Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Edwardian Summer Life in Onteora Park

This redoubtable female, who looks ready to take an ax to her local tavern, is Candace Wheeler (1827-1923). Mrs. Wheeler's battleground was neither moral nor political, but aesthetic. Dubbed "Mother Interior" by New York Times writer Susan Dominus, she was America's first female interior designer. (Yes, way ahead of Elsie de Wolfe). My favorite Wheeler quote: "Probably no art has so few masters as that of decoration." Too true; too true.

Wheeler was an indefatigable do-gooder whose New York Society of Decorative Art, founded in 1877 with Louis Comfort Tiffany, sought to empower aspirant craftswomen by teaching them crafts and helping them sell them. In 1883 she split with Tiffany and founded Associated Artists, a more streamlined vehicle for what became a cottage industry in needlepoint, textiles, wallpaper design, book publishing and, rather unexpectedly, real estate. It is the latter category that brings "Big Old Houses" once again to Onteora Park, founded by Mrs. Wheeler and her rich brother Francis Thurber in 1887 as a dedicated artists' colony deep in the mountain fastness of the Catskills.

Onteora Park began as a cottage industry outpost whose workrooms, at least on occasion, produced grand things - for example, the Madison Square Theater's magnificent needlework curtain, or the applique and silk embroidered wall panels in pharmaceutical czar George Kemp's 5th Avenue mansion. Mrs. Wheeler also managed to transfer, at least in summertime, the artists' salon she and her husband Thomas had established at their sprawling Queens estate, Nestledown. (How charming to think of an estate in Queens as 'sprawling'). Onteora remains a summer camp today, one with unpaved Victorian era roads which, like the houses they lead to, are closed in the winter.

Like Bruce Price in Tuxedo Park, Associated Artists built all the early cottages. Dutch doors, diamond pane windows, bark trimmed interiors and stone fireplaces make these old places deliciously picturesque but, in the manner of many antique mountain camps, structurally insubstantial. Floors and walls, rooflines and (alarmingly) some chimneys, have settled over the years into every possible angle but that of 90 degrees.

These are glimpses of Wildwood, an original Associated Artists spec cottage built in the late 1880s or very early 1890s. Like others of its ilk, it is tucked into deep woods. Cottage owners were expected to take meals at the Park inn, called the Bear and Fox (now a private house), and rough it, mountain camp style, with an outhouse.

Wildwood's north wing is a circa World War One addition. Although the house has undergone significant alterations over the years, the finished product looks remarkably of a piece. Let's circle around to the west.

When built, Wildwood's front door was on the eastern side of the house, at the top of a flight of steep stone stairs. Subsequent owners abandoned the pitons and rappelling ropes necessary to get indoors, moved the entrance to the second floor of the building's west facade and constructed this picturesque bridge to connect it to the drive.

Wildwood's first owner was Luisita Leland (1873-1956), daughter of Charles H. Leland of 563 Park Avenue, which is practically across the street from me in New York. Miss Leland, a rich and unmarried society girl, evidently found Onteora's signature mix of poetry readings, chamber music, amateur theatricals, artistic cottagers, writers and actresses, not forgetting Mrs. Wheeler's needlepointers, more congenial than the starchy elitism of Newport or Lenox. After the war, the French government made Miss Leland a member of the Legion of Honor for her work promoting The Fatherless Children of France, Inc.. She married late, in 1919 at the age of 46, to a former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General named Dr. Leland Cofer, seen in the image below.

The Cofers called Wildwood Clematis. They also entered it on the first floor. We're crossing the new bridge - well, "newish" - in the image below and entering a small anteroom on the second floor.

There are 4 bedrooms on the second floor, plus a sort of library/study/television room and three terrific old fashioned country bathrooms. Immediately south of the front door, a two-room suite with bath doesn't appear to have changed in a hundred years.

In the image below, I'm standing in the open front door. The south bedroom is behind the wall on the right. That little hall on the left leads to the rest of the rooms on the the second floor, the first of which is a bathroom.

Does it matter that Wildwood has sagged to the point where there are no more rectangles, only parallelograms? Not to me, it doesn't.

This view of the second floor hall looks south toward the front anteroom. The stairs go up to a 3rd floor bedroom, and down to entertaining rooms and the kitchen on 1.

Our first stop is an east-facing guestroom with drop dead mountain views, a small porch, and a look of uber-authenticity. Despite many changes, the sensation in this house of stepping back in time is everywhere undiluted.

Let's cross the hall and look at the third bedroom - alas, without a mountain view - and the bathroom beside it.

They call this the "TV room," a name which I, as an old house traditionalist, can't quite manage to say out loud. The evidence of structural settling would drive my brother-in-law bonkers, but to me it's rather endearing. Walking around Wildwood is like being on a yacht, except it's not the yacht that's pitching up and down, it's the house.

The master bedroom also faces mountains.

Let's take the hall south from the master, head downstairs, admire the signature Associated Artists bark wall, and have a look at the first floor.

At the foot of the stairs is the Log Room, so named because of its Onteora style natural bark paneling. I am told that it used to be two rooms: an entry hall adjacent to the original front door, and a drawing room whose fireplace faced south.

The relocated fireplace now faces east.

The old front door now leads to a deck.

Stairs from the deck descend to a vertiginous lower garden, from which glimpses of the house above can be had through the trees.

Back indoors, four log-railed steps (so 'Onteora') lead from the Log Room to the dining room.

South of the dining room is a terrific period kitchen from no discernible period.

We'll peek quickly at the laundry, before returning to the Log Room.

Wildwood's most dramatic feature is the Great Room, located in the new (comparatively, anyway) wing on the north end of the house. Like today's main entrance, it's reached via a bridge. Unlike it's charmless namesakes in charmless subdivisions across America, it really is "Great."

It's unclear who built the Great Room. Maybe it was the Cofers after their marriage in 1919, or maybe it was Luisita herself, although I sort of doubt that. Or maybe it was Wildwood's next owner, actor Rollo Peters (1893-1967), seen below playing Newland Archer opposite Katherine Cornell's Ellen in a 1929 production of "The Age of Innocence." Peters began his career as a portraitist, moved from there to set design and acting, became the first general director of The Theatre Guild, and wound up in Rockland County building houses for theatrical pals like Burgess Meredith. His designs for sets and costumes are preserved today at the Yale University Library.

If ever there was a theatrical room, this is it.

Let's retrace our steps, first across the bridge, then across the Log Room, up the stairs to the second floor hall, and finally up to 3.

The 3rd floor bedroom and bath are brand new - well, maybe about the age of my car, or maybe my cat. So is the open log railing between the Log Room and the dining room, and the scalloped shingles on the eastern gable, and the bridge to the front door, and all of the exterior log rails. Would that all old house owners were so clever and sensitive.

Like most of the houses in the Park, Wildwood is closed in the winter. Squirrels won't be getting into this closet.

Time to head downstairs, turn out the lights, and collect the car.

According to an August, 1932 item in the New York Times, "Prince Frederick chose to make his first visit with Prince Louis Ferdinand to an American country club at the Onteora." I'm not sure who Prince Frederick was, but I do know princely visits weren't the norm up here. "The Four Hundred," according to a wit of the period "would have fled in a body from a poet, a painter, a musician or a clever Frenchman." Onteora Park is an upscale place whose upscale residents (mostly) belong to its upscale Club. Historically, however, there's been far too much talent hereabouts to make "society" comfortable.

Wildwood is for sale for what seems to me a very reasonable price, which fact in no way influences my decision to write about it or my opinions about its aesthetic merits. (Do I really need to tell people that? Apparently, for some I do). Mary Mullane of Mary Mullane Real Estate in Hudson, NY represents the owner. You can reach her at or 518.828.2041.


  1. Welcome back, John. Hope you got a little rest.

    Love, love, LOVE this house- every single thing about it. I bet it even SMELLS comfy and nice! :)

    -Emily (down river in Orange County)

    1. P.S.,
      Out of curiosity, is there a story behind the wonderful "pansy-faced people"?

  2. Not a false note in sight. Wonderful.

  3. So many illegal plumbing fixtures.

  4. So incredible! Reminds me of my beloved great-uncle Em's house in Poplarville, MS. He built it after returning from WW I, and it even has the same type stairs. Are the furnishings included in the sales price, I wonder?

  5. my favorite so far

  6. A smartly appointed home. Chic in its period randomness - love the smattering of deco & kitch touches. There is much to admire, The ABC-like rug in the great room is appalling however. Hideous and plebian.

    1. Amused by the comment about the rug in the Great Room. As the owner of this property, I find the carpet neither plebian, hideous or appalling. Its history is interesting. We bought it on our honeymoon to Morocco. It is in fact a "marriage carpet", each panel being in a different pattern that might appeal to the couple. Oh, how I wish it had come from ABC Carpets! Due to the size, we had to have a special loom made to create it. The only thing hideous about it was the expense! So much for taste ......

  7. I've visited one of those Onteora Park houses. This one had a two story living room, with balconies on one side, and enormous murals around the three other sides. Just a fabulous house. Thanks for sharing this one!
    Dan in the Bronx

  8. OK, for all the big old houses you have featured, this one is "mine". With the furnishings too, please. I won't ask the price for fear of starting a long journey into a project I really can't afford, especially if I want to eat. But though it is a little over the top I gotta say I would love to live here. Probably even in winter.

  9. I've got my favorite rooms picked out already. Amazing piece of history and architecture.

  10. Hаvе уоu been thinking ѕеllіng аbоut уоur home оr an buуіng nеw hоmе? You ѕhоuld undеrѕtаnd thаt nо matter who you decide tо hіrе, thеrе аrе specific ѕtерѕ necessary to ѕuссеѕѕfullу sell уоur hоmе or buу уоur nеw hоmе.If you’re either buying or selling – I will help you with negotiating the best price and terms and I will guide you through this complex process towards a smooth closing.

    If you want any information just click here real estate

  11. This home is absolutely fantastic in every way. Such an insensitive comment about a gorgeous rug. The home, and the furnishings within, are unique, beautiful and a breath of fresh air from all the sameness in design and real estate today.

  12. If you need your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (even if they're dating somebody else now) you need to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Text Your Ex Back?

  13. Thanks for your post it is very interesting for me!

  14. Thank you for this post. This is very interesting information for me.

  15. I really liked your article and the photo is super. Thanks you.

  16. A very good article. Thanks to the author. It is very important to support and help students.

  17. Our experts on custom essay help are equipped with proper knowledge of the different types of essay papers. This allows them to minimise the errors and present every task, with absolute precision.

  18. Livewebtutors aims at providing the students with a one stop solution for all the academic related issues. The company has Livewebtutors is an online Assignment Help and assignment writing service offering expert assignment help. Hire Australian assignment writing experts.
    visit now:- My Assignment Help

  19. Well written details regarding Assignment Help. Students who are busying in other academic activities and could not find time to write their assignment, they can place their order from greatassignmenthelp to get excellent and worthy writing services.
    Assignment Help Online
    Online Assignment Help
    Assignment Help Online Services
    Assignment Helper
    Assignment Assistance
    Assignment Help Experts
    Online Assignment Help Services
    Assignment Writing Help

  20. There are many Programming Help services which can help them out. The better way is to find an appropriate service for yourself. my assignment help

  21. If you still find difficulty in making the assignment, you can take Java assignment help from the online experts. Their professional writers will make your assignment quite precise and easily understandable for you. Programming Help
    Law Assignment Help
    Accounting Assignment Help
    Finance Assignment Help

  22. Our experts on custom essay help are equipped with proper knowledge of the different types of essay papers. This allows them to minimise the errors and present every task, with absolute precision.