Big Old Houses: Civility in the Wild

Big Old Houses: Civility in the Wild
by John Foreman


Throughout the 17th and almost all of the 18th centuries, New York State was a Feudal society — and I mean Feudal with a capital "F." Our masters, first in Holland and later England, outsourced the tedious task of populating their empty wilderness to smooth talking speculators.

These men received grants and patents for millions of acres on condition they convert them to tax-paying, wealth-generating colonies. This they mainly did by means of tenant farming. In time, the descendants of the great landholders, while never titled, became the closest thing America had to an aristocracy — a sort of "aristocracy-lite."

The pillared portico above enframes the front door of Hyde Hall, built on a hill near Cooperstown, NY, between 1817 and 1833 by an heir to one of the great colonial land holding families, a man named George Clarke (1768-1835).

The portrait to the right shows Clarke near the end of his life, seated before a picture of his manorial house. It was an oasis of culture and education in the middle of what my late father used to call "miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles."

Actually, it was in the middle of tenants and tenants and nothing but tenants and tenants. Most of Clarke's land was scattered elswhere in the Hudson Valley and not contiguous to Hyde Hall. If you added it all together, it came to a whopping 120,000 acres.

The State of New York, owner of Hyde Hall since 1963, relocated the original gatehouse, as part of the development of Glimmerglass State Park, to a site quite close to the mansion. Here it is, in beautifully restored condition, but no longer the starting point of a mile long drive to the house. Hyde Hall was meant to be the centerpiece of a private empire whose wealth derived from agriculture and serfs — I mean, tenants. What could be more "18th Century" than that?
Like today's buyers of $90 million condos, New York's manorial lords never constituted a very large group. The Revolution thinned their ranks considerably, since most were Tories who found their lands forfeit at the end of the war. However, in a testament to the essential sweetness of the American character (along with generosity and jingoism) our new nation's post-revolutionary policy was not to confiscate the property of minors. George Clarke's family, likely as not, was about as pro-Tory as you could get. But his father died before the end of the war leaving underage George the owner of his American estates.
Hyde Hall was the largest private house constructed in the US between the Revolution and the Civil War. Its size is deceptive, however, and it takes walking around (and around, and around) its tractless-seeming interiors to appreciate its immensity. The house was built in four stages, starting in the south (to the left in the image below), extending up the west, culminating in the east, and finishing up on the north. In the process, a stone courtyard was created in the center.
The grandest portion is on the east, called the Great House, as if it were a separate structure.
Before the construction of Hyde Hall, the Clarkes hadn't actually lived on any of their American estates. Nor was Hyde Hall, curiously enough, built on one. Charmed by the view and motivated by the site's proximity to his wife's family's holdings, Clarke wound up buying it. His 120,000 inherited acres, accumulated by a great-grandfather also named George Clarke (1676-1760), were scattered elsewhere up and down the Hudson Valley. Great-grandfather Clarke, formerly a Lt. Gov. of the province of New York, had returned to England in the late 1750s, where he lived out his life with his sons and grandsons on a family estate called, not coincidentally, Hyde Hall. It wasn't until great-grandson George settled in Albany, New York in 1806 that a Clarke would ironically buy property from someone else to build a house.
The oldest part of Hyde Hall, now its southern wing, was originally a free standing villa. Built in 1817 to the designs of Philip Hooker, Albany's "architect du jour," it was meant to be a modest country retreat. You can't tell from these images, but the verandah columns are made of iron, a cutting edge construction touch at the time.
The western flank of the Hall went up in two stages. The part closest to the 1817 villa is an 1822-4 guestroom and staff addition. At its far end is an 1833-4 enlargement that houses improved kitchen and scullery facilities, plus reconfigured servants' quarters on the second floor. Busy barns stood immediately north of the mansion, which accounts for the blank north facing walls on both the servants' wing and the Great House.
Hyde Hall must have been a more or less continuous construction site from the day Clarke and his wife moved in. Mrs. Clarke, as a footnote, was the widow of James Fennimore Cooper's brother, Richard. The Great House, built with funds from another inheritance, is in a different league — vis a vis scale, design and interior finish — from the rest of the house. Its strangely unornamented porch columns, notable for their almost post-modern severity, stand in stark contrast to the lush Georgian interiors within. Refined Greek Revival ornamentation, so fashionable in faraway Manhattan — and equally so in much closer Albany — doesn't seem to have made it this far out into the country.
Time to go inside; Hyde Hall board chairman, Gib Vincent, has the key. The threshold, like the southern verandah columns, is made of iron.
There are four staircases in Hyde Hall. One of them, which we shall call staircase #1, is behind the Great House entrance hall. The walls in this room preserve their original sand-paint finish, intended (not with a great deal of success) to imitate marble. The entrance to the drawing room is immediately to the left of the front door.
There's a lot of furniture scattered around Hyde Hall, but not very many of the rooms look furnished. This magnificent drawing room is an exception. The mahogany box beside the marble mantel is for firewood; a door on the other side of the wall allows servants to fill it without disrupting family or guests.
The dining room, located on the other side of the entrance hall, is similarly grand. Hyde Hall has no electricity, a situation that was endured by the family right up until the day they left at the beginning of World War Two. The house stood vacant for 20 years before the state took it over in 1963. Parks and Recreation did nothing about electricity either.
When the builder of Hyde Hall died in 1835, his house and lands were inherited by his son, another George Clarke (1822-1899). The family luck with land continued to hold, at least for a while. When the so called Rent War of 1846 — our version of the Irish "troubles" — plunged the upstate countryside into chaos, other owners of surviving colonial estates found themselves compelled by the state legislature to sell to their tenants. Clarke, however, won a lawsuit that enabled him to keep his lands, set new rents at a dollar an acre, and offer new leases expiring in 1870.
When 1870 rolled around, Clarke proposed raising his tenants' annual quit rent from $1 to $2 per acre, a decision that precipitated a plague of burning, riot and death threats. By 1886, the land was mostly gone, Clarke was in bankruptcy, and Hyde Hall was on the auction block. Enter Clarke's son, still another George Clarke (1858-1914) who, after scrambling to put together the cash, managed to buy the house at auction. Until the eve of the First World War, Clarke led the life of a country squire at Hyde Hall. When he died in 1914, another George Clarke (1889-1955) stepped from the wings to pick up where his father left off.
The dining room chandeliers still burn oil; Gib is demonstrating the refueling process.
The stone floor in the corridor outside the dining room is laid directly on the earth; what looks like a dumbwaiter is actually the port for the dining room wood box; the curved wall in the central court surrounds staircase #1; staircase #2 lies ahead of us in the corridor to the kitchen.
New York State finally did put electricity, but only in the kitchen. Note the surface mounted box with the wire mold feed. This room is located in the service addition of 1833-4 and is used today as a workroom. I'd guess 20-30% of Hyde Hall remains in a similarly unrestored condition.
Except for the ceiling, the servants' dining hall next door looks practically new; the scullery beyond it is a wreck; and the servants' hall at the end of this wing is somewhere in the middle. We'll be taking staircase #3 from the servants' hall to a bewildering maze of servants' bedrooms on the second floor.
I couldn't make any sense out of the floor plan up here. It seemed an almost random agglomeration of connecting rooms with a notable lack of corridors.
Architectural logic reappears at the top of staircase #2, the starting point of a long hall that overlooks the central court on one side and gives access to guestrooms on the other. There is an undeniable charm to antique buildings, but that charm often exists in spite of a bad floor plan.
After a backward glance down the guest corridor, I continued into the 1817 villa. This is where the family bedrooms were, grouped around the second floor landing of staircase #4. Even at its peak, which was probably in the Edwardian period, Hyde Hall suffered from a woeful lack of bathrooms. Don't even ask about the heating; there was none, unless you count the fireplaces. As for electricity, we've covered that already.
This childrens' room, for reasons that escape me, has the best lake view.
The unrenovated master bedroom overlooks the central court. I'm told it once had an adjacent bathroom — shared, actually, with the children — but the state removed it in the 1960s. A corridor running along the back of the Great House was used by the Clarkes as a master bedroom closet.
At the end of that closet, beyond a door that used to be kept closed, is the second floor landing of staircase #1. The Great House entry hall is on the floor below; the curved wall of this staircase is articulated in the central courtyard; upstairs is a billiard room, last used as a bedroom, with a terrace over the entry porch and a view of Lake Otsego.
Time to take staircase #1 back to the ground floor.
Dizzy from all these rooms I almost missed an entire wing, located on the first floor of the original villa.
The family dining room overlooks the central court, instead of the lake, from a convenient location about two thirds of a mile from the kitchen.
Next door to it is a chapel, and next door to that is a two-room library.
The mistress's office in water-stained pink connects with the master's office in pigeon blood red. I think I can now safely say that I have seen Hyde Hall.
After glancing quickly at an unidentified outbuilding, plus a barn now used as the visitors' center, I recrossed the relocated bridge, exited through the relocated gate house, got into the Big Old House-mobile and drove back to Millbrook.
In 1963, the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation didn't have those last three words in its name. Back then, the department had neither a mandate nor any expertise in dealing with historic structures. Its first reaction upon taking title to Hyde Hall was to tear it down. This would surely have happened were it not for the intervention of a group of neighbors and Clarke family descendants who called themselves the Friends of Hyde Hall. The Friends today maintain the house on a renewable long term lease, keep it open to the public, raise money for its restoration, and sponsor an ongoing calendar of events and activities. Hyde Hall is a terrific day trip destination; the link is www.hydehall.org.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
Contact John Foreman here
Click here for NYSD Contents