Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Remembering John Foreman, our Master of Big Old Houses

John Foreman (in top hat) in a New York Coaching Club parade.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Sunny and very cold in New York, dipping down into the 20s at night. Hard on the newly blossoming flowers and greenery.

Very Sad News. John Foreman, our Master of Big Old Houses, died this past Monday night at a hospice in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His daughter was at his side. John had been diagnosed several years ago with chronic lymphocytic leukemia which he lived with until about six months ago when he was stricken with an aggressive lymphoma called Richter’s Transformation. He was hospitalized in early January when he was unable to walk. During that time, aficionados of John’s work now know, he kept producing weekly chapters. He loved his work.
John in his father's shoes.
He and I met through the internet. I happened onto his blog – which was called Big Old Houses, and was immediately taken. I wanted to know what he knew. He and I share many similar social historical interests. I also knew that if we were producing it on the NYSD we could give him a larger audience and a cleaner, better looking design layout.

So I asked him if he’d like to contribute. He responded immediately, and we were off and running. John began producing these accounts of his architectural tours weekly. They are classics.

We did not get to know each other despite our work connection. I read his stuff as it came in but he worked closely with Jeff who designs and lays out the entire site. I usually never saw it until we went up on line with it every Monday night. I never had to see it ahead of time because John knew exactly what he was doing, and his results were impeccable.
John at Hampton, "once the greatest Georgian mansion in America."
Because he and I never had a lunch or a dinner to learn more about each other, everything I knew about him I learned from his weekly columns which are in a very real way, his diaries. In some ways, not knowing much about him except from what I could read, I came to feel I knew him fairly well. I knew, without being told, that his interest in architecture and its social history was lifelong, and no doubt related directly in some way to his own childhood. Which is where all this stuff begins for those of us who are “obsessed.”

In writing his Big Old House pieces, John entered each dwelling with the same anticipation a kid might have for a treasure chest. It’s called Curiosity. He went informed but curious to learn more, to understand. He understood the politics of the families that built and dwelled in the houses. He understood the motivations both personal and social of its builders as well, and its designers and architects. He could explain to you how the house was used, lived in, and what happened in The End.
On the steps of the Sayville, Long Island country place called Meadow Croft.
At the front door of Octagon located two blocks from the White House.
When we met John was a real estate broker here in Manhattan. He’d been in the business for more than 20 years at the time. He loved New York for its astounding architectural history. He understood that so much of the real estate he archived in his pieces were the result of the fortunes of this city, and he respected that.

Our friend Jesse Kornbluth struck up a friendship with John years ago. He wrote me about him yesterday afternoon when he learned of his death:

“I met John in the early '70s, when he owned a brownstone on West 81st Street with floor-through apartments. John’s apartment was a vast garden duplex that he’d designed — an Edwardian retreat, with a paneled library. No one our age had anything like that. It was like he was the son of an English earl, living in exile in Manhattan — but he had no airs, he just loved houses and 19th century architecture.

“I introduced him to the woman who became his wife. On weekends, we’d go dancing in Harlem discos. I remember one that was a cafeteria by day, a pop-up disco at night. Society and media hadn’t discovered discos up there yet. It was just blacks and Hispanics and a few whites having huge fun, and coming home late at night in gypsy cabs with industrial-strength deodorizers dangling from the rear-view mirror. 

“And then John and his wife moved to a mansion in Tuxedo Park, and they had a child, and our lives diverged ..."
At Van Vleck House & Gardens In Montclair, New Jersey,
At Lyndhurst in Tarrytown.
John at Inisfada in 2013. By January, 2014, Inisfada was gone.
I learned a little more from his long time friend, author Patricia Beard who was also able to acquire some information about him from his daughter Jasmine Foreman Kozero (always called Jazzy by her father).

He was born in 1945. His father Harrison Forman (no “e” – which was added by the son) was an American photographer and journalist who wrote for the New York Times and the National Geographic. During World War II, he reported from China where he interviewed Mao Zedong before he won his war against Chiang Kai-shek and became Chairman Mao.

Son John went to high school in Cross River, New York and graduated from the University of Wisconsin where he majored in economics. John’s daughter reported that he regretted his major in college and wished he’d majored in art and architectural history. When Jazzy went to college John advised her that she should major in what interested her, not what she thought he’d think would be best for her.
John with his daughter Jazzy in the early '90s.
John with Jazzy in 2011.
John with daughter Jazzy and granddaughter Lily.
John with his good friend Jana Buehning just last year.
When he was married, he lived in two different houses in Tuxedo. The first was called Paxhurst, built by a firm called Barney and Chapman, and the second was called Lindley Hall, built by Whitney Warren (of Warren & Wetmore). John later wrote about both houses in his blog.

When his daughter was six weeks old, they moved to Daheim in Millbrook, New York. Daheim (German for “home”), a 38-room Gilded Age mansion on a 2500 acre estate was, and still is, owned by the Hitchcock family. It had a famous history during the 1970s when Timothy Leary and his followers lived there and frequently experimented (on themselves) with LSD creating a national sensation.

“When John took over the house,” his daughter recalled, “the windows were boarded up and to find where the leaks were, he turned on a tap and waited for the water to come pouring out. He renovated the house – a daunting project – himself and then moved in.”
John's home for 34 years, Daheim.
Daheim on the eve of the First World War, looking as snappy as it ever would, according to John.
Patricia Beard recalled that “His passionate interest in the Gilded Age focused on the great houses of the period, as a way of exploring the people of the time and their lifestyles through the architecture, and he could identify even the most arcane architectural details. Often his favorite part of a house was the “backstairs” or “downstairs” service area, which guests (and often the owners of the house) never saw.

“He was so well-informed about the period that he could draw a map of Fifth Avenue circa 1901 on the back of an envelope, and identify each house and who lived there.”

John loved to entertain at Daheim. Each year he provided lodging for a student from the nearby Culinary Institute of America. In exchange the student would cook for a weekend dinner party. John also gave an annual Halloween party, which became famous in the community of Millbrook for its originality. He lived at Daheim for thirty-four years.
John's desk at Daheim where he did all his writing.
John wrote two books, “The Vanderbilts in the Gilded Age: Architectural Aspirations, 1879 – 1901,” and “Old Houses in Millbrook.”

John is survived by his daughter Jasmine Paris Foreman Kozero, her husband Michael Scott Kozero and his granddaughter Lily Grace Kozero, and a sister, Brenda Forman who lives outside of Washington, D.C.

I don’t know, and never knew the man to have any regrets, but I am certain that his passion for his work and its discoveries were with him to the very end. We will regret for him that he never had the opportunity to learn more to share with us. Many, even many whom he never knew, will miss him.
"It's the end of the day, a time to contemplate life, gaze at the fire, and go to bed." — John Foreman

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