Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Way In

I once said to a friend, rather pompously, that I was a front door kind of a guy. I won't tell you what he said to me, even though it was pretty funny. The topic I was trying to discuss had to do with "membership." The operators of big old house museums rarely see their visitors as belonging to the same august group as the former owners. This is probably true, but it's no excuse for us lumpen being forced to use the servants' door.

The image above is of the main gate to Frederick W. Vanderbilt's former country house in Hyde Park, NY. Driving north on Route 9, this would have been the first glimpse Fred got of the entrance to his property. This is where his driver would have turned left, and in the immense wisdom of the National Park Service, it is the same place where we turn left today.

I thought it would be fun to document the approach to the house as seen through the windshield of my car, the way a real guest would have done, assuming he owned a 1997 Mercedes he bought on eBay. (It is a very nice car by the way and, like myself, it looks much younger than it is). How fine is this gate? I live on a property whose grand gate has a portcullis, no less, but alas it's always closed.

Once through the gate, we are clearly in another world.

A bridge that crosses a stream or a lake is a common feature in big places like Hyde Park. It reinforces the symbolism of leaving the world of troubles and dubious aesthetics behind. This is particularly so when there are sufficient funds for maintenance, as appears to be the case at Hyde Park.

Over the bridge we go, and up the hill on the other side...

After a glimpse of the garden wall (we'll come back to that in a moment), the great house appears. This is the proper way to approach an important country mansion, and not via a new road somewhere in the woods that leads to an "interpretive visitor center" all glass and angles and located behind a barn. It is at this point that Mr. Vanderbilt's car would have taken a left and driven up to the front door. We visitors are detoured to the right to continue around the far perimeter of the lawn, which is not so bad because.... affords this excellent prospect of McKim, Mead and White's noble design, completed in 1899. The Park Service's subsequent elimination of original foundation plantings was a terrible idea for which somebody should have been swatted upside the head. However, mine is a voice in the wilderness on that one.

The Vanderbilt Historic Site, which the National Park Service administers in conjunction with the nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site, has administrative offices, a gift shop, and interpretive displays in this building, which used to be the estate's guest house. Here's the river elevation, overlooking drop dead views of the Hudson and the Catskills. Many of us would kill to have a little place like this in the country, with its double height oak paneled hall and abundance of Edwardian detail. Fred and his wife had it built in sixty days during the fall of 1895, in order to have a comfortable base from which to monitor construction on the big house.

Hyde Park was an historic estate long before the Vanderbilts came along. Dr. John Bard, intimate of Franklin, physician to Washington, built a house on the site in 1764. During the 1820s Dr. David Hosack, the prominent New York physician and owner of Manhattan's once famous Elgin Botanic Gardens, remodelled the place in the Greek style and hired a Belgian landscaper to lay out the grounds. In 1840, John Jacob Astor bought it for his daughter Dorothea and her husband, Walter Langdon. The house burned in 1845 and the building you see in the image immediately below was its replacement, constructed in 1847. The Langdons' son died here childless in 1894, at which point the Vanderbilts arrived.

Style-wise, the new house is basically a Brobdingnagian knockoff of the original. The plan at first was to encase the Langdon house in a sort of gigantic limestone cocoon. McKim did just that, albeit in stucco, with a similar house in nearby Staatsburg belonging to Ogden Mills. The Mills house is nowhere near as successful as Vanderbilt's - particularly as regards the interior plan - because the architect was able to convince Vanderbilt to tear the old one down and start from scratch.

Notwithstanding the ill-advised removal of those original foundation plantings - they would soften the lines of the house and better integrate it with the grounds - this very fine building is obviously in very fine repair. Visitors typically rush indoors, which to be sure is a good show, but rarely take time to examine the bravura exterior stonework.

Here's the river side of the house, with a semi-circular porch and more fine detail work.

Fred Vanderbilt was still at Yale when he met his future wife, Louise Anthony Torrance. It's likely he met her before that, actually, since she was married to his cousin Daniel Torrance. I look at this picture of Fred and consider having an affair with him myself. Whether Lulu was divorced when the two of them took up together is unclear. She was divorced by 1878, however, when to the dismay of his family and the fury of his father, 22-year old Fred made 34-year old Lulu his bride.

I used to know a drag queen who, when not working at the bank or whatever he did during the day, dressed up in evening gowns and a tiara and called himself Robin Kradles. Lulu probably had a similar image in the eyes of the Vanderbilt family. In the way of the willful Victorian paterfamilias - indeed, of benighted fathers everywhere - William Henry Vanderbilt was perfectly ready to disinherit his son Fred for displeasing him. Fred's favorite sister, Lila, is credited with talking their father out of it, a favor Fred would remember in years to come.

While Fred was not disinherited, his wife became a sort of pariah. Years ago, I met Lila's grandson, a man named J. Watson Webb Jr. Watson was a great help to me in my Vanderbilt researches, sharing all sorts of family stories. According to one, Lulu was granted a reprieve by her husband's family when she announced to them that she was pregnant. The next thing anyone knew, she and Fred traveled to France, and almost immediately after that the baby was tragically lost. Inevitably the truth came out. There never had been a baby. I don't know how Lulu started this deception, or how or whether she got trapped into it, or at what point or to what degrtee Fred was involved. To the family's credit, they came to see it for what it was - a desperate and poignant attempt to find a way in. She was forgiven and accepted thereafter.

I narrated this story in a book I wrote years ago titled, "The Vanderbilts and Gilded Age." One day at a reception, I was accosted by a volunteer at the Hyde Park house, who dressed me down in a loud voice and in no uncertain terms. You would have thought I'd burned a Koran in a public square in Kabul. The woman was outraged that I could have printed such baseless - and in her mind insulting - gossip. I trusted my source, however; Watson Webb was irrefutable.

We rarely get much insight into the characters of people who lived in houses now open to the public. I think Lulu's is a humanizing story that tells far more about her and her husband than Park Service brochures or dry historical narratives. Fred lived for exactly 12 more years than Lulu, dying in 1938. From all reports, they were a devoted couple. They had no children.

The gardens at Hyde Park were developed over a period of centuries. These pavilions once flanked a glazed greenhouse. They look to me like they date from the Langdon period.

This kind of plaque reminds me of just how much the survival of great houses means to all of us - even when the foundation plantings are missing.

Here are some shots from my stroll through the Vanderbilt garden on a fine February day.

Back in my car, on my way home, basking in the aura of my hood ornament,

This auxiliary gate to Route 9 is better than most main gates elsewhere.

The Vanderbilt walls flank both sides of Route 9 for considerable stretches, although not just at this point. The estate's former farm and stable complex, located east of the highway, was subdivided in the 1940s and is a housing development today. To passersby, however, the look of the past remains largely intact.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Hairbreadth Escape

About twenty years ago, during a very fluid period in my career, a girl I knew suggested we rent a mansion together in Stockbridge, Mass. Either a single or a double homicide - depending on whether or which of us escaped - would surely have ensued, so it was a lucky thing we dropped the plan. One of the places we looked at was a fantastically decrepit pile in nearby Lenox called Ventfort Hall. Where I live now didn't look a lot different than Ventfort when I moved in. However, Ventfort is about 14,000 square feet bigger.

Ventfort Hall was constructed between 1891 and 1893 for a man named George Hale Morgan and his wife, Sarah Spencer Morgan. Like FDR and Eleanor, the Morgans were distant cousins with the same last name. Nowadays we rarely think of carriage accidents as potentially fatal - I mean, how fast could they be going? However, they killed our forebears with depressing regularity. Morgan's prosperous father-in-law, Junius Spencer Morgan, died in a crash outside Monte Carlo in 1890. The accident provided his daughter Sarah with a big inheritance, and her husband with sufficient cash to build Ventfort Hall. Sarah's brother also prospered in the world; his name was J. Pierpont Morgan. Rotch & Tilden, a Boston firm responsible for five important local houses, designed George and Sarah Morgan's Lenox house in a style that might be called Gilded Age Elizabethan. This was a "look" in Lenox, a resort that came to be called the Newport of the Hills.

You think it looked bad outside? You should have seen it inside, for example the dining room. Why are we looking up in this image? Because the entire floor has collapsed. The whole house wasn't as wrecked as this, although the more intact areas were in the process of being scavenged for salvageable architectural fabric.

Here's that same room today, restored to what is very nearly its original condition. Credit for the rescue of Ventfort Hall belongs to a group of local residents called the Ventfort Hall Association. In 1994, with the backing of a few deep pocket individuals, the Association offered to buy Ventfort for $650,000. The owner was a nursing home operator whose demolition plans had been stymied by adjacent property owners. The offer was rejected. The next year, the Association offered $500,000. Still no deal. In 1996, they offered $350,000 and finally a deal took shape. If the operator would agree to suspend further interior demolition, the Association would raise the price to $400,000. The property closed in 1997, with a $250,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $150,000 cash from friends.

Here's Ventfort in 1998, minus the Vietnamese jungle that had formerly engulfed it. What's wrong with this picture, aside from a monstrous house in severe distress? If you compare the gable in the foreground with the one on the left, you'll see that its original Flemish silhouette has been ham-handedly altered. Probably the bricks were falling off, prompting the kind of cheapjack repair that afflicts many an aristocratic old house.

This is Jeffrey Gulick, the man in charge of stone carving and decorative plaster repair at Ventfort. (Now you'll recognize him when you see him on the street). He's completing work on a brownstone finial that's destined for the uppermost part of the restored gable.

The stone itself, supplied by Portland Brownstone Quarries of Portand, CT, reportedly came from a demolished Connecticut prison. Jeff's work is done and ready for mounting.

Champlain Masonry of Pittsfield, Mass. did the installation.

Here's the finished product, good as new.

While you contemplate this vintage view of the salon at Ventfort I'll give you a precis on how the place got so run down. Morgan's wife died three years after Ventfort was finished, but he and a second wife continued to use it during the Lenox season until he died in 1911. During the First World War, Morgan heirs rented Ventfort to Margaret Vanderbilt, wife of Lusitania victim Alfred Vanderbilt, and later to Roscoe Bonsal. The Bonsals eventually bought the house in 1925 for $103,000, and twenty years later, in 1945, their heirs sold it for $22,500 to Arthur Martin. The new owner converted the mansion into a dormitory for Tanglewood students and subdivided the perimeter of the property into small building lots. Then in 1950, Bruno Aron turned Ventfort into a hotel called Festival House. The Fokine Ballet Camp came along next and continued to kick the old house around, in the manner of dormitories everywhere, until 1976. Then an outfit called The Bible Speaks inflicted yet more dormitory abuse until a spectacular bankruptcy at the end of the 1980s. Enter nursing home operator, intentional neglect, and threatened demolition.

This was the salon in 1997.

Jeff Gulick, the man who did the exterior carving, is also in charge of interior plaster restoration. Pretty amazing.

Ventfort's elaborate ceilings were falling down all over the place. This one is in the corridor to the billiard room. The darker colored original section was used as a model for reproducing missing areas. The light colored work is all new.

The glory of Ventfort's interior is its paneled double height stair hall. Before the Ventfort Hall Association was able to stop it, someone with a crowbar had evidently done extensive shopping for rails, paneling, moldings and the like.

Fine carpenter Michael Costerisan of neighboring West Stockbridge has been painstakingly replicating missing pieces which, once stained, will be indistinguishable from the original work.

Things were awful upstairs too. Here's the Blue Room, before and after restoration.

Ventfort Hall has been open to the public since 2000, but not many of its rooms are finished AND furnished. This master bedroom is an exception. Tjasa Sprague and Steve Baum took me around last weekend. Tjasa is the Association's treasurer, and the prime mover behind the whole undertaking. She decides on projects and Steve manages them. The closed door behind her goes to one of two master bathrooms.

For me, original bathrooms are among the most interesting parts of old houses. That gizmo on the wall above the tub was part of a vintage burglar alarm system.

Here's the same view today. The new marble replicates the vanished original slabs. Heaven only knows who made off with the tub. A bit of original wall covering hidden behind the alarm box provided a template for the restored walls.

The Morgans supposedly slept in the same room, even though their house had the traditional his and her master bedrooms. Here's the other one, as yet unfurnished. Only the top half of the fireplace mantle was here in 1997; the bottom half represents an educated guess of what the missing section looked like.

This is Tjasa (pronounced tee-AH-sha) and yours truly in the billiard room. Why am I wearing a hat and a down-filled bomber jacket? Because it's February and this is a 28,000 square foot house.

Whatever else befell Ventfort Hall, the stained glass remained intact.

There is no end of projects, inside and out. Here and below are more before and after views.

Since buying Ventfort in 1997, the Association has spent over $4,500,000 on restoration projects. One of the most ambitious was rebuilding a grand porch overlooking a sweeping lawn above Kemble Street.

Here's what the porch looked like during the Gilded Age, and how it looks today.

Ventfort Hall is short on furniture, only partially open, has scuffed floors, and a lot of missing pieces. For all of that - and quite aside from its value as a cultural artifact - it is a spectacular object. You just want to climb all around this place and marvel at the fact that it still exists.

This was Ventfort then...

This is Ventfort now. It's open all year long and supported entirely by donations, plus any and everything they can think of to raise money - dances, tours, concerts, lectures, dinners, mystery nights, exhibitions, theatrical presentations,etc., etc. Here's the link: