Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Locust Valley Lockjaw

The photograph above is of Long Island debutante Barbara Bailey, daughter of Frank and Marie Louise Bailey of Locust Valley. I'd guess it was taken sometime between Miss Bailey's 1925 debut at Sherry's and her 1930 marriage to John Vanneck, described by the Times as "one of the wealthiest young men in America." The wedding, a quiet affair in the wake of crashing markets, took place at Munnysunk, the Bailey country estate just north of the intersection of Feeks and Coot, my absolute favorite road names on the North Shore.

The bride's father, Frank Bailey (1865-1953) was your basic Horatio Alger type - son of an underpaid upstate doctor, started as a $10 a week clerk for the Title Guaranty and Trust Company, and rose to become the company's president. Frank Bailey was the "builder of Brooklyn." His $700 million dollars worth of financing deals built the neighborhoods of Brownsville, Bensonhurst, Borough Park and Long Beach. His life's passion, however, was horticulture. "While dad was inside killing the patients," he once joked, "I was outside inspecting the shrubbery."

My car is in the shop - a depressingly familiar scenario, to anyone who owns one like mine - so I have arrived at the Bayville Road gate to Munnysunk in an unfamiliar Chrysler from Budget. The former Bailey estate, now the Bailey Arboretum, has belonged since 1968 to Nassau County. I think technically we're in Lattingtown, but emotionally I'd call this Locust Valley. For all the depredations suffered by postwar Long Island, this particular patch remains spacious and swanky.

Munnysunk's original gate, as is so often the case with old places converted to institutional use, has been closed. Today's visitor is consequently robbed of the intended anticipation and surprise of winding through dark woods before coming suddenly on the house.

Happily, the house is still here, and in pretty good shape. It plays an admitted second fiddle to the arboretum, whose 42 manicured acres boast 600 different varieties of trees (some quite rare), beautiful lawns, woodland walks, and an abundance of public programs and special events. "Big Old Houses," however, is focussed on the house.

I quite like Munnysunk, whose name, incidentally, is a punnish joke on maintenance costs. The Baileys were rich, but never profligate. In 1911, instead of building the chateau he could have afforded, Bailey bought an old Long Island farmhouse and simply enlarged it. The front door in the image below was the entrance to what appears to have been an upscale, 5-bay center hall colonial built, judging from the detail around the door, about 200 years ago. Bailey hired H. Craig Severance (1879-1941), an architect principally remembered for Manhattan skyscrapers, to double its size. This he did in a clever manner that embodies rural Long Island charm with invented Edwardian detail. Munnysunk is a far cry from Severance's 40 Wall Street, now a Trump development, or his Taft Hotel on West 51st Street. I've never seen sliding shutters like these. My early house expert in Millbrook, David Greenwood, says they are a product of Severance's imagination - an example of "comfortable," as opposed to "colonial," revival.

In its heydey, the garden at Munnysunk, which little Barbara surveys below on a sunny long ago Long Island afternoon, contained 500 labelled perennials, famous collections of roses and chrysanthemums, and a staff of 45. Bailey himself was a hands-on horticulturist, Chairman of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, inveterate winter reader of seed catalogues, and summer recipient of rare plants from arboretums around the country, not to mention the Bureau of Rare Plants in Washington, D.C. Nowadays, one full time caretaker, helped by the occasional day laborer, maintains the whole place.

The noble tree below, which looks like something out of chapter by Tolkien, is a Dawn Redwood, one of the Arboretum's particularly rare specimens.

Here's Frank Bailey, pointing to one of his prizes. That's Bayville Road behind him, not a tennis court.

Here I am, 80 years later. Things haven't really changed.

The north side of the house has a very similar porch to the main entrance on the south. The matching north and south door surrounds, according to my friend Greenwood, suggest the original house, buried in the Severance alterations, dated from the 1820s.

Having done our due diligence on the exterior, it's time to return to the front, admire the contrast between the old bell and the new computerized control panel, and have a look inside.

Well, first a few words about Louise Bailey (1877-1964), the granddaughter of Edward A Lambert, Mayor of Brooklyn from 1853-54, and Frank Bailey's 3rd wife, the first two having died early and unexpectedly. Louise was Bailey's secretary at Title Guarantee when they married in 1905. She gave him 2 children, a boy who died at the horrible young age of 22, and Barbara who married John Vanneck. Mrs. Bailey reportedly yearned to give her country place a native American name, and her husband compromised with Munnysunk.

Frank Bailey left a $50 million dollar estate when he died in 1953. Munnysunk might not have been showy, but it had to have been comfortably and luxuriously furnished - at least until Mrs. Bailey's death in 1964. Not a stick remains, alas, nor could I find a single vintage interior photo. The house gradually ran down until 1993 when, for better or worse, it was drafted into service as a decorator showhouse. Between the decorators and (belatedly) Nassau County the downward structural slide has been arrested. Furniture-wise, however, the only thing on the main floor these days is a distracting clutter of caterers chairs and tables for the many weddings and functions for which the house is rented. One must imagine the wonderful big rooms filled with chintz covered sofas, silk lamps, old tables, paintings on the walls, and orientals on the floor.

The enclosed porch off the drawing room is the nicest room in the house. It's big, bright, has a nifty fireplace (complete with Bailey era screen and firedogs) and fine views over the lawns and gardens. The simple treillage on the walls dates from the showhouse - not well made, perhaps, but good looking.

A stair at the north end of the porch leads down to the basement. I imagine Bailey managed his Locust Valley horticultural empire from the room below, which is now the Arboretum office.

Let's cut back along the north side of the house, cross the drawing room, and peek into a old powder room located underneath the stair.

A pair of ADA compliant bathrooms occupies the footprint of a former serving pantry. Its original door opened into the dining room, seen through the opening at left in the image below.

I think Disraeli once said something like, "One becomes so accustomed to fine wines, it's good to have an indifferent one from time to time." I've trekked through so many palaces in the last two years that it's refreshing to be in an old house whose graciousness stems simply from good proportions, an abundance of light and pleasantly unpretentious detail. I'm sure a very fine dining table and chairs once graced this room. How delicious is that window in the swing door?

I'm sure the old kitchen was lovable, which ain't the case now. Original cabinetry survives in a small pantry. The skylight, center island, and hard-on-the-feet stone floor are showhouse additions.

The servant hall next door has a showhouse skylight too. But for the encouragement of Margaret Stacey, my good natured guide, I wouldn't have discovered this house.

The corridor on the right leads to the dining room; the closed door on the left opens to the back stair.

Neither decorators nor Nassau County officials appear to have been downstairs in the old laundry room at any time in the last century. Naturally, I wasn't going to miss it.

Let's go back to the dining room, turn left into the hall, and climb the stairs to the second floor.

Of the 6 second floor bedrooms, the most interesting is located at the western end of the hall. It has a step-up door to a wonderful terrace (intruded upon by the kitchen wing skylights), and a fab old bathroom with an unusual toilet flush.

The former master bedroom is located at the eastern end of the 2nd floor, part of the Severance addition situated above the enclosed porch. What is it about old house "improvements" that so often rob their victims of original charm? Here's a space with good proportions and windows on 3 sides, that has unintentionally been made to look like the principal's office in a small public school. When I searched for the master bathroom, I learned the story of the "marble bath."

The "marble bath" used to be here. The ceiling in the drawing room below was beginning to sag, so the county ripped out the marble paneling and the giant fixtures and sent everything to the dump. In point of fact, I have seen entire brownstone apartments hung by iron rods anchored in the floor above. However, creative preservation solutions depend on an appreciation of what is to be preserved, which, clearly, wasn't the case here.

Fortunately additional old bathrooms still survive. Why do I love those wall sconces? Probably because no decorator in his or her right mind would include them in a showhouse.

The sliver of door visible at the west end of the second floor landing leads to the back stair, which descends to the kitchen and rises to servants' rooms on 3.

With the exception of one room at the top of the stairs, the '93 showhouse despaired of the 3rd floor and partitioned it off.

One can see why. I have lived in several houses whose upper floors were lined with decaying maids' rooms. I live in one now. Perhaps it is the "romance of ruins," but I rather like having them up there.

We're done with Munnysunk, so let's clear out of here and take a fast look at the stable.

I wouldn't describe Long Island as being full of old millionaires' stables, but happily a lot of them are left. The Arboretum rents this one to The Volunteers for Wildlife, whose headquarters moved recently from the former Marshall Field estate on Lloyd Neck.

Considering Munnysunk's horticultural scope, the greenhouse is surprisingly compact. A second glazed hothouse, similarly sized and now demolished, formerly stood at right angles to the utility building.

Frank Bailey never forgot the $400 scholarship he got from Union College in Schenectady, which enabled him to go to college. For 51 years, he volunteered as Union's treasurer, built and donated Bailey Hall for the Department of Arts, endowed a chair in ancient languages, and eventually left the college $1.5 million in his will. The total of his gifts over the period of his life approached three million dollars - and that was, as they say, when a million bucks was a million bucks. The Arboretum is open daily, admission is free, the property is gorgeous, and the old house is a good place to get married. The link is


  1. John, after last week's shutter 'what not to do' you really introduced a great illustration of how to keep it real. Those are exceedingly nice shutters although I wonder after years of little use if they're easy to roll open and closed.

    Despite the institutional reuse I have to give them strong credit for not swathing the drive in the all too common endless blacktop. Instead the gravel circular drive looks proper and dignified.

  2. I usually tend to dislike houses with low ceilings, however here the relative proportions of the rooms and windows makes me pause, and approve. This is a house easy on the eyes. A pity about the neglect of its beauties, including the remnants of decorators' delusions about their skills as well as the institutional choices, which strike an artificial note compared to the inviting subtleties of the architecture.

  3. A very handsome house and a great, understated example of that Colonial Revival trend of "updating" old houses to turn them into comfortable showplaces. I'm sure the garden was always the focal point here but the house has that delicious feeling of well bred good taste that reeks of "old money".

    The stables are a particularly nice survival. They look like an old MGM movie set for someone's Long Island estate.

  4. Sliding shutters like these, albeit less decorative, are common to wharf buildings in the Maritimes (and probably elsewhere with strong winds off the sea). Interestingly, I've never seen them in Maine or elsewhere further south -- this may have as much to do with the limited development of the Maritimes in the last hundred years; these shutters in channels might have been common elsewhere but have not survived due to storms or demolition. Perhaps as Severance was working in a somewhat modest style, he took inspiration from what may have been a more common vernacular detail at the time. I do like them.

  5. An extremely good looking home along with a excellent, modest instance of this Colonial Rebirth pattern associated with "updating" aged homes to show all of them in to comfy showplaces. I'm certain the actual backyard had been usually the actual focus right here however the home offers which scrumptious sensation associated with nicely selectively bred great flavor which reeks associated with "old money".

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  6. Kitchen mural . . . . lily-pad lino in the blue bathroom . . . lovely wallpapers everywhere . . . the empty attics full of maids' rooms . . . . sigh. Some of the grand houses you showcase are nice to look at, but not anything I would want to live in with my family of six. But this one--oh, we could move in tomorrow.

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