Big Old Houses: A Country Place at Millbrook

Big Old Houses: A Country Place at Millbrook
by John Foreman


The Dutchess County village of Millbrook was born of the railroad but raised by the one percent. In the 1880s, some dozen or so years after the Dutchess and Columbia County Railroad first arrived, a small group of rich New Yorkers formed a fashionable colony and encircled the village with attractive estates. The Big-Old-Housemobile is seen here just inside the gates to Brookside, built in 1902 for Henry Richards McLane (1844 - 1922).

The device of crossing a bridge underscores the visitor's perception of leaving worldly cares behind. The village of Millbrook wouldn't seem a place unduly burdened by worries, but numerous big places here have bridges anyway. Lots of people have heard of Millbrook, but few have actually visited it. The village benefits from an outsized reputation that mysteriously pushes a lot of social buttons.
Any properly designed country place will, as a matter of course, have a carefully contrived approach — and not one that leads directly to a garage door.
After winding uphill through a romantic forest, Brookside comes into view. It's a modern house for Millbrook, looking more like it belongs in Tuxedo Park. Unlike most big old houses, it is in virtually original condition.
It's also a lot bigger than it appears at first. McLane was an amateur architect — he designed the original golf house at the G & T (Millbrook Golf and Tennis Club) — but when it came to his own house, he hired the famous Robert H. Robertson (1849 - 1919). Architectural buffs will recognize Robertson as the man who designed Shelburne Farms in Vermont, the Park Row Building opposite City Hall in New York, Blantyre in Lenox, MA, among many other distinguished buildings.
Robertson's house for Henry McLane is an appealingly asymmetrical composition that clearly states the uses and functions within. Family and guests were housed behind grand walls of stone and half-timbered stucco. Servants and laundresses were accommodated within a more modest shingled wing.
This terrace retaining wall illustrates the sort of old house detail you'll never see in new construction.
Mr. McLane's granddaughter, who just died last week, lent me this photo of her grandpa doing what he loved most, swinging a golf club. McLane was a prototypical Millbrook hilltopper — a genial, clubbable stock broker, with an address on the Upper East Side, a listing in the Social Register and children at boarding schools. In New York, the family lived at a series of tony addresses — 1148 Fifth Avenue, 45 East 66th St., 111 East 70th St. — all of which, interestingly, were rented.
In 1901, McLane bought a not-quite-fifteen-acre parcel from Harry Harkness Flagler, owner of an adjoining estate called Edgewood. McLane was 57 years old at the time. He had married late in life the daughter of Brooklyn mayor Fred A. Schroeder, and was already in his sixties when his three children — Henry Jr., Huntington, and Alys — were still toddlers.
At the center of the main part of the house is this handsome Colonial Revival staircase which, stylistically anyway, has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the place. One of the charms of Brookside is its eclectic architecture. Robertson has introduced all manner of design elements into a plan that is coherent, comfortable, usable and visually appealing. The interiors, while stylish, have an element of country informality. The four main ground floor rooms — reception room, library, drawing room, and dining room — form a circle around the central stair.
Here's the drawing room. The strapwork on the ceiling is handsome, but much simpler than what you'd see in town. Personally, I'm a sucker for carved mottoes on fireplaces.
The door in the far corner leads to large porch, a portion of which is screened. The distant view in McLane's day has unfortunately been obscured by trees.
The modest reception room — well, modest compared with Mrs. Hammond's in last week's post on 9 East 91st Street — boasts this charming fireplace.
It used to be, when you bought an old country place, that the furniture came with it. (Hah!) Brookside has changed hands a number of times, but miraculously the original dining room set is still here.
This house is big on window seats. This example is in the dining room.
Even the original table leaves have survived, tucked cleverly into a purpose built cabinet between the dining room and the serving pantry.
What makes Brookside unusual is the survival of so many of its original 1902 finishes — like the leather-covered swing door from the pantry, the annunciator for calling servants, the old silver safe, and the varnished wood and glass cabinets not one of which has been sullied with paint.
Here's a sweet detail, a sort of lazy Susan that swivels between kitchen and serving pantry.
The old fashioned kitchen looks perfect for late night snacks or morning coffee with the paper. (For dinner, however, you'll find me in the dining room).
Here's the original Brookside mailbox. If I'm not mistaken, back in 1902 the postman actually came to the house to pick up the mail — at least from houses like this.
Upstairs, four family bedrooms radiate off a central hall.
The fireplace in this Pierre Brissaud illustration of Mrs. Harrison Williams' fashionable New York house looks just like one at Brookside.
Each family bedroom is located on a corner and has a bathroom en suite.
This bedroom appears to have been part of a suite with the one above. Delightful fireplace tiles, aren't they.
A dressing room separating the last two bedrooms receives natural light through high glass panels overlooking his and her bathrooms.
These two bathrooms abut the dressing room. Despite some 1970s updating, each retains an unusual original ceiling fixture.
The fourth bedroom.
It's time to check out the service wing, which is every bit as interesting (to me, anyway) as the main part of the house.
The McLane estate never covered more than fifteen acres, and all fifteen are still intact. The original gardens may be gone, but a picturesque barn and caretaker cottage remain.
Funny isn't it, the oddments of the past that get left behind ... and stay right where they were left. I wonder how long ago some worker dragged these old harnesses up to the stable attic, threw them on the floor and left them there. And there they still are.
Mrs. McLane outlived her husband by 24 years, dying at Sharon Hospital in Connecticut in 1946. Dr. James Toomey of Poughkeepsie bought the house from her estate, and lived in it for almost 30 years. In 1975, it was sold it to A. Albert (Rocky) Sack, grandson of the dean of American antique dealers, Israel Sack. In 1980 Alfred Lee (Chip) Loomis III, eponymous grandson of the famous patron of scientific research (and owner of the celebrated Loomis Labs in Tuxedo Park) bought it, then sold it in 1999 to the present owners. Those owners were kindness itself to indulge me in taking all these pictures. Like me, they too love big old houses.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
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