Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Work on Old Houses

Much architectural damage in this world is done in the name of "nodernization." I still remember a moment many years ago, standing in the dining room of a ca. 1890 brownstone on West 81st St. The charming lady who owned it was explaining how she had "simplified" the mahogany paneling by cutting it down about 50%, because she thought it was "too much." The result was horribly under-scaled, but she liked it. The Hermes store around the corner from my apartment recently expanded into a brownstone row house on the northwest corner of Madison Ave. and 62nd St. Many years ago the facade of this house was also "simplified" by means of stripping away the original stone window surrounds. Hermes put a lot of money into renovating the building, but when the construction scaffolding came down, the upstairs windows looked terrible. Much to somebody's credit, another scaffold went up, and the original surrounds were exactly reproduced, using those on the adjacent house as a model. I love seeing things like this happen to old houses.

Image 1 - Here's the Hermes annex, with the scaffolding not quite all the way down.
Image 2 - These 2 houses, on the north side of East 65th St. between Park and Madison Aves, were identical when built. Both originally had high front stoops. The one on the left suffered the same strip job that disfigured the new Hermes' annex. Window details were frequently removed at the same time high stoops were torn off, often during the conversion from private house to apartment building. The stoop on this house was restored about ten years ago, but nothing was done about the windows. The house on the right also lost its stoop, but retained its original windows. Although the big bow window that's there today looks original, it's only a few years old.
Image 3 - A closeup of the new Hermes annex.
Image 4 - Looking even closer at an Hermes window. Deterioration and clumsy repairs are visible on the adjoining house, although not noticeable from the street.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Out of the frying pan

Unable to hold on to Paxhurst (see 5 posts below), we sold it under duress and rented something even grander. Lindley Hall was originally called Crow's Nest. It sits on a promontory at the south end of Tuxedo Lake and, but for the growth of the forest below, would have a stunning view all the way up Tuxedo Lake. The architect was Whitney Warren, the Beaux Arts trained "cousin" of the Vanderbilts (it was a tenuous cousin-ship), whose most famous project was probably Grand Central Station. The client was Henry Munroe, a prototypical society banker of the sort ideally suited to Tuxedo Park ca. 1900. The house was given to a Catholic College in the 1940s, and sometime around 1960 it was afflicted with a perfectly horrible classroom addition which, happily, extends off the rear of the building and isn't overly obvious. The cost of demolishing it has intimidated subsequent owners ever since the house reverted to single family use. It was still there, the last I knew, like a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend," to quote Prince Charles on the proposed modern addition to the British National Gallery. Two years after moving here we were so snarled up in a ruinous lawsuit in New York, that we were forced to decamp to Millbrook. My favorite statistic on this house was that it had 17 fireplaces. The experience of living in it was worth every worried moment.

Rooms on the main floor

Image 1: The conservatory was converted to a science lab when the college had the house, and later to a main floor kitchen
Image 2: Looking from the dining room to the main hall
Image 3: The Morning Room
Image 4: My desk in the Morning Room, where I spent the majority of my time
Image 5: Wall detail in the Morning Room. The doors and windows were 12' high

Lindley Hall - details

Image 1: The dining room was originally the drawing room, before the kitchen was moved
Image 2: Dining room paneling
Image 3: Dining room wall sconce
Image 4: detail from the Green Room
Image 5: Detail of the stair rail

Up the stairs

Image 1: Main stairhall
Image 2: Looking up to the 2nd floor
Image 3: Looking down from the first landing
Image 4: There is nothing as luxurious as grand old plumbing
Image 5: I've carried this pedestal sink from house to house. It's now in Millbrook.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Inside Paxhurst

We were kids playing house, but what a house. Paxhurst was my wife's and my Tuxedo Park, NY home for 3 years, from 1977 to 1980. Its history and a bit about our time there is described in the posts below. I haven't set foot in this house in 30 years, but its details and corners are as clear in my mind as this morning's coffee. I loved Paxhurst, but just coulnd't hold on to it. The photos above show the Gold Room, a corner of the conservatory, the summer dining room, and a corner of the main dining room. If I lived there with my digital camera today, I'd have many more images - of the fanciful carved figures atop the newel posts, the goddesses holding beaded light bulbs over my wife's dressing table, the huge Caen stone fireplace in the main hall, and the beautiful wall sconces and chandeliers. But...I don't

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paxhurst, Tuxedo Park, NY

In 1977, my wife and I scraped together every penny we had (and then some) to buy this beautiful old house in Tuxedo Park, New York. It was designed in 1904 by the firm of Barney and Chapman for William Mitchell Vail Hoffman. Hoffman was a prototypical Park type. The family firm was a player in the Manhattan real estate market. As well as being very social, which was the rule in the Park back then, they were very Episcopalian as well. One brother was a bishop. We bought Paxhurst for $175,000 - a spectacular deal - despite which we were spectacularly unable to hold on to it. It was really my doing, and my then wife bears little guilt for our abbreviated 3-year stay.

Image 1 - Here's the house from the air. The driveway loops down a steep hill and exits the property through stone posts beyond the stable, which is just out of sight at the bottom of the frame.
Image 2 - When we came, the drive had lawned over, as we say. We bought the adjoining stable and reunited it to the original estate, although to call it an "estate" sounds a bit grand, seing as it was only 5 acres. On weekends I restored the drive by hand, cutting away years of turf to expose the gravel and the hand laid stone gutter - truly the definition of a "labor of love."
Image 3 - It was a very impressive stone house - original in design, magnificent in scale, sumptuous in detail.
Image 4 - We parked our car in front of these steps.
Image 5 - Here are the original owners. That's Mr. Hoffman in the middle, wearing his weekend hat. His wife, the former Irene Stoddard, is on the right. We never discovered the name of the fellow on the left.

More Paxhurst

Image 1 - The front door opened into a small panelled foyer, and then into a grand stair hall. The newel posts were topped with fanciful creatures - a motif swiped from Knole in England.
Image 2 - The long retaining wall supports the drive coming up from the stable. Two very fine rooms faced east: the Gold Room, or ballroom on the right; and a small marble floored conservatory on the left.
Image 3 - The south facade had an open porch on the right. The cantilevered room on the left was a summer dining room with pale gray and white walls, floor to ceiling glass doors, a marble floor and an alabaster bowl chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Treillage laid on the walls in perspective patterns surrounded painted views of birds and flowers.
Image 4 - The summer dining room is visible on the right. On the left is the porch off the original kitchen, above which was a terracotta floored terrace with bad leaks. As a result of these, the original kitchen and pantries on the lower level were in ruins and we rarely went down there.
Image 5 - This is a vintage shot of the garden that unfortunately doesn't give much idea of the plantings.

It was the most beautiful house in which I ever lived. We sold it for twice what we bought it for, but that did little to soothe the sense of loss. After Paxhurst, we rented an even grander joint called Lindley Hall where, once again, our reach exceeded our grasp. At last report, both Paxhurst and Lindley Hall are in about the same condition they were when we left them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Then and Now

Sometime during the next year, myself and the owner of the Millbrook Independent will publish "Old Houses in Millbrook," being a collection of my monthly columns of the same name. I have a small but devoted media following and I am, at least within a 4-mile radius of Millbrook, nearly famous. I've also got many more images than there've been room for in the paper, especially for my current topic, a grand old place called Edgewood. It was a white elephant to be sure, and in run down condition when the last occupant died in 1967, but there's a part of me that weeps for old places like this. Edgewood was bulldozed in the early 1970s. This must have been about the time the first image above was taken. The house was demolished in spite of a half million dollar trust the heir also inherited, earmarked specifically for its upkeep. He eventually gave the land minus the big house to the Millbrook School, which sold it to a developer. Interestingly, the former 200 acre estate is today owned by only two parties. There was once a fabulous walled garden at Edgewood, and the four images below the house photo show it in its heydey during the 1920s, and today.