Sunday, August 28, 2011

Locust Grove

Poor benighted Poughkeepsie - well, "benighted" might be going a bit far. Poughkeepise is quite fascinating, historically and architecturally speaking, even though the downtown has been ravaged by decay and muddle-headed "urban renewal" and formerly pastoral outskirts junked up by strip malls and subdivisions. There probably still are a few people alive who remember South Road, a.k.a. Route 9 south of town, as a country byway lined with spacious suburban estates. Today it's a ten-lane boulevard from Anyplace, USA, lined practically all the way to Wappingers Falls with the type of shopping center that features a 30-acre paved parking lot in front. However, in the midst of this modern wilderness one old mansion survives - Locust Grove, former home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor (as he strived to be known) of the telegraph.

Locust Grove is lovingly maintained and open to the public, thanks to a non-profit trust established in 1975 by the last occupant, Annette Inness Young, whose father bought the property from the Morse estate in 1895. Moderately elaborate gardens, classical urns and geometric annual beds still adorn the grounds. Sweeping lawns run to the edges of dark woods. It seems beyond incredible that the Marriott Courtyard and TJ Maxx are practically next door. Interestingly, commercial development along South Road is really a thin crust that does not extend very far from the road itself. Behind the malls a good deal of untouched forest stretches down to the river.

Morse (1791-1872) was a struggling semi-famous portrait painter for much of his life before he struck it rich with his single wire telegraph patents. A number of his canvases - or facsimiles thereof - are on display in an onsite visitors' center. Not to detract from the great man's contributions, the docents at Locust Grove omit entirely any mention of Morse's 19th century nativist politics. His pamphlet titled "An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery," published in the run-up to the Civil War, defines America's peculiar institution as "a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes." How surprising is it, really, that the same man would call popery "a system of darkest political intrigue," and Catholicism an invasion of America by "the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy." Jews and immigrants came off no better.

A substantial, Federal-style, 2-story, five-bay center hall country house, built in 1830, was standing on the property when Morse arrived in 1847. He immediately set about renovating it in high Victorian fashion, to the point where the original house was rendered virtually invisible. He put half-octagonal wings on each end, a porte cochere - complete with upper level billiard room - over the front door, and a 4-story Tuscan tower in the middle of the river facade. The Youngs fiddled with the dining room wing at the end of the 19th century, but otherwise the house looks very much as it did in Morse's day. Granted, you have to have a taste for this kind of place, but as a Victorian artifact, Locust Grove is pretty terrific.

Here's the view of the Hudson from the lawn behind Locust Grove. The average motorist, navigating the wilderness of shopping malls along Route 9, would likely be dumbfounded to learn that a view like this could still be intact around here. The view complements the interior, which is chock full of Victorian furniture, rugs and paintings. Neither Annette Young nor her brother ever married and a lifetime of accumulated possessions resides in their respective rooms. On the one hand, it's kind of wonderful that everything is still here. The house is a monument to the aesthetic sensibility of the Victorian age and to people who believed in throwing nothing out. Alas, it's really dark and ugly inside. We wouldn't want to change a thing, of course, unless we lived there.

I live in nearby Millbrook, and it took me 30 years to finally visit Locust Grove. It's financed entirely by admissions and the trust, and definitely worth a visit.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Park Avenue Prewar

Park Avenue is lined with buildings which, at first blush, look pretty much alike. 521 Park, on the northeast corner of 60th St., is only a block from my office, which is probably why I began to notice how fine it was. My pal, Chris Gray, who is an authority on New York architects and architecture, thinks 521 is just another apartment house. The same architect, a man with the unfortunate name of William A. Boring, designed 540 Park across the street, which Chris says is far more interesting. Alas, 540 succumbed to the wreckers' ball 40 years ago and a cement colored box housing the Regency Hotel occupies the site today.

I have a taste for traditional design, scholarly detail and first class craftsmanship. The stone work on 521, if you look at it closely, is head and shoulders above almost everything else on the avenue.

A great deal of sophisticated thought went into the design of this facade - from the grandly scaled granite blocks on the basement, to the stylized ocean wave border that separates it from the upper floors, to the textural articulation of the fenestration, to the well scaled brackets beneath the balconies and the ironwork above them.

To me, 521 Park is an apotheosis of a confident, elegant, properly proportioned early 20th century apartment house. Boring (1859-1937) designed it in 1910 and the Edward Corning Construction Co. built it in 1911. That was early for Park Avenue. Back then a vast open air railroad yard still extended from Grand Central to the mid-50s and the tracks to the north were only partly covered. Modest apartment houses and factory buildings would continue to dominate Park Avenue until a huge building boom in the 1920s replaced them with the big rental buildings that would eventually become today's swank coops.

Here's a closeup of the limestone facade showing the contrast between smooth and textured - or "tooled" - stone that gives the facade subtle interest and character.

Boring was a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and a former employee of McKim Mead and White in New York.

The ironwork on the facade of this building must hold its own with substantial stone work, and it does.

I don't know if every one of these granite blocks is actually as massive as the corner blocks seem. The point is that they don't look skimpy. The basement floor seems quite able to support the building above.

Even the moats and the basement windows have been carefully thought out. These are the little things - even when they're not fully noticed by passersby - that make walking in the city a special pleasure.

When 521 Park was built - and it was one of the few built as a coop from the start - each floor constituted a single superbly luxurious apartment. It's hard to tell exactly how many of these have survived, but if consistency of curtains and blinds visible from the street is any measure, it looks like a lot - maybe even the great majority - are still in one piece. Take a look at this plan, designed to tempt a market heretofore focused on private houses. A 36' gallery, or "foyer" as it's called on the plan, stretches from the front entrance, and is lit by big doors to the principal rooms. From the south wall of the living room to the north wall of the dining room is a distance of over 60' down a grand enfilade of public rooms. The master bedroom is located on the corner, overlooking of 60th St., then a quiet brownstone block. The corner location takes advantage of maximum cross ventilation.

There is a beautiful separation of function in this plan: the staff quarters are contained in a wing with 4 servants' rooms, a servants' hall, kitchen and pantry; the grand public rooms overlook Park Avneue; and the family quarters are tucked away in a private bedroom wing overlooking 60th Street.

Boring went on to become director of the Columbia School of Architecture in 1919, and Dean of Architecture Columbia in 1931. One might not suspect it to look at this plan, but toward the end of his career he became a notable force in modernist architecture and town planning.

A colleague in my firm currently is representing an apartment at 521 Park that occupies about half of the third floor. It looks absolutely beautiful - and absolutely none of it is original. You may enjoy, as I did, comparing this plan to the original above. Here's the link to the online listing.

Here's another "cutoff," as we call them in the business, on another floor, a $1.5 million one-bedroom created from former servants' rooms, servants' hall and an original kitchen.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Being There"

This is Albany, NY, in a view taken last week on our father-daughter vacation. One of the towers of the Empire State Plaza is on the left, and the so-called "Egg," being a state theatre in the ultra-modern style of the 1960s, is on the right. The Plaza is already an antique and to be honest, I kind of like it.

The government buildings in Albany are sensational. The State Capitol was covered with scaffolding last week, but it's already familiar to many people. Less familiar is the extravagant Richardsonian Romanesque City Hall and an adjacent white marble federal courthouse from the 1840s. But even less familiar than these is the State Education Building of 1912, pictured above, an architectural opus worthy of ancient Rome.

Unfortunately, aside from the grand public buildings Albany is really run down. Well, there are pockets of niceness to be sure, but most of the place lies somewhere between slightly shabby and downright bombed out. These buildings are on State Street, half a block from the State Capitol, two blocks from the Empire State Plaza.

We stayed in an 1880s row house (not one of these), converted to a bed and breakfast, and located directly across from Washington Park. It was a pretty nice neighborhood, although hardly what we'd call "mint." Interestingly, Albany's parks are beautifully maintained even when the buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods look like this.

Or this...

Albany is old, at least by United States standards, and it's been fortunate to preserve a scattering of 18th century country manses. These were long ago engulfed by the city and for a while were ornaments of respectable neighborhoods. Today they are marooned in areas for which political correctness has no vocabulary. Old country places like the Ten Broeck mansion in Arbor Hill, whose garden path is illustrated above, reminded me of the old Peter Sellers movie, "Being There." Remember Chance the gardener, the halfwit with a genius for plants? He made an Eden out of the old man's garden, but when the old man died, poor Chance was evicted into a howling slum that had surrounded his garden without his even noticing.

Here's the front door of the Ten Broeck Mansion, located at the end of the path above. How serene it is in its utter disregard of the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Actually, this is the front of the house, being on the opposite side of the door pictured above. "Prospect," as it was named in 1797 by its builder, Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Ten Broeck, originally faced the Hudson, a view now obscured by the city. It was a fairly straightforward Federal house when constructed. In the late 1820s it got a fashionable Greek Revival makeover, which accounts for the handsome entrance porch.

I love the Greek Revival. How beautiful is this porch?

A man named Thomas Olcott bought the place in 1848, and the last of his descendants finally left in 1948. Olcott added a serving pantry with dumb waiter on the main floor - the kitchen is in the basement - and housed it in the wing visible in the foreground above. In the late 19th century, a second floor was added to this wing. You can see the difference in the brickwork. It contained three still intact and fabulously antique bathrooms. Two are ensuite with two bedrooms on this side of the second floor, and the middle bath serves two bedrooms on the other side of that floor.

This view gives very partial sense of the main stair, one of the most graceful I've ever seen. The Albany County Historical Society bought Arbor Hill from the last of the Olcotts in 1948 and despite an endless struggle for funds, has managed to keep it looking quite well. But what really brought Chance the gardener to mind were the wonderful grounds.

Here's Jazzy walking through the formal garden. She might be deep in the country or in a district of fine suburban estates. (NOT!)

These gardens are maintained by volunteer master gardeners. That's a pretty little house in the distance isn't it? There are some.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tioronda, Beacon, NY

Jazzy and I just finished our 20th annual "father-daughter vacation" - sky diving, West Point, Millbrook cocktail parties, Albany. While driving north on Route 9D we spotted this enormous decaying mansion just south of the city of Beacon. I made a U-turn immediately, drove up to the front and pulled out my camera.

Besides being a major house, it was clearly a pre-Civil War design, confirmed by this plaque on the left side of the entrance facade. The house also had the air of recent - well, maybe not so recent - institutional use, although there were no identifying signs to say by whom or for what purpose.

It took considerable cross researching on the internet before I discovered that this is Tioronda, the former showplace estate of General Joseph Howland (1834-1886), Civil War hero, Beacon philanthropist, and childless patron of the cause of mental health. Howland's sister married the famous American architect Richard Morris Hunt. His nephew was Hunt's famous architect son, Richard Howland Hunt. This, I thought, was pretty cool stuff.

Of course I wondered whether Hunt Sr. had designed the house, but it turns out the architect was Frederick Clarke Withers, at one time partner of the much more famous Calvert Vaux (pronounced 'VOX'). Vaux's name is recognizable to many of us as half of Vaux and Olmstead, the architectural landscapers who designed many nineteenth century parks, prime among them Manhattan's Central Park.

Tioronda today has that unfortunate "rocks through the windows" look, one that wounds the heart of every old house lover. Beyond those windows plenty of fallen plaster and water-damaged parquet is visible. Very sad.

In 1873 General Howland added a music room designed by brother-in-law Richard Morris Hunt. I believe it's in this wing, located at the southeast end of the house. Howland's widow died at Newport, R.I. in 1917, by which time she had already donated her Beacon estate to her husband's favorite cause, mental health. In 1915, Tironda became the first licensed private psychiatric hospital in the United States. Renamed Craig House, for reasons I cannot discover, it functioned for 80 years as a high class sanitarium. Zelda Fitzgerald, the deeply troubled wife of F.Scott, was among the famous and the merely rich who were hospitalized here.

In 1995 the Craig House was purchased by something called Putnam Center Inc., which intended to continue psychiatric services under the name Craig House Center. That's the music room peeking over the top of this hideous new addition. That brutalist retaining wall supports a swimming pool. I don't know if responsibility for this lies with Putnam Center or the former owners.

Someone will have to pay in the Court of Architectural Guilt for both the swimming pool addition and the motel wing connected to it.

From the road, at least, you can't see the new design work, whose invisibility is about the best I can say for it. Tioronda is a house one could truly love and cherish, but its prospects don't look good. It's been vacant since 1999.