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Big Old Houses: Because That's What it Cost
by John Foreman


The answer to the question, "Why in the world did they call the house 'Pretty Penny?'" is, "Because that's what it cost." In 1932, with America reeling from the Depression, playwright Charles MacArthur (1895-1956) and his wife, actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993), were riding high.

Flush from a string of Broadway hits written with his longtime collaborator Ben Hecht (among them a 1928 smash called "The Front Page") and her 1931 "Best Actress" Academy Award for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," this young, good looking and talented couple forsook the blandishments of their Long Island pals to house hunt instead in the Hudson River village of Nyack, N.Y. The house they bought probably didn't cost much, but their swank renovation did. Besides a new, double-height, ocean-liner-ish entry hall, dining room walls painted in faux marble, and murals depicting themselves and their children as cherubs, the MacArthurs built a high brick wall along North Broadway to deflect "spying eyes."
Pretty Penny's history before the MacArthurs is at best anonymous. Architecturally, it's an appealing Italianate opus built in 1856 for a prosperous Nyack merchant named Eli Gurnee. Of Mr. Gurnee, I discovered very little, save that he had two wives, a name that is probably a Yankee corruption of Garnier, and in 1868 married off a daughter to another man named Gurnee — sort of like Eleanor and Franklin.

Helen Hayes.
Charlie MacArthur.
In 1939, the rich MacArthurs (Helen basking in huge critical and financial successes on Broadway, in 'Mary of Scotland' and 'Victoria Regina') commissioned the poor Edward Hopper (who needed money, but resented a 'tradesman's' commission) to do a painting of the house. "As a performer," Miss Hayes wrote years later, "I just shriveled under the heat of (his) disapproval ... really, I was utterly unnerved by this man." Smith College Museum of Art owns the painting today.

Helen Hayes — or Mrs. MacArthur, as she was known locally — lived at Pretty Penny for 60 years. In the course of 92 years of living she appeared in dozens of stage plays, movies and television productions, raised two children, and spent her last 37 years as a widow. Brooks Atkinson once described her acting as "tremulously magnificent." She was generally acknowledged as the First Lady of the American Theatre.

Smart guy Charlie MacArthur met shy Helen Hayes at a penthouse cocktail in 1928. He spied her sitting in a corner by herself, holding a glass of sherry more as a prop than anything else. In her 1990 autobiography titled "My Life in Three Acts," she described what happened next. "(A) good looking fellow with curly brown hair and sparkling green eyes came over, maybe because he felt sorry for me sitting there all alone. He held out a small paper bag. 'Wanna peanut?' he asked. 'Thanks," I said. He poured a few in my hand and said, 'I wish they were emeralds.' Right then and there I fell in love."

I'm going to remember that line myself. When Helen and Charlie lived here, the front door was under that small porch on the left of the image below. Inside it is the double-height entrance hall, complete with second floor gallery. Let's take a quick walk around before we go inside.
The property originally extended from high ground on North Broadway all the way down to the Hudson shoreline. A beachfront lot has been carved from the original parcel, and a new house with a low (but not invisible) roof stands there today. The images below show the views in both directions from the pool.
Owners after the MacArthurs relocated the front door back to its original historical location.
Pretty Penny, according to Life Magazine, which came "visiting" in 1939, was "honestly theatrical." It was full of faux surfaces, crystal chandeliers, paintings by Renoir and Degas, a basement bar from a Broadway show, and sprinkled throughout with sophisticated house gifts from celebrities like Beatrice Lillie and Norma Shearer. Today's interiors are still high style, but the look depends heavily on reproduction moldings and door surrounds, none of which were here in the MacArthur days. It was comedian Rosie O'Donnell who, after buying the house in 1996, took it back to the 1850s — sort of. Pretty Penny today is a cross between a museum — quality reconstruction and a Fifth Avenue coop.
The best room in the house is the big drawing room that stretches across the river facade, a matching marble fireplace at either end. The framed picture is of Helen Hayes, one of several in the house.
Lots of moldings in the dining room below, probably on a grander scale than Eli Gurnee would ever have imagined. The MacArthurs employed a staff of six, including a combination valet/chauffeur/butler named Herman. He's in Life's 1939 article wearing a white coat and serving lunch in the elaborate "faux marbre" dining room.
Helen told the reporter she had "no servant problem because she never goes near the kitchen." You better believe the door below that once connected the dining room to a serving pantry didn't used to have glass panes. The kitchen and pantries from the MacArthur days have been replaced with the sort of tasteful family room and open kitchen that would have left Helen and Charlie nonplussed.
The dining room is located on the south side of the front door. The small reception room in the images below is located on the north side. The rosette on the ceiling is probably new, as is the ceiling — and the walls, and the moldings, and the baseboard and maybe even the floor. The mantelpiece is old, but the flue has undoubtedly been rebuilt.
One of the biggest changes the MacArthurs made to Pretty Penny was relocating the main entrance, seen in the images below, to the house's northern end. Subsequent owners have moved it back to its original location, but had you arrived in the MacArthurs' day, you would have passed through the door in the distance into a chic double-height entry hall of a sort that could easily be on Central Park West. The third arch from the right in the fourth image below leads to the basement.
The MacArthurs weren't about to "hang out" (with or without guests) in a family room next to the kitchen. In their day fun times were spent in the basement barroom or, in Helen's case, an adjacent flower room where she arranged roses cut from the property. The beautifully painted walls of Pretty Penny's past are all gone, with the exception of "Helen and Charlie" and their children "Mary and Jamie" depicted as cherubs along the basement stair.
Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Rosalind Russell, Beatrice Lillie, even Scott Fitzgerald (who left a signed copy of one of his books) were part of a steady stream of celebrities that visited Pretty Penny. Charlie was a gagster and a lot of fun. A famous story describes him waiting for an appointment in the library of the great Otto Kahn, scribbling on the flyleaf of a leather bound classic, "To my friend Otto, without whose help this could not have been written — Socrates." Helen once gave him a painting of an Odalisque for Christmas. He hung it in the barroom between closeable curtains, in case its nudity offended anyone. Save for "Comedy" and "Tragedy" flanking the door outside, the barroom's former atmosphere has vanished.
There's a staff bedroom on the first floor and three guestrooms plus a master on the second, all with en suite baths. The MacArthur floor plan generally survives on the second floor, but most everything else seems new.
The master suite has been totally changed. The MacArthurs had separate bedrooms with a small study in between — not unusual back then, and not all that unusual today. Their marriage suffered a terrible blow in 1949 when daughter Mary fell ill with polio and died. Their little boy Jamie, born in 1937, would grow up to become an actor himself, famous as "Danno" in television's original "Hawaii Five-O." His father, however, never overcame the grief of losing Mary. In Ms. Hayes 1990 autobiography "My Life in Three Acts," she describes how, after Mary's death, her husband "set about killing himself" with alcohol. "It took seven years and it was harrowing to watch." Charlie MacArthur died in 1956 at the age of 61.
We took the MacArthurs' main stair up, so let's take the original main stair down.
Helen Hayes' maternal grandparents were potato famine immigrants who brought their Catholicism with them from Ireland. Her husband Charlie, however, was a divorced man.

Actually, he wasn't even divorced when he asked her to marry him. It wasn't until after his death that the church of Ms. Hayes' birth would again administer the sacraments she'd grown up with.

Interestingly, by the end of her life she had become as ardent a Catholic as she was a conservative Republican. Footnote: If you listen to NPR or watch public television, you'll undoubtedly recognize the name of the "The John D. and Helen T. MacArthur Foundation." The billionaire insurance and real estate czar who funded that outfit was Charlie's brother.

Pretty Penny stands on a 1.14 acre lot which, thanks to the horticultural interests of the present owner, is literally an arboretum imported from Oregon.

House and grounds are currently on the market for sale; Hamid Moghadam of Ellis Sothebys Realty in Nyack has the listing; his email is hmoghadam50@gmail.com.
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