Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Big Old Houses: A Country Squire Abandons the Bronx

Big Old Houses: A Country Squire Abandons the Bronx
by John Foreman


In 1889, a gentleman straight from the pages of Edith Wharton, received a nasty notification from the City of New York. David Lydig's (1840-1917) family estate at West Farms in the Bronx, a much beautified property that had been in the family for three generations, was about to be condemned for a park. Lydig was not taken by surprise. The old families of what was then lower Westchester County were already in a rout. Lydig and his wife fled the crumbling Bronx for the summer colony at Lenox, Mass, hired the architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden, and by the season of 1890 were established in the fashionable Colonial Revival summer house seen in these photos. They called it Thistlewood.

The hard earned prosperity of the Lydig ancestors, bakers and millers from Germany, evolved into the sort of comfortable (albeit not too grand) fortune that characterized Knickerbocker Society in pre-Civil War New York. In 1841, Lydig's father Philip (1799-1872), a man not yet 42 years of age, sold the family's milling interests for the very substantial sum of half a million dollars, and spent the next 31 years beautifying his estate at West Farms. Philip Hone, who dined with Lydig at his country seat, described it in his famous diary. "The beautiful grounds on Bronx River are in fine order, and such a profusion of roses and other flowers, I have scarcely ever seen." Philip Lydig had that Victorian ability, in the words of contemporaries, to "peaceably and pleasantly ... glide down the hill of life."
I had not realized that in 1873, 25 years before consolidation of the five boroughs, the state legislature had already voted to annex into the city the former Westchester towns of Kingsbridge, Morrisania and West Farms. One wonders if the rumors and controversy surrounding this annexation contributed to the death of house loving Philip Lydig. Despite a growing drumbeat of development, the rural Bronx remained somewhat recognizable, at least until the land boom of 1904. That was the year the New York Elevated Railway Company extended service to West Farms.

According to a 1929 piece in The New Yorker, "Lots leaped from $500 to $5000 literally overnight. Farms were dismembered; the Lydig estate at the West Farms terminus, was almost torn apart by bidders ... Boom traders cleaned up. Householders went mad, sold lots on one street and bought on the next." Much of the carnage — or progress, if you will — was the work of the so-called "inventor of the modern land sale," a real estate broker by the name of J. Clarence Davies.

In the years leading up to the boom, when Pells and Lorillards, Ogdens and Harpers, Lydigs and Morrises were packing up for Newport and Narragansett, Davies secured options on their large estates. During one 2-month period at the height of the boom, he is said to have made $250,000 in real estate commissions.
For people like the Lydigs, it must have been a relief to get out of the Bronx and into the bucolic Berkshires. Rotch and Tilden was a Boston shop with an active Lenox client list. Their design for Thistlewood is modest compared to some of their more ponderous local "cottages," notably Ventfort Hall and Belvoir Terrace.
Quite a lot — both socially and architecturally — has gone on in this house since it was built. Quite a lot has gone on outside of it too. The original 13-acre parcel on Walker Street may be largely unchanged, but the house itself is quite different. Let's start with the good stuff, specifically the beautiful new garden and pool complex.
David Lydig of 83 East 79th St. and Thistlewood, Lenox, died in 1917. He left a wife, an estate of some $300,000, and no heirs. His widow, the former Hannah Tompkins, continued to spend summers at Lenox until she too died in 1930. Although Mrs. Lydig missed Lenox's post-Crash free fall from fashion, the prospect of witnessing yet another resort go to the dogs possibly hastened her end. Thistlewood went through half a dozen subsequent owners until, 28 years later, it was bought by a man with a great deal of what we would call "baggage."
William Earle Dodge Stokes, Jr.
This is William Earle Dodge Stokes, Jr. (1896-1992), "Weddie" to his friends, who in 1958 bought Thistlewood from Noella M. Gillies of Greenwich, CT. Weddie was generally acknowledged to be a cantankerous old goat, but a mild one compared to his father, W.E.D. Stokes Sr. (1852-1926). One cannot accurately sum up a horrible old reprobate like Stokes Sr. in only a few sentences.

His Mayflower antecedents, enriched by Phelps Dodge mining millions, managed to produce a chronic litigant, philanderer and wife beater who provided the press of his day with infinite fodder. He is principally remembered, kindly I must say, as the West Side developer who built the Ansonia Hotel.

On the debit side, Stokes accused Weddie's mother, Rita Hernandez de Alba Acosta (1875-1929), seen in the Boldini portrait below, of having an affair with her son, attacked a couple of vaudeville cuties named Lillian Graham and Ethel Conrad who shot him in self defense, argued for the careful selection of human stock in a book titled "The Right to be Well Born" and, while providing his lawyers with many billable hours, required them to sue him in order to get paid.

The only person he liked — and only after a long delayed reconciliation — was Weddie, to whom he left his entire estate. This provoked posthumous rounds of litigation instituted by his second wife and her two children.

Boldini portrait of Rita Hernandez de Alba Acosta.
Some interesting miscellany re. Rita Stokes. When W.E.D. Stokes married her in 1895, she was 19 years old and considered the most perfectly beautiful woman in New York. She hated Weddie and couldn't bear to be near him. Her second husband was David Lydig's brother, Philip, and as Mrs. Philip Lydig she became a noted figure in New York society. Until forced by diminishing funds to move into a hotel, she lived at 123 East 55th St., a house famously renovated and occupied by Elsie de Wolfe and Elisabeth Marbury.

As a boy, Stoke's son Weddie followed the familiar route of many a privileged son. After Andover and Yale, he became a World War One naval officer, and finally earned a postwar law degree (which I don't think he used) from the University of Chicago.

Weddie Stokes is remembered for running the Hotel Ansonia, inherited from his father, shamelessly into the ground, and also for co-founding the Berkshire Country Day School. I'm glad he did something right. According to his 1992 obituary in the Berkshire Eagle, "Mr. Stokes was known in Lenox — and in much of South Berkshire County — as a curmudgeonly critic of a wide range of practices, from intemperate use of gasoline and banks' imposition of high interest charges to vandalism in town parks. He was also an inveterate writer of letters to the editor."

Weddie was 62 when he bought Thistlewood. He and his second wife Lucia, whom he married in 1938, stayed together in this house, until final purgatorial stints in nursing homes, for over 30 years.
I know, I know — there's something very wrong with the photo below, but we'll get back to that in a minute. New York designer Dan Dempsey and his partner Steve Rufo bought Thistlewood in 1990, put in the beautiful pool and pool house, did extensive indoor restoration work, and sold the place in 2002. The new owners hired Boston-based uber-decorator Nannette Lewis who promptly pulled the whole place apart, right down to the studs, and did it all over again. I am often baffled by this scenario, which I see all the time, in town and in the country.
I was at a luncheon yesterday, among 20-or-so gracious and conservative Republicans, of the sort among whom I seem fated to spend my final years. A yachtsman among them was unexpectedly describing the dire coastline consequences of global warming. I couldn't help but interrupt. "Tim," I said, "you're sounding like a Democrat." The porch at Thistlewood was demolished recently by one of those violent storms we get nowadays, that we hardly used to get at all.
Nannette Lewis's Thistlewood is a beautiful place, but it is no longer an old house. OK, OK, bits and pieces of the past remain — the graceful stair, an occasional leaded window, a bit of paneling — but these things are souvenirs. The new look and altered layout have definite aesthetic validity. It's a bit cool in here, perhaps, but luxurious and up to date. An old house lover like myself misses the wonderful old pantry (demolished), the unusual interior shutters (thrown out), and that delicious patinaed look that old houses get after being lived in for a century.
Just inside the stair hall, a door on the right leads to a reception room. The door and the paneling are old; the fireplace I wouldn't bet on.
Back to the center hall and around the corner to the right is the drawing room.
What I like about the Colonial Revival — besides an abundance of columns, dentils, brackets, balustrades and garlands — is what Dan Dempsey amusingly calls its "Rambo scale." I like houses with heft, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, big Colonial Revival houses delivered exactly that.
The view below looks south, from the drawing room to the dining room across the hall.
And this looks north (sort of), from the dining room to the drawing room. Inured as I am to a world of leaks, cracks and bulges in Millbrook, I found myself staring at Thistlewood's glass smooth walls and falling into a sort of trance state.
Beyond a pair of french doors at the south end of the dining room is a double height conservatory, which I am told was fabricated in England. I used to dream of filling a big, stone-floored, southwest conservatory with man-eating palms, king-sized ficus trees and a jungle of ferns and blooming succulents.
Who wouldn't love a kitchen of such surpassing scale and luxury? Of course I miss the old stuff, but that's just me.
The second floor originally had five bedrooms, but has been reconfigured into two extremely luxurious suites. The staircase, uncluttered by distracting personal possessions, has become an essay in pure form.
The master bedroom suite faces south and west. The opening on the right in the image below leads to an attached library/boudoir — well, maybe not a boudoir in this house.
What used to be a 5th bedroom, located on the other side of the fireplace wall below, is now a closet and dressing room complex adjacent to a sensational vintage-influenced bath.
Let's leave the master and take a look at the other suite, which occupies the northern half of the second floor.
It's very very (very) "done."
As is the connecting sitting room.
Even an opinionated and impractical old guy like me has to give these people credit for the bathrooms, which are every bit the equal of my beloved old-timers. On the subject of things modern, most modern light switches are totally counter-intuitive, but these are divinely easy to use. And "Scene?" In the bathroom? How wonderful.
In the image below, the door to the left of the master bedroom leads to the servants' stairs, aglow these days with the golden light of tasteful decoration. It connects the kitchen below with former servants' rooms on the floor above.
The third floor is shared by four color coordinated children's rooms, a tech depot, and two fabulous retro-style bathrooms.
Time to head downstairs to (can you guess?) ...
... the basement (of course), where I wept at the perfection of it all, before fleeing upstairs and out the kitchen door.
There are no guest rooms at Thistlewood. However, there are 4 of them, plus 3.5 baths, in the opulently renovated carriage house.
Many of my readers know quite well what was wrong with the picture at the beginning of this post. Shutters that are screwed to the wall, as opposed to properly hinged, give the facade on which they are mounted a slightly bogus look. This is made worse when it is obvious from their size and shape that they could not possibly cover the windows they flank, even if they were hinged. Mobile homes and ranch houses have screw-on shutters; fine country houses do not. These should be removed immediately.
Thistlewood, including carriage house, pool, gardens and 13 acres of woods and lawn, is currently for sale for $6.9 million. My hosts, the kind and tolerant Suzanne Crerer and Kelley Vickery of Stone House Properties in West Stockbridge, represent the owners. More info is at www.stonehouseproperties.com
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