Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Most Distinguished Rental

Ah, the Victorian house - alternately celebrated, despised, rehabilitated and/or altered beyond recognition. Holbrook Hall, seen in the image above, was built in 1843 on a bluff in Riverdale with sweeping views of the Palisades. The portraits below are of the people who built it, William Lewis Morris and his wife Mary Babcock. Morris was a well connected Manhattan lawyer, descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and bearer of a distinguished New York name. You'd have a hard time finding his Greek Revival villa in the structure illustrated above. However, most of it's still there, to the left of the bow front addition, behind the bustle-like porch, and beneath the mansarded Victorian chapeau. Morris departed Riverdale in 1851, the year of his wife's untimely death, and left a nephew in charge of managing the property, which probably meant renting it out.
This is the man who took the Morrises Greek Revival pastry and turned it into a Victorian meatball. William Henry Appleton (1814-1899) was one of 19th century America's most important publishers, with a stable of authors that included Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. He's the man who named the house Holbrook Hall. Mrs. Morris had called it Wave Hill.
Then as now, people who lived in nice places often rented their houses for the summer. During the summers of 1870 and 1871, Holbrook Hall was rented to the Roosevelt family of New York, whose 12-year-old son (and future United States president) Teddy romped through the woods and fields of Riverdale. During those summers he supposedly gained respect for the value of preserving the natural world. Riverdale in the 1870s, however, was more a chic suburb than an unspoilt outpost of nature's majesty, so I'm not sure I buy that.
In 1890, nine years before his death, Appleton enlarged the house with a two-story bow front addition on the north. The entire ground floor of this addition was occupied by a single library/drawing room in the shape of an elongated oval. This grand room is said to have charmed Mark Twain into renting Holbrook Hall from the Appleton heirs in 1901.
Twain left Holbrook Hall in 1903, though it's unclear why since the new owner had no intention of living there. George Walbridge Perkins (1862-1920), Vice President of New York Life, leader of the Progressive Party, president of the Palisades Park Commission, and Riverdale resident since 1895, was already living on an estate immediately south of his new purchase. Perkins eventually owned four contiguous local estates covering 80 sumptuous riverfront acres. He resurrected the name Wave Hill and beautified the land between it and his own house with elaborate terraces, gardens and greenhouses. The Perkins house, built by the Harriman family in 1888 and named Nonesuch, was enlarged by Perkins and renamed Glyndor. The only Nonesuch I can think of starred in a chapter in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and seems an odd name for a house. Glyndor, which sounds like its zip code belongs to the Wizard of Oz, is said to be a conflation of Perkins family names.
Perkins, who never went to college, made a personal fortune as well as raising hundreds of millions of dollars for relief work during the First World War. He was probably more responsible than any single person for the preservation of the Hudson Palisades as well. In 1900, when he became first president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, runaway commercial development and quarry operations were rapidly despoiling the famous cliffs. Perkins went to J.P. Morgan, with whom he'd done deals in the past, to ask if Morgan would contribute to a $125,000 shortfall in the commission's budget. Morgan said he'd pay the whole sum, but on one condition; that Perkins become a Morgan partner. Both agreed and the quarrying stopped. The man in the Japanese armor below isn't George Perkins, but his long term tenant at Wave Hill, Bashford Dean (1867-1925).
Dean was a man with two passions in life: fish and armor. An unlikely combination I'd say, but he pursued both with equal energy. In 1909, he became Curator of Reptiles and Fishes at the Museum of Natural History and Curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the same time. Also in 1909, Perkins gave Dean a lifetime lease on Wave Hill. Dean planned a private Armor Hall to be constructed at the north end of his rented Riverdale manse, and paid for by himself. You can see it on the right in the image below.
Unfortunately, when he died in 1925 the hall was far from complete. His widow, in a gesture to her late husband's memory, finished the project, installed the collection precisely as he'd intended, and had it photographed by Samuel Gottscho. The installation was then dismantled, packed and shipped to the Metropolitan Museum, where it today forms the core of the museum's arms and armor collection.
The same year the Widow Dean completed her husband's Armor Hall, Glyndor burned to the ground. The Widow Perkins, her own husband dead since 1920, hired the firm of Butler and Corse to design a Georgian Revival replacement in what is often described as the "scaled-down taste of the 'twenties." That's not Glyndor in the image below, but a scaled down Wave Hill. In 1932 it too was Georgianized by Mrs. Perkins' daughter Dorothy and her husband Edward W. Freeman. The Freemans' hired architect Oliver Perry Morton to amputate the Victorian bonnet which had sat atop the roof for 70 years, tear off the gloomy front porch and replace it with a columned Georgian entryway, balance the altered composition with a new kitchen and servants' wing on the south, and de-Victorianize the interiors.
While her daughter and son-in-law were settling in at Wave Hill, Mrs. Perkins began to de-accession the family estate. First to go was an adjoining property whose turreted Victorian mansion became the Riverdale School for Girls. Leased at first, the property was eventually sold and is now the Riverdale Country School.
Mrs. Perkins would remain at Glyndor until the end of her life, but her daughter and son-in-law were out of Wave Hill in less than a decade. What did the great Arturo Toscanini do upon escaping fascist Italy in 1942? He rented Wave Hill, and stayed there until 1945.
What did the British government do when the new United Nations mission needed a New York home? They rented Wave Hill, from 1950 to 1956. When Mrs. Perkins died in 1959, Robert Moses urged her heirs to donate what was left of the estate - which included Glyndor, Wave Hill and about 28 acres - to the City of New York. In 1960, that is what they did.
Wave Hill is better known for its elaborate gardens and big views. For the purposes of "Big Old Houses" I'm leaving the horticultural story alone and focusing on the mansion. (P.S. We'll see Glyndor on a future post). Right now at Wave Hill, big things are happening.
Wave Hill hasn't been a private house for over fifty years - longer, depending on how you count the British mission lease. The house has been tinkered with over the years, at the expense of much old house fabric I personally find interesting - old pantries and bathrooms to be specific.
A master plan for the $9.7 million interior and exterior overhaul of Wave Hill Housewas was prepared by Dattner Architects of New York. The plan is divided into two parts. The city is paying for $6.6 million of alterations to bring the structural envelope up to ADA code. Private funds will pay for another $3.1 million to restore the historic interiors.
Let's go inside the construction barrier, take a peek at the terrace overlooking the river, then head inside.
Here we are in the foyer, "we" being Wave Hill's Deputy Director Michele Rossetti (left), Marketing Director Mary Weitzman (right), and me (behind the camera). The zeitgeist of this interior is clearly from the 1930s.
The dining room, with its elegant floor to ceiling door surrounds, is harder to date. It looks early twentieth century to me, with older work incorporated into later refinements.
The kitchen, pantries and (probably) small servant hall in the Freemans' south addition, dating as they did from the 1930s, likely as not had little old house charm. They've all been gutted for new catering facilities. The back stair to the servants' rooms on the floor above is all that remains from 1933.
Let's return to the dining room, then proceed into the main hall between it and the entry foyer, after which we'll make a left for a look at the main stair.
This door leads from the stair hall into the dining room. The arch to the left of it leads into the main hall.
I'm standing at the foot of the stairs; Michele has her back to the dining room door; when they're finished with all of this you'll be able to see the river beyond the french door at the end of the hall.
Next to that french window is one of the doors to the library/drawing room.
I confess that I have a taste for this kind of a look. The bookshelves are filled a little haphazardly because the people who live here actually read. The placement of chairs and lamps provide places where reading is actually possible. The painting over the fireplace, the chintz upholstery, the model boat against the wall, the Russian-looking chandelier, the old rugs, the curios on the mantel - this is no Ralph Lauren stage set, but rather the home of real people with background and taste.
The drawing room is the heart of the house and it's getting a very thorough overhaul.
Beyond the drawing room is Bashford Dean's Armor Hall. There was a show at the Museum of the City of New York not long ago called "The Grid." It attempted - with little success, as far as I was concerned - to convince the public that the wretched street grid imposed upon Manhattan by the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was actually a good thing. Riverdale is a wonderful place today precisely because its residents, unlike those in formerly charming districts to the south, actually managed to stop the grid. If they hadn't, houses with Armor Halls would never have survived.
Here's the interior of the hall today, together with a vintage shot of the fireplace presently obscured behind construction netting. Interesting note: the polychromed wood ceiling is made from lumber salvaged from construction of the Lexington Avenue subway.
In its present disguise, it's hard to make much of the main stair.
I can't say I love what's happening in this big open space immediately north of the second floor landing. It was once a master suite, with bedroom, dressing room, closets and bath. It's being converted into a function room whose AC ducts are obscured by a soffit intersecting the tops of the window surrounds. Not good.
A narrow hall running south from the second floor landing leads to guest rooms.
Down a couple of steps at the end of the guest corridor is another hallway leading to servants' rooms. Besides your basic 7' x 8' maids' cubicles is a larger room at the south end of the house. The Freemans had four kids and until I read an article about Dorothy Freeman's 1936 debutante party at Wave Hill, I wondered if this had been a nursery. Now I'm guessing a sewing room.
A stair to the third floor starts just outside the former master suite. My guess is the Freeman children lived up here, in charming high-studded rooms that probably haven't changed much since the Appleton alteration of 1866.
I found one surviving bathtub on the third floor; all the other old ones are gone, along with all the other old bathrooms. I know, I know; I'm the only one who's sad about this.
Wave Hill House itself won't be open to the public until sometime next summer. However, the galleries at Glyndor, the beautiful gardens, and Wave Hill's active calendar of lectures, shows, walks, tours, classes and events are available all year. Those who haven't discovered this woodsy corner of Riverdale are in for an additional treat. The link is


  1. Another wonderfully interesting post. I hope you get invited back to do a photo shoot when the restoration is finished. Too bad no more photos of days past. Would of loved to see the past kitchen and bathrooms also.
    Many Thanks,

  2. Another exhaustive and intriguing visit for your readers! Thank you. I had seen photos of Dean's armor collection before but never realized that the original gallery room still existed. I had to chuckle at your fondness for the style exemplified in that old photo of the library, "the home of real people with background and taste". Translation: "Old Money". It reminds me of a line from "The Philadelphia Story" when the wisecracking lady news photographer strolls around the wealthy Lord family's sitting room and remarks "Knick-knacks, grimcracks, signed photographs...wouldn't you know you'd have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this!"

    Nice to see that Wave Hill is getting a thoughtful new lease on life.

  3. I stumbled across your blog a month ago while I was stuck at home recovering from a heart attack; I have enjoyed reading it from start to the the present entry. I appreciate your thorough descriptions, and all of the present day and vintage photos bring your posts to life. I hope to be reading your blog for a long time to come...

  4. No, no, you're not the only one. I'm obsessed with old pantries and baths too.

  5. I am working on a book about the work of 19th century architects and wondered about your attribution of the Henry McLane House in Millbrook to Robert H. Robertson. Are there family papers? Letters? Thanks for any ionfomation. dan s.

  6. Your style is very unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. I learn a lot of new stuff right here! I certainly love this. Thanks