Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Living Up to One's In-laws

In December of 1906, Barr Ferree of "American Homes and Gardens" described Mrs. Elliott Fitch Shepard's country place at Scarborough, NY, as follows: "Immensity is one of the chief characteristics of this great house. Yet it is a beautiful immensity...It is not grandiose nor showy, it is simply grandly large, and large everywhere." I'll second that.

Mrs. Shepard, nee Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt (1845-1924), was a young woman when she was painted below by Sargent. She had been a widow for 13 years when Ferree visited her country place, called Woodlea. Not everyone can live up to a house like this, but the eldest daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt, son and heir of the Commodore, looks equal to the task. For seventeen years, until she dumped it in 1910, Woodlea was the kind of showplace that defined "Vanderbilt Style."

Mrs. Shepard's neighborhood, being the fifteen-or-so miles of Hudson shoreline between Yonkers and Ossining, was, according to an 1897 issue of "Peterson's Magazine," the "richest colony in the world." This title has been applied to many other districts, but the Shepard place was undeniably surrounded by some pretty ritzy digs. Mrs. Shepard's real estate magnificence was not limited to Woodlea. In 1900, she paid for two colossal Manhattan townhouses - 11 East 62nd Street, now owned by the Japanese government; and 5 East 66th St., home since 1947 of the Lotos Club - for two of her married daughters, Mrs. Ernesto Fabbri and Mrs. William Jay Schieffelin respectively. Maggie Shepard was born in an era, and in circumstances, where women were purposely kept in financial ignorance. Luckily, half of her inheritance was locked up in an inviolable trust, absent which she might well have spent every cent of it. When she died in 1924, she was living in an apartment - admittedly a grand one at 998 Fifth Avenue, but an apartment still and all.

To be fair, when it came to a financial role model she had a bad example in the person of her husband, Col. Elliott Fitch Shepard (1833-1893). No one in the family particularly liked or trusted him, partly because of his fanatical Presbyterianism, but more due to his social gaucheries and clumsy business schemes. Shepard started well enough, as a superior organizer of arms and recruits during the Civil War. Afterwards, however, and specifically after marrying uber-rich Maggie Vanderbilt, he wandered the proverbial desert. Shepard failed as a lawyer, failed as a banker, and became notorious as the publisher of "The Mail and Express," a sort of vintage combination of the "New York Post" and "The National Enquirer." He beat his son, told his daughter Alice her back deformity was a visitation of God's displeasure, copied member delinquency lists off the bulletin board of his club and published them in his paper (for which the Union League suspended him) and hauled to fancy dinners all manner of opportunistic political hacks and thugs who were happy to flatter his ego in return for a free meal. He is most famously remembered, if he's remembered at all, as the rich carriage-owning publisher who took control of the Fifth Avenue Stage Company in order to suspend Sunday stage service, lest the lower classes imperil their souls by breaking the Sabbath.

The Woodlea estate predated the Shepards, but in a quite different form. They bought it from a forgotten Victorian named Butler Wright, whose be-porched and be-towered house on the property had no pretensions to grandeur whatsoever. The new Woodlea was Col. Shepard's idea, a bastion of symbolic power appropriate to a man with big political aspirations - and plenty of Vanderbilt money. It was designed by McKim, Mead and White, and almost - but not quite - finished when the colonel died at the age of 59 in 1893. Unusual in the firm's opus, the house was designed by Rutherford Mead, a partner more responsible for business networking than design work, but who was also married to Shepard's sister.

Could we describe Woodlea as an example of the "English Renaissance Revival?" Well, why not? It's got lots of English looking dignity and plenty of classical architectural elements. Myself, I'd call it a prime example of the American Renaissance, that long ago national movement described - very amusingly, I think by Le Corbusier -as "more believable than the original."

Worth reminding ourselves is the fact that Elliott Shepard never lived here. Woodlea's day in the sun was produced and directed entirely by his widow. I wonder to what extent she viewed the house as a monument to her late husband's failed ambitions. She certainly kept it running grandly, although she may not have known any other way to run it. By 1910, she was 65, her children were married, and she was ready to part with the place for the fire sale sum of $165,000. It mattered not that it had cost $2 million to build. Neighbors Frank Vanderlip and William Rockefeller, already resident in grand estates in the immediate vicinity, couldn't pass the bargain up. They bought the estate, rounded up a group of congenial millionaires, and on May 11, 1911 founded the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which owns the property today.

Sleepy Hollow, despite the ups and downs of a century-plus of existence, remains a pretty swanky club. It has been an excellent steward of its beautiful and historic clubhouse - with one exception. When Woodlea was built, and for almost 70 years thereafter, an Italian garden occupied a sunken portion of the terrace below the river facade. The fence in the image below marks the line of a former balustrade, below which lay the garden. In 1960, the club built a really ugly new golf wing on the site of the garden. For the last half century, the view of the garden from the house has consequently been replaced by a view of a large tar and gravel roof, interspersed with noisy ventilation equipment.

As the millenium approached, a growing appreciation of (and concern for) the grand interiors of the clubhouse spilled over into a concern for the appearance of the golf wing. Its elevations were redesigned and significantly improved, but nothing was done about the roof. The obvious solution, which George Perkins did with his casino at Wave Hill and modern architects have done on roofs from London to Lincoln Center, is to recreate the garden - or an approximate facsimile thereof - on top of the ugly roof. Of course, as my late father used to say, all it takes is money. If such a plan were seriously suggested, however, I'll bet the membership would embrace it with enthusiasm.

I continued walking around the house to the front door, the words of Barr Ferree ringing in my ears.

The plan below shows Woodlea's first floor as built (more or less) in 1893. #1 is the entry porch; #2 an anteroom, beyond which is #6, the main hall. #5 is the library; #7 the drawing room; #9 the obligatory white and gold room, used for big entertainments and/or just show; #14 is the dining room; #'s 16 and 17 are the serving pantry and kitchen respectively. The first floor of the service wing has today been gutted out and, including the servants hall (#18) and the row of pantries, is now a modern institutional kitchen. #15 is the breakfast room; #12 is referred to in some places as a morning room, however, I'm pretty sure it was originally a billiard room, perhaps never used due to the colonel's untimely end. #10 is an outdoor terrace with no view; and #13 is an outdoor terrace with a big view.

Inside the front door, beyond a marble anteroom, is the main hall. "The rooms everywhere are large," said you-know-who, "many of them are immense." At first I assumed it was the Shepard crest chiseled in marble above the fireplace. If I am to believe the not-always-reliable internet, however, the Shepard arms bore either a trio of dogs or of battle axes. I don't know where the cats came from; maybe the colonel cooked them up.

The library hasn't changed since the Shepards' day. "Legem Servare Hoc Est Regnare," carved in oak over the fireplace means "Platitudes R Us" in Latin. Only kidding, only kidding; actually, if my high school Latin is to be trusted, it means something like "To trust in Law is the Way to Rule." My more educated readers will no doubt correct me shortly.

Let's leave the library...

...and have a look at the ladies' dressing room, located behind that door under the stair. My late mother maintained that you could always tell a high class place by the ladies' room.

I couldn't resist including the view up the stairs from the ladies' room door. To the right of the front door is a small cloak room (I can't think of another use for it), and beyond that is the door from the hall to the drawing room.

Meal service, originally limited to the dining room, has spread into all three main rooms that form a 150-foot enfilade down Woodlea's main axis. The drawing room pictured below couldn't be in a more magnificent state of preservation, the result of careful, sensitive, consistent and expensive restoration work.

The first image below looks north from the drawing room to the gold room. No self-respecting millionaire in the 1890s - at least none with any social pretensions - would build a house without a white and gold room. Sometimes labeled a music room, this particular specimen is grand and in superb condition. In the vintage image it has a rather softer look, partly due to the portieres.

In the context of upscale 1890s domestic architecture, the dining room, seen below looking both south and north, strikes a Colonial Revival note. Dorothy Draper painted the woodwork white during a 1960s do-over.

The serving pantry that Barr Ferree described in 1906 as "almost as large as many New York apartments" is gone, together with the old kitchen, servants' hall, and pretty much everything else on the first floor of the service wing. Occupying the same space today is a modern institutional kitchen.

There are four stairways at Woodlea. The one in the image below is the northernmost of three located in the formal section of the house. The service wing was connected to the family wing through the sliver of door visible at the left in the image below. The door next to it leads to a breakfast room. At the foot of this corridor is an exit to the drive, adjacent to which is a men's toilet and a side entrance to the billiard room.

Let's retrace our steps back down the corridor (the entrance to the breakfast room is behind the sconce on the right), admire the newel at the foot of the stair, turn left, gaze down the hallway towards the entrance hall, then turn left again into the billiard room.

It looks pretty masculine (not to mention oddly placed) for a morning room, as it is sometimes identified. Today it's the club's taproom.

Time to hike south and head upstairs.

Here's Woodlea's essentially unchanged second floor plan, the rooms in which were used as follows. I believe the architect designed two connecting master bedroom suites. #4 would have been Mrs. Shepard's bedroom; #6 her boudoir; the room between 4 and 6 was (and still is) a bathroom. Her dressing room with duplexed closet was located between 4 and 3. Col. Shepard's bedroom was #3, and his dressing room #2 with bathroom attached. Bedroom #'s 1, 7 and 8 were likely family bedrooms with en suite baths. #9 apparently used an elaborate hall bath with commode in a separate room. I wonder if #9 was for Shepard's son? The hall bath is located on the other side of the stair from it. The ultimate uses of these rooms, and especially the colonel's suite, probably varied. By some reports, Mrs. Shepard slept on the 3rd floor, which is possible I suppose, but quite unusual if true.

Here's the second floor landing, looking glamorous like everything else in the place. My host, Sleepy Hollow GM, Bill Nitschke, is unlocking bedroom #1.

Here's bedroom #7.

Here's bedroom #9, the historically important but rather unloved "Turkish Room." TR's were a fashionable virus that afflicted many houses in those days. An en suite bath has been added to #9 without, however, increasingly its popularity.

Mrs. Shepard's room has been subdivided into club offices, it would appear without irreversible damage to the original architectural fabric.

The door in her dressing room still leads to a duplexed closet.

Woodlea's second floor bathrooms are a homey bunch - big, bright and barely renovated, just the way I like 'em.

The door on the left in the image of the hall below leads to #9's original non-=en-suite bath. The cubicle that housed an individual throne is now shared by stalls. Except for a missing tub, the rest of this little suite is largely intact.

Also largely intact are the second floor servants' rooms, now called the staff dormitory, and the servants' (now staff) lounge, the latter complete with endlessly blaring television. I hate dropped ceilings, but considering how well the rest of the house has been treated, I'll stop complaining about them now. In the late 1950s, there was a movement to gut the entire house and replace its old fashioned interiors with something more "a la Mad Men." The golf wing was the child of this mindset, a madness which fortunately fizzled before more damage was done.

The little sliver of door on the left side of the image below leads to the Turkish Room. We're taking the stairs to 3 to tour more bedrooms.

What a view, but ooh! that tar roof! Seen another way, what an opportunity to recreate something beautiful.

Woodlea's attic is an elephant's graveyard of nifty old stuff, some of which has been here since the Shepard days.

Time to get out of that attic heat, take the middle stair (which we haven't been on) to 2, and the main flight down to the entrance hall.

The Sleepy Hollow Country Club, together with its 338 acres of woods and rolling fairways, constitutes the premier ornament of the Scarborough National Historic District. This designation unfortunately provides no protection to open land or structures, but it hopefully helps raise public awareness of the value of both. Woodlea is a beautiful and historic place and the club deserves kudos for keeping it that way.

Vintage images courtesy Sleepy Hollow Country Club


  1. Oh to be a Vanderbilt. A wonderful preservation story on utilizing and maintaining a seemingly impossible building. Beautiful

  2. I attended a large benefit dinner at this club ten or so years ago, for Scenic Hudson. Noone was able to explain its history to me at the time. Thank you for providing the back story on the house and its occupants. Fascinating. Reggie

  3. I knew you could get inside. Thanks for sharing these visits with us. It's a beautiful property.

  4. A few moments Googling led me to this re the three cats:

    The sixteenth century Fitch coat of arms was:

    Vert a chevron between three leopard's faces gold; Crest - A leopard's face gold in his mouth a sword proper the hilt gules; Motto - Promptus et Certus (In French Prompte et Certe), used by descendants of Thomas Fitch I of Norwalk, CT, Spes Juvat, by descendants of Rev. James Fitch I of Norwich, CT and Virtus Omnia Vincit by descendants of Samuel Fitch I of Hartford, CT.

    Thanks for another wonderful house!

    1. Thank you so much. I didn't think to look up "Fitch."

    2. The Tiffany dinner service plates featured the same armorial and French motto. I have one of the original plates.

  5. John: This is totally off the subject of Woodlea but I wanted to alert you that one of the other great houses you have so beautifully interpreted is in immediate danger. The Jesuits who own Insifada now have a sales agreement with a developer who wants to build housing on the property. He is mum as to whether he intends to demolish the mansion. To make matters worse, the mayor of North Hills seems totally unsympathetic to preserving the house - his attitude seems callous and outlandishly ignorant. Go to Old Long Island and look up the article posted on Thursday, July 25. Although the article is on the Burden Estate, Woodside, the comments section is full of info on the current crisis with Insifada (it is the most recent article in Old Long Island so everyone is blogging on that post). In the comments section you will find listings for websites featuring articles on the Insifada debacle. I don't know how much influence you might have in this situation but every bit of help is urgently needed. Titanic Bill

  6. Hello Mr. Foreman. Do you happen to know why there are secondary louvered doors in front of the bedroom doors? I've never seen that before.

    Thank you,
    A reader.

    1. Secondary louvered doors are fairly common on big old house bedrooms. On hot nights before air-conditioning, you could leave your bedroom door, keep the louvered door closed, and still get a bit of a ventilation.

  7. What an incredible house! What an incredible post! I love the scale of the place. The long hallway seems large, but not huge, on the first and second floors. Only when you see it on the third floor is its width apparent. John, you really provide a great service letting us experience these places vicariously. Thanks so much for what you do.

  8. I was there many years ago as a commericial kitchen designer. I played golf there many times. Wonderful historic site, and magnificent views of the river.

  9. Thanks for every other informative web site. The place else may I get that kind of info written in such a perfect approach? I’ve a mission that I’m simply now working on, and I have been at the glance out for such info. Finally I read a very effective material, thank you from my heart .
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  10. My parents had their wedding reception at Sleepy Hollow in 1949. My mother grew up in Ardsley-On-Hudson, on Ardsley Avenue, and her parents were members of the club where my grandfather played golf. I had always heard about the club, and have a photo of my parents on the grand staircase, I have never seen photos until seeing this article and the Sleepy Hollow website. Thank you! Now to figure out which house was theirs.

  11. Wonderful article and photos. Brought back many memories from our time at the Club in the 60's and 70's. Both my sister and I were married there and I was lucky enough to live in bedroom 8 and 7 for six months. Great fun for a 25 year old to have that huge house mostly to myself.

  12. Every year at this time my mind is drawn to Sleepy Hollow. I only was there once. It is a very beautiful place. But sad to say, It was my fathers' death which lead me there. He was due to retire on October 31, 1997 and he passed away that day at work. I have no place to lay flowers down for him -but only in my heart and memory of my dad a chef at Sleepy Hollow. I miss and loved him so.
    RIP daddy,

  13. I suppose if I had to pick a perfect article, it would be yours. I know no article is perfect, but yours is as close as it gets. Good job. houses for sale in scarborough