Saturday, October 29, 2011


Compare the image above, being the lawn to the west of Daheim as seen from my bedroom window, to the first photo in the post below. Same lawn, same angle, but what a difference a week makes. I was going to dress up this evening - fake whiskers, bandanna on my head, loud shirt, beach bum shorts - for a Halloween bash at the Mashomack, a club in not-so-far-away Pine Plains. That plan's in the toilet since there's already a foot of snow on the ground. I read in some accounts that we face a future of increasingly frigid winters due to ocean currents altered by global warming.

This is a post about the necklace of estate gates that surrounds little Millbrook. The village was developed in the early years of the Gilded Age as a service center for surrounding estates, and to a great extent it remains so today. We're surrounded not just by gates, but by gates to real estates. I love reading real estate ads about two- and three-acre "estates." I mean, who is kidding whom? You want to talk estates? You need not just a house, but a farm, cottages, serious gardens, acreage in fields and woods, ornamental drives and a gate with presence, and preferably a gateman's lodge attached. The image above is the gate to Thorndale, home of the Thornes of Millbrook, who have occupied the house beyond for almost two centuries.

Here's the gate and gate lodge at Altamont, located on the other side of the village. The original main house was a Victorian pile that went up in the 1880s, burned down in 1929, and was replaced with a restrained Georgian manse in white painted brick. Altamont, which has had a spotty history, is now owned by a low profile financial mogul who has restored house and estate to a level that substantially exceeds the original.

Here's the entrance to Brookside, practically next door to Altamont. This property never exceeded 20-odd acres, but it is so elegantly laid out with fine drives, cottages and stables that it qualifies in my book as a proper estate. Brookside's main house is a roomy stone, stucco and half-timber affair that would be at home in Tuxedo Park. (It's also for sale).

The gate lodge to Thorncrest, pictured above, is now the home of the Dutchess Land Conservancy. More Thornes lived here at one time, on land located just across the Dutchess Turnpike from Thorndale. Thorncrest's main house was pulled down over sixty years ago, a great shame as it was Millbrook's original gentleman's country estate, once grander even than Thorndale. The acreage remains essentially intact, traversed by barely passable roads, the house site buried in underbrush.

The gate and lodge for Sandanona is at the top of Millbrook's main street. The present owners of the old gate lodge have doubled its size, which does not detract from the sense of drama one would have got on entering this place back in the day. The main house was torn down in the 1960s, a bad era for big old houses. Evocative remnants - stone walled drives, garden ruins, and a quite grand secondary residence built for the original owner's son - survive alongside new suburban houses and a condominium complex near the main gate called Millbrook Hollow.

The drive behind these gates leads to a charming old house called Breeze Hill. This driveway was originally part of the Dover branch of the Dutchess Turnpike, which was paved, straightened and slightly relocated in 1926. The relocation presented Breeze Hill's owner at the time, Mrs. Miles Standish, with the opportunity to turn the old roadbed into a new driveway, and to ornament it with fine gates. She was a fussy old lady, we are told, and insisted all the stones be exactly the same color. Local mason Rodrigo Ciferri located an enormous boulder on a nearby farm from which he chiselled every identically colored stone on the posts in this view. The original iron gates seem to have been a casualty of the passing years. The standard on the left has been leaning, Pisa-like, for all thirty of the years that I've been in Millbrook.

The big house at Edgewood, owned for many years by Harry Harkness Flagler, son of Rockefeller partner Henry Morrison Flagler, was also a victim of the 1960s. The property itself, however, survives in the hands of just two owners, each of whom owns approximately half. The sweeping drive to the house site is still intact, still well maintained and singularly impressive. One owner lives in a Frenchified 1980s pavilion on the west side of the original estate; the other lives in a cleverly converted garage on the east. An immense walled garden survives, evocative of another time.

Of the eight gates in this post, five still guard grand surviving estates. The grandest of these is probably Daheim, located immediately north of the village. My house, the original main house at Daheim and the subject of many posts below, lies about three quarters of a mile beyond this gatehouse. To pass through the portcullis, cross the artificial lake beyond via a fine stone bridge, then penetrate ever deeper along maple lined drives is to truly enter another world. This is the true purpose of a country estate, to transport one to a more perfect world. Alas, the Daheim gatehouse is so prominent my landlords elect to keep it closed lest we be besieged by tourists.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Golden Moment

When I woke up this morning, I looked out at treetops gilded with beautiful golden early morning light, and felt lucky to be alive.

The moment passed quickly, but for an instant the drive towards the gatehouse was heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Checking Up

Last February, searching for something esoteric to blog about, I hit on big old free standing houses still extant on crowded Manhattan. Why settle for boring Gracie Mansion, thought I, when the exotic James A. Bailey house - as in "the Greatest Show on Earth!" - was still standing on 150th St. and St. Nicholas Place. Designed by the totally unknown (at least to me) Samuel B. Reed in 1888, the Bailey house speaks to a once ubiquitous architectural aesthetic that has been practically wiped off the face of America's cities. Be honest, it looks like a funeral home, right? That's because so many of these old piles survived as exactly that - including this one. Then it caught fire in 2000.

The fire wasn't catastrophic, but the fire department broke windows and probably compromised the roof. All you need is a pinhole in the shingles to bring down a mansion, and by 2007 interior water damage was becoming substantial. The owners belatedly put it on the market for an ambitious $10 million. It sold 2 years later for $1.4 million - still big money for what most of us would call a white elephant. Having not been back since last winter, I decided to head uptown to see what's been happening.

Here's what it looked like last week - clearly a work in progress, but you may note that there has been a first class restoration of the corner conical tower.

Here's a closeup of the roof. I see typical Victorian design patterns plus copper valleys, intricate cresting, and an excellent period finial. This costs bucks. After I snapped these photos, I noticed an elderly Oriental lady - she could have either been an amah or a billionairess - pulling weeds out front. I crossed the street just as she was joined by a younger Asian woman, who smilingly confirmed that the house was again a private residence. The genteel reticence that has cursed me throughout my life forbade me from asking probing questions - even though I was dying to know everything about her and what she and the rest of them were doing.

The next three interior shots were taken after the fire and before the sale.

If roof leaks were doing this to the main floor, one wonders what it looked like above.

This kind of house is not everybody's ideal but it is, in its way, an architectural tour de force that evokes an era. Bailey was a self-made man who built a showy house in a smart new neighborhood full of arrivistes like himself. Interestingly, almost as soon as he finished the house, apartment buildings began to invade the neighborhood, prompting his evacuation in 1904 to Mt. Vernon.

I love this old photo, looking north on St. Nicholas Place, taken in its heydey, ca. 1895. The tower on the Bailey house is clearly visible a little to the left of center. What I found as interesting as the Bailey house itself, was the wholly unexpected survival of a small group of neighboring houses. Note the high 1880s manse immediately to the right of Bailey's, located on the southeast corner of 150th and St. Nicholas Place. It's also still with us.

Here's what that house on the southeast corner looked like last week. The unusual hipped gable overlooking the street survives - barely - in spite of a lot of cheap repairs.

I've learned in my life that as far as old houses go, there is nothing that can't be fixed - if you have enough money. Unfortunately, not everybody does, to which these "repairs" so eloquently testify.

The Bailey house is such an overshadowing presence on the corner that it's easy to overlook what's immediately to the north.

Probably built as one big house - at least, I think so - this building has been divided into two residences. Sandwiched between drab early twentieth century apartment blocks to the north and architectural fireworks on the south, most people don't even see it.

Here's a closer view of the southern half. That wild Russian dome is clearly visible in the vintage street view above.

I'm pretty sure that first floor window, the one with the suspicious infill under the sash, was once the front door. Today's double house has two separate entrances. I'm dying to know what the interiors of these places look like.

Here's the northern house. Cute, no? Even has its own driveway.

There are only two houses on West 150th Street between St. Nicholas Place and Edgecombe Avenue: the Bailey house, and that of Nicholas Benziger, who was, according to the plaque out front, a purveyor of religious books. Built in 1890, the Benziger house spoke exactly to Bailey's (soon to be dashed) hopes for the neighborhood. Today it is owned by the city and operated as a permanent residence for homeless people, who I guess aren't homeless any more.

Decades would pass before Harlem Heights' apartment house invasion reached the fevered peak that Bailey feared, but eventually it did.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Tennis House

Once upon a time, there used to be a tennis court on the lawn in front of Daheim. Frankly, from an aesthetic point of view, this was a pretty loony place to put it. However, there it sat, spang in the middle of the view, surrounded by statues and boxed trees and flower-lined graveled paths, none of which was particularly enhanced by its presence. Then came many (many) years of desolation and lack of maintenance, during which the lawns around the court - indeed, around the whole place - turned into fields. Those fields crept across the old clay court obscuring it completely, and by the time I arrived in 1981 the tennis court had vanished under a lawn. What hadn't vanished was a charming, if very down at heel, tennis pavilion.

Here's a glimpse of Daheim from the porch of the tennis house, giving a sense of the buildings' relationship to one another.

In the 1960s, Tim Leary's hippies rechristened it the "meditation house," although I doubt much clear thinking went on here. By the time I arrived, the windows were mostly broken out, the roof leaked like a sieve, and the woodwork was gray with water damage. My landlords put a quick budget roof on the place, I scrubbed down the oak paneling with linseed oil and turpentine, had the windows reglazed, and turned it into a writing house. I wrote "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age" at this desk.

Here's the view in the other direction. I've never dared to actually light a fire in that fireplace. The chimney is surrounded by the huge limbs of towering evergreens and God only knows what shy fur bearing creatures of the forest live in the flue.

All the stained glass panels were smashed with the exception of this one. Not sure what cricket bats had to do with tennis, but they are a decorative motif. Back in the day, the tennis house would have provided storage for racquets and nets, cushions for outdoor seating, a marble basin (still in the closet) for washing up, and a place to sit inside and maybe even change.

Here's a detail of the ceiling. I haven't used the tennis house in almost twenty years, but every few months I have Antonia trek across the lawn - actually, she drives her Jeep across the lawn - and gives it a thorough cleaning. I have a book project I've been thinking about for years and since I've resigned from writing "Old House" articles for the Millbrook Independent, I think I'm going to start writing it out here.

Daheim was the subject of many postcard views in the early twentieth century. This framed collection is by the door.

This detail shows the door hardware, which was originally painted shiney black. The oxidized surface is now covered with clear varnish.

Immediately to the south of the tennis house is this stair which descends from the tennis lawn to a walled orchard below. The bulging stonework, sadly, has been like that for years.

Here's the other side of the building, seen from the walled orchard below.

The gable ends were once elaborately painted, but not many traces remain.

The orchard itself was once a hugely elaborate millionaire's garden, with an extensive range of greenhouses facing the tennis house across two acres of closely cultivated flowers and vegetables. Those two acres today are just a lawn, planted with fruit trees and surrounded with an immense palisade of century old evergreens.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Daheim Barns

Here are the Daheim barns, seen from the air in 1982. Twenty-five years after I snapped this picture from a friend's plane, a catastrophic fire destroyed 60% of the complex. A remarkable reconstruction project has ensued. It was the subject of a luncheon lecture delivered today by yours truly to 300 guests at the 20th annual Dutchess Land Conservancy's Patrons' Lunch, held at the Barns. The centerpiece of the project is a facsimile of the ornate main barn, constructed within the compromised stone walls of the original.

Here's a contemporary view of the barns from earth. Like the main house, Daheim's barns are so complicated you don't notice the new metal roofed equipment shed (light green roof on the left) that replaces the grand old hay barn. When built during the first decade of the twentieth century, this farm was a model dairy. For the last half century it's seen a lot of hard use as a beef cattle operation'

This is the roof of the molasses barn, taken before the fire. Admittedly kicked around for years, it was still essentially intact.

The barn complex is "U-shaped." The big barn - or corn barn, or feed barn, depending on who's describing it - is at the bottom of the "U," flanked by the molasses barn on one side and a small stable on the other. The arms of the "U" are formed by a cattle barn on one side and a new equipment shed (formerly a hay barn) on the other. Each arm ends with the old dairyman's cottage on one side, and the original dairy office on the other. The image above is a detail of the dairyman's cottage.

This is the old hay barn, the farm workers' dormitory and dairyman's cottage at the far right, seen before the fire. The hay barn was completely destroyed, the roof of the dormitory burned off, and the cottage was spared.

Here was the scene at Daheim on the night of November 15, 2007. It was the largest fire in the history of Dutchess County - 8 fire companies responded; 80 firemen struggled until dawn the next day to control it. They managed to save the cow barn, the dairy office, the dairyman's cottage and part of the dormitory.

The next morning it looked like Warsaw or Berlin after the Second World War. Those white clumps on the ground are the remains of fire retarding foam. Still smoldering hay bales had to be hauled away and spread out on a nearby burn site. The heart of the fire was 350 tons of recently delivered corn that burned with a white hot intensity - and continued to burn for another ten days.

When this ghostly image was taken, the corn and hay were still smoldering.

The barns on this estate have always been part of a working farm and there was no question that something would be reconstructed. The new equipment shed went up rapidly. There was talk of replacing the big barn with something similarly functional. Instead, my landlords have built an elaborate facsimile of the original. The image above shows a new poured concrete foundation and steel beams being constructed within the old walls. That's American-made steel, by the way, from Benson Steel in Saugerties, New York.

A local lumber firm, J & J Lumber, has to date cut 57,000 board feet of lumber for the project. J & J couldn't cut anything longer than 16 feet, which is why the portable sawmill in the image was purpose bought. A hundred a thirty spruce trees, planted a century ago on the property, have provided all needed lumber.

The big barn's original floor was made of wood. The new one is constructed of 68 "spancrete" slabs, each 4' x 18'. Spancrete is a sort of cinderblock on steroids, used frequently in parking garages. Here's one being hoisted into the sky.

And here it is being fitted onto the new floor.

The roof trusses are tied to vertical steel beams anchored in poured concrete. There is no weight on the original stone walls.

Here is the restored interior of the big barn, notable for its magnificent system of embellished trusses. This is surely one of the great interior spaces in Dutchess County. It might have been lost forever, but here it is, intact for generations to come.

Here's detail of the new sliding barn doors. Steel verticals visible between wooden wall panels support the new roof. When the doors are closed, the unfinished interior of the original stone envelope is visible.

Even the scrolled rafter ends have been reproduced in this reconstruction. Although not yet mounted on the roof, replicas of two louvered lanterns complete with over-scaled copper finials, were on view at today's luncheon.

And here they are, poised for positioning on the new roof. The tops of the finials are removable for installation. Beneath each is an iron "eye" which the dangling "hook" on the crane in the background will link under, then haul the cupola to the ridgepole. Once the hook is disengaged, a worker will reattach the top of each finial. Although it's unlikely any of us on the estate today will be around to see it, in thirty years those copper finials will have turned a heavenly green.