Monday, September 26, 2011


During 30 years in Dutchess County, I haven't had many occasions to visit Hudson, a small Columbia County city on the river about an hour north of Millbrook. I had lunch there on Sunday, after a morning in nearby Hillsdale writing captions with the photo editor of my upcoming book. After lunch, I took a drive around. Heretofore, when I have thought Hudson, I have thought 19th century skyline, gay antique shops, gay art galleries, gay gentrifiers from New York, and a lot of locals on welfare. Well, of course it's much more than that. The view above is of Warren Street, the main drag that runs from the railroad station on the river bank to the top of town at Route 9. It's lined with an altogether appealing inventory of low rise commercial buildings, many of which were vacant for years before a recent renaissance, which must have been in swing now for about fifteen years.

These houses are on Union Street, which parallels Warren a block to the south. Much of Hudson has a sort of "Hello Dolly" look to it, architecturally anyway. Hudson dodged a bullet recently when a villainous multi-national called St. Lawrence Cement attempted to plonk down on the riverfront a cement plant only slightly smaller than the principality of Liechtenstein. Besides befouling the air with smokestacks taller than the Empire State building and poisoning the river with runoff, this highly automated installation would have added a grand total of only one job to the local economy. Having watched Union Carbide get kicked out of Bhopal, St. Lawrence probably figured defenseless little Hudson might be worth a shot. Some of the locals actually supported this absurd plan, although whether from ignorance or other reasons is unclear. Kick around those transplanted New Yorkers all you will, but without them God only knows what Hudson would look like today.

Hudson is full of places like this appealing little house on Union St.

Interestingly, as you move away from the river, the architecture gets grander. Hudson was chartered in 1785 and pioneered by of all people, whalers from Nantucket and Martha's Vinyard. By 1820 it was the 4th largest city in New York State, and center of a thriving whaling industry. This house on Allen St. speaks to Hudson's mid-19th century prosperity with an architectural accent that's part Greek Revival and part Italianate.

Pa could be around back getting his pitchfork right now, while Ma gives her bun one last twist. This Gothic Revival board and batten house on Allen St. must have been an architectural "dernier cri" when it was built, which I'm guessing was sometime in the late 19th century.

You have to love American Victorian architecture. Whoever designed this little house threw literally everything in the pot.

Engaged dormers, a mansard roof, Italianate brackets under the eaves, a Greek porch with Ionic columns... what did this architect forget? Apparently nothing.

The little house above faces a park presided over by a very fine 1909 Beaux Arts courthouse. I couldn't resist taking a few shots. The City Beautiful Movement of the early 20th century reached up the river and blessed even Hudson with this fine building.

Here's an exterior detail of the courthouse. The building appears to be relatively intact despite modern day accumulations of aluminum replacement doors, handicap entrance ramps, and security barriers. At the beginning of the 20th century Hudson was famous for whores and gambling, its riverfront red light district attracting visiting firemen from far and wide. One imagines the courthouse got a lot of use back then... or, maybe it didn't.

This elaborate late Victorian concoction faces the courthouse on the west.

Here's a detail of the north facade of the house above. Not one, but two Palladian windows, the lower no doubt overlooking an elaborately paneled stairway, enliven this elevation. A happy disregard of symmetry governs the placement of chimney and stair window alike. And who would have thought to put Adam swags under the bracketed eaves? Taken together - and disregarding for the moment that whoever designed this house created a maintenance monster for future generations - the architectural composition is as interesting to the eyes of passersby as it is no doubt endearing to the heart of its owner.

Here's the house next door. Hudson's old house inventory is nothing if not full of variety.

Speaking of which, how about the Egyptian columns on this Allen St. house? If we didn't know better, we'd suspect the owner pirated them from the Luxor in Las Vegas. No doubt there's an interesting story here somewhere.

There's a lot I like about this house, located next door to the Egyptian porch, including its handsome old-fashioned fence (complete with anthemia finials) that appears to be quite new. To my eye, this is a scholarly architectural essay on the Greek Revival done by a local architect in the 1920s. There's just something about it that doesn't look old - at least, not 19th century old. I wonder if I'm right.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Montgomery Place

Among this weekend's mail was an invitation to "Experience the Splendor of the Season" at a benefit cocktail for Montgomery Place in nearby Barrytown, New York. The first time I saw Montgomery Place, which must have been over 25 years ago, it looked like the image above. This was a house as full of treasure as it was of history, and it had (for me anyway) a most appealing veneer of slightly rundown shabbiness that comes of actual use. What educated restoration expert would tolerate for a nanosecond that ad hoc screen porch sitting on top of the piazza? Answer: not one. And yet, this was doubtless a pleasant place to sit - or probably sleep, on hot summer nights. It is just the sort of thing old WASPy aristocrats slap onto family manses, heedless of the effect on architectural purity.

Here's today's restored Montgomery Place from the air, illustrated on the cover of the invitation for the cocktail on October 8th. If I can muster $200 from my beleaguered horse budget, I'll go. Its preservation is certainly a good cause. These old river places are redolent with an almost aromatic atmosphere of a vanished time. Oh, the river views and mountain vistas are in many places still intact, but the original sense of being in a gracious home belonging to sophisticated people and located in the middle of a tractless wilderness is no longer acute in the era of the internet and the Interstate. The original remoteness of a house like Montgomery Place once put a delicious edge on its luxury.

Here's the front of the house today, which is not at all what it looked like when Janet Livingston Montgomery built it in the late 1770s. She took occupancy in 1805 and, in the Francophilic style of haute monde Americans like the Livingstons, named it Chateau de Montgomery. This probably caused some amusement among visiting Frenchmen, as your basic European chateau at the end of the 18th century was a sight grander than Mrs. Montgomery's house. Nor was the building remotely as ornate as it appears in the image above. Its builder died in 1828, leaving it to her brother Edward Livingston, who died in 1836. He calmed the name down, rechristening it Montgomery Place, but it was his widow, Louise, who in 1844 hired the famous Alexander Jackson Davis to tart the place up, with entirely beguiling results.

Here's General Richard Montgomery himself, the namesake of Montgomery Place, killed by a cannon ball on New Year's Eve, 1775, at the battle of Quebec. One hopes he was a man of more substance and, well, grit, than this image would have us believe. My, but he looks vacuous. I am no student of the American revolution, but it is troubling to read of Montgomery's unsuccessful attack on fortified British positions at Quebec, in the middle of a blizzard. It was America's first major defeat in our war of rebellion. Many men died at Quebec, and for some reason Montgomery is remembered as a hero.

Old portraits are not always dependable likenesses, but I suspect the painter of this one captured Janet Montgomery. She looks to me like just the sort of woman who will declare her dead husband a hero, and dare anyone to contradict her. Unfortunately, a reader's comment below has established that this is not Janet Livingston at all, but rather her mother. (Drat! There's always someone who ruins good story!)

The restored interior of Montgomery Place is like... I was going to say "a page" but it's really like an entire issue...of Architectural Digest. The curtains, the antiques, the wallpapers, are all exquisite. It is beyond improbable that the Delafields, they being the last family members to occupy the house, lived in anything quite so well maintained. The views are equally wonderful, and the estate still encompasses over 400 acres of woods, historic gardens, charming outbuildings, and a producing orchard of some scale.

The family sold Montgomery Place in 1986 to an organization known today as Historic Hudson Valley. In the early 1990s, after a multi-million dollar restoration, it was opened to the public.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mrs. White's Houses

This elegant group, photographed in the 1890s, is standing on the steps to a great glazed porch at Elm Court, the Lenox, MA summer home of Mr. & Mrs. William Douglas Sloane. Out of sight to the left is a view of the Berkshire Hills with Stockbridge Bowl - then called Lake Mahkeenac - smack in the center. The relaxed and elegant lady on the left seems the very apotheosis of Gilded Age society. I hope she was as calm and happy as she looks. The woman immediately to the right of her is the lady of the house, Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane, granddaughter of the famous Commodore. Her husband, furniture magnate W.D. Sloane is the man with the white mustaches standing third from right. The portly fellow on the far right is Joseph Hodges Choate, the famous lawyer who was, among other things, one time ambassador to The Court of St. James. Choate and his wife, who I believe is the woman in black standing in the absolute center of the group, had a house in nearby Stockbridge, which makes me think this was probably a lunch party. Choate was as famous for his wit as his legal prowess. Of England's King George, he once observed that "he does not reign, he only sprinkles." Concerning the construction of a fence around the so-called Sedgewick Pie, a family cemetery in Stockbridge, Choate noted that since nobody who was outside of it wanted to get in, and nobody who was in it could get out, there was little point to spend the money.

This view, looking north on Fifth Avenue in New York, was taken at about the same time as the luncheon above. The white chateau in the center, located on the northwest corner of Fifth and 51st St., belongs to Emily's brother, William (Willie) Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife Alva. The brownstone cube to the left of it was actually a double house. Emily and her husband lived with their family in half of it; her sister Margaret Shepard and her husband and family lived in the other half. Their father, William Henry Vanderbilt, lived in the house that is only partly visible at the far left. This stretch of Fifth Avenue was once colloquially known - at least in some quarters - as "Vanderbilt Row" or "Vanderbilt Alley." At one time thirteen family members all lived between here and 58th Street.

Emily Sloane's bid for architectural glory - a subjective term, admittedly, but I'll stick with it - was Elm Court. Would you just look at the size of this place. It grew in increments throughout the 1880s and '90s and right into the early 20th Century. The architects were Peabody and Stearns, a Boston firm less well known today than New York's McKim Mead and White, but once every bit as famous. Big houses like Elm Court were essentially private hotels with a clientele consisting of friends of the owners. A visit to a place like this wasn't free. Generous tips to a large staff were expected, and if your hostess fancied bridge, you might face hefty gambling losses.

Here's what you saw when you drove in to Elm Court - a maintenance monster, agreed, but a gorgeous one. This house when built would have been called a "modernized colonial" for reasons that are a little hard to grasp today. Architects back then were casting about for an authentic American architectural style. They essentially ransacked all the elements of early vernacular American building traditions - gables, gambrel roofs, bay windows, etc., etc. - then put them together in new and unusual combinations. Result (at least in its grandest incarnation): Elm Court

Elm Court couldn't seem to get big enough for the Sloanes. They never stopped renovating the interior even as they added to the footprint. Here's the dining room in its heydey, complete with classical moldings and European tapestries. W.D. Sloane died in 1915 and his widow, with surprising promptness, married a Lenox colony widower and diplomat named Henry White. He died in 1927, but she lasted until 1946, by which time the Lenox world she'd known was already crumbling.

Here's a shot from Dover Publications reprint of "Fifth Avenue From Start to Finish," published in 1911. At that time the white house in the middle of the block belonged to Mrs. Benjamin Thaw. Her late husband had the bad luck to be the half brother of Harry K. Thaw, the sadistic lunatic who murdered Stanford White. Mrs. Thaw was a restless sort, moving frequently between swank addresses in New York and Europe. After she left 854 Fifth, it was purchased by Henry and Emily White.

For a time after Emily White's death, Elm Court operated as a country inn. That didn't last too long, however. The house was closed, then horribly vandalized.

It's hard for me to understand the frenzy of violence that possesses (usually very young) intruders in big old abandoned houses. I remember as a boy taking a pal up to an abandoned mansion near where I grew up. I thought he'd be as excited as I was to discover it. We clambered through a useless plywood barricade on the front door, crossed a debris strewn double height stairwell, and entered a gloomy paneled library that was still pretty intact. I will never forget the evil glee in this kid's voice when he said, "Let's wreck this place!" Amazingly, Elm Court was rescued and almost totally restored by one of Emily White's descendants. It operated for a short time as a sort of uber-inn and conference center, before closing down again. I don't know what's happening to it now.

Mrs. White's Fifth Avenue house has survived - the only one on the 66th to 67th Street block - first as the Yugoslav UN Mission, now as the Serbian Mission.

When I was growing up there was a police kiosk on the sidewalk by the front door. That disappeared around the same time Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It would appear the Serbians are less concerned about aggressive street demonstrations.