Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Bread Upon the Hudson
Called Lyndhurst, the house, now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is located immediately south of the Hudson River village of Tarrytown. It is about as gorgeous as an American country estate can get. The main gate on Broadway (the same road, incidentally, on which last week's BOH was located) used to look like the first image below. Too skinny for tour buses, I suppose, so now it has been changed.
The approach to Lyndhurst from the outside world, a critical ingredient in any country layout, leads one through a romantic landscape of sweeping lawns, specimen trees and carefully composed views. It would have taken longer in the horse-drawn era, but the main house, when you get there, is still a wow.
Lyndhurst's historical importance, not to mention its considerable charm, derives from its evolution, to put it simply, from small to big. In 1838, a former New York City mayor named William Paulding (1770-1854) hired the era's "architect du jour," Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), to design a country place in the newly fashionable "Gothick" style. America in 1838 was still besotted by the Greek Revival, a post-revolutionary design tradition which had littered our towns and hillsides with mock-temples redolent of early democratic symbolism. Davis rightly sensed the nation was ready for a change. He took the architectural world by storm with picturesque, assymetrical, profoundly romantic and occasionally brooding compositions derived from the European Gothic, and in the process became rich. Paulding called his Davis-designed house Knoll, and here's what it looked like upon completion in 1842. Davis further embelished the Paulding place during the family's occupancy, then doubled its size for the next owner.
In 1864, Paulding's son Philip sold Knoll to a Manhattan dry goods king named George Merritt (1807-1873). Wisely as it turned out, Merritt hired Davis to transform a fashionable but undersized rural villa into a full out country mansion. Merritt renamed the place Lyndenhurst, not to be confused with the present shortened name of Lyndhurst. Elsewhere on the estate he built the largest private greenhouse in America, about which more later. A century and a half later, the estate is not only intact, it's in spectacular condition.
Merritt died in 1873 and in 1878 his heirs first rented, then two years later sold Lyndenhurst (for $255,000) to the notorious Jay Gould. More a force of nature than a mere mortal, Gould stabbed backs, watered stock, promoted villains like Boss Tweed, even plunged the nation into a financial panic in 1869 while trying, with co-conspirator Jim Fisk, to corner the market in gold. Gould ultimately became the ninth richest man in American history. My favorite Gould quote dates from the 1870s when Commodore Vanderbilt attempted to buy control of the Erie Railroad from the three apocalyptic horseman of Wall Street, Dan Drew, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould. "If the old hog wants more stock," Gould remarked, "we'll print him all he wants." A close second, albeit less amusing, is Gould's observation while hiring strikebreakers during the Great Southwest Railroad strike of 1886, that he could, if he wanted, easily "hire half the working class to kill the other half." That said, he and his heirs were scrupulously respectful of his Davis-designed mansion at Tarrytown. Gould died of pneumonia at the age of 56.
Davis' wonderful elevation (from the river side) of the Merritt enlargement of 1864 commemorates a clarion call to post-Civil War fashion. That said, it's a long way from the sophisticated work of John Russell Pope, or Delano & Aldrich, or David Adler, or any of a dozen other names I could drop, architects whose elite house designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were far more elegant, not to mention easier to live in, albeit never quite as picturesque.
Howard Zar, Lyndhurst's patient and knowledgeable Executive Director, is unlocking the south door of the vestibule.
Of note in the main hall: 1) Lots of luscious rare wood and marble surfaces, 95% of which are actually faux painted pine. Indeed, there's hardly a door or a piece of paneling in this place - even in the service areas - that has not been tricked up with some sort of fake finish. 2) In the course of its stint as a private house, Lyndhurst was redecorated in different tastes at different times. Today's interiors represent a compromise - to varying degrees in various rooms - of past decors. The hall busts are of Washington (on the left) and Lafayette (on the right), and they've been here since the house was built. Paulding, by way of explanation, was Lafayette's host during the latter's famous American tour of 1825.
The drawing room, beyond General Washington at the southern end of the house, has the look of the Paulding era more than any other room in the house. Even the furniture is Davis-designed. During the Gould era this room was heavy with fringed plush, "aesthetic" wallpaper and bulging gasoliers adrip with crystal.
The reception room, accessed alternately via this door on the north wall of the drawing room, double doors from the main hall, or a third door on the south wall of the library, looks much as it did when the Merritts lived here. The ceiling paintings depict the hours of the day, although how exactly they do so escapes me.
In the hall outside the reception room, a corridor stretches northward past General Lafayette to the dining room. Located on the left side of this corridor is the library, essentially a double room whose smaller component is called the cabinet. This was the dining room before the Merritt enlargement, and that's Mr. Merritt on the wall.
The door between the corridor and the library faces the main stair, to which we'll return shortly. For now, let's turn left and visit the dining room, the most Merritt-ish - or Gould-ish, if you will - room in the house, where the Victorian passion for rich color, complicated surfaces and grand proportions is at full cry. Gould rated Marritt's dining room sufficiently luxe to leave it "as is." Who knows what Boni de Castellane, a man who once rented the entire Bois de Boulogne for a party and bought a whole block on the Avenue Foch to build a palace, would have done, had he had the chance.
I love old serving pantries. This one is reached through a swing door on the dining room's north wall. The open doors are on the dumbwaiter, which connects to the basement kitchen. The cabinetry is probably made of clear pine but even back here it's been disguised to look like oak, or something similar.
Howard is leading the way down back stairs to the kitchen suite. Although not on any tour, these rooms are still 95% intact. The dumbwaiter is located at the foot of the stairs in what was likely a combination scullery/prep pantry. The kitchen adjoins to the south, fab old cabinetry (just painted white for a change), paneling and original stove all still in situ.
Anna bequeathed Lyndhurst to the nation in an era when kitchens, servant halls, bathrooms, maids' quarters, etc. were considered to have no historic value and less interest to visitors. Hah! The legacy of this outdated attitude remains in the form of heat pumps, ventilation fans, ductwork and impenetrable forests of insulated piping whose location appears as random as its purpose is obscure. A good example of this is the piping on the ceiling of the servants' hall at Lyndhurst. One day, Howard tells me, the Trust will fix all this. It'll be a big job, however, rendered more difficult since what must be removed is often functional and fairly new.
Time to go upstairs to the bedrooms on 2, plus what they call the "Grand Gallery."
The fact that no sane designer of upscale late 19th or early 20th century houses would dream of putting a shared bathroom in the middle of the second floor landing in no way detracts from the antique charm of the example below. Not quite Chippendale, Ill admit, but how great are those claw and ball feet?
A corridor leads south from the hall bath to the most important interior space in the house, the art gallery. Originally Paulding's library, Merritt removed the shelves and converted the space into a combination billiard room/art gallery. When Gould arrived he exiled the billiard table and substituted his own paintings - including one of himself - which remain on the walls today.
Concerning the 2nd floor: Endearing? Absolutely. Interesting? Exceedingly so. Well laid out? That would be a no, at least in the context of privacy and convenience. Beyond the door below, located on the south wall of the gallery, is the surprisingly small bedroom Jay Gould used between 1880, when he bought the house from the Merritts, and 1892 when he died. His daughter Helen (1868-1938), buying out her siblings after her father's death, moved into this room and continued to sleep in it for 46 years. In 1913, at the age of 45, she married Finley Shepard (1867-1942), East Coast representative of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, whose trackage was formerly a part of her father's 15% of all the railroads in the United States. They shared Jay Gould's cramped bedroom, where Shepard supposedly slept on the sofa. (That's what they tell me). Gould, unlike most Victorian paterfamilias, had encouraged his daughter to study law at New York University, an experience that must have helped during Mrs. Shepard's many years as a prominent philanthropist. Helen Shepard also had a kind heart. Having passed child bearing age by the time of her marriage, she and her husband adopted 4 children, among them a 3-year old toddler who, one dark night in 1914, had been abandoned on the steps of St Patrick's Cathedral.
The Shepards did some upgrading in 1913, including installation of new bathrooms. Among these is the one below, en suite with their bedroom. One day visitors will (hopefully) be able to see it, sans mannequins.
The image below shows the east wall of the gallery. The short flight of steps leads to the so-called East Bedroom. Perched atop the vestibule below, this was originally Mrs. Gould's room. It became the principal guestroom when her daughter Helen bought the house. In 1913, a teeny little bathroom was squashed into what presumably was a closet, situated (unfortunately) on the wrong side of the bedroom door. The little bath is now crammed with storage and too small to photograph.
Another pair of bedrooms, full of Davis- and Davis-inspired furniture, flank the corridor heading back to the main stair. These rooms would have shared the first bathroom we saw, a normal arrangement in houses where most people live, but not so normal in a mansion.
The Comptesse de Castellane, nee Anna Gould, had five children by her first husband. Divorcing him in 1906 (on grounds of infidelity), she proceeded in 1908 to marry his cousin, Helie de Talleyrant-Perigord, Duc de Sagan (1859-1937). The new Duchess of Talleyrand-Perigord then became the mother of two more children. I confess I've never imagined Anna Gould in a particularly maternal light, but....seven kids; go figure. By 1938, the deaths of her second husband, plus that of her sister Helen, not forgetting the ominous political situation in Europe, convinced Anna to abandon France where she'd spent most of her life, return to America and buy Lyndhurst from her sister's estate. The framed photo shows her arrival at the docks in New York. For the next 23 years Anna maintained Lyndhurst, visited it occasionally, but spent most of her time in a suite at the Plaza Hotel - that is, when she wasn't shopping. The images below are of the rooms at Lyndhurst that she and her sister Helen occupied as girls. After 1938, whenever Anna came up from New York, she slept in her childhood room.
Howard is showing me the lobby between Anna's room, called the North Bedroom (the door on the right) and her sister Helen's room, called the Star Bedroom (behind the camera). His hand is on the door to one of those squashed-in 1913 bathrooms. Beyond the double doors is the first bathroom we saw. Until the Goulds came along, it was the only bathroom in the house.
Anna's room is currently full of clothes.
The two doors on the north wall of the lobby lead to a boudoir on the right and Helen's room on the left.
The house narrows significantly on the 3rd floor, most of which is full of Anna's clothes.
Narrow stairs twist higher and higher until one at last reaches a tower room, beyond whose windows are views from the Tappan Zee to the Manhattan skyline.
What goes up...
There's a good deal more to Lyndhurst than simply a big old house. For example, the bowling alley, presently in the middle of a full scale restoration. There's also a Roman Pool, which I missed entirely, a scattering of picturesque cottages built for the help, and 67 acres of lawns and trees. Almost as astonishing as the house itself is the greenhouse, whose well maintained skeleton remains an impressive sight, even without the glass. Three months after Gould bought the estate, Merritt's wooden greenhouse burned to the ground. Lord & Burnham prompty erected a monumental metal framed replacement, the largest private greenhouse in the world. By the 1970s it was a wreck. The wooden portions were removed, the glass stored and the framework stabiized. One day it may be restored, but of course, one day I may get married again too.
Anna's will left Lyndhurst to the National Trust, together with an endowment for its maintenance. Alas, all those French children of hers weren't about to sit still for that. In the wake of the inevitable litigation, the Trust managed to keep the house and grounds, but the children made off with the endowment. Part of the ensuing struggle for financial survival entailed selling portions of the estate, one of which was directly in front of the main gate. A pleasant street of attractive ranch houses now stares directly into Lyndhurst's main entrance. Not the worst price, I suppose, for preserving so wonderful a place. Mansion and grounds are open to the public at different times for different fees, and if you can manage to walk there without a car, you can ramble around the grounds for free. The link is www.lyndhurst.org.