Thursday, December 13, 2012


There are two big old houses on the famous Wave Hill estate in Riverdale. This is a story about the shy younger sister of the two, a house called Glyndor. It is a tale with mixed architectural messages, but let's begin with a few words about the young lady in the image above. I believe - OK, I'm guessing - that she's Miss Ann Harriman, one of her father Oliver Harriman's (1829-1904) eight children. The future Ann Harriman Rutherfurd Sands Vannderbilt would outlive three husbands and become a style pioneer on Sutton Place. On this sunny day in the 1880s, however, she is a well-behaved Victorian child, quietly holding the reins of an elegant little runabout, liveried groom at arm's reach, safe within the gilded confines of her father's estate. Harriman, a dry goods king and uncle of the famous railroad baron E.H. (Ned) Harriman (1848-1909), called his Riverdale country place Nonesuch. That's it below, a mansarded Victorian barn of the type that went viral in post-Civil War America. Harriman lifted the name from Nonsuch Palace - spelled either with or without the "e" - the grandest of Henry VIII's royal residences. An ambitious naming, I'd say.
In 1895, Harriman sold his place in Riverdale, moved to Mt. Kisco, declined into dottiness, was declared incompetent by the courts and died in 1904 leaving a $20 million estate. Meanwhile, Nonesuch became Glyndor, a combination of the names of its new owner George W. Perkins (seen below, 1862-1920), his wife Evalina (whom I assume they called Lynn) and their daughter Dorothy. Perkins was a remarkable man, as successful in business and banking as he was influential in conservation, women's rights and child labor laws. He died at 58, an anniversary I myself passed a ways back with considerably less eclat.
Perkins eventually bought three more Riverdale estates, all contiguous to the first, including the famous Wave Hill that bounded Glyndor on the north. Besides developing huge and elaborate gardens and greenhouses - all open to the public today - he hired John LaFarge and George Heins to quintuple the size of Glyndor. The old house - or at least some of it - survives in the image below, sandwiched between matching gambrel-roofed gable ends.
This is my kind of house - inventive in texture and shape on the outside; luxurious in scale and detail in the interior.
Mrs. Perkins outlived her husband by almost 40 years. Glyndor had a ballroom and, from the looks of it, some 10 bedrooms plus servants' quarters. She really didn't need all that, but typical of society widows of the time, she kept the place running (actually, she had to keep four big places running), tended the gardens (granted, with an army of gardeners), and played the expected role of matriarch to her children and grandchildren. Here's Mrs. P., looking calm and collected (servants help with that) in the middle of her extended family. Daughter Dorothy stands behind her to the left, a comforting hand on the shoulder of her husband, Edward Freeman. Son George is seated on the right, his wife Linn behind his mother holding little George Perkins IV in her arms.
Then in 1926, lightning struck - literally. Glyndor took a direct hit, interestingly right on the bean of old Nonesuch. A horrible fire ensued.
Here's Mrs. Perkins on what used to be the third floor of her house.
What a mess.
Glyndor was deemed irreparable and razed. A new Glyndor, completed in 1928, rose on the site. The architectural firm of Butler and Corse gave Mrs. P. a competent Georgian Revival house about half the size of the former. Besides a 2-room master suite, there are only 3 other family bedrooms. The library and drawing room were combined, admittedly a fashion at the time, and the dining room was nice but not big. The usual reception room was only a tick above modest. Of course, there were also 6 maids' bedrooms and a servant hall but truth be told, this was only barely a mansion. On the subject of truth, Mrs. Perkins looks more shell-shocked than sad in the fire photo above. Perhaps she was secretly glad to be rid of the old monster.
Save for the missing shutters - invariably "hors de combat" on vintage Georgian houses - Glyndor today looks unchanged. I suspect most visitors have only the vaguest idea of what the house is all about. It has served as gallery and administration spaces since 1960, when Mrs. Perkins' heirs donated it and the Wave Hill mansion next door to the city.
Wave Hill, Inc., the non-profit that's run the place since 1965, has been a wonderfully enlightened steward. Speaking as a lover of old houses, I give them high marks for not feeling the need to entomb its vintage interiors in featureless white plasterboard. In so doing - or rather not doing - they've made both Glyndor and the exhibitions within it vastly more interesting.
A.W. Butler and Henry Corse wielded "good taste" like a sledge hammer. This place is restrained to the point of downright inhibition.
From the attractive foyer behind the fan lit door on the right, one enters a long and not very dramatic hall that provides access to the principal main floor rooms. I suspect the random width floorboards are a (heavily understated) homage to our colonial past.
The door in the image below is on axis with the foyer and leads to the reception room. The french doors in the distance, also on axis with the entry foyer, lead to a terrace overlooking the Hudson. You think the moldings look a bit basic? Me too. I don't doubt, however, that they were carefully chosen by the architect.
Here's the door to the terrace as it appeared during a 2005 exhibit called "Greenhouse Effect," by Vargas-Suarez Universal. How cool is that?
It's lovely on the terrace, although I doubt Perkins would have let trees obscure the view.
"Kilroy was here."
We're back in the reception room, looking south towards the drawing room, during a 2006 installation called "Uprooted," by Algernon Miller.
Here's the drawing room/library in Mrs. Perkins' day. It's gracious, comfortable, luxurious and tasteful. If the photos of the fire are any guide, I doubt many books from the old Glyndor library survived. The books on these shelves look suspiciously like someone bought them by the yard. I don't know what the wood on the walls was, and I suppose I never will, because....'s all been painted white! I can understand covering the bookshelves, but not painting vintage hardwood paneling. The door to the left of the fireplace leads to a modest sunporch.
Probably originally filled with plants, this room is not very different from what you'd find in many ordinary suburban houses - except for the view. The door on the right leads to what was once an open porch. It's been enclosed for cold weather storage of the same sorts of plants that probably used to live on the sunporch.
Let's return to the drawing room....
The 800-lb gorilla in the middle of this room is what's left of a mostly disassembled exhibit on the Palisades. We're headed for the reception room via the door on the right.
Ahead is the dining room.
Which used to look like this - dignified, restrained and tasteful. Moving into this place must have felt like relocating to a studio apartment - and Mrs. Perkins probably loved it.
The door from the dining room to the hall sports a pineapple in a broken pediment, probably the jazziest detail in the house. Butler and Corse had a few Long Island commissions, plus the well-known (at least to old house aficionados) brick Georgian townhouse on the corner of Beekman Place and East 50th St. The firm is better remembered for its work in Hobe Sound, Florida. (No surprise there).
The original kitchen, pantries and servant hall have either been gutted or converted to offices. The stair to the basement leads to a pair of enormous boilers and a mysterious closet with a half-buried spiral stair.
We'll come back to this.
ADA requirements mandated installation of an elevator, which necessitated demolition of the original servants' stair. The new one is twice the size of the old, but designed with vintage sensibilities.
Here's the main stair, located between the entrance foyer and the door to the drawing room - a far cry from old Glyndor's showy double stair.
Here it is during a 2006 installation called "Botanical Squatters," by Lisa Murch.
It's a look, somewhere between the Beverly Hills Hotel and the S.S. Normandie.
The second floor hall is strictly utilitarian. We're looking north; the window in the distance is in a servant's room; the master bedroom suite is behind me.
Understanding the master suite requires a bit of old house archaeology. Some doors are there; others are missing; the bathroom is gone; some of the closets survive.
Consensus is, the boudoir paneling is made of the same wood that's in the drawing room downstairs. Set atop the sunporch, this is a charming room flooded with light from three exposures and currently the office of Wave Hill's lucky Marketing Director, Mary Weitzman. My guide, Director of Arts and Senior Curator Jennifer McGregor, likes it too.
The three other family bedrooms are also used as offices, sometimes divided but generally intact.
One terrific bathroom survives in virtually original shape.
Perpindicular to the main bedroom hall is a service corridor giving access to 6 maids' rooms and a single hall bath, the latter inexplicably missing its tub.
The attic is....just an attic.
There's one more important stop on our tour, but it's outside.
The wooden rails in the image below flank stairs from the terrace of the old Glyndor to a path that still leads to the gardens.
Among those gardens' many features is a pair of sprawling lawn terraces, beyond whose classical balustrades are superb views of the river and the Palisades. The image below shows the lower terrace.
At the south end of this terrace is a view of Glyndor and of the site of its former swimming pool, now flagged over.
Martha Gellens, normally busy with public information, is leading the way to the old swimming pool area. A different reality suddenly emerges.
The lower terrace isn't simply a lawn; it's the roof of an astonishing building.
The Recreation House at Glyndor was designed in 1909 by Robert M. Byers, largely I suppose for the pleasure of the Perkins' children and eventual grandchildren. Some playhouse, right? The main room features a huge stone fireplace, a bowling alley, and a terrific cycle of Indian murals whose inspiration seems to fall somewhere between Teddy Roosevelt and The Advocate.
There's a squash court too, or at least it used to be a squash court.
What is Facilities Manager Frank Perrone doing in the middle of all that junk? He's trying to get to the brown door behind him, beyond which a tunnel wends its way beneath paths and plantings, emerging finally at the bottom of that spiral stair we saw in the basement at Glyndor. What Recreation House would be complete without a secret tunnel?
To me, Glyndor is emblematic of an important shift, not just in upscale residential architecture, but in American architecture in general. Granted, it is a lovely old house, but it is also speaks specifically to the triumph of good taste over visual interest.
Speaking of visuals, those art projects looked pretty permanently painted on the walls. How, I wondered, were they removed? Apparently some are indeed simply painted over. Others are done on sheetrock panels or cut-to-fit paper, or mounted and removed like wallpaper. All are temporary.
Wave Hill is a year 'round show. Besides gardens and greenhouses - if you google "Wave Hill images" you'll get an eyeful - there is an extensive series of programs, events and exhibitions. It's worth a visit in any season; the link is

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. Nearby Rockefeller estate Kykuit also boasts a "playhouse" of elaborate proportion; it is however freestanding, and is absent the marvelous secret tunnel.