Monday, May 30, 2011

Not really a house

My daughter was married last weekend in Philadelphia at the Racquet Club, a fine Georgian Revival building designed in 1905 by Horace Trumbauer - a gratifyingly imposing venue. I got teary walking my girl down the aisle, kissing her goodbye and shaking the hand of her new husband. Guests and wedding party were billeted both at the Racquet and at the nearby Union League Club, pictured in the vintage view above. Judging from the early skyscraper behind it, I'd date this view from slightly before the First World War.

I've been curious about this fantastical building for years, so jumped at the chance to stay here. The Philadelphia Union League was designed by John Fraser (never heard of him) and purpose built as a club in 1865. It could just as well have been a grand private residence. Its design was inspired by - indeed named after - the French Second Empire (1852-1870), a rocky period of that nation's political past characterized by a despotic emperor (Napoleon III), an oppressed population, and extravagant domestic architecture characterized by, among other things, mansard roofs, quoins on the corners, paired columns, ornate towers, and iron cresting at the roofline. This is the sort of house Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons lived in, one that hurtled downhill as soon as the Addams family moved in. The grander versions of these houses are absolutely huge - inside and out - the more so considering people in the 1860s were just a little over three quarters of our size today.

During the Civil War there were "Union Leagues" all over the country, organizations founded by prominent men in rich urban areas for the purpose of supporting - morally, psychologically and financially - the northern war effort. Philadelphia's Union League is the oldest. The building is still a private club, its vast halls hung with presidential portraits and oil landscapes. Salons like this are reserved for dues paying members. A 1910 annex, also the work of Horace Trumbauer and his chief designer Julian Abele (the first black graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, by the way) houses a dozen or so ornate banqueting rooms and 67 smartly renovated guest rooms open to anyone with a valid credit card.

How about this place? It could just as easily be looming over the Hudson River at Hastings, or hunkered down on Cleveland's Euclid Avenue, ca. 1900. Pretty much everything that hallmarks the Second Empire style is visible on the exterior of this building. A random collection of smaller buildings once occupied the rest of the block until the club's annex replaced them in 1910. That's the back of the annex abutting the original clubhouse on the left.

This view of the Trumbauer addition, a Beaux Arts opus in pale limestone, was taken from the corner of 15th looking east towards Broad. The distant sliver of red at the far left of the building is a portion of the original brick clubhouse on Broad Street. Trumbauer's work is redolent with the air of refinement and restraint, albeit tempered with understated opulence. Certain club members in the past lobbied to rebuild the old clubhouse to match the new, but happily nothing ever came of the plan.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two "old house" stories (1 of 2)

The other day, a friend told me a story about about a man who fell in love with an enormous old house. So besotted was he by the prospect of picking up a palazzo for a proverbial "song" (not the house in the photo above) that he willingly sacrificed the affordable security of northern Westchester for a 30,000 square foot mansion with a mile long driveway and a ten thousand gallon oil tank. One day, my friend decided to pay a visit to his mansion loving pal. While stepping from his car, he spied a lone figure far away on the vast lawn, pushing a 38" lawn mower. At that moment, he knew the big old house lover was doomed.

This is the same house as the one above, but with an enormous addition dating from the 1920s. The house was called Edgewood, built originally for Frederick Jones in the 1890s, purchased and enlarged in 1903 by Harry Harkness Flagler. The image directly above shows the house after the second addition which, from an aesthetic standpoint anyway, was not a complete success. Edgewood might not have been beautiful, but it certainly was imposing. Flagler's father was Standard Oil partner and Florida railroad and hotel tycoon, Henry Morrison Flagler.

This view shows the Millbrook Hunt meeting on the terrace at Edgewood, probably during the mid-1920s. It is a scene enacted to this day - complete with all the period "bells and whistles" - albeit no longer in front of the Flagler house.

Here's the view those luxurious ladies and gentlemen above enjoyed on that morning so many years ago. It's the same view today, and the hunt is in many ways the same hunt too. When Harry Flagler died in the early 1950s, he left Edgewood to his widowed daughter, Mary Flagler Cary. She was a woman with a passion - nay, a fixation - on trees, and was never happy unless planting, pruning and/or moving enormous specimens all over either this or another nearby property. The Cary Institute for Ecosystems Studies, on the other property, was her gift to posterity. Edgewood was her gift to a nephew who wanted it like he wanted a hole in the head - and this in spite of a half million dollar trust established by his late aunt purely for the purpose of defraying the costs of maintenance and taxes. The nephew auctioned off the contents instead, tore the house down, held the land for a decade or so, then gave it to the Millbrook School to sell. Half a million bucks was big money in 1968. Let me see...what would I have done, had I inherited Edgewood and the funds to run it?

Here's a shot of a bricked path running down the north flank of the walled garden adjacent to the mansion. The 1920s were Edgewood's heydey. The estate grew in elaborateness and, not surprisingly, in the process it became a maintenance monster. Flagler liked to "do the thing handsomely," as they used to say - in the community, in his garden and in his private life. The clubhouse of the local Golf and Tennis club, located across the street from the main gate to Edgewood, was originally built for the wedding reception of Flagler's daughter Elizabeth to J. Andrews Harris III, then moved across the street after the reception. I suspect the enormous second addition to the house was built in anticipation of the Harris wedding. They probably needed the guestrooms.

Two "old house" stories (2 of 2)

Here's that same path today, excavated from an untended jungle of brambles and wild honeysuckle.

We're back to the 1920s in this shot of the center of the Flagler garden. One wonders how many gardeners were employed here, not just to maintain, but to design this horticultural tour de force.

The same view today.

This side of the house overlooked the lawn terrace where the hunt met in the image in the prior post. See those steps? A hound is sitting on one of them in the hunt photo. The photographer who took this shot had his back to the distant view of the Catskills. Edgewood's original section, built for Frederick Jones in the 1890s, is clearly discernible on the right; the first addition, dating from Harry Flagler's purchase in 1903, is readily discernible on the left. I like the house this size, more so than after it became so huge.

The same view today. All gone.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Das Alte Haus"

How about these lilacs? These represent about a tenth of what's blooming around the house, lilac-wise. The formal gardens and greenhouses of the past may be long gone, but the lilac bushes are probably grander than ever. The smell, especially on a cool and misty afternoon like today, is divine.

Every May 15th I can put flowers in the porch planters without fear of frost...finally. I haul the wicker seats and sofas away from the wall of the house and have Bill retrieve the cushions from high shelves in the former servant hall. That geranium plant is 25 years old. It would be even bigger had it not blown off the stand last year and broken in half.

Most of my furniture came from Tuxedo Park. I've been sitting on that sofa every summer for 35 years. For the last 29 I've been gazing out at the lawn in front of Daheim.

Here's a portion of the view from the porch. It may not be as manicured as it once was, but it's still lovely, and somehow particularly so on this brooding rainy afternoon.

When Charles F. Dieterich, the builder of this house, had the words "Das Alte Haus," meaning "The Old House," picked out in red and blue and framed above the front door, Daheim was relatively new. By now I guess it really is pretty "Alte." Mr. Dieterich lived here for 38 years; I've lived here for 29, alone nowadays with my cat, a caretaker and a several guests who occasionally occupy far flung guestrooms.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Bathroom (1 of 2)

I was thinking the other day that writing a blog is like keeping a diary and then leaving it on a bus. Who knows who's going to read it or why. I wonder if exhibitionism stems from a similar imperative. Blogs are much more work than you'd think. Am I writing this for myself, or for invisible strangers. And why will 140 of them visit me on one day and only 29 on the next? These are deep thoughts, by John. Anyway, while out on horseback this afternoon and wondering what to write about, I suddenly hit on the idea of my bathroom. There are nine bathrooms at Daheim, and while mine is not the best in the house - that honor goes to a facility adjoining the second master bedroom - it's pretty great.

Here's a closer look at the sink, which we hauled here from Tuxedo Park back in 1982. I found it in the basement of our house on Tower Hill, apparently stored there when that master bathroom was renovated with a boxy vanity and hideous modern swimming pool green tiles. The black thingummies under the sink in this view are electrical tape ties that hold heat tape to the exposed water pipes. Fields of sharp edged white wall and floor tiles - no difference between them - are decorated with blue tiles bearing foliate forms and garlands of flowers in relief.

I love my pedestal sink. It is a work of art.

This is one of the corner brackets supporting - visually, anyway - the medicine cabinet. There were once three mirrored doors on the cabinet but one went missing, I'll bet during the Leary years. Tim Leary and his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD, get it?) used to occupy my house in the 1960s. About ten percent of the dainty carving on the medicine cabinet is missing, but it's so ornate few people notice.

In spite of my obsession for period details, I haven't felt much need to install another high tank toilet to replace one long gone. The facsimile high tanks they sell today, by the way, look only somewhat like the originals. The dark wood panel on the wall above my throne was the mount for the old tank.

My Bathroom (2 of 2)

It is a noble tub. My tub in the city is less than 12" deep; pretty pathetic. This one is almost twice that. OK, if I fill it to the top no one else on this side of the house can count on hot water for at least 40 minutes, but such is the price for being able to truly soak - at least in my house. When we moved here, twenty-nine years ago next month, we found that vintage combination shower head and curtain ring abandoned on an upper floor. We had a plumber connect it to the tub spigot with a flexible metal clad hose

Here's a closeup of the towel bar next to the tub. Maybe it's more correctly a washcloth bar, or a safety bar, since the towels are either hung on hooks or stored in the bottom shelf of the rattan table (see below). You can't really haul yourself out of this tub without holding onto it. The mounts are nickel plated brass and the bar itself is a 2" diameter tube of glass.

The trouble with old ceramic handles - particularly in 122-year-old bathrooms - is that over the years they inevitably either fall off or get dropped by plumbers, caretakers and/or people like myself doing work on the tub. Ergo, they break and get replaced by anything similar we can find. Which is why I appear to have two hot water valves in my bathtub. Heaven only knows how many old faucet handles I've gone through in this house since 1982. The original tub spigot was doubtless more beautiful than the one that's here now. However, the new one has the advantage of a hookup for the shower hose. The fitting leaked, of course, so the plumber wrapped it with electrical tape, which is still there twenty-nine years later. (It works; why bother it?) The black tape on the floor holds heat tape to the exposed water lines connected to the sink on the other side of the room. When I'm working in town on winter weekdays, the btahroom can go below freezing. Very "old house" I think.

Every old house bathroom needs a wicker table. This one has lost a few of its decorative elements, not to mention its original oil cloth cover, but it is still ideal for towel storage and catchall counter space. My former wife and I bought the painted iron lamp at a thrift shop, let's see, that must have been about three or four years before Moses crossed the Red Sea. P.S. I hate overhead light and am strangely accepting of wandering extension cords.

Besides the lamp, is a cut crystal dish we got for a wedding present in 1975. It has been sitting in my various bathrooms - full of nail clippers, safety pins, a nose hair scissor, etc - for over half my life. The oval mirror next to it is a shaving mirror meant to be mounted on the wall. I bought it thirty-or-so years ago from the Tuxedo Park School, an old palace in the Park built by a man named John Innes Blair. When we moved here in 1982 I taped the mounting screws to the bottom of the mounting plate and left it in a high visibility location so I would be sure to get around to installing it. Haven't got to it yet.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

James E. Ware

I'm going to call this the best house in the Village of Millbrook. It's no hilltopper mansion surrounded by a great estate. To the contrary, it sits on a mere two-acre lot on Maple Avenue. If it had been in Frank Capra's 1946 film,"It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart would have lived next door. My hometown of Millbrook, in the heart of Dutchess County, New York, was architect James E. Ware's (1846-1918) oyster. He designed a slew of the afore-mentioned mansions that still surround the village (including the one I live in) and a few nice houses right in the village itself. This one was designed in 1896 for a Brooklyn native named Clement Wintringham who inherited a small fortune, retired at age 35 and settled down in Millbrook.

Here's the house today, looking remarkably unchanged. As a matter of fact, it is remarkably unchanged. The Wintringhams weren't a very lively bunch. She was the vice president of the Dutchess County Women's Bible Society, and he tried to shoot himself in the head in 1910 and missed, not that there was necessarily a connection. In 1919 a fast-living, hard-drinking, fox-hunting, wise-cracking, good-looking couple named Maude and David Sloan bought the place. No doubt life was a lot livelier under the Sloans.

There's a persistent rumor in the village that Maude Sloan won this house in a bridge game. She was a gambler and a good time girl - one of her women pals once dropped in for bridge and drinks and wound up in the bushes passed out behind the wheel. However, it is Maude's house and not her lifestyle that is the reason I've posted these photos. I don't think I've ever seen such a bravura job of exterior shingling.

How great are these eaves and gables? How did they even manage to do it?

And what about this double bay window mounted onto a corner of the house? I've never seen anything like that. The sensuously shingled dual curves above the fenestration, melding into separate side walls at right angles to one another, is virtuoso design work. It must have taken a virtuoso carpenter to build it too. After Maude Sloan's death in the mid-1960s, a parade of unrelated owners occupied the house for almost forty years. It returned to the family in 2000 when Maude's grandson and his wife bought it and retired to Millbrook.