Monday, December 26, 2011

Three Random Houses

I have a friend who, a few years back, was sufficiently exercised at the world to start a website he called He then proceeded to get everything that bugged him out of his system online, after which a period of intellectual languishing ensued. Now rant is again going strong. Recently I have discovered myself ranting a bit on Big Old Houses. I guess in the context of the Universe, it doesn't matter that much if people muck up the top floors of old houses, or paint the stonework, or make any of the myriad architectural blunders on which I've fixated of late. I keep a file on the third floor of Daheim that's packed with miscellaneous print material picked up over the years, that pertains to big old houses that have caught my imagination. I dredged through it between Xmas doings this weekend - P.S. Xmas day was my 66th birthday - and came upon some old friends.

The very grand house in the aerial photo above is called Salutations, located on its own 60-or-so acre island, connected by causeway to woodsy suburbs north of the small Long Island city of Glen Cove, NY.

I wouldn't call this my absolute favorite style of house, but it's certainly grand. And we like grand. The architect was Roger H. Bullard, about whom I know very little. The client was Junius Spencer Morgan III, son of J.P.Morgan Jr, who in turn was the son of the great financier J.P.Morgan. In 1928, Morgan III built the house on an island adjacent to his father's sort-of island. The latter was a picturesque bulge of land that is almost, but not quite, surrounded by water. The paternal island is now coated with suburban houses which, however nice, will never be nice enough to excuse the destruction of the magnificent Georgian mansion and grounds they replace. But...I'm ranting.

Morgan III, who was, among other things, a director of Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., died in 1960. His widow survived him by many years, although seemingly not all of them were spent in this house. In the late 1970s, a glamorous Texan named John S. Samuels burst onto the New York social scene with pockets full of cash and an elevated sense of cultural mission. Within a very few years, by dint of strategic donations, he had become chairman of the City Center, the City Opera, the City Ballet and the Vivien Beaumont Theatre. Samuels was the eminence grise behind something called the "Artistic Directorate" that aspired to multiple productions in the performing arts. It included luminaries like Woody Allen an Edward Albee. Unfortunately, by the early 1980s Samuels' businesses had crashed and he was ducking the law. For a short while, he occupied Salutations, but it's not clear that he ever owned it. When Mrs. Morgan died in 1993, it was her estate that sold the property to the present owner. It's private and intact today.

Here's Crossroads, the Old Westbury, Long Island estate of William Russell Grace Jr., a director of W.R. Grace & Co, Vice President of Ingersoll-Rand, grandson of a two-time New York City mayor of the same name, and all around glamorous, polo-playing, Long Island socialite.

The house was designed by James O'Connor and built in 1919 in the midst of what was then Long Island fox hunting country. It is a perfectly enormous place, notable for its immense indoor tennis court and a similarly gigantic ballroom which, aesthetically anyway, owes more to an English pub than a czarist palace.

Here's the tennis court, which I believe is still intact. Whether it's used or not, I cannot say.

When I went through this house, now many years ago, it had been unoccupied for years and didn't look at all as appealing as these photos. In the 1930s and '40s the Long Island squireocracy managed to thwart William Moses' plan to run the Northern State Parkway through the middle of their estates. However, they were either less focused, less powerful, or their number had simply diminished by the time Moses planned the Long Island Expressway. Today all eight lanes of it run along the southern border of the former Grace estate. When you're on the property, you can't see the highway, but you sure can hear it. The last time I drove by the gate, the shrubs and lawn around it were looking a little shaggy. The property was intact as recently as the late 1960s - complete with quarter mile race track. The house today stands on 8 acres.

Years ago I had a real estate client who worked for an outfit whose business was, among other things, auctioning houses. In the depths of today's foreclosure crisis, we hear about house auctions all the time. Twenty years ago, I'd never heard of such a thing. There was to be a final auction of an apparently unsaleable estate - at least, all other efforts had failed - located in the hinterlands of upstate Delaware County, NY, near the town of Delhi, and my client invited me. I'd never been to Delaware County, which turned out to be a world of big open spaces, muscular rolling hills, and no zoning.

The estate was called Aknusti which, according to one amusing although probably unreliable account, means "expensive proposition" in some Indian language. It was designed in 1912 (a vintage year for big old houses) by Walker & Gillette (a top drawer firm) for Robert Livingston Gerry, son of Elbridge T. Gerry. That name, incidentally, is pronounced with a hard "G" and sounds like "GARY." I recognized the name immediately since Gerry "pere" was not only a Gilded Age commodore of the New York Yacht Club but also owner of a famous Manhattan mansion that stood on the site of today's Pierre Hotel. A distinguished ancestor, also named Elbridge T. Gerry, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and fifth Vice President of the United States. Commodore Gerry's son Robert's Aknusti stable sent thoroughbreds to Saratoga, Belmont and even the Kentucky Derby. Robert's brother-in-law was New York Governor Averell Harriman.


In 1953, Aknusti was gutted by fire. The exterior reconstruction was disappointing to say the least. Yes, the columned porch in the image above occupies the same position as the porch in the vintage image above it. Aknusti's reconstructed interior was equally disappointing, as well as being just plain weird. The house I saw on the day of the auction contained a collection of banal rooms with not much more style than a suburban subdivision house. Those interiors, however, occupied only half of the original main block. The other half was a yawning shell, still scorched, completely demolished but totally unfinished, rising to a height of two and a half floors and lit by staring windows.

There was a tent on the lawn on auction day, trays of champagne, and an atmosphere of anticipation, However, no bidder topped the reserve and Aknusti didn't sell. Eventually an investor group bought it and announced plans to transform it into an elite resort called Broadlands. As far as I know that never happened. I'm not sure what's going on there now.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Here's a type of old house that happily has not vanished from our world. Variations abound in Harlem, inhabit great swaths of Brooklyn, and are found in abundance in many old American and English cities. I like this one for several reasons: 1) It's on a corner (70th and Lexington) in a neighborhood with very few surviving corner houses (this corner actually has one on all four points); 2) Despite the street level store conversions and the two bay addition on the left, it is remarkably intact (it brims with mid-Victorian gravitas); and 3) It was originally the end house in a row of otherwise identical late 1860s spec brownstones, and constitutes a wonderful contrast to the early twentieth century neo-Jacobean renovation next door, a house whose facade probably once looked exactly like it.

Here's another corner spec house from the same period, this time located on Madison and 67th Street. Basically, the same things were done here as on 70th, namely installation of street level stores and construction of an addition in the back. But hoo boy, talk about a heavy hand. You know, people just shouldn't paint stone. I guess brick is OK sometimes, but painted stone always winds up looking shabby - and not just after it weathers. For years some benighted decision makers at the Pierre Hotel have OK'd painting the limestone walls on the hotel's lower floors. If they think it looks good - even when it's fresh - they're extremely wrong. It looks like a cheap shortcut which, of course, is exactly what it is. I remember years ago the Metropolitan Club was painted too. Stripping it off and restoring the marble facades contributed in no small way to the club's social and financial renaissance.

Here's 67th and Madison from the side, showing the addition quite clearly. Even the hugest mansions had a little room in the back. This particular house had a reasonably sized back yard whose frontage on the side street made an income producing addition irresistible. The big problem here, aside from the ill advised removal of the cornice, is the paint job.

Lo and behold, look what's happening now. The building is swathed in scaffold and netting, beneath which the paint has been stripped and the stonework carefully restored. The bricks on the addition don't match the originals very well, an instance where painting is acceptable.

Here's a closeup of the view above, as much a testament to Photoshop as the work itself. When I snapped this picture, the black netting virtually obscured what was beneath it. Not now. (Insert silly smiley face here)

Here's the house from the front. Photoshop or no, it's almost impossible to see what's going on.

What's going on is the reconstruction of the original window surrounds. These would have been made of brownstone when the house was new. Now they're made of molded stucco painted brown, which will be virtually indistinguishable from the original. Edith Wharton once remarked, on the subject of intricate papier-mache interior cornice moldings, that as long as they looked like plaster, they were fine.

This house is across the street, on the northeast corner of the intersection of 67th and Madison. I don't quite understand what's going on, since this exterior was recently restored, the scaffolding removed, and now it's back up again. What they did here is precisely what's going on beneath the netting on the other side of the street - which I hope will include re-installation of a roof line cornice.

Here's a closeup of the image above. Isn't that little draped shield atop the oriel window a charming detail.

Replacing missing architectural window surrounds - shaved off either as part of ignorant alterations or in lieu of expensive maintenance - makes a huge difference in the appearance of a vintage building. Here's another corner house, this time at Madison and 62nd, purchased and renovated a few years ago as an annex to the Hermes store across the street. When first completed, Hermes elected not to replace window surrounds that had been removed many years earlier. Despite the considerable sum spent on the alteration, the house looked bad. To their credit, Hermes immediately put the scaffold back up and finished the job correctly.

The Hermes house was also part of a spec row, built in the 1870s judging from the fashionable Eastlake motifs incised into the stone. Hermes replicated the surrounds and their decoration using surviving details on the adjoining houses as a template.

Speaking of window surrounds, here we are back on Lex and 70th, looking at a house without any. The commercial street level alteration is typically uninspired; the back yard extension rises only one floor; and someone along the way has shaved off the window surrounds. I'll bet somebody else then decided to paint "decorative" (yeah, right) black borders around the naked windows. Years ago, I bought a house on West 81st St. from a nice old lady who'd run it for years as a rooming house. When I asked what had become of all the Victorian mantlepieces - alas, not a one had survived - she told me she'd pulled them all out and thrown them away because people only wanted "modern."

OK, this is a bit of a non sequitur, but while concentrating on Madison and 67th St., I came across this vintage image - taken in the late 1940s, if that is indeed a '45 Chrysler in the foreground - of Peck and Peck, the chic women's store that went bust in the 1970s. What a grand old mansion it's in, located on the southwest corner of the intersection. I've always wondered what used to be there, because what's there now is....

...this horrible building, truly a seven-story basement above ground. There's another of these on the next block up, just as intrusive, just as destructive to the texture of the neighborhood. These buildings predate the establishment of the Upper East Side Historic District and this one, anyway, constitutes eloquent justification for landmark law.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More ghosts

This is Marble Collegiate Church, located on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th St. Marble Collegiate was built on this corner in 1851, when this was Manhattan's newest chic neighborhood and New York society was busy colonizing it. I'd say this photo was taken around 1900, my main clue being the horseless carriage sitting on the left side of the image on 29th Street. This stretch of Fifth Avenue, together with the Madison Square district immediately to the south, had by this time been transformed from a quiet neighborhood of elite private houses, to a fashionable district of swank hotels and expensive shops. There's a big difference between the two. Plenty of nice houses remained, but they were now interspersed with office buildings and hotels, and in some cases owned by rooming house operators and high class madams. P.S. Don't you love the ivy on the church walls? People don't let it grow all over buildings any more, which I think is a mistake - aesthetically anyway.

One of those afore-mentioned swank hotels was the Holland House, located next door to Marble Collegiate on 30th Street and Fifth Avenue. My own New York City apartment is located in a modern day neighborhood that's very much like this one used to be. On my block, East 63rd between Madison and Park, are ritzy private houses, a handful of brutally chopped up brownstones, my own modest 6-story self-service elevator apartment building, a drop dead chic restaurant called Bilboquet and a hotel called the Lowell which literally oozes low profile chic. The difference between East 63rd St and East 29th St. is the Upper East Side Historic District which, we assume, will preserve it from the tasteless demolitions and alterations that have afflicted so much of Manhattan to the south.

Here's another view of the Holland House, taken on what I'm betting was a busy Saturday morning. That white awning extending from the lobby entrance indicates some sort of fancy function going on, probably a wedding reception. This building had beautiful lobbies and function rooms. Sometimes when I look at old photos of busy streets, I imagine the people who will one day see photos of New York streets taken in my time, very possibly with yours truly unconsciously in the center foreground. See that guy in the hat, standing on the corner with his hands behind his back? That could be me. I even have a hat like that. Like the others on the sidewalk he's looking at the elegant four-in-hand coach that's clattering up the avenue. It's being driven by some socialite athlete in a dove gray top hat and leather apron. Its top is practically spilling over with fashionable folk. Public coaching was a favorite millionaire's sport back then. Col. DeLancey Kane ran a regular service - albeit one restricted to an exclusive group of society types - between the Brunswick Hotel on Fifth and 26th Street and the then semi-rural suburb of Pelham. It was one of fashion's arcane dicta that swell passengers on a four-in-hand should ride on the roof. Only servants (if any) rode inside the coach. The New York Coaching Club was an elite group, if for no other reason than the astronomical cost of keeping a coach, horses, grooms, stabling and postilions. The Coaching Club still exists today, although its members no longer tool up Fifth Avenue or around the Central Park.

In July of 1876, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published the following amusing description of a coaching excursion.

Here's Marble Collegiate today, still standing but without the ivy. The building is faced with Tuckahoe marble, hence the name. It was originally a colloquial nickname but became institutionalized over time. Interesting tidbit: Marble Collegiate's senior minister between 1932 and 1984 was the famous Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. And in case you forgot precisely why he was famous, it's because he was the man who, among other things, wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking."

The yellow ribbons that hang on the church's fence commemorate thousands of American military who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are people's children, children just like yours and mine. To walk along the avenue in front of the church, and continue around the corner onto 29th Street, looking at the thousands of cards and ribbons provokes considerable emotion - from grief at the loss, to frustration over one's individual helplessness in the face of war and politics, to anger over neo-conservatism and its unrepentent proponents.

The Holland House today is an office building, deprived of its original porch, and topped with a new tier of offices on the roof. A few years back the owners replaced a ghastly 1960s front door alteration - you know the look, slabs of awful polished granite, aluminum doors, utter architectural disconnection from the rest of the place - with a new front door. Far simpler than the original, perhaps, but a quantum leap in the right direction. On the far right of this frame, almost obscured by the tree, you can just make out an old brick building.

Here it is, the Wilbraham, built between 1888 and 1890 as a high class bachelors' residence. Back in the 1890s, this was the sort of building and neighborhood that attracted fashionable single men with disposable income, good jobs, but neither wife nor family. One of Mamie Fish's "finds," an "extra man" who had the good fortune to inherit sixty million dollars, lived at the Wilbraham. His name was James Henry Smith, known to friends and readers of the society columns alike as "Silent Smith." For a while in the early twentieth century, he cut quite a swath in New York society.

The Wilbraham installed private kitchens in 1934, which sounds like more of an upgrade than it was. Originally, the place had the air of a private club; by the time of the Depression it had become a unfashionable rental in a blowsy neighborhood. It's a coop today. Whether or not it's chic is beside the point. Architecturally, it's divine.

This is the view today up Fifth Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets, with Marble Collegiate on the left and the carcasses of a few old mansions across the street. Every once in a while, I find myself in a room on an upper floor of one of these houses, and lo and behold, the ceiling is still ornamented with grand moldings, an ornate marble fireplace still stands against the wall, and old mahogany shutters, although nailed into side boxes, are still in there too.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Magnificent Ruin

Daheim, the Hudson Valley estate where I have lived for the last 30 years, originally had two major greenhouse installations. The view above is of the easterly end of a complex surrounding a 500-foot long lean-to fruit house. This spectacular structure - its glazed iron framing demolished long ago - was achored at each end by unique stone pavilions. These in turn were flanked on the west by ornamental seating and a wisteria arbor, and on the east by an artifical lake that provided irrigation. The view above shows a stair leading up from the greenhouse level to ornamental seating on each side of a water tank.

Don't you love the heft of that rail. Notice too its subtle outward sweep.

This tank provided water to the decorative basin below. Classical architectural motifs - broken pediment, keystone arches, cornice and stringcourse moldings - that are typically rendered in dressed stone are done here with natural field stone.

How brilliant is this? The fruit house complex on this estate, like the great dairy barn immediately to the east, dates from the first decade of the twentieth century. The stone masons were Italian immigrants, some of whom had previously worked on the construction of Tuxedo Park. Others were relatives who came here specifically to work on this property.

The basin into which water once flowed.

An open superstructure of ornamental beams once rested atop those pillars and provided support for the wisteria. The stair links the lower greenhouse level with an upper level roadway connecting the barns to the rest of the estate.

The wisteria arbor is to the left; one of the twin anchoring greenhouse pavilions is on the right - another classical facade rendered in natural field stone.

Here is the same pavilion, looking in the other direction. The greenhouse glazing started at that line which is clearly visible below the top of the wall, and extended down at an angle to the low wall at lawn level.

This is the eastern pavilion, looking west. The trees give the place an Angkor Wat-ishness that was wholly absent when built. What's grass covered would have been graveled back then, and the southeast exposure would have been tree free and brilliantly sunny.

Steam in the winter was provided by an enormous coal fired boiler housed in the room beneath this chimney.

This stair descends to a tunnel that connected the greenhouse to the boiler room on the other side of the drive.

The greenhouse's interior masonry walls were glass-smooth finished cement. The graceful curve of the original glazing is visible on this side wall view of the east pavilion.

This is bravura work, appreciated by the present owners, who have sensitively stabilized it.

At the eastern end of the complex is this artificial lake, which provided water for the greenhouse and visual interest along the road - really at this point a causeway - to the barns.

Overflow from the lake passes under the causeway in pipes, and spills picturesquely to the east of the complex.

I took 136 pictures here last weekend, and it was a challenge to winnow them down to just 18.