Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Big Old Houses: An Unusual Change of Plans

Big Old Houses: An Unusual Change of Plans
by John Foreman

When I was a lad of 15, half a century ago (gulp), I ushered one summer at a Caramoor Music Festival in Katonah, NY. Dumb and unobservant as most 15-year-olds, I learned little about the music, less about the great house at the center it, and nothing at all about the remarkable Mrs. Rosen. She was just an old lady in sunglasses sitting under a tree.

Among the many things I didn't know at the time, but have learned since, was that Mrs. Rosen's rambling mansion, seen in the image above, was originally built as a barn, seen in the image below. I've written about a lot of old houses, but this is a first.
Walter Tower Rosen (1875-1951) and his wife Lucie Bigelow Rosen (1889-1968) bought their Westchester estate in 1928. It already had the name Caramoor, a melodious conjunction of the previous owner, Caroline Moore Hoyt's, first two names. It also had a spectacular Italian garden, much to the Rosen's taste, and a rambling old house, much to my taste but not to theirs. Christian F. Rosborg, an architect I've never heard of, prepared plans for a vast Italian palazzo a la Cecil B. DeMille. Then came the Depression and the plan was scrapped, but not before the Rosens built a barn.
There is a Caramoor legend, attributed to Lucie Rosen, that the Hoyt mansion, closed for a decade before she and her husband came along, had been rendered uninhabitable by rampaging squirrels. I find this hard to believe, but the fact remains the Rosens never occupied the old house. Instead, between 1930 and 1939, they established a series of beachheads in the new barn. Starting with what had been intended as the superintendent's apartment, they gradually colonized the rest of the building, converting it in stages into an approximation of the unbuilt palazzo. To call the finished product visually inventive is an understatement.
Caramoor is big (ya think?), which is thrilling, but the floor plan is incoherent. Four wings — north, south, east and west — surround a central courtyard. That much makes sense. The interior circulation, however, plus division of public and private spaces, is totally illogical. The arch in the middle of the south wing was the entrance to the barn. It remains the exterior focus of the building, but the front door is now located way off on the southwest corner.
The vintage view below looks towards the corner of the south and east wings. To summarize, for those who, like myself, want to know these things: 1) the south wing contained the estate superintendent's apartment and farm offices; 2) the east and west wings housed horses, cows and farm machinery; and 3) a glazed greenhouse enclosed the courtyard on the north. The arcaded gallery that encircles the courtyard today was part of the conversion to a residence, as was the 1939 addition of a gigantic music room that replaced the greenhouse.
I quite like Rosborg's touch on the exterior elevations. They speak with the romantic voice of the Roaring Twenties — even though they were built in the Thirties. The scale is charming, the composition intriguing, and the proportions just right.
What's not just right is the small addition to the left of the arch, designed in 1974 by Mott B. Schmidt (1889-1977). It houses a few period rooms — as if there weren't enough of those already — removed from the Rosens' New York house at 35 West 54th St. Schmidt's ungainly, end-of-career design reminds me of his addition to Gracie Mansion, to my eye equally unsuccessful. Rosborg, unfortunately, was unavailable, having died in 1952.
Here's Caramoor in its salad days, minus the Schmidt addition, but otherwise in remarkably the same condition today. The vast music room is clearly visible on the north wing. A sort of porte cochere in the lower left corner of the building leads to the front door. The "new" greenhouse, still fully functional, is visible at far left. The building between it and the main house contained servants' quarters, garages and another archway. It's now an administration building.
Almost time to go inside.
But first, a little background. Walter and Lucie Rosen were the sort of people one wishes one knew. His German banker father left Berlin in 1885, wisely as it turned out, and settled his family in New York. Young Walter entered Harvard at age 16, flirted with becoming a concert pianist, instead joined the family firm of Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. and rose to become a senior partner. He was a successful banker, a lifelong connoisseur of the arts and an extremely attractive man.
At age 39, Rosen married a 24-year-old debutante named Lucie Bigelow Dodge. "Miss Dodge to Wed; Friends Surprised," observed The New York Times, drily, on July 16, 1914. Probably the good friends weren't. A year earlier, Lucie Dodge vanished from her mother's London townhouse, rented a room on her own and took a job as a stenographer. Scotland Yard had to track her down. She was, it would appear, richly tired of "society" and disinclined to marry a "society man." The following year she married Walter Rosen instead, recognizing in him the sort of cultured and cosmopolitan man who would enlarge her world and, likely as not, treat her as an equal. The glamorous milieu of their married life was heavy on musicians, performers and artists, like Cecil Beaton who did the water color of her below, left.

The Rosens had two children, Walter and Anne, seen with their mother in a 1919 painting by Henri Caro-Delvaille (below, right). The family spent a lot of time in Europe, particularly in Venice, where Mr. Rosen established himself as the sort of buyer of arts and antiques of which a dealer's dreams are made. The dealer in this case was a Venice-based fellow German named Adolph Loewi (1888-1977). Loewi sold Rosen a literal warehouse-full of decorative arts, furniture and salvaged rooms. The Twenties were a good time to buy this kind of stuff. The war had ruined a lot of rich people, killed most of their sons, and forced many to sell treasured heirlooms and/or part out their stately homes.
The installation of Mr. Rosen's architectural fabric and art in a barn instead of a house is, frankly, anomalous. As noted above, Caramoor is a wonderful place but architecturally it leaves a lot to be desired. One fundamental shortcoming is obvious the moment you step inside. The entrance hall may be full of nifty stuff and exquisite detail, but it's cramped and oddly placed.

The corridor in the image below right, a few steps down from the entrance hall, runs north for the entire length of the west wing. It is lined with four dazzling period rooms — reception, two guestrooms and a library — on a footprint originally intended for horses and cows.
The reception room, though small and awkwardly located, is a perfect jewel with woodwork — if I do not fracture my metaphors unduly — from an 18th century English country house. Everything in this room, and indeed practically everything in the house, is rare and beautiful. One could easily fall asleep during the litany of craftsmanship, provenance and rarity.
If you looked left from the fireplace below and magically turned back the clock to 1930, you would see ...
... this, the interior of the west wing of the barn, as it originally looked.
Next down the hall are two guestrooms, both brimming with distinguished architectural elements and fine antique furnishings. Between them is a typical modern bath from the 1930s, equally wonderful to my corrupted eye, though maybe not to yours. The bedrooms at Caramoor mostly share baths, but also have small private sinks hidden in en suite closets.
The library at the north end of the corridor doubled as Mr. Rosen's country office. It's a pretty small library for such a big house, especially for one owned by such cultured people. However, that's Caramoor for you. Mr. Loewi salvaged it from a 17th century French chateau. Antique-wise, it is considered the best room in the house.
So much for the west wing's first floor. At the end of the corridor are a couple of doglegs, a stair to more guestrooms on level two, the door to a butler's apartment (not on my tour) and a Chinoiserie anteroom leading to Caramoor's famous music room.
This room constitutes the majority of the north wing. It was the last addition to the house and doubled as a drawing room, at least when recital chairs weren't set out. The openings on the left in the image below lead into a sort of niche — really a large room in itself — that provided, comparatively speaking, a more intimate setting.
The Rosens reportedly cancelled plans for the new house because of the Depression, although I wonder who would seriously describe the rebuilding of their barn as an economy measure. Both Rosens were musical, he on the piano, she on the theremin. (The what?) A theremin is an eerie sounding gizmo played by waving the hands through an electrical field. Caramoor's music room was designed for private performances by the likes of Artur Rubinstein, Bruno Walter and Jose Iturbi. When not set up for an audience, it served as an elegant gathering spot from which to go in to dinner.
At the far end of the music room, off a small lobby, is a ladies' room. My mother used to say you could always tell a high class place by the ladies' room.
Our clockwise tour of the first floor of Caramoor has now arrived in the dining room, located at the north end of the east wing. (Got that?) With its Chinese wallpaper and Chippendale overmantel the dining room is, of course, another showstopper. The screen in front of the pantry door isn't just jade colored, it is actually made of jade.
Serving pantry and kitchen, located on the northeast corner of the building, are, save for one blue counter-top, virtually unchanged from the Thirties.
Can't leave without looking at the boilers. I didn't even ask what the heat bill was.
The alcove on the east side of the dining room was used for breakfasts and probably some informal meals as well. The door on its south wall accesses a corridor leading to a summer dining room and the Rosens' bedroom suites. That's my hostess, Merceds Santos-Miller, making sure I haven't got lost.
What used to be a machinery shed became the summer dining room. It's actually an outdoor porch.
If the west wing is mostly guests, and the north wing mostly entertaining, the east wing is mostly family. (That's mostly, not entirely). The paneling in Mr. Rosen's bedroom, originally from a monastery in the Tyrol, was his personal choice. According to his daughter, everything in the house was intentionally purchased and placed by him, not by a decorator. Perhaps my marriage would have gone better if I'd kept a marble bust of my wife in my bedroom.
Mrs. Rosen's dressing room, bedroom and bath are adjacent to her husband's suite and, oddly, connected to it through the bathrooms. Her hair dryer sits on her dressing table; Pope Urban VIII used to sleep in her bed.
It is an obsession, I know, but I am unable omit at least a few images of Walter Rosen's bath as well.
The stairs in the image below lead to a second floor bedroom suite used by the Rosens' son, and located directly above his mother's. This landing is on the east side of the south wing, a few feet from the big arch. (Got that?) Lucie Rosen spent the last years of her life as a semi-invalid in the wake a terrible car crash. What I didn't realize, when I saw her sitting on the lawn all those years ago, was that she was sitting in a wheelchair.
Here's Walter Bigelow Rosen's bedroom. On August 18, 1944, Flying Officer Rosen of the Royal Canadian Air Force was shot down during a mission over Germany. Upon hearing the news, his father is said to have sat down at the piano and played for three straight hours. A year earlier, the elder Rosen's sister, married to a French occultist writer named Maurice Magre (1877-1941) and thinking she'd be safe in Nice, was rounded up by the Nazis. Despite her brother's frantic efforts, she and her son were murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.
The photo below is of Walter Jr's study. How great is that ceiling fixture? At the bottom of the circular stair in the corner is the east wing corridor and his father's bedroom door. We, however, will take the main stair down, leap across the old barn arch, and wind up ...
... below, at the top of a new stair installed in 1974 as part of the Mott Schmidt alterations. The courtyard is out of sight on the left; the Schmidt wing in behind the wall — well, actually it's behind the wall downstairs — on the right. The big arch separates family bedrooms to the east from the guestrooms on the west. The sole route to where we're standing now used to be via a staircase all the way down by the music room, a distance of about half a mile (only teasing, only teasing).
At various times during Caramoor's evolution, the room below, located beside the new stair and on top of the front door, has been a music room, a playroom, and finally a practice room.
Even though the Caramoor mansion is now a museum, festival artists still stay here. The second floor west wing corridor is punctuated with mini-mezzanines, each of which leads to a pair of guestrooms with shared bath in between.
Of all the bathrooms, this is my favorite.
We'll take the stair at the north end of the west wing, down to a landing adjacent to the chinoiserie ante room by the music room. (Still with me?) Then we'll hike south down the west wing to the front door, and head outside.
The Rosens might have disliked the house, but they decided to buy Caramoor anyway because of its remarkable Italian garden. That garden is still there, still beautiful and still beautifully tended. However, it's no longer very Italian looking.
The first public music festival at Caramoor, dedicated to the Rosens' son, took place during the summer of 1945. 68 years later the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts provides educational and mentoring programs in addition to a famous continuing concert series. Concerts are usually held outdoors during the summer, but occasionally in the mansion at other times of the year. For a complete calendar and information on how you can attend, the link is www.caramoor.org.