Sunday, April 24, 2011

A vanished mansion

This is Thorncrest, the house that really started the stylish village of Millbrook, my hometown located midway up the Hudson between New York and Albany. When built in 1867, Thorncrest was called Millbrook Farms. The house was demolished in 1940 at a time when big old houses - especially Victorian specimens like this - were held in exceedingly low repute. Although it's gone today, you can just make out the footprint of it beneath a wild and tangled woodland that's overtaken the site.

Here's the carriage house, still standing...just barely. Thorncrest was quite an estate in its day, covering 400-or-so acres and famous for beautiful gardens and vast views. According to the New York Times in 1895, Thorncrest was "in view from a long distance," a veritable apotheosis of the local "hilltopper" estate. Samuel Thorne, the man who owned it the longest, was a businessman who took religion very seriously. Thorne sponsored his son-in-law, a semi-shady character named Richard Tjader, in a series of evangelical projects, few of which amounted to much. During the Depression, Tjader's widow operated Thorncrest as the International Mission Union Bible Center. At her behest the flamboyant Billy Sunday preached in Millbrook twice before his death in 1935. When the mission petered out on the eve of WW II, the house was closed. Attempts to sell it failed and the family had it demolished.

This snapshot shows my friend, Nan, on the second floor of the carriage house beside a stack of surviving shutters. These were mounted over the windows during those times of the year when the family was away. They're the only things left from this huge old mansion, and give a vivid sense of its scale. Before demolition the contents of the house were sold at auction. Prices were low and some things received no bids at all. According to local legend, Samuel Thorne's vast leather-bound library could not get even a $100 bid. Rather than spend money to truck the books away, they were left in the shelves and bulldozed into the foundation when the house came down. Old newspapers supposedly last indefinitely in landfills. If so, Thorne's library may still be under the rubble.

The carriage house is a wonderful structure but sadly in need of repair. It was an acrobatic stunt for Nan and I just to get to the second floor. There is no excavated cellar; the structure sits on a slab. Romantic in its way, buried as it is in a forest below the ruins of a great house, one wonders if anyone will save it in time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Third (and last) Manhattan Country Estate

Here is "Mount Morris," now called the "Jumel Mansion," taken from the roof of an apartment house on the corner of West 160th St. and Jumel Terrace, probably in the 1930s. That's my guess anyway, judging from the awnings on the apartment building in the distance at left, on Edgecombe Avenue and 162nd St. The house is notable for its elegant Georgian portico, octagonal drawing room, and lofty perch from which endless miles of wooded Manhattan and Bronx countryside were once - and still are, save for the woods - visible. Mount Morris was built in 1765 by two sophisticated socialites, Colonel Roger Morris and his wife Mary Philipse. Educated, attractive and well connected in high Colonial circles, Morris had been a comrade in arms of Washington. His wife was one of the great Hudson Valley landowning Philipses.

However, the Morrises were Tories, fled to England at the onset of the Revolution and never came back. Interestingly, Mary Morris and her sister were the only American women accused of treason during that conflict. Mary died in England in 1825, surviving her English husband by 31 years.

Washington occupied their abandoned house in 1776 during the Battle of Harlem Heights. His stay was a typically short one, since that battle, like most of the battles in the Revolution, was one more in a series of strategic American retreats. According to some we didn't so much defeat the British as wear them out with endless retreats.

It's a shame that nobody lets historic houses get ivy-covered any more. It may be bad for the structure but it sure looks good. This postcard view might have been taken in the 1940s or '50s. The house is appealingly run down, a description that could have fit much of New York in that era.

In 1790, during the early years of American independence, Washington stopped here for a celebratory dinner attended by, among others, Jefferson, Hamilton and the two Adams (father and son). Around this same time the government confiscated the house and sold it to operators who, for the next 20 years, ran it as an inn called the Calumet Tavern. Smart society came to its rescue in 1810, when a rich Frenchman by the name of Stephen Jumel and his American wife Eliza bought and refurbished it. The Jumels led the period analog of a jet set existence, dividing their time between Europe and America. In 1828 they filled their rural American country house with French Empire furniture - some of it supposedly the property of former Emperor Napoleon himself - and in the process set the local fashion bar pretty high.

Jumel died in a carriage accident in 1832, and a year later his widow surprised one and all by marrying the notorious former United States Vice President, Aaron Burr. Gore Vidal's wonderful novel "Burr" has delicious passages describing the imagined wedding night of the elderly couple, whose "co-mingling of aged flesh" is more than the fictional narrator of the story cares to contemplate. Burr died in 1836, shortly after divorcing the former Madame Jumel. She continued to live in the old house until 1865, dying there immensely rich and quite alone.

Here's the old place today, all cleaned up but alas no longer very atmospheric. Maybe it's my corrupted taste, but I do like old things just a little run down. A friend warned me many years ago that there was a fine line between shabby and sordid, a point well taken. But I digress. After Madame Jumel's death, the house remained in private ownership until the spreading city made pretensions to being any longer in the countryside too preposterous. New York City bought it in 1903 and in 1904 it was opened to the public as "Washington"s Headquarters," operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Here's vintage shot of the public entrance to the house. It doesn't look like this anymore, worse luck, but I thought I'd include it anyway. We're fortunate that Mount Morris is still with us, in "mint" condition as we like to say in real estate, and still on its original site. Of Manhattan's three surviving country estates, it is the grandest and the most accessible to the public.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Second Manhattan Country Estate

If I were to become rich and famous (an unlikely event at this stage of life) and build myself a country place, would I call it "Foreman Mansion?" I don't think so. Yet how easily "Gracie Mansion" rolls off the modern tongue. Archibald Gracie (1755-1829), the rich Manhattan merchant who built it, may perhaps have called the place Belleview, the name of a house built about 1760 on the same site. In 1776, Bellevue's Tory owners fled to Flatbush and George Washington commandeered their strategically located country place. He then mounted a gun emplacement commanding the turbulent waters of Hell Gate at the end of their lawn. Disinclined to tolerate that for long, British warships sailed to the site and blew the rebel guns to pieces - and the house along with them.

In 1798 the heirs of Jacob Walton, owner of the demolished Bellevue, sold the 11-acre site to Gracie, who proceeded to built on it a rural retreat to complement his city residence downtown. Stylistically, the new house has a lot in common with Alexander Hamilton's "Grange" (see below). Although the architect isn't known for sure, the design is usually ascribed to either Ezra Weeks or John McComb Jr. Personally, I'd vote for Grange architect McComb. The details on the Gracie house - the balustrades above the porch and above the second floor, the roof line, the porch rails, the window proportions - are all very similar to those on the Grange; the construction dates of both houses were separated by less than three years; and perhaps most important, Gracie and Hamilton were close personal friends whom we could logically expect to hire the same architect. Did you know these two men founded the New York Post together? I didn't. Years after Hamilton's death, Gracie bought the Grange in order to sell it back to Hamilton's widow for half what he paid for it, enabling her to stay in her family home with money to boot. Archibald Gracie was a prince among men - generous, loyal, good-natured and hospitable to a fault. Louis Philippe, the future King of France,was a guest in Gracie's garden, as were James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and John Quincy Adams.

When Gracie's country house was first built, the front door was located not in the center of the image above, but on the facade that faces left. The building was enlarged in 1811, at which time the front door was relocated to the river facade where it is today. Two additional bays of windows were added to the right. That front door still gazes down a long lawn to the confluence of the East and Harlem Rivers called Hell Gate.

Here's the side view of Gracie Mansion today showing the original entry facade behind the porch. The similarity to Hamilton Grange, both in scale and detailing, is very evident. Gracie's shipping business went bust in 1819 and despite the generous efforts of friends, neighbors and his rich son-in-law James King (son of Declaration of Independence signer, Rufus King), Gracie was forced to sell in 1823 to insurance man Joseph Foulke.

In those days, Hell Gate was an unspoilt rural area, ornamented with fine houses and gardens, some of which had been lovingly tended for almost a century. The neighbors were mostly old Knickerbocker families - Rhinelanders, Joneses, even old John Jacob Astor whose grounds bordered the Gracie estate on the south. All this was to change rapidly. By the time Joseph Foulke sold the property in 1857, industry had befouled a great deal of the waterfront. The typical upscale country house buyer no longer looked to buy in Hell Gate.

Here's the view today from the front door of Gracie Mansion. Notwithstanding the arch of the New York Connecting Railway Bridge and the distant spires of the Triboro, this view preserves an evocative sense of Manhattan's vanished riverfront estates. As the 19th Century progressed, there were some who continued to cherish the East River views, despite the decline of the neighborhood. One such was a man named Noah Wheaton, a manufacturer of window sashes and blinds who bought the property in 1857 and lived there for the next 39 years.

In 1891 New York City began land condemnation for the new East End Park, renamed in 1910 for Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz. In 1896 the Wheaton house was condemned and, typical of public stewardship of former private property, allowed to go to hell. The City used it for miscellaneous park purposes, allowing the paint to peel and the balustrades to fall off. Horrified citizens organized a restoration in 1923, after which it became home for the Museum of the City of New York. In 1936 the museum decamped to Fifth Avenue and the mansion became a house museum until 1942. The image above was probably taken during this period. In 1942 Robert Moses, the man who disfigured the East River shoreline for all time with his East River Drive, proposed the brilliant idea of saving Gracie Mansion by making it the official residence of New York City's mayors. The mansion's first tenant was Fiorello LaGuardia.

In 1966, society architect Mott B. Schmidt put a big addition onto the inland side of the Mansion, making it more practical for large meetings and social functions. Visible beyond the East End Avenue entrance in the image above, it is called the Susan B. Wagner Wing in honor of then Mayor Robert Wagner's wife. Aside from the new wing and the invisible but oddly present East River Drive which transits the property via a tunnel under the lawn, Gracie Mansion is incredibly well preserved. To stand on the porch and gaze down the lawn at the broad waters of Hell Gate is to experience vanished New York in a way impossible elsewhere.

Two random facts about Gracie Mansion:
1) Remember the "Yule Log," that peculiar Christmastime feature on Channel 11 back in the 1960s? For those of you who don't, it was simply a holiday-time telecast of a log burning in a fireplace. The fireplace was in Gracie Mansion.
2) The mansion is a residence for employees of the City of New York and their immediate families ONLY. Which is why Mayor Giuliani and his girlfriend couldn't live there together, and why Mayor Bloomberg and his girlfriend don't even try.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Manhattan Country Estates

This post really belongs after the one below. (I know, I know...I got confused). Mind reading that first then coming back here? Thanks.

OK, We're back. The Grange might have been a cherished survivor, but everybody knew its location was lousy. Problem was when the subject of moving it came up, people in the neighborhood got nervous it would be taken away from them. In 2008, an ideal solution was found, right around the corner in the precincts of St. Nicholas Park. One wonders why it took them so long. Here's the old Grange jacked way up in the air on the first leg of its trip to the park. Presumably the reason it's up that high is in order to clear the curving porch of St. Luke's Episcopal. A portion of the church's roof is visible in the left background. The modern building in the distance on the right (no ornament to the neighborhood, I might add) stands on the southeast corner of Convent Avenue and 141st St. and is a part of City College. The long side of the Grange in this view was originally the back wall when the house was built. It became a side wall after the house was relocated to Convent Avenue. The brown strip along its right corner shows where it abutted the neighboring apartment house.

Now they've got the house into the middle of Convent Avenue, lowered it down, and it's ready to travel.

Here it comes onto the new foundation. The house will be pivoted counter-clockwise so that the to-be-restored front door in the middle of the facade on the right will face 141st Street. The bay window on the left facade, which faced Convent Avenue for over a century, will be in the center of one of the matching side porches.

The house is now in position and reconstruction of the entry porch is under way.

It's not done yet, but it sure is looking good. I can't wait to visit.

Manhattan Country Estates

During most of the 18th and 19th Centuries there were a lot of them, bosky retreats of the privileged perched above the East and North Rivers, comfortably removed from the filthy city to the south. As that spreading city thundered up Manhattan Island, one after another of the old places was steamrollered under the geometric street grid of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811. Today only three are left, which when you think about it, is actually quite remarkable.

By later standards, neither the houses nor the "estates" on which they stood were all that big. Alexander Hamilton's 32-acre spread in today's West 140s was probably among the larger. He bought the land in 1799, finished the house (designed by John McComb Jr. and called the Grange after his grandfather's Scottish estate) in 1802, and was shot dead by Aaron Burr in 1804. The image above shows the house sometime in the early 19th Century, when it was still far off in the country. McComb's delicate design - all gentle symmetry and restrained decoration - is typical of the country places that once lent a air of distinction and sophistication to the craggy landscape of northern Manhattan.

In 1889, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village decided to relocate to fast developing northern Manhattan. They bought the Hamilton property, subdivided it into a little over 1000 lots, and moved the house - then standing roughly on the south side of today's 143rd Street and Hamilton Place (not Hamilton Terrace) - to a new location on Convent Avenue between 141st and 142nd Streets. It was used for services until 1895 when the new church next door was completed. The image above, with what looks like urban construction in the background, probably shows the Grange just before it was moved. The fence on the right surrounds a circle of 13 trees, commemorating the original 13 colonies, and planted by Hamilton himself.

The new Romanesque Revival church looks about to swallow the old Grange whole in this early twentieth century photo. In order to fit on the lot, the house was turned sideways and the original entry facade pressed against the side of the church. This necessitated sheering off the entry porch, blocking up the old front door and apparently grafting the original entry porch onto the side porch that now faced Convent Ave. A new entrance to the house was cut into the wall of this porch, necessitating a bit of interior bollixing.

Years passed; an apartment house went up next door; McComb's delicate balustrades either fell off or were pulled off.

In 1960 Hamilton Grange became a National Historic Landmark, but by the end of the century it was looking pretty beat up. Now go back to the post above (thanks).