Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Big Old Houses: One Hundred Years Later

Big Old Houses: One Hundred Years Later
by John Foreman


On July 27, 1912, The New York Times ran an article titled "Tuxedo Equestrian Sports." Beneath the headline, in smaller boldface, were the words, "Miss Maude (sic) Coster Captures Three Firsts and One Second." I've spent years around horses but am mystified as to how exactly one competes in a Bending Race, or a Musical Chair, not to mention a Hand-in-Hand. Miss Coster triumphed in all three, and came in second on the equally mysterious Egg and Spoon, after Mr. Tuckerman.

A hundred years later — well, two months short of it — I visited Miss Coster's family home in Tuxedo Park, occupied today by her 93-year-old son. It was heartening, to me anyway, to observe my host navigating three flights of stairs with evident ease. One of his hobbies is doing his own lawn work, or at least a significant portion thereof. His grandfather's and later his mother's house is the last in the Park that is still occupied by the family that built it.
I met Mrs. French, as she then was called (her third marriage was to Stuyvesant Leroy French), in the late 1970s. My former wife and I were young, newly married, starry eyed, and scrambling to hold onto a nearby 46-room stone castle for which we had rather improvidently signed a $175,000 purchase contract. This was such a reasonable price it hardly seemed to matter that we didn't actually have the money.

My late father used to say that Hong Kong was a place where you could go broke getting bargains. The same might well have been said of Tuxedo in the '70s. The old world of the Park was crumbling — witness our presence there — but Mrs. French was a holdout. The inside of her house, for better or (some might argue) for worse, became my template for authenticity.
Mrs. French's father, who built this house in 1899, was named Charles H. Coster. When he died in 1900, only a year after it was finished, the Times eulogized him as "among the four or five great organizing minds ... of this city." Coster was a Morgan partner with a knack for railroad reorganization. Railroads back then, like today's airlines, represented pots of money but were constantly going broke. The Erie, Chesapeake and Ohio, Lehigh Valley, Reading, Southern and Hocking were a few of the lines that, according to the Times, bore "conspicuous witness to his (Coster's) success."
The main hall in a proper big old house will have: 1) a good looking staircase; 2) a large fireplace (extra points if it's actually used); 3) lots and lots of oriental rugs; and 4) an elevator whose very ugliness can be oddly desirable.
Now we're in the library, a fine paneled room that stretches across much of the southeast facade of the house.
In New York, the Costers were Murray Hill people with a house at 37 East 37th St. On the eve of its demolition in 1939, the Times described that house as retaining "the air of the old 'marble-hall era' ... of which it has long been a part." On January 9, 1914, Mrs. Coster gave a ball there for 400 people in honor of her debutante daughter, Maud. The press described dancing in the small ballroom and dinner in the tapestry suite. Then war broke out.
According to a 1916 Times society column titled, "June Weddings and Engagements," "A feature of no little interest ... is the number in which the bridegrooms, prospective or future, are naval or military men ... notably the number of English." Not so Maud's. Instead, she married an Austrian count named Otto Salm-Hoogstraeten. Count Salm, who incidentally was a celebrated amateur tennis player, had been detained in the country for the duration of the war. The wedding at the Coster house in Tuxedo probably took place in this room. There were no attendants, no ushers, and few guests.
Other than the flatscreen TV, the library appears unchanged since my last visit in 1976.
Adjoining the library is the dining room. There's a transitional feel to the design of these interiors. Taste was moving away from Victorian quaintness, but hadn't quite escaped it.
This corridor connects the dining room to the main hall.
Many years after Mrs. French's death in 1989, a friend shared with me a conversation he'd had with her at a cocktail party in this house. The subject was me.

"There are lunatics in the Hoffman castle!" she cried.
"I heard they were a nice young couple," my friend replied, loyally.
"They are pulling out the toilets and putting back high tanks with pull chains!"
"They have a taste for old things," my friend replied, adding, "I keep a few old toilets in my house too."
"Well, actually I keep one too," Mrs. French confessed. "Whenever I need money, the trust sends a young man up from New York and I show him that toilet. And when I need money again, they always send a different young man, so I show him the same toilet."
The naked rods and rings we often see over old doorways in old houses used to have portieres on them just like these. Originally designed for billiards, the room beyond was converted to a tap room before the war.
"SAE," Dartmouth, 1941.
The blue cylinder is a test bomb — I'm assured it never could, and never will, actually explode — which Maud received one Christmas from her soldier son who had a sense of humor.
Maud was schooled at home, which was fairly usual for the daughters of prosperous people in the early twentieth century. This room is now furnished as a breakfast room, but unless I'm misremembering my visits back in the 1970s, it was originally a schoolroom.
Next door is the kitchen.
I see beautiful kitchens all the time in New York, but (call me perverse) I'd trade any of them for this. It's so homey, and comfortable, and so old-housey. Not by accident, my own kitchen in Millbrook looks remarkably similar.
We detoured briefly to the serving pantry, had a look at an old ice box, then my host led the way back to the service wing.
This house is considerably larger than it appears at first. Servants originally occupied three floors of an east wing. The ice box in the pantry illustrated above was a satellite unit for a larger version that opened onto the hall in the image below. It was replaced by an electric model, seen further below. The servant hall with its green painted cabinets was smaller than expected, considering the size of the original staff.
I blush to admit I lost track of the number of bedrooms on the second floor. Worse, I completely missed a reception room next to the front door. Very unlike me.
My host pointed out a peculiarity of the doorknobs in this house. Bedroom knobs are egg shaped, bathroom knobs are round. The idea was to avoid embarrassing blunders in the darkness of the night into somebody else's bedroom.
The grand downstairs library and the faintly English looking exteriors initially obscure the unreconstructed Victorian aesthetic that underlies the architect's design. The architect in question, incidentally, studied with the Herter Brothers in New York, a decorating firm renowned for Victorian elaboration. A slightly out of fashion (for 1899) Victorian subtext is particularly obvious in this bedroom inglenook.
A 50-year-old (at least) towel with monogram from a second to last marriage is still perfectly useful.
Perhaps the young man from the trust was shown these pipes as well.
Memory, which is often undependable, tells me the master bedroom used to have pinkish walls and mirrored furniture. I imagined Elsie de Wolfe, or somebody like her, doing the room in high 1920s drag for the fashionable Countess Salm. It's a man's bedroom now, which may account for the change. The mirrored fireplace is as I remember it.
The view from the bathroom window.
My host can plan and survey landscape projects from the terrace off his bedroom.
The children of this house had their own compound, tucked under picturesque eaves and dormers on the western end of the third floor. I doubt these rooms have changed at all since the 1930s.
Also on the childrens' landing is an attic. Photos full of old memories hang near a map of the South Pacific. My host, who piloted bombers over Japan in the final days of World War II, is pointing to routes he followed between Iwo Jima, Guam and Tokyo.
A long hall leads from the family's to the servants' regions of the third floor, then connects to a stairway that descends through an uninhabited world of linen rooms, slop sinks, bedrooms and bathrooms designed for a universe of vanished domestics.
This fine open terrace connects with the covered piazza by the front door. Both gaze across a lawn to a forested hill on the other side of Tuxedo Road. The brilliance of the Park lies in the fact that its "estates" rarely cover more than a few acres — if that — but give the impression of presiding over much greater areas. They are fitted together like an elegant jigsaw puzzle.
The edge of the lawn in the images above is actually a retaining wall with houses directly on the other side. The house in the third image below originally stood on the Coster site. It was one of thirteen original cottages erected over the winter of 1885-1886 by Park founder Pierre Lorillard and his architect Bruce Price. One hundred horses and three hundred men muscled the thing downhill in order to build Mr. Coster's house.
The Coster house was designed by William A. Bates, probably best known as the architect of Bronxville's Lawrence Park. Bates and developer William Lawrence, both Michigan natives, transformed a rocky 86-acre tract into what was originally intended to be an aesthetic retreat for artists, writers and fellow travelers only. Today Lawrence Park and Tuxedo are both on the National Register of Historic Places, but whereas 35 Bates houses survive in Bronxville, besides the Coster place there's only one other Bates house in Tuxedo. Originally a ponderously ornate Georgian Revival affair on Tuxedo Lake, it was deprived of its architectural heft in a postwar renovation.
People are all the time tearing ivy off old houses, which from an aesthetic point of view is a shame. There was a time when even wooden houses were ivy clad, albeit with well-barbered ivy. The ivy on Mrs. French's house has a delicious period look precisely because of good barbering.
How nice to see an old estate greenhouse that not only still has a superstructure above the foundation, but a complete set of unbroken glass panes, and even tender flowers and plants still inside.
There is even a cottage.
Time to get in the car and head for home.
Mrs. French once told me a story about her dog, Cloudy. Getting to New York was more of a production in 1900 than it is today. The family would take the jigger from the Club to the railroad station outside the Gates, then the Erie cars to New Jersey, after which they'd catch a ferry across the Hudson, and finally a cab to 37th and Park. It wasn't until they were all on the train one Sunday, that Maud's mother realized they'd forgot the dog.

In lieu of getting the whole family off the train and reversing the process of departure, the decision was made to let Cloudy fend for himself that week. After all, there were servants at the house. Two days later, Cloudy appeared at 37th Street, having evidently hitched a ride on the train, walked onto the ferry solo, and crossed Manhattan unmolested.
Our esteemed contributor John Foreman passed away on April 4th, 2016. We are re-running all of his visits more or less in the order that we first posted each article that he turned in. In retrospect we can see that John was very prolific and industrious, producing a new visit each week. We found in re-reading many of them that they never lose their freshness because the author had that quality in his story-telling about each Big Old House. If you're a first time reader, the following are the re-visits that we published since departure.