Tuesday, July 23, 2013

BIG OLD HOUSES: Living Up to One's In-Laws

BIG OLD HOUSES: Living Up to One's In-Laws
by John Foreman


In December of 1906, Barr Ferree of "American Homes and Gardens" described Mrs. Elliott Fitch Shepard's country place at Scarborough, NY, as follows: "Immensity is one of the chief characteristics of this great house. Yet it is a beautiful immensity ... It is not grandiose nor showy, it is simply grandly large, and large everywhere." I'll second that.
Mrs. Shepard, nee Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt (1845-1924), was a young woman when she was painted below by Sargent. She had been a widow for 13 years when Ferree visited her country place, called Woodlea.

Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt (1845-1924).
Not everyone can live up to a house like this, but the eldest daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt, son and heir of the Commodore, looks equal to the task. For seventeen years, until she dumped it in 1910, Woodlea was the kind of showplace that defined "Vanderbilt Style."

Mrs. Shepard's neighborhood, being the fifteen-or-so miles of Hudson shoreline between Yonkers and Ossining, was, according to an 1897 issue of "Peterson's Magazine," the "richest colony in the world." This title has been applied to many other districts, but the Shepard place was undeniably surrounded by some pretty ritzy digs.

Mrs. Shepard's real estate magnificence was not limited to Woodlea. In 1900, she paid for two colossal Manhattan townhouses — 11 East 62nd Street, now owned by the Japanese government; and 5 East 66th St., home since 1947 of the Lotos Club — for two of her married daughters, Mrs. Ernesto Fabbri and Mrs. William Jay Schieffelin respectively.

Maggie Shepard was born in an era, and in circumstances, where women were purposely kept in financial ignorance. Luckily, half of her inheritance was locked up in an inviolable trust, absent which she might well have spent every cent of it. When she died in 1924, she was living in an apartment — admittedly a grand one at 998 Fifth Avenue, but an apartment still and all.
To be fair, when it came to a financial role model she had a bad example in the person of her husband, Col. Elliott Fitch Shepard (1833-1893).

Col. Elliott Fitch Shepard (1833-1893).
No one in the family particularly liked or trusted him, partly because of his fanatical Presbyterianism, but more due to his social gaucheries and clumsy business schemes. Shepard started well enough, as a superior organizer of arms and recruits during the Civil War.

Afterwards, however, and specifically after marrying uber-rich Maggie Vanderbilt, he wandered the proverbial desert. Shepard failed as a lawyer, failed as a banker, and became notorious as the publisher of "The Mail and Express," a sort of vintage combination of the "New York Post" and "The National Enquirer."

He beat his son, told his daughter Alice her back deformity was a visitation of God's displeasure, copied member delinquency lists off the bulletin board of his club and published them in his paper (for which the Union League suspended him) and hauled to fancy dinners all manner of opportunistic political hacks and thugs who were happy to flatter his ego in return for a free meal.

He is most famously remembered, if he's remembered at all, as the rich carriage-owning publisher who took control of the Fifth Avenue Stage Company in order to suspend Sunday stage service, lest the lower classes imperil their souls by breaking the Sabbath.
The Woodlea estate predated the Shepards, but in a quite different form. They bought it from a forgotten Victorian named Butler Wright, whose be-porched and be-towered house on the property had no pretensions to grandeur whatsoever. The new Woodlea was Col. Shepard's idea, a bastion of symbolic power appropriate to a man with big political aspirations — and plenty of Vanderbilt money. It was designed by McKim, Mead and White, and almost — but not quite — finished when the colonel died at the age of 59 in 1893. Unusual in the firm's opus, the house was designed by Rutherford Mead, a partner more responsible for business networking than design work, but who was also married to Shepard's sister.
Could we describe Woodlea as an example of the "English Renaissance Revival?" Well, why not? It's got lots of English looking dignity and plenty of classical architectural elements. Myself, I'd call it a prime example of the American Renaissance, that long ago national movement described — very amusingly, I think by Le Corbusier — as "more believable than the original."
Worth reminding ourselves is the fact that Elliott Shepard never lived here. Woodlea's day in the sun was produced and directed entirely by his widow. I wonder to what extent she viewed the house as a monument to her late husband's failed ambitions. She certainly kept it running grandly, although she may not have known any other way to run it.

By 1910, she was 65, her children were married, and she was ready to part with the place for the fire sale sum of $165,000. It mattered not that it had cost $2 million to build.

Neighbors Frank Vanderlip and William Rockefeller, already resident in grand estates in the immediate vicinity, couldn't pass the bargain up. They bought the estate, rounded up a group of congenial millionaires, and on May 11, 1911 founded the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which owns the property today.

Sleepy Hollow, despite the ups and downs of a century-plus of existence, remains a pretty swanky club. It has been an excellent steward of its beautiful and historic clubhouse — with one exception.

When Woodlea was built, and for almost 70 years thereafter, an Italian garden occupied a sunken portion of the terrace below the river facade. The fence in the image below marks the line of a former balustrade, below which lay the garden. In 1960, the club built a really ugly new golf wing on the site of the garden. For the last half century, the view of the garden from the house has consequently been replaced by a view of a large tar and gravel roof, interspersed with noisy ventilation equipment.
As the millenium approached, a growing appreciation of (and concern for) the grand interiors of the clubhouse spilled over into a concern for the appearance of the golf wing. Its elevations were redesigned and significantly improved, but nothing was done about the roof. The obvious solution, which George Perkins did with his casino at Wave Hill and modern architects have done on roofs from London to Lincoln Center, is to recreate the garden — or an approximate facsimile thereof — on top of the ugly roof. Of course, as my late father used to say, all it takes is money. If such a plan were seriously suggested, however, I'll bet the membership would embrace it with enthusiasm.
I continued walking around the house to the front door, the words of Barr Ferree ringing in my ears.
The plan below shows Woodlea's first floor as built (more or less) in 1893. #1 is the entry porch; #2 an anteroom, beyond which is #6, the main hall. #5 is the library; #7 the drawing room; #9 the obligatory white and gold room, used for big entertainments and/or just show; #14 is the dining room; #'s 16 and 17 are the serving pantry and kitchen respectively. The first floor of the service wing has today been gutted out and, including the servants hall (#18) and the row of pantries, is now a modern institutional kitchen. #15 is the breakfast room; #12 is referred to in some places as a morning room, however, I'm pretty sure it was originally a billiard room, perhaps never used due to the colonel's untimely end. #10 is an outdoor terrace with no view; and #13 is an outdoor terrace with a big view.
Inside the front door, beyond a marble anteroom, is the main hall. "The rooms everywhere are large," said you-know-who, "many of them are immense." At first I assumed it was the Shepard crest chiseled in marble above the fireplace. If I am to believe the not-always-reliable internet, however, the Shepard arms bore either a trio of dogs or of battle axes. I don't know where the cats came from; maybe the colonel cooked them up.
The library hasn't changed since the Shepards' day. "Legem Servare Hoc Est Regnare," carved in oak over the fireplace means "Platitudes R Us" in Latin. Only kidding, only kidding; actually, if my high school Latin is to be trusted, it means something like "To trust in Law is the Way to Rule." My more educated readers will no doubt correct me shortly.
Let's leave the library...
... and have a look at the ladies' dressing room, located behind that door under the stair. My late mother maintained that you could always tell a high class place by the ladies' room.
I couldn't resist including the view up the stairs from the ladies' room door. To the right of the front door is a small cloak room (I can't think of another use for it), and beyond that is the door from the hall to the drawing room.
The club's meal service, originally limited to the dining room, has spread into the three main rooms that form a 150-foot enfilade down Woodlea's main axis. The drawing room pictured below couldn't be in a more magnificent state of preservation, the result of careful, sensitive, consistent and expensive restoration work.
The first image below looks north from the drawing room to the gold room. No self-respecting millionaire in the 1890s — at least none with any social pretensions — would build a house without a white and gold room. Sometimes labeled a music room, this particular specimen is grand and in superb condition. In the vintage image it has a rather softer look, partly due to the portieres.
The dining room, seen below looking both south and north, strikes a Colonial Revival note, at least in the context of upscale 1890's domestic architecture. Dorothy Draper painted the woodwork during a 1960's do-over.
The adjacent serving pantry that Barr Ferree saw in 1906 was "almost as large as many New York apartments." It's gone now, together with original kitchen, servants' hall, and pretty much everything else back here. The first floor of the service wing was long ago gutted out and replaced with a modern institutional kitchen.
There are four stairways at Woodlea. The one in the image below is the northerlymost of three located in the formal section of the house. The service wing was connected to the family wing through the sliver of door visible at the left of the image below. The door next to it leads to a breakfast room. At the foot of this corridor is an exit to the drive, adjacent to which is a men's toilet and a side entrance to the billiard room.
Let's retrace our steps back down the corridor (the entrance to the breakfast room is behind the sconce on the right), admire the newel at the foot of the stairs, turn left, gaze down the hallway to the entrance hall at the south end of the house, and turn left into the billiard room.
It looks pretty masculine (not to mention oddly placed) for a morning room, as it is sometimes identified. Today it's the club's taproom.
Time to hike south and head upstairs.
Here's Woodlea's second floor plan, which remains essentially unchanged, and here's how I believe it was planned. I think the architect designed two connecting master bedroom suites. #4 would have been Mrs. Shepard's bedroom; #6 her boudoir; the room between 4 and 6 was (and still is) a bathroom. Her dressing room with duplexed closet was located between 4 and 3. Col. Shepard's bedroom was #3, and his dressing room #2 with bathroom attached. Bedroom #'s 1, 7 and 8 were likely family bedrooms with en suite baths. #9 apparently used an elaborate hall bath with commode in a separate room. I wonder if it was for Shepard's son? The hall bath is located on the other side of the stair from #9. The ultimate uses of these rooms, and especially the colonel's suite, probably varied. By some reports, Mrs. Shepard slept on the 3rd floor, which is possible, I suppose, but quite unusual if true — which I don't think it is.
Here's the second floor landing, looking glamorous like everything else in the place. My host, Sleepy Hollow GM, Bill Nitschke, is unlocking bedroom #1.
Here's bedroom #7.
Bedroom #9 is a "Turkish Room," a fashionable virus that afflicted many houses in those days. An en suite bath has been added to #9 without, however, increasing its popularity among club members staying the night.
Mrs. Shepard's room has been subdivided into club offices, seemingly without irreversible damage to its original architectural fabric.
The door in her dressing room still leads to a duplexed closet.
Woodlea's second floor bathrooms are a homey bunch — big, bright and barely renovated, just the way I like 'em.
The door on the left of the hall below leads to the hall bath. The cubicle that housed an individual throne is now shared by stalls. Except for a missing tub, the rest of this little suite is largely intact.
Also largely intact are the second floor servants' rooms, now called the staff dormitory, and the servants' (now staff) lounge, the latter complete with endlessly blaring television. I hate dropped ceilings, but considering how well the rest of the house has been treated, I'll stop complaining now. In the late 1950s, there was a movement to gut the entire house and replace its old fashioned interiors with something more a la "Mad Men." The golf wing was the child of this mindset, a madness which fortunately fizzled before more damage was done.
The little sliver of door on the left side of the image below leads to the Turkish Room. We're taking the stairs to 3 to tour more bedrooms.
What a view, but ooh! that tar roof! Seen another way, what an opportunity to recreate something beautiful.
Woodlea's attic is an elephant's graveyard of nifty old stuff, much of which was stowed here in the Shepard days.
Time to get out of that attic heat, take the middle stair (which we haven't been on) to 2, and the main flight down to the entrance hall.
The Sleepy Hollow Country Club, together with its 338 acres of woods and rolling fairways, constitutes the premier ornament of the Scarborough National Historic District. This designation unfortunately provides no protection to open land or structures, but it hopefully helps raise public awareness of the value of both. Woodlea is a beautiful and historic place and the club deserves kudos for keeping it that way.
Vintage images courtesy Sleepy Hollow Country Club.