Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This Could Be Love

In 1939, Paramount Pictures released a screwball comedy called "Cafe Society" about a rich society woman (Madeleine Carroll) who marries a poor reporter (Fred McMurray) on a bet. In 1995, Skyline Entertainment released a much darker "Cafe Society" about a spoiled playboy named Mickey Jelke (Frank Whaley) whose rotten girlfriend Pat Ward (Lara Flynn Boyle) colludes with a self-aggrandizing cop (Peter Gallagher) to frame him for running a prostitution ring. Unlike the first "Cafe Society," the second was largely true.

The aerial view below is of a Sharon, CT mansion completed in 1906 for Romulus Riggs (nickname 'Rome') Colgate (1858-1926). Judging from the condition of the gardens, I'd guess it was photographed sometime before Mrs. Colgate's death in 1936. Two years after that grand old lady passed away, a man named William Drew bought the place, together with all the furniture and the entire 300-acre estate, for $25,000. Two years later, Drew flipped the house on 100 acres to a baker named Charles Larsen, and two years after that Larsen flipped it again to a Rumanian steel magnate named Edgar Ausnit.

An April, 2010 piece in "Vanity Fair" on the old Barbizon Hotel for women, describes Edgar Ausnit (1894-1968) as a sugar daddy and munitions millionaire with a taste for fast living, shady companions, and Barbizon girls. He enjoyed entertaining the latter at after-parties in his Park Avenue penthouse, attended by movie stars like Cary Grant and rich playboys like Mickey Jelke. Good Luck Magarine heir Jelke, for whom, according to "Daily News" reporter John Harney, "high living was a full time occupation," was a regular Ausnit guest in Sharon, where he and his host lent a louche aspect to the formerly uber-respectable Colgate estate. These things happen to old houses; mine was once the home of Timothy Leary and a horde of bonked out hippies.

I'm not sure the Colgate place looked this pristine by the time Ausnit arrived. Prior to beating it out of Rumania lest the Nazis throw him in a concentration camp, Ausnit had employed 45,000 men in his huge steel mills and on his Austro-Hungarian State Railroad. There have been times in living memory when big old country houses were bought for beans, often by people without the foggiest idea how to keep them up. Ausnit may have paid beans, but I suspect he knew how to run a first class establishment.

In the early 1950s, Ausnit's protege Jelke found himself the target of a morals crusade led by Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan. I feel a little sorry for this foolish 23-year-old, described in a February, 1953, "Life Magazine" piece as the "stocky, somewhat rancid heir to 3 million dollars of his family's margarine fortune." In the wake of sensational trials in 1953 and 1955, Jelke was convicted - probably not very fairly, and in great part on the testimony of his girlfriend - of masterminding a prostitution ring. Sentenced to hard time in Sing Sing, he died in Florida in 1990.

Jelke and Ausnit would not have had so prominent a local stage, were it not for the man below, Rome Colgate, seen here in his Connecticut library. Colgate's estate, designed by architect J. William Cromwell, Jr., was called Filston, in honor of an ancestral home in England. A Decorators' Showhouse brochure from 1990 describes the English Filston as a grand manor, although the Sharon Historical Society says it was just a farm. Rome Colgate was a privileged grandson of William Colgate, founder of the soap and perfume empire. He was not, however, in the soap business himself, instead pursuing a career in hydro-electric power and the manufacture (under the 'Dutch Boy' trade name) of lead-based paint. The former pursuit has been a benefit to all; the latter, as any potential landlord or seller will tell you, has turned into a giant headache.

Here's Susan Prince Colgate (1859-1936), as a young woman in a room you'll recognize below, and as an old Connecticut lady who has literally put her dog on a pedestal. After burying her husband at Woodlawn in 1926, Mrs. Colgate soldiered on in a manner familiar to many woman of her class. Depression or no Depression, there were standards to maintain, and she maintained them as her husband would have wanted.

After her death, as noted above, things spun out of control for the old Colgate place which, by the way, almost nobody calls Filston. The year before Ausnit's death in 1968, he sold the house to Mark and Gala Cohn who, ten years later tried unsuccessfully to sell it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Then in 1976, songwriter Paul Leka (1943-2011) came along, fell in love with it, and probably got it for not so many beans himself. His widow has currently listed it with Sothebys for a little under $11 million.

Leka initially struck it rich with a "B" side to which nobody at first paid much attention, called "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." During a long and successful career he became, apparently, quite a collector to which his Sharon estate bears witness. Let me say from the outset that this is one of the niftiest old houses I have ever seen, notwithstanding a bit of lily-gilding.

When Paul Leka saw statues he liked, he bought them all.

Beyond the classical revival facade, which one source describes as Paladian (although I don't see much Andrea Paladio here), is a totally unexpected Gothic Revival hall. You've got to love this zany architectural eclecticism. When I first saw the house, very many years ago, the walls above the dado were still covered with the original dark red, large pattern silk damask. Sothebys was getting ready for an Open House when I came last week. While keeping workmen out of my photos wasn't hard, I couldn't do anything about that ladder.

Every old house of scale had a library, though not every owner was much of a reader. Rome Colgate seems to have been one, however, since his drawing room is lined with bookcases in addition to those in his library next door. More colorful than it would have been in Colgate's day, this is still a beautifully detailed room with all the good stuff - moldings, sconces, hardware, woodwork, fireplace - in perfect condition. Interestingly, this is the second vintage drawing room I've seen in as many weeks with indirect lighting in the ceiling. The photos of Rome and Susan Colgate were taken in front of the bookcase in the second image below.

This Gothic doorway leads from the main hall to the library, where original large pattern green silk damask has survived on the walls. I once lived in a house in Tuxedo with the same stuff in red on the walls of my library. I've never seen a modern facsimile that conveys the same sense of antique luxe. Of note throughout this house is the brilliant carved woodwork.

Drawing room and library are on the west side of the great hall, which we'll now cross to the east in order to have a look at the dining room.

A cleverly cut down door leads to the serving pantry, whose damaged sink awaits a preservation-minded new owner.

The kitchen has been modernized, but important elements - tile walls, original cabinetwork, stove hood - are all still here. So are the old tubs in the laundry room next door.

There are back stairs, naturally, but since I am a "main stairs" kind of a guy, we'll use those to the second floor,

There are five directions you can go from the second floor landing in the image below. The west side of the house looks to me like his and her master bedrooms with private bath attached to each. Mrs. C would have had the big room with a private terrace; Mr. C's would have been smaller and in the back - unless they slept together, which I strongly doubt. A similar setup runs along the east side of the house - big front bedroom with terrace and smaller bedroom in the back - except they share a bath between them. The images below show the landing and a small south facing room that's situated above the front door. Beyond it is a balcony that overlooks the entry court.

Here's the door from the upstairs hall to today's master bedroom, which was probably Mrs. Colgate's back in the day. The big wall mirror has been here from the beginning, brought back from Paris by the Colgates.

Regular readers of my column know how much I love old bathrooms. I believe their preservation is crucial to the aesthetic integrity of historic houses. This one is a peach.

The terrace off the master bedroom overlooks the entry court and a sunken fountain court, now in ruins.

What I assume to have been Mr. C's bedroom was too full of stuff to get a good shot. I had to make do with this corner detail and a view of the bathroom, both being readied for the Open House.

This grand bedroom, located on the other side of the landing, also connects to a large private terrace. The shared bathroom has a terrific vintage double sink. Beyond the bath is either a small additional bedroom, or perhaps some sort of den or study.

The third floor is a labyrinth of children's rooms, servants' rooms, and what looks to have been a large playroom.

Time to head down to the first floor, and our last indoor stop, the billiard room.

Also with a terrific old bathroom.

The billiard room opens directly onto a balustraded lawn originally ornamented with elaborate plantings and paths. Now it's just a lawn. More interesting are the ruins of a sunken fountain court presided over by, of all things, an appealing knockoff of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. How much fun would it be to restore this?

A farmhouse, garage and 200 acres of the original estate are long gone, but the carriage house remains on the same 100-acre parcel as the main house. It's pretty intact - hay elevator, horse stalls, carriage room and all - and is used today for storage.

This grand old house is one of the most intact and architecturally appealing places I've ever seen. How I hope that the next owner will appreciate it for what it is, not for what he or she wants to make it into.

This view of the entry court garden from the front door of the Colgate house, as well as the vintage photos above, are from the Sharon Historical Society.