Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Mill Owner's Mansion

It's called Lambert Castle today, but when completed in 1893 on the eastern slope of Garret Mountain in Paterson, New Jersey, the owner called it Belle Vista. His name was Catholina Lambert (1834-1923), Lina for short; his wife was Isabella, Belle to the family, hence the name of the house. Today the Lambert house - or "castle" as it has been dubbed - is the headquarters of the Passaic County Historical Society. It clings picturesquely, if a bit grimly, to the eastern slope of Garret Mountain, at the edge of a mini-wilderness that was once part of its estate. Now a public park, Garret Mountain Reservation survives, improbably, just across I-80 from downtown Paterson.
The Garret Mountain Reservation even has deer. These specimens are looking for the Interstate.
Here's Lambert Castle today. Its builder was a Victorian analog to those 20-year-old wunderkind who cook up things like Instagram between classes and are suddenly worth two billion dollars. Lambert's own meteoric rise to riches was via the silk textile business. Like myself, you may not have realized that, by virtue of its many mills, Paterson, New Jersey, was once known as America's "Silk City." Profits from the Dexter Lambert Mills enabled Lambert to metamorphose from a penniless English immigrant from the village of Goose Eye (would that it had been Goose Egg), into the millionaire villain of William Carlos Williams famous 5-book trilogy, "Paterson."
Williams published "Paterson" in 5 volumes between 1946 and 1958. It is a social tract motivated by the abuses of unregulated capitalism, in particular by the great Paterson silk strike of 1913. Here is his description of Lambert: This is MY shop. I reserve the right (and he did) - to walk down the row (between his looms) and - fire any son-of-a-bitch I choose without excuse - or reason more than I don't like his face. We heard of the joys of firing people during the recent election, but this does sound a bit harsh. The image below shows Lambert's castle shortly after construction. The long arcade stretching to the right bordered a formal garden. The second image below shows an art gallery annex which replaced part of the arcade in 1896. Lambert was very big on art, about which more later.
Before going inside, let's take a walk around the perimeter. Lambert and his brother-in-law John Ryle designed the house themselves. Both were mill owners who had personally designed substantial Paterson mills, so why waste money on an architect? Stairs from the entrance facade descend to a broad terrace overlooking those mills, plus an ocean of modern suburbs, and the Manhattan skyline on the horizon.
A stone balcony runs along a portion of the east and north facades.
The stone lions in the image below flank a door that once led from the house to gallery annex. Arcade and gallery annex were both demolished in 1936. The retaining wall below hasn't changed.
The arcade in early days, and the same view (approximately) today.
If anything, the view has improved. The World Trade Center tower is at the center of the image below.
The back of the house isn't the only place where an architect might have helped.
Catholina Lambert was very short - like, maybe, five feet tall - and very sure of himself. His was a mindset typical of Victorian capitalists - property rights were sacred and one's fellow man was on his own. Lambert got major legs up during his own rise to the top, but those who helped him wouldn't have done so had he been less talented.
Isabella Shattuck Lambert gave her husband 8 children, 7 of whom predeceased him. She came from an established New England family, but it's a stretch to suggest either she or her husband were ever in "society," at least, not in the New York sense of the term. The Lamberts entertained President McKinley in 1898, at which time his Vice President Garret Hobart described the castle's art collection as "the nucleus of an American Louvre." Other rich mill owners were probably present that day, but New York Society was nowhere close.
An architectural critic of Lambert's era described his house as having a "savage face." Once inside, the face assumes a baffling complexity. That's not a painting in center of the vintage entrance hall view below, but Lambert himself, standing in a door to the stair landing. His face may be indistinct, but that belly - my late mother would have called it a "corporation" - is unmistakable. Speaking of paintings, they not only cover the walls, but are even attached to the ceilings.
The entrance hall today is a visitor reception area, and only minimally less complicated looking than in the past.
Lambert's private study is behind the entrance hall, overlooking his mills and the city of Paterson. It's now a gift shop.
The minute I stepped into the dining room, I felt full. Interestingly, the fireplace was non-functioning from the gitgo. The carved overmantel depicts a rather terrifying Dionysus, above whose head, chiseled in Greek on a ribbon, are the words, "We shalt not go homeward before dawn," sentiments I seriously doubt were held by the Lamberts.
Just beyond the entry hall is the main stair. The story we're told is that Lambert placed that ornate empty frame on the main floor landing so as to surround his beloved wife on her way downstairs - as in "pretty as a picture." One wonders if he ever actually waited to see her come downstairs, or watched her go back up? In lieu of being framed, my helpful castle guide, Henrietta Weiss, is simply sitting on the stairs. Just beyond the main floor landing, a short corridor leads to the heart of the house, the three-story-high Grand Art Hall.
Lambert went for quantity, which is obvious, but also for quality. His hundreds of canvases, displayed in a manner typical of the period that made seeing most of them almost impossible, included works by Gainsborough, Turner, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, etc., etc. The collection was famous and, from time to time, Lambert lent parts of it out. The Lotos Club, for example, displayed 36 of Lambert's canvasses in its second monthly art exhibition of 1897. In 1900, Lambert briefly opened his galleries to an unappreciative public, but the response was so tepid he scotched the plan in disgust. Only four of his paintings remain in the house today. The ornate "Cornu Clock" that sits in the middle of the gallery (Eugene Cornu carved the base; A.E. Carrier-Belleuse designed the statue) is an 1867 French-made veteran that has bounced all over the New York area. A.T. Stewart was the original owner, installing it first in his marble mansion across from Mrs. Astor, then moving it to his Department Store at Broadway and 10th. Lambert bought it from an upstate New York banker, installed it in the Art Hall of his new castle, and it stayed there until 1925 when son Walter sold it to the Paterson First National Bank and Trust Co. In 1955 the bank donated it to the Passaic County Historical Society, at which point the peripatetic clock returned to its old roost in the Art Hall.
The castle got kicked around a bit after Lambert's death. Among other things a treillaged wall that separated the breakfast room, seen in the image below, from the Grand Hall was removed.
The famous Cornu clock works on the principal of a conical pendulum, and I have no idea what that means.
In most houses of this scale there'd be a reception room, smaller and more informal than the drawing room and used for quick visits as opposed to formal parties. There doesn't seem to be one at Belle Vista, but there is a "Music Room" instead. It's behind the three arches in the image above, and illustrated in the images below. That's yours truly, basking in privilege on the other side of the rope.
Arches on either side of the music room fireplace lead into the drawing room, seen below, "then and now."
Time to head upstairs.
Bedrooms on floors two and three are accessed via galleries overlooking the Art Hall, rather like a vintage Marriott.
A three-room master bedroom suite - Belle and Lina slept in separate rooms - occupies the southeast corner of the second floor. That's her bedroom below, as it looked originally and as it looks today.
A fascination for big views is hard-wired into the human psyche, at least it is with me.
The third floor is full of.....stuff. Oddly, there were no servants rooms in the house. The help was banished to a not particularly nearby carriage house, and an even more distant gatehouse.
A modern back stair is the fruit of fire laws and the imperatives of institutional use. The original basement kitchen vanished years ago.
The carriage house that once quartered servants, now houses park personnel.
In 1896, the year Lambert built his art annex, he also built this brooding observation tower on top of Garret Mountain. The tower is a symbol both of his rise in the world and his subsequent fall. The Great Strike of 1913 paralyzed Paterson's silk mills, drove some out of business and others out of town. A year of lost production was followed by the outbreak of the First World War, which further disrupted credit and commerce. Lambert was forced to first mortgage his castle, then to sell his famous art collection.
"Lambert Will Sell His Art Treasures," read the New York Times headline of December 12, 1915. The following month, the American Art Association brought the gavel down on over 400 of his paintings and 50 of his sculptures. The bidding audience at the Plaza Hotel included one buyer who picked up Renoir's "Oliviers de l'Estaque" for $3500. Lambert expected to raise $1,500,000; the final sale total was about half a million.
According to the papers, Lambert conducted himself cheerfully during the auction, but whether this was a case of pragmatism or good acting we'll never know. Between the sale of his art and the liquidation of his silk mills he was able to pay all his creditors and stay in his castle. Nobody got stiffed holding Lambert paper in the wake of his crash. He died at Belle Vista in 1923.
In June of 1925, Belle Vista was sold at an unrestricted auction to the City of Paterson for $125,000. The furniture was auctioned the following week. For a while, the city used the house as a summer camp for tuberculosis sufferers. Then in 1928 it became headquarters of the Passaic County Parks Commission. Parks eventually invited the Passaic County Historical Society to join them, and in October of 1934 the first floor of Lambert Castle was opened to the public as a house museum. The entire house is now the Historical Society's headquarters.
Lambert may have been a hard employer but in today's parlance, he was also a "maker." Despite his occasional contempt for the working class, it was people like him who built America's industrial base. Lambert's nature may have been hard, but his actions were consistent with a personal code of ethics.
Big old houses are favorite targets of preposterous rumors, especially in the internet age. My favorite came up on a google search of castles: "People say he (Lambert) owned a heap of marble statues and instead of letting the bank take it all, he buried some of the more valuable items throughout Garret Mountain Reserve. He died before he had a chance to recover them. Are they still up there? Perhaps." Don't hold your breath! A visit to Lambert Castle is a lot of fun. For information on hours and events, the link is My thanks to the Historical Society of Passaic County for permission to use vintage images of the Lamberts and their castle.


  1. A fascinating account. The house seems to reveal its builder: grandiosity without much sense of proportionality.

  2. I'm fascinated with clocks, so I was interested in the massive Cornu clock. I'm familiar with the style, which looks similar to a mystery clock (where the figure holds a swinging pendulum that appears to be completely disconnected from the rest of the workings) or a swinger clock (where the figure holds the clock in her hand, and the entire thing rocks back and forth), but I was not sure that it was a conical pendulum clock (because it doesn't quite look like one). Apparently the thing is over 13 feet tall. I wasn't able to find out much about the clock, but one photo does appear to show the linkages at the pendulum base for a conical mechanism, so I guess it is. A Conical Pendulum is simply a pendulum that turns in a continuous circular pattern instead of ticking back and forth. The circle formed by the base of the pendulum, combined with it's hanging length forms the "cone".

    1. Thanks for the information on how a Conical Pendulum works.

  3. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I always want to hop over the velvet rope or peak beyond a door marked private.

  4. Just an observation: I get a sense that you hold Mr. Lambert with some disdain. Not that it interferes with the story you tell of him, and his house of course, because it doesn't. It just is interesting.

  5. I am not much into reading, but somehow I got to read nice information on your site. Simple to understand and helpful. We will look forward for your future updates. I will visit here very often.

  6. The Cornu clock was purchased by John C Evans, Paterson native in 1925. He bought it for the foyer of his new Ridgewood home. The clock was too large so he donated it to the bank, which was later donated back to the castle.

    1. John C Evans was my grandfather. I would love to know who "anonymous" is and how they know this information.

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