Upon Visiting Lyndhurst
East facade of Lyndhurst. Photo: JH.
Wednesday we drove up to Tarrytown to visit Lyndhurst, the estate of Jay Gould, known at various times as the king of the Robber Barons, and one of the most famous (and infamous) railroad financiers and stock manipulators of the last quarter of the 19th century. Mr. Gould was known for wily financial dealings alone and with his one-time partner Jim Fisk and their stock wars against Cornelius Vanderbilt over the Erie Railroad, as well as his ill-fated attempt to corner the Gold Market in 1869 – a debacle which led to the bankruptcy of almost a thousand individuals (they were effectively ruined as there were no laws in those days to protect them), as well as the collapse of fourteen brokerage houses and several banks.

Born a farm boy in Roxbury, New York in 1836, by the time he was thirty, he was a rising figure on Wall Street whose fortune was established through his investments in railroads, during which he gained control of many lines in the East as well as several in the Midwest and the West. Other investments included the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Manhattan Elevated.

His railroad wars with his arch-enemy Cornelius Vanderbilt was a true war of the financial wits. In his recently published biography of Gould (Dark Genius of Wall Street; the Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, author Edward J. Renehan Jr. recounts a “rate war” between Vanderbilt and Gould:

“During a rate war with the New York Central (Vanderbilt’s line) to attract cattle shipments flowing east from buffalo to New York City, Gould put his per-carload rate down to $75 from Vanderbilt’s original high of $125 per. When Vanderbilt retaliated with a drop to $50, Gold put the Erie (Gould’s rail line) at $25, only to have Vanderbilt go to a ridiculous $1 per carload, with a penny a head being charged for hogs and sheep. At first Vanderbilt delighted in reports that while his cars were packed, the Erie trains ran empty. Only later did he learn that Gould and Fisk (Jim Fisk, Gould’s frequent investing partner) had bought every bit of marketable livestock coming into Buffalo from points west, which they then shipped to New York via (Vandebilt’s) Central, realizing enormous profits (from his losses).”

Jay Gould, circa 1875
Just prior to that incident, at age 33, Gould’s notoriety (and national fame) was established with Black Tuesday, September 24, 1869, the day the Gold Market collapsed thanks to his activities. In the following ten years (and by the time the accompanying photo portrait was taken), he was a very rich man, although he was shunned by society because of his financial dealings. So harsh was public opinion of him that he was often unsafe moving around without security. In one famous instance, he was accosted by a man on Wall Street who picked him by the seat of the pants and threw him down a barbershop stairway, causing minor injury but great terror. Bodyguards were immediately hired thereafter and were always with him in public.

In private life, Mr. Gould was a devoted husband and father of six children. He spent his spare time with his family, with whom he lived in a mansion on the corner of 47th Street and Fifth Avenue, onto which he had built a small potting shed where he developed an affinity for horticulture and especially the cultivation of orchids.

“I have the disadvantage,” Gould once told a reporter, “of not being sociable. Wall Street men are fond of company and sport. A man makes $100,000 (comparable to $10 million today) and immediately buys a yacht, begins to drive fast horses, and becomes a sport generally. My tastes lie in a different direction. When business hours are over I go home and spend the remainder of the day with my wife, my children and books of my library.”

Summertimes his family first visited the Jersey shore. (He also owned one of the world’s largest private sailing yachts, the Atalanta.) In 1878, he rented an estate overlooking the Hudson River called Lyndenhurst from the heirs of George Merritt in Tarrytown. He 1880, he bought the property and renamed it Lyndhurst.

George Merritt
Tarrytown for summers and weekends was a haven for Gould and his family. It was also a kind of social compromise. The area (the eastern shore of the Hudson River) had become popular with wealthy New Yorkers in the late 1830s after the opening of the Erie Canal – which opened up commerce to the Great Lakes and the Midwest and established the city as the center of commerce and import/export in the country.

In three decades, between 1820 and 1850, the population of New York City quadrupled from 123,000 to more than 515,000. Great merchant wealth was created. The development of the railroads by mid-century caused another huge jump in the numbers, both population-wise and in terms of private wealth. From Yonkers all the way almost to Albany, great estates were built by the recipients of this wealth because of its easy accessibility to and from the city by rail or steamboat.

By the time the Gould family visit Lydenhurst, in 1878, the area was beginning to be forsaken by the wealthier and very social New Yorkers for the newer, more popular resort spots, namely the Berkshires (Lenox, Stockbridge) and Newport. The Goulds’ social isolation went unnoticed and unmarked by their presence on the quieter, more pastoral shores of the Hudson Valley.

The original house was begun in the late 1830s
for William Paulding, a one time mayor of New York City who held office at the time of the opening of the Erie Canal. He acquired the acreage just north of Washington Irving’s Sunnyside property, on what was then called the Albany Post Road, and later Broadway (now Route 9) just south of the village of Tarrytown.

Paulding, who grew up in Tarrytown and by the time of his purchase of the land, was retired and in his early sixties, hired architect Andrew Jackson Davis to design him a villa that he would call “Knoll.”

The architect and his client chose the style known as “Gothic Revival,” or “Tudor Gothic.” The style, which reflected a fashionable architectural trend in England. The landscape features — a “ruggedly picturesque” hill, or knoll, overlooking the river was considered a perfect location for this kind of design.

Davis, who was regarded as an important architectural theorist of his day believed that the “villa should, above all things, manifest individuality. It should say something of the character of the family within – as much as possible of their life and history, their tastes and associations, should mould and fashion themselves upon its walls.”

The house was completed for occupancy in 1842. Davis also designed the interiors and most of the furniture (many items of which exist today in the house). William Paulding died twelve years later in 1854 (his wife pre-deceased him) and the house was inherited by his son Philip who had worked closely with Davis in planning the house and with the original landscape designer Alexander Jackson Downingwho is regarded as the grand-daddy of landscape architects in America. When Philip Paulding died ten years later in 1864, his heirs sold the house to a very wealthy New York businessman named George Merritt.

Merritt’s fortune was considerably larger than Paulding’s, thanks to the growth of the city’s economy and most specifically because of his invention of an item used on railroad cars and the growth of the railroad industry. He wanted a bigger house to reflect his achievement. Davis was again brought in to expand the house, adding a wing on two stories, creating the house that exists today.
East facade of the original house, then called Knoll, designed by Andrew Jackson Davis for Edward Paulding, completed in 1842.
The western facade of the (expanded) house, called Lyndenhurst, designed by A.J. Davis for George Merritt, 1865.
Merritt renamed the property Lyndenhurst, after the linden trees that Downing had planted on the property. He also built a greenhouse, the largest private greenhouse in America at the time – measuring 300 feet in length and 60 feet in depth. In its center was a tower from which, it was said, Jay Gould go eventually, on a clear day, look out across the Hudson and all the way up to the Catskills and the land of his birthplace.

Merritt, with Davis’ assistance, revamped the décor of the house to reflect the style of the more affluent and industrially dynamic time – a style called Rococo Revival. He also turned the two-story library on the second floor into a poolroom/picture gallery. He died nine years after acquiring the property. Several years later, his widow, sold it to Gould for $255,000, and he shortened its name to Lyndhurst.

Gould expanded the property, acquiring land
on the other side of the main road (until he had almost 500 acres), turning it into a dairy farm, and re-decorating the interior, turning to the more up-to-date Herter Brothers in New York (they did the great WH Vanderbilt double mansion on Fifth Avenue).

All that frou frou was replaced by something considered less intricate. The drawing rooms walls and ceilings were decorated with numerous small repeating floral designs known as the Aesthetic style. The original soft wood flooring and Oriental carpets were replaced with wall-to-wall carpeting. The tops of the inner window frames were filled with stained-glass panels featuring exotic birds and banded curtains hung below. The furniture was known as Renaissance Revival. The Gould family employed thirty-five servants on staff at Lyndhurst – twenty-one inside and fourteen outdoors.

In 1880, the enormous greenhouse burned to the ground, possibly the work of an arsonist. Gould had it rebuilt immediately for it was there that he found his greatest solace away from the rigors (and terrors) of Wall Street and business. Gould was, incidentally, never far from the threat of his own reputation, even at Lyndhurst. Once, while in residence at Lyndhurst, a gunman entered the house when Gould was there. He was chased away, escaping briefly but soon found hiding in shrubbery, by the police and private detectives, nevertheless re-kindling Gould’s fears and demons.
Greenhouse built by George Merritt, ca. 1870. When first built, it was one of the largest private greenhouses in the world. It burned down in 1880.
A section of the rebuilt greenhouse, today.
Gould’s adored wife Helen (whom he called Ellie) became ill while still in her late forties and died in 1889 after a long illness. Gould himself, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis around the time of his wife’s death, lived only another three years, dying in 1892. He left an estate of approximately $125 million (more than a billion in today’s currency) divided equally between his children with some bequests to members of his family.

Nothing was left to charity. Some of the Gould children were underage and so the will provided that his eldest daughter Helen could live there (with her siblings until the youngest reached majority). That occurred in 1898. A few years later, Helen bought the property from the estate for $382,000.

Helen Gould
married for the first time at age forty-five to a distant cousin named Finley Shepard. They adopted three children and had one foster child. She added the poolhouse and the bowling alley to the property, as well as a schoolhouse for the children. Mrs. Shepard became the philanthropist that her father never was, donating millions to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the YMCA. She invited the public onto the grounds for garden tours and picnics and ran a sewing and cooking school for local girls on the grounds.

When Helen Shepard died in 1938 at age 70, the estate was sold to her younger sister, Anna, who was perhaps the most famous Gould after their father. Anna, as a very young woman made a European marriage to Boni, the Count de Castellane, spent her millions fabulously and as profligately as her father’s will would allow. After having three children with him, she had the marriage annulled and married a cousin of his, the prince (and duke) de Talleyrand-Perigord. Helen, who became a thoroughly Franco-American woman as la duchesse de Talleyrand, returned to New York at the outbreak of the Second World War, and lived at the Plaza Hotel.

She maintained Lyndhurst, visiting it frequently but never sleeping there. She redecorated some of the rooms in the style to which she had become accustomed (French). When she died in 1961, she left the house and land and a fund for supporting it to the National Trust.
L. to r.: The birthplace of Jay Gould, Roxbury, NY; Jay Gould, age 19.
Gould's wife, Helen Miller Gould
Gould's eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard
Gould's younger daughter, Anna, Duchess of Talleyrand-Perigord
Touring the house today, one is exposed to all aspects of its almost 170 year architectural and design history. Furniture and interiors from the Paulding days are intact in the restoration of certain rooms, including the drawing room which has been restored to its early Victorian style, as are interiors and furniture from the Merritt period. The interior of the house is surprisingly small to what we’ve come to expect of Robber Barons’ mansions (i.e., Newport). And the style of the Victorian era, first without electricity, as well as devoid of air-conditioning, reveals a much darker abode, sedate and restrained, yet probably very uncomfortable in many ways, compared to the space and light that we are used to in the late 20th, early 21st century.
South facade of Lyndhurst
Nevertheless, one gets a sense, not only of what life was like for the economically very privileged, as well as the mores and folkways of those times. One also gets the sense of the beauty and the exhilaration and relief because of the beauty of the natural environment surrounding the house.

One can imagine how this man, small and physically frail, a demon to the public, a pariah even, harshly reviled, could sit on his veranda of this house, surrounded by his devoted family and his loving wife, on a very warm summer’s evening (like the evening at the time of this writing) and look down across the sweeping lawns, and over the treetops, to the magnificent river and the New Jersey Palisades and the Tappan Zee across the water.

One can imagine what an immense relief it must have been for someone who lived such an intensely agitated and, in the end, not very long life that stretched from the hardscrabble, frugal diary farm life upstate to the towers and citadels of international business and the riches of Croesus. One can imagine how he might have been humbled very possibly, no matter how briefly, by his ghosts and the looming vast landscape beyond his protected place on the veranda.
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Lyndhurst is only about forty minutes from the city by car, up the Major Deegan and the Saw Mill to Route 9 in Tarrytown, approximately a half mile south of the NY State Thruway (I-87) at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Also accessible by Metro-North Commuter Railroad. Open May through October, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. And then November through April, weekends only from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Interior of the stables which have been transformed into a restaurant
Two views of the stables. The stables nowadays are designed to accommodate private parties, dances, lectures and wedding receptions.
L. to r.: East lawn of Lyndhurst. The landscape was first designed by Ferdinand Mangold, who was hired by George Merritt and later retained by the Goulds; Entryway off the Porte Cochere.
Two details of the east facade of Lyndhurst.
Merritt drawing room in the Rococo revival style
The Gould drawing room (the same room) in the Aesthetic style of Herter Brothers
L. to r.: The original decor of the drawing room, restored, as decorated by A.J. Davis in the gothic style for the the Paulding family.
The library
Jay Gould's office with a table designed by A.J. Davis for the Pauldings
Jay Gould's large rosewood desk in the office
Top, left: The hallway floor leading to the dining room.

Left: The window seat and bay windows in the dining room.

Right: The dining room decorated for the Goulds with Gothic Revival chairs and table designed by A.J. Davis for the Merritt family.
A study off the dining room
Stainglass details in the hallway
Overview and details of the second floor art gallery, where many of the paintings from Jay Gould's collection still hang today.
Detail of the stainglass windows in the gallery
Looking up at the light fixtures in the gallery
Clockwise from top left: The school room in the school house, built by the Goulds, now the estate offices; Scenes from the kitchen; The Gothic Revival oak bed in the east bedroom; Helen Gould's bathroom.
Looking west towards the Tappan Zee Bridge form the veranda
Left, top and bottom: Two views of the veranda.

Above and below: The northwest and the south facade of the house.
L. to r.: Skeleton of the original footbridge crossing the railroad tracks to the pier on the Hudson; Northwest cottage built by the Merritts to house estate staff. There were originally two, the other burned in 1968.
The poolhouse, built by Helen Shepard for her children
The swimming pool, after 1911
The east grounds
Looking out at the Hudson with the bowling alley in the foreground

July 22, 2005, Volume V, Number 126
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/NYSD.com


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© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com