Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Big Old Houses: The Right Stuff

Big Old Houses: The Right Stuff
by John Foreman

This gingerbread trimmed mansion, perched on a bluff above the Hudson at Staatsburg, NY, doesn't look like this any more. Descendants of the man who built it in 1855 were literally chased out of it in 1963, victims of parkland acquisition policies of the late Robert Moses. Not to deny Mr. Moses his due, but he was no lover of big old houses. The State of New York, which only wanted the land, hadn't a clue what to do with the house. An early plan to demolish it and build a public swimming pool on the site died stillborn, the victim of state budgetary constraints. Instead it was boarded up and abandoned.

Architect and landscape designer,
Calvert Vaux.
When Lydig Monson Hoyt (1821-1869) built this house, he named it The Point, although nowadays it's simply referred to as the Hoyt house. Despite being dissed by the State of New York for the better part of half a century, it is actually a famous building. Architectural historians consider it a sort of apotheosis of the mid-nineteenth century work of architect and landscape designer, Calvert Vaux (1824-1895).

Vaux is probably best known as the designer, with Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York's Central Park. His equally famous houses, I will admit, are an acquired taste. Born in England and trained there under a famous proponent of the Gothic Revival named Lewis Cottingham, Vaux absorbed a highly picturesque aesthetic which, for a brief period anyway, flourished madly in his adopted America.

Books have been written about Vaux and his famous associations with Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Withers and Frederick Law Olmsted. This is too big a meal for now. Suffice it to say he was just the type of cutting edge new architect to whom a young, rich and fashionable client like Lydig Hoyt would probably gravitate. The image below shows the Hoyt house in the time of Hoyt's son, Gerald Livingston Hoyt (1851-1926). Around 1901, the son made very substantial alterations to the interiors. The outside elevations, however, remained essentially unchanged, save for a new glazed rectangular bay on the north wall of the dining room, visible in the image below.
There is something resoundingly authentic about Lydig Monson and Geraldine Livingston Hoyt. His father, Goold Hoyt, grew rich from the China trade; his maternal grandfather was a neighbor of George Washington; Lydig himself is the subject of an amusing passage in the Diary of Philip Hone. His wife Geraldine (1822-1897) was a Livingston, whose ancestors controlled hundreds of thousands of Hudson Valley acres. The core of her husband's estate was a gift from her mother, Margaret Livingston. Lydig and Geraldine Hoyt were connected by a web of marriages and cousinships to ancient families from Philadelphia to Albany. Hoyt was only 48 when he died, leaving his widow with five children. When she followed him to the grave in 1897, the house passed to their son Gerald Livingston Hoyt. I'm pretty sure that's the son and his wife Mary Appleton on the terrace below. They weren't identified on this image, but it is contemporary with the one showing the glazed north bay, which was their doing.
Here's the house at mid-century, after 100 years of occupancy by the same family. For better or (probably) worse the main facade has been been simplified. The ornate vergeboards on the eaves are gone, as are Vaux's elaborate window hoods and the frilly piazzas that once flanked the front door. Whether this was a function of deteriorating woodwork or the virus of "modernization" that afflicted old houses after the Second World War is unclear. The building looks deceptively compact, considering there are seven bedrooms on the second floor.
Now it's 1975. 16 years have passed since the death of the last male Hoyt, also named Lydig. 12 years have passed since his widow, Helen Hoadley Willis, was evicted from her home in the wake of state condemnation proceedings. She didn't want to go and was heartbroken by the whole affair. The State threw her a sop in the form of a five-year lease offer contingent on her paying for maintenance, but she declined.
In the absence of maintenance by the Hoyts, there was no maintenance at all. Formerly sculpted bushes grew wild and the lawn reverted to a hayfield. It wasn't Kamikaze birds that broke those windows. The state nailed plywood sheets over the doors and first floor windows in the vain hope of keeping people out.
Now the pages of the calendar fly by and it's a fine day in May, 2012. I'm standing on the Old Post Road north of Staatsburg, gazing at the main entrance to the Hoyt estate.
Historic preservation has by now entered the mindset of the renamed New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation — OPRHP for short. Has it come too late for the Hoyt house? We're going to see.
Often in this column we've crossed a bridge whose purpose was the symbolic departure from a world of daily troubles to a realm of peace and (admittedly contrived) beauty. Much the same is going on here, except instead of a rushing brook or ornamental lake, the bridge crosses the New York Central (now Metro-North) tracks. Perhaps equally symbolic — albeit for different reasons — the bridge has become unsafe for vehicles.
It's a very very long driveway, twisting for over a mile past rocky outcrops buried in dark woods. Vaux is said to have had a hand in the plan of this approach, although that hand is hard to see. My OPRHP guide, Don Frazer, and I took a Parks Dept truck from the safe side of the bridge to the house.
If it were still 1975, the house would have looked like this.
Instead, it looks like this.
What looks like a wood box in the center of the image below is the glazed bay added to the dining room in 1901 by Gerald and Mary Hoyt. Vaux's original kitchen was in the basement. The collapsed roof on the left covered a new twentieth century kitchen tacked onto the existing main floor pantry. This new kitchen was convenient but never very good looking, nor from the looks of it very well built. The vergeboards still decorate the gables and dormers on this side of the house, convincing me that they were purposely stripped from the entry facade for aesthetic reasons.
This dashing fellow is Robert Palmer Huntington (1869-1949), a neighbor of the Gerald Hoyts who lived at Hopeland, a few estates up the river. In 1892 he married Helen Dinsmore, the Adams (later American) Express heiress whose family estate in Staatsburg, called the Locusts, is still in private hands. Huntington was a rich diletante with good taste, who studied architecture both at MIT and in Paris. He was a Yalie, an amateur lawn tennis champion, a sometime employee of J. Pierpont Morgan and the elite architectural firm of Hoppin and Koen. Mostly he was a country gentleman. Robert Huntington was Vincent Astor's father-in-law, at least until Vincent married Minnie Cushing. In 1901 he redesigned the first floor of The Point, transforming the merely historic into the truly remarkable. Don is removing a padlock from what the state hopes is the only way in, so we can have a look.
Honestly now, who ever would have dreamed the inside of the Hoyt house would look like this? It is a miniature Whitemarsh Hall. The images of the entrance hall below have a confident elegance that is, if anything, increased by the bare electric bulbs, shattered mirrors and random missing pieces.
Huntington left the Vaux floor plan undisturbed, but his hybrid English-French eighteenth century wall treatments transformed the house into an entirely different place. Here's the reception room, serene in spite of the vandalized fireplace and absence of what was probably a very fine mirrored overmantel.
Across the hall is a paneled library that's not as far gone as it looks.
The boarded-up door originally let onto a terrace (now collapsed) with vast views up and down the Hudson. This was a billiard room on the Vaux plan, a drawing room on Huntington's.
We're back in the main hall, looking at the door to the dining room.
It used to look like this. See that column on the right?
Well, it's still there, or at least most of it is.

The floor above us is structurally sound, but the dining room's heavy plasterwork ceiling is threatening to collapse anyway. See that door through the forest of two-by-four supports?
It looked a lot better in 1975. Those with restoration experience will easily recognize that this room, like the library, is quite restorable.
The door from dining room to serving pantry was impassable, so we've detoured back through the main hall and past the main stair. Interestingly, the house never had a separate service stair.
Minus the fine moldings, a sort of desolation informs other areas of the house. I love old pantries, bathrooms and kitchens, but it's hard to warm to this one.
It's time to head upstairs. New York State has obviously made serious attempts to stabilize the building, barn doors and fleeing horses notwithstanding.
Aficionados of Calvert Vaux rejoice in the original appearance of the second floor - well, original but for paint, fallen ceilings and light to moderate vandalism.
This is the master bedroom. Large windows flanked by matching closets are recommended on the pages of Vaux's famous (and only) book, Villas and Cottages, published in 1857. There would be sweeping river views outside these windows, if the forest hadn't grown up.
More bedrooms, with better anti-vandalism.
This was a bathroom — indeed, the only bathroom on the original plan.
The third floor — we can hardly call it an attic — is surprisingly large, with spacious rooms for guests, storage and servants.
It's time to get out of here.
Back on the main floor. But wait; I forgot the basement.
It takes real vision to see lost charm down here. Interestingly, the original stove remains in situ, but even I'd call this one beyond hope.
It's easy to cast New York State as the villain in this tale, largely because it is. To be fair, Parks and Recreation in the early sixties not only lacked a mandate to preserve, it lacked both experience and expertise in preservation. Only latterly has it become known as the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation. Well-intentioned and usually insufficient efforts have been made over the years to secure and stabilize the place, but recently those efforts have become more effective. Here I am, back outside for my obligatory "locator shot." Next stop, the stable and garages.
In 1973, New York State's Office of General Services studied the feasibility of converting the Hoyt house into Parks and Recreation's Taconic Regional headquarters. After admitting it would be "a shame to remove the plaster work on the first floor," the study recommended the interiors be gutted. Fortunately the plan was shelved.

In May of 1998, OPRHP invited interested parties to submit proposals to renovate and live in the house, in exchange for a 40-year lease. Again no luck. In 2007, a preservation-minded City College professor named Alan Strauber founded the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance. Recently, OPRHP and Vaux Preservation secured almost $700,000, primarily from the Environmental Protection Fund and a Save America's Treasures grant. These funds are earmarked for a much needed new roof and repair of the chimneys.
This fall, OPRHP plans again to invite proposals for "compatible use" of the mansion, stable and garages. Same deal: they'll give a 40-year lease in return for a renovation that complies with Department of the Interior preservation guidelines. A great many people in the Hudson Valley are hoping somebody will step forward. Personally, I think the house would be a terrific country inn. What better way to get the greatest number of people to see it, use it, stay in it and enjoy it?
Don and I couldn't drive out the main gate because of the sketchy railroad bridge. I'm saying good bye outside his office at Mills Mansion next door.
Before leaving I made a quick detour to the facilities inside Mills. I couldn't leave without taking a photo or two of this SENSATIONAL old bathroom.
The history of the Mills' estate is intimately entwined with that of the Hoyts' next door. "Big Old Houses" has been promised an in-depth tour of Mills in the future. You bet I'm looking forward to that.

The early vintage images of the Hoyt house that appear at the beginning of this post are courtesy of the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance.

The views of the property in 1975 are courtesy of Jack Boucher and the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The rest of the photos are mine. I dislike the distortion attendant on flash photography, and always attempt to use natural — often insufficient — light. I'm buying myself a better camera.
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