Wednesday, April 1, 2015

French Cosmetics and Lutheran Charity

Chances are slim to negligible that you've heard of Harriet Hubbard Ayer (1849-1903), a woman who had nothing at all to do with Harriet Hubbard Ayer Inc., once the world's largest purveyor of ladies' perfumes. Hers is a story full of irony, double-cross and a good deal of venality. Its final symbol is a titanic stone mansion on the North Shore of Long Island, dedicated for the last 66 years to teaching the deaf.

According to a 1901 edition of "Who's Who in America," Mrs. Ayer was, "Born and reared in luxury, married at 16 to a man of large wealth; society leader; extensive traveler; linguist; woman of fashion. In 1883 her husband failed for over $2,000,000. She voluntarily gave up her home and all her belongings for the benefit of her husband's creditors, and went into trade; established mfg. business; cleared $200,000 in 4 years." Why is it that people of such exemplary character attract the meanest no-goods and skunkiest connivers in this world? Shortly after divorcing deadbeat Herbert Ayer, and comfortably situated in her own thriving NYC antique shop, Mrs. Ayer met "Arizona Jim" Seymour who, in 1886, lent her $50,000 to go into the cosmetics business. The result was Recamier, Toilet Preparations for the Complexion, whose fabulously successful Luxuria Cream, reputedly based on secret formulae from pre-revolutionary France, was not to be confused with paint, as makeup then was still considered. Recamier prospered, grew, opened shops and factories in New York and Europe, until 1893 when Mrs. Ayer was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum by Seymour, her former husband and her own daughter Hattie. She escaped on a technicality, embarking afterwards on a successful lecture tour entitled "Fourteen Months in a Madhouse." Alas, by 1896, Recamier had fallen victim to her tarnished image and went bankrupt. Indomitable as ever, Mrs. Ayer reinvented herself in 1900 as women's pages editor at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, wrote a 1902 best seller titled "Harriet Hubbard Ayer's Book of Health and Beauty," and died in 1903. She was 54 years old.

Her name, however, lived on. A sometime singer and actress named Lillian Sefton, friend of Ayer's other daughter Margaret, heard the whole gruesome story, which convinced her, interestingly, that cosmetics were the plastics of the future. In 1905, Miss Sefton married an entrepreneur named Vincent Thomas who, at her urging, bought the rights to Harriet Hubbard Ayer's name. In 1907 the two of them used it to found their own firm. Thomas died in 1918, after which his wife built the company into one of the largest cosmetic firms in the world. In 1938 she was the highest paid female executive in America. Harriet Hubbard Ayer Inc. marketed 27 different perfumes (Mes Fleurs, Prince Charming, Brin d'Amour, Golden Note, Darling, etc., etc.), products that skin-care-only Harriet Ayer herself never would have dreamed of selling.

A new husband and a big house would seem the obligatory next steps for the widow Thomas, and indeed they were. The husband was an artist named Robert Leftwich Dodge (d. 1940), whose works are supposed to be found at Vassar College and on the walls of the Library of Congress in Washington. In point of fact, I was unable find a single citation of Dodge's work at either of those places. A famous muralist named William de Leftwich Dodge did contribute to the Library's decoration, and he did have a brother named Robert, but that brother's full name was Robert E. Lee Dodge. None of this throws much light on the man who, at least in the photo below, looks a lot like that Gestapo man whose face gets melted when storm troopers pry open the Ark of the Covenant. What is known for certain, is that he worked for his wife's company as artistic director.

Now then, to the house: In 1922 the Dodges bought an 86-acre parcel outside Oyster Bay, Long Island from a Brooklyn developer named Harvey Murdock. In 1923 they hired architect James Hollis Welles (1864-1926), English-born president of Clinton & Russell, a New York firm known for apartment buildings and office towers, to design the house. A slightly odd choice, if you ask me. Manhattan is full of Clinton & Russell buildings, including Edwardian era icons like the Apthorp on Broadway, Graham Court in Harlem and the Langham on Central Park West. By the 1920s, the founding partners now dead, the firm became specialists in modern skyscrapers like the Cities Service Building at 60 Wall Street, and big accommodation facilities like the Mecca Masonic Temple (now the New York City Center) on West 55th St. So how did Welles land a mansion job on Long Island? Good question.

Sefton Manor was finished in 1925 and sold to the Lutheran School for the Deaf in 1949. That's 24 years as a private house versus 66 years as a school. All things considered, the house is in a remarkable state of preservation.

Of course, much that was, is no more. The sunken garden, designed in 1927 by local landscape architect Charles Leavitt, still exists, but its sophisticated sundial design (don't ask me how that worked) is gone, together with the rills, jets and the 16th century fountain that gave it that look of high maintenance Long Island luxe.

Mrs. Peter J. Denker, Mrs. Dodge's daughter, is seen on her wedding day, contemplating Long Island from one of her mother's garden temples.

The expansive terrace on the north, with its distant views of the Long Island Sound, invites contemplation too. Sefton Manor is an interesting house for a number of reasons, among them the name. I wonder if I could get away with calling my house Foreman Manor? (Probably not). There is a fine line between imposing and somber and Welle's design is trampling all over it. There are legitimate English antecedents for the look of this house, specifically St. Catherine's Court, a sprawling late 16th century pile near Bath, England that must be cold inside in the middle of August. Certain rich Americans, among them cosmetics czarinas of the 1920s, seem to have been comforted by a look of ponderous establishment.

Now we're looking at the south or entry facade of the house, the sunken garden is to our backs. The Lutherans deserve credit for many things, among them a decision not to tack a dreadful modern addition onto a fine old mansion. In lieu of that addition, however, in the late 1960s they built a large and architecturally unsympathetic education building just out of sight on the left. Too close for comfort to my mind, but given all the right things they've done, I'll cut them some slack. The service wing is seen below on the left; that trio of windows on the lower left is in the laundry room. Save for the regrettable, if economically motivated, removal of vines and shrubs, not much has changed since the house was photographed for a sale brochure in the late 1940s.

Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf's Advancement Director, Nancy Leghart, was the perfect hostess. She unlocked all the doors, turned on all the lights, and left! (Thank you, Nancy).

It's a comfortable house with a straightforward plan but, layout-wise, features no bells or whistles. It's obviously suited for large scale entertaining and luxurious house parties straight from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, there is neither reception room for informal visiting, nor library for beloved - or even attractively bound - books. I guess if the local gentry isn't in the habit of dropping in, and you're not much of a reader, why pretend? Mrs. Dodge's desk was in her bedroom, and if her husband had a den or a study of his own, I don't know where it was. No room on the plans is designated as such.

Off a sumptuously paneled vestibule is a single coat and powder room (no separate gents' and ladies' here) and a short stair up to the Great Hall. Back in the 1880s, the newly fashionable "living hall," an architectural conceit that summoned romanticized images of medieval lords and ladies, actually was used for living.

Living halls soon mutated into "Great Halls," particularly in the houses of great people. They remind me of presentation feasts at czarist balls, where cornucopias of exotic dishes were dumped in the garbage as soon as arriving guests had seen them, then replaced with a entirely new feast for the guests to actually eat. My metaphor might have a few leaks, but I've seen an awful lot of Great Halls in recent years which, while attractive, clearly served no conceivable purpose other than to impress visitors standing around with drinks or simply passing through.

Sefton Manor was designed for rich arrivistes whose careers spoke to what we might call the kick-ass zeitgeist of the 1920s. These people were showy, rather than cultured, which is fine with me. My sense is that Lillian gave the architect Welles his marching orders, and he gave her a house which, despite its Tudor veneer, is very much a product of the Jazz Age. The Great Hall is a residential version of the lobby in a Thomas Lamb movie palace. How could it not be gorgeous?

The living room immediately east of the Great Hall had that polished flagstone floor from the start. I love the view in the sale brochure. How about that rug? or the firescreen? or the fringed lampshades and the carved tables? But not the chandeliers. They are advanced troops from a showhouse decorator. "Signs of Spring" is scheduled to open here in early May.

At the other end of the Great Hall is the dining room. The first students at the Mill Neck Manor School slept, studied, went to church and attended classes all in this house. They ate meals in this room; the early staff worked in offices and slept in rooms of their own upstairs. For a while, the gardens were maintained as they had been in the past, laborers paid with proceeds from the sale of flowers raised in the estate greenhouses. Pity that didn't last. Since 2001, Sefton Manor has been vacant, used by four designer showcases so far, and rented regularly as an event venue. Classrooms and dorms are now located in a crescent of modern buildings stretching from the old stable to the educational building.

I was struck repeatedly by the period charm of the chandeliers and wall sconces - so very 1920s. Here's the breakfast room, and how cool is that chandelier?

A paneled corridor connects front vestibule and adjacent public rooms with the servants' wing on the west. Off this corridor, just beyond the breakfast room, is a delicious tiled flower room.

The Lutherans have been commendable stewards who've kept the house in brilliant condition. That said, the pantry and kitchen have unfortunately been left to the devices of showcase designers. I know, I know; it's not a house museum, but I can't help missing what used to be.

Time for a look upstairs. The stained glass windows on the first landing, installed in 1927, represent five Shakespearian plays. Mr. Dodge was reputedly a great lover of Shakespeare, which is as good an explanation as any. I don't want to be unfair to Mr. Dodge, but the literature on Sefton Manor is infused with a sort of unchallenged reverence to his memory, as if he were some sort of great artist. He was an art director married to a rich woman. Nothing wrong with that, but he was not Bernard Berenson.

Notable on the second floor is the enormous master bedroom, which was also Mrs. Dodge's office. Her desk was in the southern alcove, with excellent views of the garden. I don't know if the Dodges shared a bedroom, but probably they didn't. In which case, the room at the top of the stairs likely as not was his. The two rooms are connected, or at least his is connected to a small anteroom outside her door. On the subject of bathrooms, showhouse decorators, or maybe zealous Lutherans, have had their way with almost all of the originals.

A long hall leads to the five other bedrooms. Yes, there is an elevator, and it was the only door that was locked.

The bedrooms testify, in varying degrees, to the past presence of interior decorators.

There are wonderful details throughout, including a few surviving bathroom fixtures. Most are gone, alas, replaced by some pretty zany decorator stuff.

Even the servants' wing has been decorated. Look, I know these old houses need decorator showcases. They're good for the decorators and raise a lot of money for the owners. Sefton Manor wouldn't otherwise be nearly so clean and watertight. But that doesn't mean I have to like them.

Let's have a look at 3.

On the family side of the building are 4 more bedrooms, a secretary's office and a billiard room. Not that there's much furniture in Sefton Manor these days, but what there is has been stored in the billiard room to make way for the decorator showcase. Maybe the altitude up here discouraged defacement of fine old bathrooms. Some good stuff survives. As for the half dozen maids' rooms on 3, the school years ago blew them out and replaced them with a large open space.

We could take the back stairs down, but nah, let's go down the main one. And while we're about it, let's take a quick look at the basement.

The Lutherans visited fifty - that's right, fifty - intact and unwanted country estates before settling on Sefton Manor. Sounds like fun, as you can see below. What got them started? According to "Planted in Faith...Nurtured in Hope...Grown in Love...Mill Neck at the Millennium," published by the Mill Neck Foundation in 2001, church members, "wanted to recognize what God had done in a special way." On election eve, 1944, Rev. Floyd Possehl, missionary-at-large to the Deaf in New York, listened to election results with a group of fellow Lutherans. "We didn't like the way it turned out; so we said, 'We should make this night memorable in another way.'...(W)e tossed around ideas and said 'Let's start a Deaf school on the East Coast.'" They bought the Dodge house in '49 for $216,000, opened the school in '51 with 19 students, today serve 128 enrollees from Pre-Kindergarten through 12, and have contributed a lot of help and joy to the world.

Lillian Sefton Dodge sold her company to Lever Brothers in 1947 for $5.5 million. She died in New York in 1960 but the company, despite changing hands several times, still exists. Limited tours of what the Lutherans now call Mill Neck Manor can be arranged by reservation. The link is


  1. This mansion has indeed been lovingly maintained by the school through the decades however leaving such a magnificent building empty with no purpose except for the occasional banquet or wedding reception is unfortunate. A structure as architecturally interesting as this needs to have a purpose in order to survive and not one day be viewed as a liability and not an asset to the school. The bones of the fine formal gardens are still beautiful today and the site, high on a hill overlooking Beaver Dam and Long Island Sound beyond is equally spectacular. Another beautiful post and kudos to the remarkable stewardship of this estate by the school

  2. It may be a coincidence but the Earl of Sefton's circa 1886 Abbeystead House, built as a shooting lodge (and now used as such by the Duke of Westminster) is very similar.
    Perhaps the client or architect knew of it.

  3. A beautiful and informative post! And this house had its own dairy! It does convey a sense of the expansive 1920s, being a rather deluxe if somber version of the then-popular "stockbroker Tudor".

    I wonder if Mr. Dodge wasn't a rather charming man in life? Maybe that's why his memory is so cherished. One wonders.

  4. I always like touches of stained glass as we see here. Overall the mansion is a bit gloomy for me...''stuffy Wall Street lawyer Tudor''.

  5. Magnificent paneling and plasterwork, not to mention all those incredible lighting fixtures. Details, details, details, superb ironwork and knobs too. Wonderful state of preservation. Many thanks to a caring school administration and for your post.

  6. The name Robert Leftwich Dodge sounded vaguely familiar to me, so I just googled him. According to one website, Mary Dodge, born in Viriginia and known for her listing in the 1894 Paris Salon, was a student in Paris of Carolus-Duran and was the mother of artist William de Leftwich Dodge, his brother Robert Leftwich Dodge, and his sister Anita Dodge. Vassar College's campus guide states that Robert Leftwich Dodge, a follower of Tiffany and La Farge, designed the stained glass windows on either side of the organ in Vassar's chapel. And the book "Lost Symbols: The Secrets of Washington, DC, in describing the Library of Congress, states "Two artists worked on the paintings in the Pavilion of the Elements and the surrounding zodiac within the tondo: while Robert Leftwich Dodge painted the central image of Apollo and the four wall lunettes, with their rich association of the four Elements. There may be little doubt about the attributions, for both sections are signed and dated..."

    So I guess he's legit. Or at least somewhat legit.

    1. "The Library of Congress: The Art and Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building," by John Young Cole and Henry Hope Reed, describes with somber authority lunettes in the Pavilion of the Elements as being the work of Robert Leftwich Dodge. Not nearly as good a joke as Mr, Dodge's attributions being parts of a faked resume, I stand duly corrected and appropriately humbled.

  7. Looks a lot like a Emma Willard School!

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