Tuesday, February 18, 2014

BIG OLD HOUSES: An Under-appreciated Classic

BIG OLD HOUSES: An Under-appreciated Classic
by John Foreman

Today I am in Greenwich, CT, land of the hedge fund king and the $20 million "tear-down," a fate which may well await this fine mid-country Colonial Revival period piece from 1923.

Its intentional lack of flash — so scholarly, so restrained — reflects not only the rejection of Edwardian theatricality of the fashionable world of its time, but the architect's thoroughgoing familiarity with 18th century American design and detailing.
At 9200 square feet, you can hardly call this a mansion, at least by Greenwich standards. It was built for a 38-year-old business executive named Louis William Dommerich (1885-1952), a Yale grad (Class of '07) and partner in a family firm that would in time become a part of Chemical Bank. Dommerich and his wife Elsa, whom he married in 1913, lived here and in New York with 3 children — Elsa, Clara and William. Interestingly, a 1914 Social Register lists the Dommerichs' Manhattan address as 314 West 75th St. What were they doing on the West Side? "Real New Yorkers live on the West Side," quipped a long departed grandmother of a society friend. "People from Pittsburgh live over there." (meaning Fifth Avenue).
The fashion for Greenwich started in the late 19th century. By the '20s it was thick with people named Converse, Milbank, Havemeyer, Rockefeller, Greenway, and generally acknowledged to be the richest town in the world. I don't know if it still is, but it sure looks that way. Vanity Fair describes the Greenwich grandees of today as "a closely knit, inscrutable group of men who run hedge funds ... (and build) ... swollen over-ambitious mansions ... Who uses 25 parking spots? Does anyone sleep in all those beds?" Today's Big Old House isn't swollen, and it sits on 17 already subdivided mid-country acres, none of which bodes particuarly well for its future.
The Colonial Revival started in the late 1870s, when young American architects, brimful of post-Civil War nationalism, began a self-conscious search for a uniquely American style of architecture. The initial result was the so-called "Modernized Colonial," a pastiche of pre-revolutionary details — windows, eaves, dormers, bays, what have you — tossed into a figurative pot and shaken out in original combinations. This created undeniably original looking houses which, to the non-professional eye, just look "Victorian." P.S. The Shingle Style is a sub-category of Modernized Colonials.
Georgian symmetry, design discipline and common sense entered the picture in the 1890s, when society architects began giving rich clients grander sized but more compositionally balanced interpretations of the colonial tradition. Big Colonial Revival houses built between the '90s and the First War combine scale, formality and Edwardian detailing in a manner precisely to my taste. Today's house is another breed of colonial cat — scaled down, purposely restrained, rigorously scholarly in detail — but so well done I can't help but admire it.
The architect of this house has succeeded where the past practitioners of modernized colonialism failed. Historically correct design elements — gorgeous turned newels and balusters, wide plank floors, a well proportioned dado, recessed doors, correct reproduction hinges and hardware, etc., etc. — are employed in precisely the manner our colonial ancestors would have employed them. Of course, everything here is four times as big, but the result is an authentically American look with legitimate American antecedents.
Good Colonial Revival houses are notable for sunshine and light. Don't be fooled by the purposeful simplicity of the fireplace and cornice, the dado and the doors. This spacious drawing room was designed as an elegant setting for fine antiques.
There are 13 windows across the front of this house, 7 in the central block and 3 in each of the two flanking wings. A sunroom, designated as "South Porch" on the kitchen annunciator, occupies the ground floor of the southern wing. It is flooded with light from windows on three sides, plus a peculiar pair of glazed doors opening onto a walled garden on the south. Why are there two doors instead of one? Beats me. If the room were ever divided in half, you'd see evidence on the floor, which you don't. Plus which, the fireplace, an elaborate interpretation of some fairytale 18th century farmhouse kitchen, is located directly on axis with the two doors. Perhaps one of my readers will know the explanation, because I sure don't.
Let's return to the main hall (so colonial), admire a bit of repro (or possibly antique) hardware, and proceed to the library.
There is an almost modern simplicity to the library, whose design speaks eloquently to the architect's over-riding aesthetic of restrained good taste. Things to note here and in the adjoining powder room: a lack of elaborate moldings; unusual surface texture of the wall paneling; vintage ceramic flooring; beautiful colonial style hardware.
The dining room door, like others in the house, could be in Colonial Williamsburg.
A swing door to the right of the dining room fireplace leads to a modern (ca. 1923) serving pantry and kitchen. Had this house been built ten years earlier, it's even money the kitchen would have been in the basement. Locating it on the main floor made life easier for the servants. Save for the 1970s insertion of an unlovely pantry sink, and the substitution of new appliances in the surprisingly small kitchen, little has changed here since the house was built.
The rest of the main floor on the north wing is taken up by a former servant hall (disguised, it would seem, as a set from 'That '70s Show'), laundry room, servants' half bath, and a back hall stair to five maids' rooms on the floor above.
We, however, will take the main stair. The Palladian window at the top of it is actually a door to a terrace above the porch. The seat converts to a step, the diminutive double doors beneath the sill open inwards, and the double sash retracts into the ceiling.
More scholarly colonial design work is seen in this door on the south end of the stair landing. Beyond it is a private corridor giving access to a complex of 4 family bedrooms. Let's look first at the master, which is not overly large, has neither dressing room nor adjacent boudoir, and connects to a bathroom which lacks a separate servants' entrance. Mr. & Mrs. Dommerich apparently had a much simpler lifestyle than people in their position had a generation earlier.
Back in the private corridor outside the master, a door leads to a pair of cheerful corner bedrooms with shared bath which I assume belonged to the Dommerich girls. The box locks and strap hinges look like genuine antiques. The textured plaster is an homage to old farmhouse finishes.
In the image below, the girls' bedrooms are behind the camera and their bathroom door is on the right. The door to the private corridor is dead ahead; their parents' room is out of sight beyond it on the left; their brother's room, seen in the 2nd and 3rd images below, is beyond it on the right. The arched door in the distance marks the boundary between the private corridor and the second floor landing.
Three guestrooms and 3 baths flank the 2nd floor hall, which ends at the door to the servants' quarters.
The flooring and stair rail are simpler and the bedrooms smaller, but these cheery accommodations represent a quantum leap from the attic cubicles endured by earlier generations of hapless maids who cooked in the summer, froze in the winter, and hiked epic distances every time the annunciator buzzed.
Of course I went up to the attic, where I discovered that this rambling shingled manse was framed with steel beams.
I also checked out the basement.
Louis W. Dommerich died eleven days before Christmas, 1952. He was only 67. The Times described him as an insurance company exec, chairman of the board of L.F. Dommerich, clubman (Union League, Manursing Island, Indian Harbor Yacht, Greenwich Country Club), father of 3, and lifelong Republican. Mrs. Dommerich survived him by 14 years, dying in Greenwich in 1966. The present owner has been here since the early 1970s.
I try not to roll my eyes when I hear somebody calling a 2-acre property an "estate." I mean, get real. However, I suppose 17 acres on Round Hill Road does qualify. The aforementioned subdivision, which exists only on paper at the moment, is gentle as subdivisions go. The main house, heated pool, tennis court, small lake and caretaker's cottage of a type that city people kill to rent, sit on 8.74 acres.
The large building in the image below, now altered into apartments but probably built as a garage sits together with a small guesthouse on 2.1 acres to the north. The diminutive pavilion we glimpsed at the foot of the walled garden is on a 2.11 acre plot. Two additional 2-acre lots are completely out of sight and accessed from an earlier subdivision road called Sheffield Way. Perhaps you'll buy the whole thing for $16 million, keep it together and save this very worthy house. Bill Andruss of Sothebys represents the owner; his email is bill.andruss@sothebyshomes.com.
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