Sunday, January 29, 2012

The President's Neighbor

I visited the FDR National Historic Site yesterday, located in Hyde Park, NY, quite near to us in Millbrook. I knew from past visits that the Roosevelt house, called Springwood, was originally a fairly modest place that had been dressed up, ca. 1915, in an architectural ball gown, courtesy of the New York firm of Hoppin & Koen. I was also aware, in a general way, of a large house immediately next door called Bellefield, used for Park Service offices. I hadn't realized, however, how architecturally interesting Bellefield really was, or that its owners had transformed it in a manner quite similar to the Roosevelts'. Bellefield isn't open to the public, but you can walk around outside and explore its splendid Beatrix Farrand-designed garden. The image above, mounted on a plaque in front, informs us the house was built in 1795 and renovated by the distinguished firm of McKim Mead and White in 1909. Clearly, there was some Victorian era tinkering in between those dates, notably that front porch.

I'm not quite sure how my digital camera has managed to distort this view of the present day facade. Bellefield is much more comely and better proportioned than the image above suggests. The original Federal house still survives behind the middle three bays of the facade, its four chimneys still in situ. Two new wings, each about the size of the original house, have been attached to either side of it. The new porch is larger, the new terrace broader, the windows now casements (visible behind the second floor storms), delicate dormers pierce the roof, and the walls have been stuccoed.

What hasn't changed from 1795 is the elegant front door with it's lovely leaded transom and dignified sidelights. I have been amazed to discover how many fine houses in Dutchess County are actually sophisticated early 20th century renovations of existing 18th and early 19th century buildings. I wonder who was in charge of the Bellefield job - White was murdered in 1906 and McKim died in September of 1909. Mead lived until 1928, but he's not generally remembered for design work.

Here's the view of the lawn from the front door. Route 9, beyond that line of evergreens, is a busy two-lane highway lined with a mishmash of commercial buildings, diners, and mini-malls interspersed with scraggly woods. However, from Bellefield's front door the road is less of an intrusion than you'd expect.

Details of the 1909 MM & W addition, with eaves as scholarly as they are fitting.

It looks to me as though the bottom floor of the northern service wing is also visible on the image at the top of this post. Many local 18th century houses started life as modest farm dwellings to which sophisticated two-story additions were affixed. Without being able to go inside, it's hard for me to tell if this northern wing is a remnant of an older house or not.

This view looks south along the terrace that stretches across the front of the house. The walled garden lies beyond.

Even in winter, with hedges unkempt and flower beds barren, this lovely south garden is eloquent of sophisticated living. Beatrix Farrand, incidentally, was one of the ten founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, as well as being Edith Wharton's niece.

This view of the south facade gives a much better sense of what the house really looks like. The MM & W renovation was commissioned by a New York State senator and Hudson Valley social type named Thomas Newbold (1849-1929). A descendant named Gerald Morgan donated it to the government in 1974.

I pressed my camera against a french door to get this shot of the drawing room overlooking the garden. Easy to imagine the industrial carpeting, plastic molded chairs and yellow paint magically removed and the room restored to its original sunny elegance.

The south facade, a little further out.

The garden, a little further in.

The garden gate, from the outside.

The rear elevation is less collected, but still appealing in a big old house kind of a way. I did a quick archival newspaper search on Thomas Newbold and came up with an accident report, dated January 12, 1911. The former state senator was sailing his ice yacht, the Nansen, in a race sponsored by the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club. A huge and sudden gust of wind picked the boat completely off the ice, turned it upside down and pinned Newbold under the bowsprit. A crowd raced across the frozen river from the Hyde Park shore, righted the yacht, Newbold climbed back behind the tiller and finished the race.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In My Room

This week, I thought I'd blog about my room - well, it's a suite of rooms, actually, laid out in 1889 for Charles F. Dieterich, first president of the Union Carbide Corporation. This is the man who developed the Daheim estate. A century later, I moved into his house.

You know how a song gets caught in your mind, like a nail in a tire? I haven't been able to get rid of the old Beach Boys tune, "In My Room" all weekend long. You remember how it went: "There's a world where I can go/And tell my secrets to/In my room....../In my room..." Maybe it'll get stuck in your mind too, for 48 to 64 hours. Its plaintive melody and lyric, which captured teenage angst and yearning 50 years ago, resonates all too well with today's moribund real estate market.

These curtains came from a palatial apartment belonging to the late father of a Millbrook neighbor. I saved them from the dump (lucky me). How about those tassels?

Here's my bed (obviously), where I have spent a considerable portion of my life, first with a wife, subsequently with 2 boyfriends, and now with a cat. The stains on the wallpaper date from the installation of a new roof, already 10 years ago. The roofer, who called himself Roofs-R-Us, made no provision to protect the inside of the house on rainy days during installation. Ergo, all sorts of things got messed up. Too bad too, as that wallpaper is as old as Mr. Dieterich.

I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of dreadful beaded screen once hung from those little eyes screwed into the bottom of the cherry wood archway. I once read something about the "jigsaw insanity" that reigned for a while in Victorian decoration. I've got some of it here.

The fireplace mantel is full of family photos. The blue and yellow carrier is for the cat, although the chances of actually getting her inside of it range from poor to negligible.

If it's not on the piano, it's on a mantel somewhere, right? This is me and my sister, taken over 60 years ago on Long Island. How about that television set?

Houses like Daheim are full of detail we often don't even notice.

I saw a cartoon years ago of a king with a crown talking to a little boy on his knee, and saying: "If you can't afford to heat a castle in the winter, you can't afford a castle." No comment.

The photo in the middle is me holding little Jazzy at the edge of a volcano in Costa Rica. Will I get around to polishing that frame? That would be a "no." The little boy on the right is me; I was a charming child. The Chinese lamp was originally one of a pair in my mother's New York apartment. The other one fell off a table and smashed, oh, maybe 20 years ago.

The woodwork in my bedroom is all made of cherry, as is that enormous built-in mirrored closet running along the north wall. My bathroom is to the left; a door to the right leads to the west stair.

I have a fantastic old bathroom. The pedestal sink, however, came with me from Tuxedo when we moved here in 1981.

I hung this superfluous tassel here, oh, 4 years ago? five years ago? (Who can remember?) I couldn't brings myself to hide it in a drawer.

The hat on top of the books on the dresser goes back with me to New York in the morning. I would have worn the boots today, had it not been 6 degrees when I woke up. This was no day for a hack in the country. My dressing chair is a Millbrook antique, originally belonging to Mrs. Flagler over at Edgewood. It was covered with a charming washed out polished chintz when I bought it, but my cat so destroyed the upholstery that I have had to cover it with an old curtain panel. It still looks disreputable, but slightly less so.

Here's my squash stuff, which I just used. A couple of country pals and I have a regular weekend round robin. There's an exhibition at Grand Central at the moment - extraordinary athletes playing amazing squash - which impressed us all.

That's my dressing room beyond the portieres, and you-know-who on the rug at lower left, no doubt contemplating her next upholstered victim.

The pictures flanking the mirror above this fireplace are of my parents. Truth be told, in 30 years I have never lit a fire here or in my bedroom.

My father was an explorer in Tibet. Here he is at the apex of youth, looking so very happy. My mother was a beautiful girl who sang in Atlantic City nightclubs in the late 1920s.

Here's my desk, where I'm sitting right now with the cat in my lap, on an old ballroom chair from Tuxedo. I spend a lot of time in these two rooms. In fact, I'm turning into one of those old guys who live in an enormous house that's filling up with junk inside and turning into compost outside.

The door leads to the hall; the plastic detergent bottle on the rattan stand is reminding me that I have laundry in the washer, about a half a mile away (you think I'm kidding).

More family photos. That's my daughter on the wall.

Little Jazzy, age 9.

My suite in the west is balanced by what was originally Mrs. Dieterich's suite on the east. This door leads to a lobby between them, currently filled with plants.

A detail of the door to the plant room.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Amenia, seriously

This is the Amenia light looking north on US Route 22, which from this point runs together with US Route 44 as far as the village of Millerton. Amenia, wedged between Millbrook's horse-ocracy on the one side and Connecticut's WASP-ocracy on the other, is a kind of shy stepsister to both. Traffic typically sails through this light without giving Amenia a second look. Before the automobile age, the intersection had narrower roadways, more trees and a landscaped island located more or less in its center. That's all gone now, the victim of highway widening.

If most passersby look at anything in Amenia, it's the marble bank building on the corner, dating from 1865. The village itself is much older, founded in 1788 and formerly the center of a prosperous farming district. Amenia, according to Wickipedia (which must be correct), is a corruption of the latin word Amoena, meaning "pleasant to the eye." In October of 2005, "The New York Times" published an article titled, "A 'Laid Back' Place Becomes a Hot Property." In your dreams, New York Times writer. A lot of that supposed "hotness" emanated from a couple of big city developers who were trying to convince the locals that 600 new townhouses would actually make life better. Thirteen percent of Amenia's population over 65 - an age category in which (gulp) yours truly belongs - currently lives below the poverty level, so spurious "development" arguments often gain traction. On an unrelated subject - which I feel mysteriously impelled to note - Amenia's chances of being hit by a tornado are, statistically anyway, 15% greater than the national average.

Hardly anyone seems to notice - at least hardly anyone I know - but Amenia is full of nifty old houses. It's a very compact place, its residential district extending the equivalent of a block or two north and south of the light, and an architecturally inventive business row stretching about the same distance east on Route 343, which is a part of the confusingly signed intersection of 22 and 44. The house in this image, plus those in the next two, stand along Route 22 heading north.

How about this place? I'll bet barely a handful of the hundreds of motorists who pass it every day even see it. Unfettered by notions of proportion, symmetry or balance, those Victorians would try just about anything, and oftentimes it worked.

Not as inventive as the example above, perhaps, but this is a really nice house - and a very high class paint job.

South of the light, the lineup is equally interesting. This may not be the grandest house - it may not even be a single-family - but it radiates the sort of spacious settled comfort typical of 19th century American houses. I love the big tall windows, the flared and bracketed eaves and the rounded window in the gable end. All the windows have real shutters too, not those hideous plastic screw-ons.

I'll bet if you asked anyone in Millbrook where this charming old house was located, not one would guess Route 22 in Amenia. Which, I guess, says more about Millbrook than Amenia.

Not a grand place, perhaps, but the paint on Daheim should look this good.

I don't love fill-ins or asbestos shingles, but this remains a very interesting early Italianate house. I'd date it somewhere in the 1850s.

The wing to the right is probably the oldest part. My guess is a modest early 19th century farmhouse was mansionized at some subsequent date in the 19th century with a magnificent 2-story, 5-bay colonial addition with pedimented center bay. The present aluminum doors and poorly scaled porch - not to mention the blue color - detract from the aristocratic architecture, but it's there for anyone who looks.

Once past this textbook Italianate villa, Amenia peters out into fields and woods.

There are delicious small houses on Route 22 as well, or at least there's this one.

There are also two noble churches in the village, this one having been converted into a house.

After living up here for 30 years, it wasn't until I got out of my car yesterday and actually walked up and down Route 22 that I saw this remarkable Victorian Gothic church and rectory complex.

Here's the commercial strip, extending east along Route 343. Not very big, but lots of visual interest.

A little after these buildings, you'll come to a grave yard, and then it's open countryside all the way to Sharon, CT.