Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Park Avenue Houses

Remember Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe at the United Nations? Well, maybe you don't, since it was 51 years ago. The Soviet UN Mission back then was located in a McKim, Mead and White mansion built for banker Percy Pyne, and located on the corner of Park Avenue and 68th St. Khruschev, the avatar of Soviet proletarianism was, for the duration of his stay in New York, housed in precisely the sort of swank Manhattan mansion today's Russian oligarchs lust to possess.

The Russians eventually sold the place to a real estate developer who, despite having already commenced interior demolition, was happy to resell it suddenly and unexpectedly to the Marquesa de Cuevas. Talk about "deus ex machina." This lady, nee Margaret Rockefeller Strong, not only bought the Pyne house but also the adjoining house built for Pyne's son-in-law Oliver Filey. Both buildings are examples of about the best early 20th Century Colonial Revival design work in town. The Marquesa gave the Filey house to the Spanish American Institute, and donated the Pyne manse to her cousin David Rockefeller. He in turn gave it to the Center for Inter-American Relations.

The story of the eleventh hour rescue of the Russian Mission is pretty well known. Less known is the simultaneous rescue of the Filey house next door. Virtually unknown is anything pertaining to the other houses on that elegant block. So, in grateful recognition of my 22 followers, and of the average of 63 people who visit my blog each day, I'm going to tell you about the northernmost of the so-called Park Avenue Houses, the Henry P. Davison house at 690 Park Avenue, pictured above.

Henry Pomeroy Davison (1867-1922), largely self-educated and with no college degree, taught school in rural Pennsylvania at age 16, and was a Morgan partner in New York by age 41. I doubt many people have heard of him today, but he was a big deal guy in the early 20th Century. Davison was a founder of Bankers Trust Company, one of the organizers of the Federal Reserve, he administered a half-billion dollar Morgan war loan, and was President of the American Red Cross. During WW I, he raised a hundred million dollars in seven days for that charity; later in the war he raised another hundred and seventy million.

Davison was a member of top drawer clubs (University, Piping Rock, Jeckyl Island, to name a few), a force in local charities (Treasurer of the Museum of Natural History), and an all around high liver. Toward the end of the First War, he and his wife donated their house at 12 West 51st St to the YWCA and hired the society architectural firm of Walker and Gillette to build the mansion pictured above. The same firm designed the Davisons' country estate at Lattingtown, Long Island, called Peacock Point.

Walker and Gillette apparently had a penchant for East 69th St. Besides 690 Park (1917), they also designed 35 (in 1910) and 52 East 69th (also in 1917). Leon Gillette (1878- 1945) had the Beaux Arts training, working first for New York's Beaux Arts champions Warren and Wetmore before heading off to the Ecole itself and graduating in 1903. The firm did a slew of what we like to call "important" country houses - among them the Coe estate, now Planting Fields Arboretum out on Long Island, and five big houses in Tuxedo Park. Swanke Hayden Connell is Walker and Gillette's successor firm.

The front door to 690 Park. The building today houses the Italian Consulate.

It gladdens my heart to see sophisticated attention to scale, proportion and detail as I do on this window overlooking 69th St. Ornate as it is, nothing's too heavy, nothing's too much.

There's you and me and maybe a few others who look at things like iron balconies on windows, but what things of beauty they are - or can be. If proportion is indeed the "good breeding" of architecture - and I'm in full agreement with that statement - then the relationship between the heft of the iron railing and the size and shape of the window is crucially important to the aesthetic impact. This railing is just right.

A lot of educated thought went into these brick walls, which combine all manner of subtle color and textural variations. The result is an impression of visual richness, even if the eye doesn't immediately recognize the source.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Best Old House (1 of 4)

In the spring of 1975, while serving on a Manhattan drug trial jury, I noticed an ad in the New York Times for a country house for rent in Tuxedo Park, NY. The phone number turned out to be for a firm of family retainers, one of whom the following weekend showed me the house. Seeing Tuxedo for the first time, even in its damaged 1970s condition, was like discovering heaven. The house in the ad was called Sunny Rock, built in 1905 for one Ambrose Monell, famous among other things for the invention of a nickel alloy that bore his name. The last owner had died, his son was working in Paris, and the estate decided the house was better rented than left untenanted. My fraternity brother Jimmy and his future wife Libby went in on it with me and my future wife Randi. We rented Sunny Rock for a year, fully furnished, for $500 a month.

Sunny Rock was sited on a rugged hillside with a single drive for both family and service vehicles. This is the vehicular passage leading from the formal courtyard in front of the house to the service area behind. Under the arch to the right was a room filled with firewood so well aged it barely took more than a match to turn into a roaring fire. Note the workmanship in stone on the bay window.

This is a view of a lake view piazza accessed from the main floor drawing room via a heavy glass door. There's just a glimpse of the 1905 picture window that provided a view of the lake from indoors. How about that stonework, and the beautiful dressed stone eaves.

Here's my black cat Smokey, gone these thirty years, on the piazza at Sunny Rock. Those sliding glass panels warded off chilly evening breezes, an old-time solution to a perennial problem.

The view from the piazza, after Jimmy and I cut down a couple of trees.

The Best Old House (2 of 4)

This is the main hall at Sunny Rock, viewed from the entrance to the drawing room. The twin linenfold doors just inside the archway lead to the phone booth. Shouldn't every big old house have a phone booth? Out of sight on the left is a stairway leading down to a high-studded conservatory with metal-lined planters and a vintage picture window which, before the trees grew up, overlooked Tuxedo Lake.

This stairway descended from the conservatory to a basement billiard room with a big stone fireplace, french doors to the lawn, lots of dark wood paneling, and considerable water damage.

Here's the drawing room. There were wonderful thick rugs in these old houses, stitched together in long columns that reminded me of mowed lawns. The curtains were satisfyingly deluxe too, even when they hung a little askew. The furniture in this room wasn't overly valuable, but certainly gracious and comfortable. Out of sight to the left was a Steinway grand, beyond which was the lake view piazza.

Here's the dining room, complete with portieres, mouldings and a good looking table and chairs that may well have been antique. Back then I was a less dependable judge of those things.

The dining room fireplace with nautical over-mantle.

The Best Old House (3 of 4)

Adjacent to our bedroom was a sunporch with walls of windows and woodwork painted a soft grey with mouldings picked out in off white. The lake views had been pretty much obscured by trees, but the room was still a knockout.

Another view of the same room. Note the mirrored doors on the closets, a nice old mansion touch. The house was full of brilliant wicker, of which this chair is a nice example.

The wicker on the lake view piazza downstairs was particularly handsome, and perfectly distressed by age, not abuse.

The bathroom off the master was nothing if not noble. How about that tub? And how much did I love the sponge holder, and the ceramic hot and cold levers, and the nickel-plated soap holder that hung on the edge of the tub? Answer: a lot.

Working as a broker in New York I see a lot of fancy bathrooms. They are well and good, but my personal taste was formed by the elements in this photo, to wit: 1) flat wall tiles with sharp corners that lend vintage bath and kitchen walls a subtle smoothness; 2) door and window moldings articulated in tile; 3) countertops made from 2" thick white marble; 4) fat glass counter legs and towel bars; 5) a built-in mirror; 6) thick glass shelving; 7) mirrored sconces for which Elsie de Wolfe would have killed; and 8) everything white, white, white.

The Best Old House (4 of 4)

Like everything else at Sunny Rock, the original kitchen was still all there. Thinking back on this is cause for some pain, since along with the laundry room (see below) the kitchen was completely demolished after we left. What you see in the photos was replaced with a 1970s kitchen that was far more functional...and totally soulless. Did I care if that old stove was packed full of unwanted mail? In a word: no. Just living with it every day was a wonderful experience.

The glass-doored kitchen cabinets were all intact, as were the floor-to-ceiling tiled walls, the hanging ceiling lights, even the curtains on the windows, a frilly accommodation no doubt to some long dead cook.

Everything I loved in a big old kitchen was in this room: the steel-topped table for either prep or meals; matching wooden kitchen chairs; small painted occasional table; big oak prep table with the obligatory oilcloth cover; the antique linoleum; and that homage to modern times, the rolling dishwasher.

The laundry room had also survived virtually intact. I rather like the new(ish) washing machine shoe-horned into the line of vintage wash tubs.

Those metal oblong shapes on the left side of the frame are roll-out drying racks. Clean laundry fresh from the tubs and the wringer would be draped over bars inside each rolling hanger, then pushed back into a heated chamber. A labor intensive process, granted, but a wonderful vintage mechanism. The modern washing machine is out of sight to the right. What else do I like about this room, besides the surviving mechanical artifacts? The floor to ceiling tile walls; the varnished wood door with pebble glass lights; the ceramic tub legs; the antique faucets.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Poughkeepsie (1 of 3)

I spend my weekends in Millbrook, an attractive Dutchess County village located some sixteen miles - and about the same number of psychological light years - from the City of Poughkeepsie. From colonial times through the 1950s, Poughkeepsie enjoyed a prosperous diversified economy, a handsome and historic built environment, and a scenic location between the beautiful Hudson River and the bucolic farms of Dutchess County. So, how did it go to hell so fast? I don't know. Ask the people in Newark, or Detroit, or Cleveland, or closer by in Newburgh or Hudson. By 1970, Poughkeepsie was on a steep downward spiral. It may have finally leveled out, or at least we hope so. Looking back, maybe nothing could have stopped the abandonment of downtown by retail shops and their relocation to the malls south of the city. Who at the time understood that "urban renewal" would destroy exactly the buildings most valuable for future rebirth? If they'd asked me, I would have told them turning Main Street into a grim pedestrian mall was a dumb idea. But they didn't, and it did.

For all the damage and poverty and despair of the last half century, Poughkeepsie remains a fascinating city, architecturally anyway. Like many old Hudson River towns, it is brimful of great old houses, albeit not always in neighborhoods we'd like to live in. I've been exploring the city for years, frankly amazed at all I've found. As far as big old houses go, the best street in Poughkeepsie is probably Garfield Place, illustrated above and in the four images that follow.

This house looks a little newer than the one above. That mansard roof says post-Civil War to me.

I'm guessing this house was built in the 1850s and enlarged after the Civil War. The porch and the extension on the right look to me like part of a renovation.

Victorian architects must have had fun slapping these places together. Pretty much anything went back then, and the results are nothing if not original. This one, by the way, is for sale. It's not the only one on the block, either.

People were building houses on Garfield Place at least into the beginning of the twentieth century, judging from this stucco manse squeezed onto a corner lot that might once have been somebody's lawn. How would you describe a house with a Flemish gable, overhanging Italianate eaves, columned Neo-classical porches and Georgian massing? "I don't know if it's art," as they say, "but I know what I like."

Poughkeepsie (2 of 3)

After Garfield Place, Academy Street a block away is considered by the locals to have the city's best preserved - and best looking - nineteenth century houses. They are in a dizzying variety of styles, which was typical of the period between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century. The classical double-height columned porch above is imposing, but it doesn't disguise what is really just a capacious old Victorian house behind it.

The lots aren't big on Academy and the houses sit in close proximity. Fortunately, the great majority has not been ruined by clumsy modernization. Academy is architecturally consistent overall and definitely good looking, but a recent inspection revealed much peeling paint and a lot of "For Sale" signs. (Uh, oh).

I'm a sucker for this kind of house, actually on Garfield Place. It's got a lot going on - a bit of bow front Georgian, a dash of Italianate, some classical revival columns, and heaven only knows what's inside. I'll bet there are big airy rooms on the main floor, probably with knock-off Adam mantlepieces and, if they've survived, brilliant old bathrooms with giant white fixtures. Sounds like heaven to me. I love the front door too. How much could a house like this cost in Poughkeepsie? What would it be like to live here?

The southern end of Academy used to lead into in a region of suburban estates, now mostly replaced by apartment buildings and shopping malls. Houses at this end were newer, as is the case with this late Victorian chateau. I'd guess it was built sometime around 1900, maybe a few years earlier. Today it's a condominium...with a banal apartment tower next door that does nothing for the otherwise historic look of the neighborhood.

Poughkeepsie (3 of 3)

Garfield Place and Academy Street have the most consistent upscale nineteenth century streetscape, but fabulous houses are scattered elsewhere. This one is on South Hamilton, a street that has otherwise not fared so well. Across from the house above is a rambling old manse that has been stripped of its porches and detail work, slathered with awful new siding and retro-fitted with ill-proportioned replacement windows. Such has been the fate of many Poughkeepsie houses.

This old Queen Anne pile is on Market Street, a block from the eastbound arterial. The location is just about the bulls-eye center of town. I'd date it somewhere in the 1880s or '90s, built for some nineteenth century Poughkeepsie big bug who liked being noticeable.

Hooker Avenue, presumably named after the Civil War General, marks an imprecise dividing line between beat-up Poughkeepsie to the north and architecturally distinguished residential areas to the south. Hooker itself has a number of exceedingly fine old places, like this early twentieth century Georgian Revival manse on a spacious wooded lot.

The area south of Hooker Avenue is a tangle of tree lined subdivision streets, dating mostly from the first decades of the twentieth century. Parts of this neighborhood are simply pleasant; others are quite distinguished. The Arts and Craft and Tudor Revival houses above are good examples of the latter. The streets on which they stand are beautifully maintained and, now that the trees and plantings are fully mature, probably look better than they did in 1920. I can't help asking myself who lives in these houses? Old families? Newcomers? And if the latter, why are they here in Poughkeepsie?