Big Old Houses: Refugee from the Gilded Age

Big Old Houses: Refugee from the Gilded Age
by John Foreman


Would you just look at this house. I know, I know; Europe and England are full of places like it (and even bigger), but for this side of the pond, it's a worthy specimen. Stone House Hill House, which sounds like a name concocted by someone with a mouth full of walnuts, was built in 1905 by a Massachusetts millionaire named Frederick Lothrop Ames, a year after marrying a New York society belle named Edith Callender Cryder.

Chances are you've never heard of the Ames clan, but in their day they figured large in New England society. The first Ames arrived in Plymouth, Mass in 1635, founding a dynasty that would include titans of transportation, politics, real estate and ... shovels. Yes, shovels. The Oliver Ames & Sons Shovel Works of North Easton, Mass., established by the stern looking fellow in the image below (Oliver Ames, 1779-1863) became, in the wake of two gold rushes (in California and Australia), a Civil War in America, construction of a transcontinental railroad and a sustained reputation for quality, the source of three fifths of the shovels manufactured on earth. Which made the Ames family exceedingly rich.
Enter Frederick Lothrop Ames II (1876-1921), grandson of the shovel works founder and builder of Stone House Hill House. Two generations of wealth have produced a most elegant looking man, seemingly at his ease in the world of the so-called "Ultra-Exclusives."

Frederick Lothrop Ames II (1876-1921).
Beaux-Arts trained architect Douglas H. Thomas (1872-1915)
Ames' father, Frederick Lothrop Ames I (1835-1893) was the richest man in Massachusetts. Besides shovels, he held a massive portfolio of Boston properties (he aspired to be Beantown's Astor), plus directorships in a mind-numbing list of banks and railroads. His brother Oliver (1831-1895) was the governor of Massachusetts.

These days North Easton, located about 20 miles south of the Common, is a Boston suburb. In the late 19th century, however, its undeveloped countryside seemed appropriate for the country places of the Ames family.

In 1904, FLA II hired a 32-year-old Beaux-Arts trained architect named Douglas H. Thomas (1872-1915), who several years earlier had formed a partnership with J. Harleston Parker (1873-1930). Although Parker and Thomas designed the Ames mansion, Parker, Thomas and Rice usually gets the credit. This is odd, since Arthur Rice didn't join the firm until 1907, at which point the Ames house was already built.

FLA II was 17 years old when his father, FLA I, died in 1893 at age 58. Not to be in awe of so rich and important a parent is unlikely. Several years after his father's death, FLA II, born Lothrop Ames, legally changed his name to Frederick Lothrop Ames.

To me, this event strikes an eloquent note. The father lived grandly, in Boston's Back Bay and at a North Easton country place called Langwater (still in family hands). These were eclipsed, however, by the son's new Georgian mansion on a 600-acre North Easton estate.
Parker Thomas & Rice, active equally in Baltimore and Boston, are remembered for a variety of distinguished building types, but especially for their very large private residences. The generously scaled Georgian Revival mansion in these images — even though Rice wouldn't seem to have had anything to do with it — is considered one of their best.
The Ames house is big, but hardly showy. You want to talk showy? Look at Trumbauer's Elms or Hunt's Breakers in Newport, or McKim's Vanderbilt house in Hyde Park, or Joseph Urban's Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Compared to these, especially when you go indoors, the North Easton manse of Frederick Lothrop Ames is quite restrained. Everything about it, right down to the doorknobs, is first class, even luxurious. Its architects were famous for good taste, but a sort of Yankee restraint underlies the entire project. It was appropriate to its time and its intended use, which was essentially that of a big private hotel.
Here's Edith Cryder, seated at center, with her two sisters, probably around the time of her marriage to Lothrop Ames in June of 1904. It was a very social wedding, attended by very social people.
A decade later some long forgotten house guest snapped this candid. Mr. Ames, now a married man, stands at upper left, joined by a group of guests plus his two children. Little Freddy mugs at the camera with his chin in his hands. His sister Mary cuddles up to a young woman in checked skirt and period sailor tie, who looks slightly cold. The group is posed on the west piazza; the open door behind them leads to the drawing room.
Years have passed, the trees have grown, and the lawns and gardens are better tended and more elaborate. There is, by the way, an explanation (if not an excuse) for the name Stone House Hill House. The "stone house" in question is a cave on the Ames estate, known for centuries as King Phillip's Cave. It was named after a colonial period Native American warrior, finally run to ground and killed in a Rhode Island swamp in the late 1670s, which marked the end of King Phillip's War.
Here's the same view today, almost a century later. A string of significant events has brought the old Ames estate to its present institutional incarnation. The first was the untimely death of FLA II in 1921 of acute appendicitis. He was only 45 and had enjoyed his fine new house for barely 15 years. Like his father before him, he left behind a fatherless teenaged son. Frederick Lothrop Ames Jr. (1905-1932), called Freddy, would, as time revealed, have benefited from fatherly direction.
A wrought iron detail over the front door evokes the architects' signature combination of high quality workmanship and low denominator flash. Note the initials F, L and A in the central rosette.
It's missing shutters and awnings, the western piazza has been glass-enclosed, aluminum storms have intruded here and there, but basically the place looks pretty good.
In 1908, a squash court, on the right in the image below, was built at the eastern end of the kitchen courtyard. Kitchen-related doings were screened from the south lawn — and from the eyes of family and guests — by a wall that runs from the court to the eastern end of the house.
The views below show the squash court from the kitchen courtyard side.
Time to go inside.
Since 1948, the Ames Mansion has been the centerpiece of Stonehill College, a 4-year, 2400 student, co-educational Catholic college operated by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. The first students actually lived, went to class, spent library time and took meals right in this building. Nowadays it houses admissions and administration personnel. Since 1963 it's been called Donahue Hall, in honor of the Superior General who authorized purchase of the estate for a seminary in 1935.
In the first image below, my back is to the front entrance. Beyond the glass doors, perpendicular to the entry anteroom, is a long corridor that follows the building's east-west spine and gives access to the principal rooms on the main floor. A so-called great hall lies on the other side of a glass screen on the right in the second image below.
The staircase looked more elaborate when embowered in palms. It didn't used to be separated from the great hall. Holy Cross erected the glass screen, perhaps to enclose the hall when it became the college library.
Here's the great hall looking east. When the house was built, the stairs were a much more visible architectural feature. The columned porch on the south facade is outside the french doors on the right.
Here's the great hall's eastern fireplace in the old days. (This is my look).
And here's the great hall looking west, before and after. The door to the right of the fireplace in the modern view leads to the library.
Now a conference room, the library oozes low profile, high income quality.
Once filled with wicker and high maintenance plant life, the western piazza, now enclosed, looks a little plain. The door in the image below leads to the library.
The door on the left in the image below leads to the drawing room.
Time and again, I have seen religious institutions remove fireplaces, for reasons I cannot understand, during the conversion of fine old rooms into chapels. In this otherwise handsomely preserved drawing room, they've done it again. (Note the lonely marble hearth).
Martin McGovern, Stonehill's Director of Communications and Media Relations, is waiting to lead the way east, from drawing room to dining room. The great hall is behind the columns on the right. We're making a detour en route, to a small room on the left, which I assume would have been the obligatory office one finds on the main floor of every great house.
Stonehill College loves its old mansion and has spent considerable funds not just maintaining but restoring it. In the latter category, however, they have fallen into a trap that lures many institutional owners; namely, getting too fancy. The mere existence of plaster fruit and geometric wall moldings is not a license to pick everything out in different colors. This is not a matter of taste, any more than adding fluourescent lighting, ceramic floors or sheet glass windows. The architectural strength of rooms like this derives in great part from a subtle palette. Too many colors on the walls is like too many ingredients in the soup — not a good thing.
Adjoining the dining room, an eastern conservatory balances the western piazza.
I wonder if this photo of little Mary Ames was taken by the same guest who snapped the candid above.
Behind the conservatory, accessed via a short hall from the dining room, is the breakfast room. Like much of the house, its strength lies not in architectural ostentation, but in simple good proportions, high ceilings, big windows, a traditional New England fireplace, and probably some very good (albeit long vanished) furniture, curtains and wallpaper.
I suppose I can't really fault Stonehill for replacing the original pantry, kitchen and servant hall complex, of which the early candid below of students helping at mealtime provides a tantalizing glimpse. However, that doesn't mean I don't miss it.
Time to go upstairs.
The bedroom hall on the second floor sits directly above the east-west corridor on the floor below. The owners' bedrooms are at its western end.
Unless FLA II and his wife slept in the same room, which I somehow doubt, the room in the image below would have been Mrs. Ames' bedroom. Why hers? Because it's the biggest room on the second floor and has the best view.
Could this adjacent room have been a boudoir? Probably yes, although it's hard to tell.
Even harder to recognize is her former bathroom, every trace of which has been expunged.
I'll bet her husband's adjoining suite was here. The short flight of steps leads to the roof of the western piazza. Unfortunately, his rooms have been subdivided beyond recognition.
The corridor eastwards from the owners' rooms is lined with guest bedrooms, used today as offices and meeting rooms. They're all in good physical condition, but in varying states of preservation.
This lonely marble saddle is the sole evidence of what must have been numerous grand old bathrooms.
A two-story service wing extends from the northern facade of the house. The original kitchen and pantries occupied its first floor — as the new kitchen still does — while maids lived in cubicles along a lengthy corridor on 2. Most of the latter have been blown out during conversion to institutional use. The original servants' stair has been replaced as well. About the only relic from the past that I could see was a spherical wooden door knob.
Children and their friends would have been billeted on 3. The Colonial Revival stairway could be the prime feature of a lesser house.
The partition at the top of the stairs is a fire code addition. The children's rooms are smaller than the guestrooms on 2, but quite charming — that is, when they haven't been subdivided beyond recognition.
But wait, what's this? One old bathroom has survived after all. Will it still be here if I ever come back? I hope so.
Time to go.
Of course I went to the basement. Do you really want to see a lot of junk piled around, and a ruined original boiler? (I didn't think so).
After the death of FLA II in 1921, life at Stone House Hill House (I still have trouble getting that name out of my mouth) quieted down significantly. His widow eventually remarried, to a man named Roger Cutler in 1931.
Son Freddy went away to Harvard, where he developed a taste for yachting. In 1926, he and three friends sailed a 50-foot boat back and forth across the Atlantic. This was prologue to his true passion, however, which was airplanes. In 1927, he set off on a much publicized 6-week flying tour of the continental U.S. To the surprise — and probable consternation — of his mother, he returned in January of 1928 married to Mlle. Maurice Mozette, a cabaret singer from Nogales, Mexico. Young Ames was a hotdog pilot. Arriving home from his honeymoon, he crashed on landing at his mother's North Easton estate. Fortunately, no one was badly hurt.
Here's Freddy and Maurice, posing on their private air strip at North Easton. In November of 1932, Ames, together with a 22-year-old heiress named Frances Burnett and a Harvard pal named Frank Penrose, were, in the words of The New York Times, "stunting spectacularly over Milton (Mass., the plane's) roaring motor attracting the attention of thousands of Sunday motorists. Over (Randolph, Mass) it went into a barrel roll and then into a tail spin, with the motor idling so slowly that watchers could see the propeller blades. The ship spun down to within 100 feet of the ground before the motor suddenly picked up as the pilot made an apparently frantic attempt to pull out of the spin. The plane flattened out, but was unable to gain altitude and, dropping to the ground with terrific force, crashed into a stone wall and crumpled into ruins."

Needless to say, no one survived. "At the Boston airport, it was said that when Mr. Ames took off he narrowly missed several planes then in the air and dived so close to the field once that spectators scattered wildly." A postscript to the death of Freddy Ames, from the Times of December 23, 1932. "Nurse Sues for Share in F.L. Ames Estate. Says Bay State Flier, Killed in Crash, Promised Marriage."
Here's the Ames casino, a private playhouse designed by the firm of Baker & Thomas and located behind the mansion. This was a typical private athletic facility of the sort that ornamented many very large estates. Built after construction of the main house, it contained a heated pool, a clay tennis court with a glass roof, and quarters for a private tennis pro. The casino was converted in stages to what is now an alumni center and bears only the slightest resemblance to its original incarnation.
In October of 1935, Maurice Ames sold the Stone House Hill estate, including the mansion and most of its furniture, 350 acres of land and assorted outbuildings to the Holy Cross Fathers for use as a seminary. It became a college 13 years later. The Ames shovel works closed in 1952, remained derelict for decades, until being recently reincarnated as a residential complex. The Ames family remains a visible presence in the area. Governor Oliver Ames' North Easton estate is now a property of the Trustees of Reservations.

FLA I's house, Langwater, remains family owned and is now operated as an organic farm of some scale. Several local public buildings, designed by H.H. Richardson and paid for by Ames family members, continue to ornament the area. Then, of course, there's Stonehill College. The original gate in the image below, alas, has been demolished. Well, not completely; the iron gates themselves have been integrated into a wall bordering a banal looking campus residential complex.
Many thanks to Stonehill College for their good natured help and patience, and to the Stonehill College Archives for use of historical images.
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