Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Consummation of Earthly Bliss

In 1818, a poetic teenager from North Carolina named Robert Donaldson (1800-1872) stood at the rail of a Hudson River steamer in the moonlight, bound from Albany to New York. "Passed the celebrated scenery of the Hudson at Night by a Full Moon," he wrote, in a journal distinguished by a liberal use of capitalization. "(N)o doubt was more Sublime, than if seen in the Day...The Banks are lined with elegant villas - thought it was the consummation of Earthly Bliss to live in one of those palaces, on such a Noble River, under such a Government." Oh, those Victorians. I used to keep a journal myself, until, in a moment of clarity, I realized I had little to say to posterity and threw the thing out. Luckily, Donaldson didn't. The drawing above, from an 1850 Valentine's Manuel of Old New York, shows one of those bliss-inducing villas. Well, technically it doesn't, since Edgewater House, as depicted above, was built three years after young Donaldson's moonlight cruise. It is still a private estate, by the way, whose erudite owner put Donaldson's quote on his pool house wall.

Edgewater (for a short time called River Lawn) stood originally on Livingston land, they being the grandest and richest of the Hudson Valley seigneurs. The columned part was built in 1821 by John R. Livingston (1755-1851), brother of the famous Chancellor and deeded in 1823 to his daughter Margaretta in honor of her wedding to Captain Lowndes Brown of Charleston, SC. After about 30 years of Brown family occupancy, Mrs. B endured a sort of bad luck trifecta. Her father died in 1851; Captain Brown died in 1852; and the final indignity came in 1852, when the State of New York condemned a strip of land stretching from New York City to Rensselaer County upstate in order to facilitate construction of the Hudson River Railroad. This right-of-way slashed its way up the east shore of the river, isolating with scalpel-like precision the little peninsula on which the Widow Brown's house had stood for 30 years. Worse, the tracks when finally laid were about 60 feet from the front door. (Shades of Robert Moses and the Long Island Expressway). Mrs. Brown promptly unloaded the property to none other than that moony teenager of 1818 who, having inherited a fortune from a rich uncle, was now a prosperous 52-year-old Manhattanite. It was he who tacked on the wing on the left, about which more in a moment.

Here I am at the gate to Edgewater, probably more blissful today than it ever was in the past. A private residence today, it will one day be owned by something called the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit founded in 1993 by Richard H. (Dick) Jenrette, Wall Street banker and former CEO of Equitable Life. At the moment the Trust owns three early- to mid-19th century houses, each restored to lapidary quality. However, another three of similar quality and pedigree - notable among them, Edgewater - are occupied by Mr. Jenrette as private houses. There's not much room between the tracks and the river, but what there is has been manipulated with considerable skill into a dramatic approach to the house.

The railroad so infuriated Mrs. Brown that she decamped to Europe, vowed never to return and, true to her word, she never did. The trains didn't bother Mr. Donaldson, however, who bought Edgewater with the intention of subdividing its 250 acres, the great majority of which lay on the inland side of the tracks. Donaldson was an influential boomer of Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), one of the great proselytizers for the Gothic Revival. Davis's taste was a far cry from Edgewater's symmetrical Greek simplicity, and to his dismay, patron Donaldson fell unexpectedly under the spell of it. "You will be surprised and perhaps pained," Donaldson wrote in 1852, "to learn that I have given up all purposes of building a villa...and intend to live and die in this Greek temple." So instead of a villa, Davis designed a new octagonal library, which was added to the north end of the house in 1854. At the same time, Edgewater's original brick envelope was encased in stucco, scored into faux blocks, and faux-painted to look like brownish marble.

Here's a better look at the library wing, and the adjacent columned porch.

Donaldson heirs continued at Edgewater until 1902, when they sold the property to a member of one of the old river families with roots on an adjoining estate. John Jay Chapman (1862-1933) was a noted essayist, critic, poet and, unfortunately, a borderline lunatic who, in 1887 assaulted a man he wrongly believed had offended his fiance. In an agony of remorse he then plunged his offending hand into a fire, damaging it so severely it had to be amputated. Ouch. After buying Edgewater, Chapman and his wife built a house called Sylvania (still extant and in mint condition) up the hill from the old Donaldson place, which they closed. After J.J. Chapman's death in 1933, his son Conrad inherited Edgewater, eventuially selling it in 1942 to Robert and Laura Taylor. Wartime mobilization had unfortunately resulted in smoke belching troop trains filled with men and materiel roaring back and forth pretty much 24 hours a day. The Taylors decided they couldn't live in the house, closed it up, and so it remained until 1949.

Conversation still ceases when Amtrak roars by, but nowadays it doesn't roar by very often. Plus which, you can't actually see the tracks, hidden as they are by ornamental walls and clever landscaping. Birdsong, the rustling waters of the Hudson, and a reassuring drone of distant lawnmowers seem the only intrusion into this Eden-like world - at least, until the Amtrak to Poughkeepsie passes. Mr. Jenrette bought the house in 1969 and he and his late partner Bill Thompson spent the next 45 years focusing on it considerable love, scholarship and no small amount of money. It is furnished today with the fruits of what might be called a high class scavenger hunt, the prizes being original furnishings. Not everything here belonged to the Donaldsons, but an amazing amount of it did, and what didn't is usually museum quality.

Inside the front door, immediately to the right, is a reception room - or morning room, as Mr. Jenrette calls it - that probably was Mr. Brown's office, and later a Donaldson guest bedroom. It is today decorated with a portrait of Donaldson's wife (on the terrace of their house opposite the Battery in New York), and furnished with her recamier (designed by Duncan Phyfe), her harp, her sofa, even a benign looking photographic likeness of her (presumably taken before the arrival of the railroad). Even the color on the walls is correct to the Donaldson period.

The door on the right in the image below leads to a drawing room whose tall french doors open onto the columned porch. Pretty much everything in sight has a distinguished provenance, especially the Duncan Phyfe sofa and chairs. In point of fact, Mr. Jenrette's Classical American Homes Preservation Trust owns the largest collection of Duncan Phyfe furniture in the country. The obligatory Washington portrait, in this case by Charles Peale Polk, hangs above a Washington clock from a Sotheby's auction.

A short hyphen containing a modern powder room connects Davis's 1854 library to the original house. No books to speak of are in sight anymore, at least not in this room. The bust over the door? That's John Jay, President of the Continental Congress, Governor of New York, and First Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme court.

Guess who this is? OK, some of you already know - it's Gore Vidal (1925-2012), author of one of my all time favorite books, "Burr." Vidal's 1973 depiction of the courtly, cranky, and charming old reprobate Aaron Burr forever tarnished my impression of Thomas Jefferson. Vidal bought Edgewater from the Taylors for $16,000, sold it in 1969 to Jenrette at what seemed an enormous profit, and regretted doing so for the rest of his life.

The dining room is at the south end of the house, on the other side of the drawing room. The portrait is of Mr. Donaldson, part of a trove of Donaldsonia that included paintings, silver, a grandfather clock, sofas, chairs, family photographs, etc., etc., most of which had originally lived at Edgewater. Mr. Jenrette discovered it in Spain, of all places, in the house of a Donaldson great-granddaughter, and was able to buy it after her death. The dining chairs were Donaldson's, the table a lucky match.

A sleek little service pantry opens off the southern corner of the dining room. Beyond it, stairs descend to a basement kitchen, plus what was originally a servants' dining room. The latter is unused today, all meals being taken upstairs. Gore Vidal installed the garage at the north end of the house.

Time to go upstairs.

This is Mr. Jenrette's Edgewater bedroom. He also has a bedroom at the Roper House on the Battery at Charleston and one at Cane Garden on St Croix. All three are future properties of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust but, for the time being, serve as his private residences. During a career of moving and shaking on Wall Street, Mr. Jenrette found time to buy and coax back to life a total of fourteen houses, making him a sort of old house sultan with his own seraglio. Besides the three in today's Trust (the others are Millford Plantation in Pinewood, SC, Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, NC and the George F. Baker Houses on East 93rd St.) he has at various times owned addresses as diverse as 150 East 38th St., 27 East 11th St., 37 Charlton St., and 1 Sutton Place North. The portrait of him was painted in 1984 by Peter Egeli; Brooke Astor used to own the mantel clock.

Exquisite (an adjective I don't often use) as Edgewater may be, it predates the era of grand bathrooms. Each of the three bedrooms on the second floor has it's own bath, and they're nice but unexciting. The mirrors in Mr. J's are oddly convex and make me look thinner than I already am.

The second bedroom is similarly sized.

In order to squash a bathroom into the third, a window has been partly blocked.

But wait, there's more. On the third floor is a spectacular library that might be the stacks in some small exclusive college. A fourth bedroom is under siege by advancing book shelves.

Edgewater is often on tours and open to special groups, but I doubt anyone gets to see it as thoroughly as we have.

Two additional structures were added to the property in 1998 - the pool house we saw earlier and the Palladian guest house below. Both are early projects of New York architect Michael Dwyer, a man who builds new houses for people with old house sensibilities. I love my sprawling antique manse in Millbrook, but I could almost see myself living here. Well, almost.

The map below shows Edgewagter's environs during the Civil War, when Mr. Donaldson still owned the Brown's 250 acres across the tracks. The skinny plot where Edgewater still stands lies west of the tracks, and stretches from about the "B" in "Barrytown" to a little below the "R" in "R. Donaldson." Edgewater itself sits on that little headland sticking into the river. The guest house is across the small bay to the north of the house. John Jay Chapman's wife was one of the famous Astor Orphans (a terrific story for another time) who grew up at Rokeby. He and his wife bought the Donaldson property in order to build Sylvania. Massena belonged to Mrs. Brown's father, John Livingson. The late Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Theological Seminary owns the property today. Despite all the changes, this small corner of the world looks eerily like it has for centuries.


  1. A magnificent museum quality house and spectacular furnishings collection that should be preserved. The property is very blessed to have an owner like Mr. Jenrette.

  2. This house was featured in a beautiful coffee table book that I recently read, "Historic House of the Hudson River Valley" by Gregory Long. It's a fascinating book and luckily my local public library had a copy. Your photos are quite as good as (and much more thorough than) the beautiful shots in the book.

  3. thanks for this. i went to school with YeJin Moon a million years ago and always wondered what was down there along the river. (never got further west than rte 9.)

    that's a beautiful house.

  4. Is.. is that Lucille Ball in the photo?

  5. Earthly Bliss indeed! Thanks so much John.

  6. ''Vidal bought Edgewater from the Taylors for $16,000, sold it in 1969..."
    Gore must have been ''levitate rabidus'' or drunk to sell this one of a kind gem.

  7. Both the house and its furnishings are an exercise in what can be accomplished in the quest for beauty combined with comfort -- given sufficient funds and taste. But, oh, those classical stenciled floors...they are truly exquisite, indeed! Thank you, John, for sharing this house of bliss.

    1. Thanks Beth...I hadn't noticed the faux inlaid [painted] floors. Most elegant in a handmade manner. I also like the way the rooms are each individually color coordinated.

  8. Really bang-up tour of one of the finest houses in the Hudson Valley, and one at which I was most fortunate to have been a guest. Thank you, John! One small correction on Chanler genealogy; John Jay Chapman's wife, Elizabeth Astor Winthrop Chanler (1866-1937) (not Chapman's mother) was one of the ten celebrated "Astor Orphans".
    Elizabeth Chanler can be glimpsed in this very excellent John Singer Sargent portrait which once hung at Sylvania, and which is now in Washington D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery:

  9. Thank you for such a thorough look at this jewel of a house. Photos of the main floor & bedrooms are readily available but I've never seen any of its nether regions and the attic, wonderful discoveries. Rather beautiful chimney paneling for the servants' dining room -- it would be welcome in my dining room! We should always be thankful for the existence of people like Richard Jenrette -- I certainly am.

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