It was built in the countryside in 1800 and is now located in Fairmount Park, just north of the Art Museum. There is a string of these old houses, miraculously preserved in the park, about which more later. The statue next to John doesn't just look like him, it IS him. It's part of a group of bronzes on the second floor of the National Constitution Center that depict in 3-D a painting of the Continental Congress debating the Declaration of Independence. Years ago, an actor pal told me I could get $100 for being a body model at a studio over in Dumbo. The statue is me as John Dickenson, delegate from Delaware. His hand probably even has my fingerprints.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
I am really getting off on Philadelphia. How about this terrific old house on 20th and Delancey? (The address might be off a block, but I'm close). The building very much has the look of the late 1880s or early 1890s, at least to my eye. It's got heft, scale, and detailing as inventive as it is luxurious. How many decorative elements can you put on a front door design and still make it work? Answer: apparently quite a few. I particularly love the recessed bow window on the side wall. Who in the world even thought that up?