Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big Old Houses: One Man's Castle

Big Old Houses: One Man's Castle
by John Foreman

The Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), fleeing England to Rome for his health, was killed by a doctor. Treating a hemorrhaging cough by blood letting, and diagnosing the source of Keat's tuberculosis as his stomach (go figure), Dr. James Clark prescribed a diet of one anchovy and one slice of bread per day which quickly finished the patient off. Poor 25-year-old Keats was in such a state of despair at the end that he insisted the words, "Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water" be chiseled on his nameless tomb.

When you come right down to it, most of our names might just as well be writ in water, including that of the man who, in 1858, built this fashionable "Gothick" villa on a bluff above the Hudson. His name was Calvin Tomkins (1793-1890), the house is called Boulderberg, it stands in Tomkins Cove, NY, and you've probably never heard of any of this. Tomkins — that's "Tomkins" without a "p" — was a big deal businessman whose descendants played prominent roles in New York City history. He was, among other things, the owner of huge limestone quarries, one of which would still be visible from his house, were it not for the growing trees.

Unlike Riverdale's conservation-minded George Perkins — you can read about him here — Calvin Tomkins was of the Victorian persuasion which believed that "progress" justified anything and aesthetics were fine unless they got in the way. He is responsible for a still-working limestone crater at Tomkins Cove, which makes Krakatoa look petite, as well as brickyards, plaster factories and cement plants up and down the Hudson, and even into Canada. The vintage image below shows the mansion he called Boulderberg at high tide, sometime in the late 19th century. The drive sweeps around from the left, headed for the front door behind a lacy porch overlooking the river.
Here's the house today, looking remarkably intact. Well, the original porch is gone, replaced in the 1970s by an unsympathetic modern covered terrace that, for a time, sheltered restaurant tables.
That covered terrace is not good, although the view is impressive.
However, it is not pristine. Railroad tracks and the active quarry lie immediately to the south at the foot of the bluff. In the other direction, mostly out of sight, is a power station. On the opposite side of the river from that, a bit to the left of the smoke, is Con Edison's Indian Point nuclear plant.
I doubt any of this would have bothered Calvin Tomkins, and it is moot whether it bothers anybody today. Tomkins Cove seems a modest place at first blush, but there turn out to be surprisingly luxurious places up in the hills. None, however, comes close to Boulderberg in terms of architectural inventiveness.
The image below shows the inland side of the house. The modern driveway has been rerouted and a former side entrance, seen on the right, has become the new front door. Boulderberg has the curious distinction of being the largest poured concrete domestic structure in the state of New York. Indeed, the New York Concrete Construction Institute describes it, perhaps not disinterestedly, as a "monument to the versatility and durability of cast-in-place concrete." A concrete house makes sense, given that Tomkins was the concrete king of New York. Raymond Huen, who wrote the Institute article, attributes the architectural design to Calvert Vaux, a man best known for his work on Central park with Frederick Olmsted. The attribution seems reasonable, given Vaux's high Victorian aesthetic, although I have not seen it elsewhere.
Because I am a front door kind of a guy, we're retracing our steps to the ugly covered terrace, ignoring the added glassed in porch, and entering Boulderberg through the original front door.
You're probably wondering what it is; I did too; it's a monkey.
How about this plasterwork? Besides brick, cement, gravel and lime businesses, Tomkins owned the Newark Plaster Company, founded in 1818. Apparently, if anybody knew a good decorative plasterer, it was Calvin Tomkins.
Boulderberg's floor plan is basic "Big Old House," with a notable (albeit understandable, given the date of construction) lack of bathrooms. The first floor of the main block contains the four obligatory rooms seen in your better class of vintage house, to wit: reception room, drawing room, library and dining room. Kitchen and pantries are housed in a wing to the west. The front door is behind me in the image below, the reception room to the right and the drawing room to the left. I explored the reception room first, before crossing the hall and checking out the drawing room.
The interior shutters in this house, when not in use, are hidden away in wall pockets. When pulled out, the louvered elements can be configured in a variety of positions.
A small sun room with a beautiful southeast view straddles the boundary between drawing room and original library. The latter is presently set up as a dining room, for reasons you shall shortly see. P.S. I'm guessing the "Gothick" bookcase next to the fireplace is original to the house.
The dining room was converted to a barroom during Boulderberg's stint as a restaurant. (Where's my ax?)
Not a shred of serving pantry detail survives from the original construction. Same for the kitchen, save for the stove wall. The servants' stair and back door remain unchanged.
Time to go upstairs. My friends will please note that mine is not the only house in the Hudson Valley that is chilly in January.
There are four bedrooms in the family section of the second floor, plus a single un-wonderful renovated bath.
Also on the second floor, lit by a bay window above the front door, is a boudoir — or conservatory or sitting room or whatever it was — set apart from the rest of the house by its remarkable high style wall finish. Scagliola, which looks for all the world like exotic marble, is a composite of a type of gypsum called selenite (Tomkins also owned gypsum quarries), marble chips, glue and pigments that can be colored, veined, shaped and polished to produce marble-like surfaces that often eclipse the real thing. Many's the time a scagliola column or architrave has fooled me. The name comes from the Italian "scaglia," meaning "chips."
The corridor to the second floor servants' rooms wouldn't originally have had so "family-looking" a rug. Several of the cubicles at its end have been awkwardly combined. That strange wall in the middle of the third image encloses the kitchen chimney.
Time to go to the third floor, where a surprise awaits.
Architecturally, this house is full of them — surprises, that is. Third floors in big old houses traditionally housed children. Calvin Tomkins had seven of those, but by the time he built Boulderberg, the six survivors were already producing grandchildren. I suspect this floor, with six nifty under-the-eaves bedrooms and a jazzy double height lobby, was intended for them. Tomkins' ancestors were ultra-Puritanical pilgrims who wanted to establish a theocratic government in Newark, N.J. (They should see the place now). According to his wife's family website — the Turse/Tuers/Toers Family Pages — Tomkins himself was "a sturdy Republican, staunch Methodist, and an earnest temperance worker." In 1884, he ceded control of the family businesses to his eldest son Walter and retired to Boulderberg to bask in a twilight of honor, family, Methodism, sobriety and lots and lots of money. He died in 1890 at the age of 97.
While we climb to the extremely cool lantern that sits on top of the house, a few words are in order about Tomkins' grandson, also named Calvin Tomkins (1858-1921). This man was as politically influential and public spirited as his grandfather was successful in business. CT-2 (Cornell 1879) ran the family mining and manufacturing empire after his own father's death in 1896. He also found time to act as New York's Commissioner of Docks and Ferries, president of the Municipal Art Society, and a vigorous proponent of the "comprehensive plan" for New York harbor. These latter efforts contributed to the creation of today's Port Authority. While the grandfather blighted the landscape with quarries, the grandson supported City Beautiful, a movement which strove to beautify the urban environment as a means of inspiring civic virtue and moral rectitude. Don't laugh: the anti-squeegee man, anti-graffiti policies of Rudy Giuliani are cousins to this same idea.
Boulderberg stayed in the family through much of the 20th century, passing from one relative to another. Starting in the 1940s, the government's famous mothball fleet, sometimes numbering over 150 decommissioned ships, was anchored out front, apparently bothering no one. A Tomkins granddaughter named Mrs. Rutledge Odell was spending the winter here in 1953 when she died at the age of 93. By the early 1970s, both fleet and Tomkins descendants had given up on the place and Boulderberg became a restaurant.
In January of 1974, the New York Times published a restaurant review titled, "Why Don't You Ever Go To Rockland, They Asked." Reviewer John Hess answered that question by noting the Boulderberg Manor Restaurant's "pathetic underdone quiche," "raw clams utterly devoid of taste," "onion soup with a lump of gummy cheese at the bottom" and (my favorite) "the first hard boiled custard we have ever seen." Ouch. By the late 1980s, Boulderberg was a private house again, which it remains today.
Postscript: Sophisticated readers may wonder whether The New Yorker's celebrated art critic, Calvin Tomkins, is related to the Tomkins clan of Tomkins Cove. That would be a "yes": Calvin Tomkins is CT-1's great-great-great-grandson, but he unfortunately has never set foot in Boulderberg.