Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Big Old Houses: The Fall of Hubert T. Parson

Big Old Houses: The Fall of Hubert T. Parson
by John Foreman

Last week we explored the first floor of Hubert and Maysie Parson's Shadow Lawn (The Rise of Hubert T. Parson). Today we're going upstairs. The Parsons were strange people, but only because they lived in a palace — or three palaces to be exact: Shadow Lawn; a Parisian mansion on the Avenue Foch; and 1071 Fifth Avenue. Setting aside the real estate, Parson was just another rich and talented businessman with no taste, and his wife was a not untypical spoiled and willful woman who, rather than acknowledge the realities of the Great Depression, drove her husband into bankruptcy. Culture and background were absent in these people and, notwithstanding Parson's pose as the ever-indulgent provider, neither cared much for others beside themselves.

How can I say these awful things? Because I read James T. Maher's excellent book, "The Twilight of Splendor" (Little, Brown, 1975) which, in a 56-page chapter, profiles Hubert and Maysie with mordant perception, penetrating intelligence and quotes from all sorts of people who knew them personally. Parson's architect Horace Trumbauer fought a losing and, for Parson, a disastrous rear-guard action v. his wife's aesthetic meddling. It was the Baumgarten Company, however, interior redecorators of the first Shadow Lawn, and interior designers of the second, that bore the brunt of her.
Living at Shadow Lawn was like living in a very luxurious hotel with no other guests. Maysie's sister Bertha acted as housekeeper, a role financially dependent relatives of the great will often take. Bertha's Chinoiserie suite at the west end of the house, and Maysie's and Hubert's respective suites 125 feet to the east, were the only lights on at night, at least until 10:30 when they all went to bed.
No one actually played the organ at the top of the stairs, but it could be — and was — remotely controlled to fill the cortile with thunderous music. Parson's pre-commute breakfast each morning was accompanied by a wall-shaking hymn. The organ cost $100,000.
There is disagreement on who slept where in this house, but I'm sticking to my labels. First stop, Maysie's bedroom suite, located on the northeast corner of the house and the lower left corner of the plan.
If you read last week's post, you'll observe that the condition of Shadow Lawn's second floor is basically the same as that of the first — to wit, mint period rooms filled with temporary partitions. Trumbauer's office was famous for a nuanced grasp of 18th century elegance. Baumgarten's was not. The famous "decorateurs" of the late 19th and early 20th century might turn up their collective noses at Baumgarten's subtle gaucheries and slightly-off proportions. However, to non-professional eyes these rooms look great. Shadow Lawn is an enormous visual candy box, and hundreds of people, instead of just 2 or 3, enjoy it every day.
Terrible as it is, this 1922 passport photo of Maysie Parson is the only image of her I could find.

Maysie's bedroom, for reasons that elude me, has two bathrooms.

The grandest is combined with a dressing room and located at the extreme eastern end of the house. Decor-wise, it is totally over the top, wherein lies its appeal, at least to me.
On the other side of Maysie's bedroom is another bath, totally gorgeous in its own right, although dwarfed by bath #1. How wonderful to work in an office that's located in a palace bathroom.
Let's leave Maysie's room, admire the view to the west down the cortile, and have a look at her husband's suite. Behind the gilded grills are organ pipes — a lot of organ pipes.
Parson's bedroom is full of happy workers, but I wonder how happy Parson was. The stock market crashed practically the moment he and Maysie moved in. His Woolworth stock lost 80% of its value and 18 months later, having reached Woolworth's mandatory retirement age of 60, he lost his $650,000/year salary. Frank Woolworth, the benevolent mentor who had bailed him out in the past, was no longer alive to do so again.
Hubert Parson's bedroom also had 2 baths, which doesn't make sense to me but maybe did to him. The grander of the pair is, like Maysie's, a combination dressing room/bath. I was immediately charmed by Shadow Lawn when, after a long drive down from Dutchess County, I asked for the men's room and was directed here.
The corridor in the image below connets Maysie's and Hubert's bedroom suites with an elaborately paneled room in between. Monmouth University's 2nd floor plan labels this a guestroom, but I doubt that. Plan-wise, it makes more sense as Maysie's boudoir. She may never have used it, since there were practically no visitors to Shadow Lawn, but as a guest bedroom the location makes no sense. Interesting to note: when the house was built, the only connection between the service annex and the main block was on the first floor. Ergo, when Maysie, Bertha and Hubert tucked themselves in at night, their servants went to sleep in what was essentially a separate building.
Behind a forest of office partitions, the boudoir, if that's what Trumbauer intended it to be, is completely intact.
Parson's study is immediately west of his bedroom. An additional bath, gorgeously marble-clad and currently used as an office, connects both rooms.
In the middle of the house, facing the south lawn, is an upstairs living room. Shadow Lawn was finished by the late summer of 1929, but at the last minute, Maysie insisted a solarium be constructed on the roof. Trumbauer argued, angrily by all accounts, that the addition would ruin the building's symmetry. Despite his architect's warnings, not to mention the crashing stock market, Parson was unmoved. "Mrs. Parson wants it," he said, and that was that. Construction of the solarium required removing 3 floors of exterior limestone cladding and demolishing sections of Baumgarten's interiors in order to bury new steel supports in the walls. Maysie's last minute solarium resulted in a $500,000 post-Crash bill.
Even as the Depression darkened, life continued grandly at Shadow Lawn — greenhouses, dairy cattle, formal gardens, sweeping lawns, between house and grounds 100 souls on payroll — all despite the owner's shrinking assets and the loss of his Woolworth salary. By 1933, both the feds and the borough of West Long Branch were dunning him for unpaid taxes. By 1936 Metropolitan Life foreclosed on 1071 Fifth. The following year, while West Long Branch threatened to cut off his sewer service, 72 Avenue Foch was closed and the furniture shipped to New Jersey. In 1937, Parson put Shadow Lawn on the market for $10 million, but no one was interested.
In the fashion of a Portman hotel, all Shadow Lawn's bedrooms open onto cortile galleries.
Offices for more exalted college staffers are separated by substantial partitions which, while removable, make touching efforts to duplicate the original architecture. Fireplaces, chandeliers, wardrobe fittings, over-scaled bathrooms, even a wall safe, all of which might otherwise be torn out under less enlightened stewardship, are happily still here.
At the west end of the 2nd floor gallery is the door (on the left in the image below) to Bertha Gasque's suite.
A lobby, seen below looking east towards the cortile, separates Miss Gasque's bedroom on the left, with her boudoir on the right.
The bedroom, complete with another sumptuous bath, is now the office of Monmouth University's president.
More Chinoiserie finishes are across the lobby in the boudoir. Miss Gasque's rooms all open onto a terrace with views over the formal garden and the former south lawn.
A service stair in the northwest corner of the house connects the service annex to the upper floors. As noted earlier, before Monmouth build the bridge below, the only servants' access to Shadow Lawn's bedroom levels was via the first floor.
Let's return along the north side of the cortile (on the left), pass the organ, and take the enclosed stairs to 3.
Things haven't changed much since the Parsons' day. I wonder where that rug went.
Shadow Lawn's abundant guestrooms had decorative themes — Venetian, Directoire, Spanish Renaissance, Louis Seize, etc., etc. — but very few guests. An unkind joke at Maysie's expense suggested she could take an empty ballroom, add five pieces of furniture, and make it look cluttered. Although uncertain of her own taste, she was autocratic in her decisions.
Behind a door on the 3rd floor gallery, visible above the arch in the image below, is a stair to the notorious solarium. In a way it's kind of cool, with its weird Aztec decor. If Parson hadn't built it, and if Maysie cared less about her own whims and more about her husband's problems, (and if Parson hadn't been such a wuss), they might have clung to their palace. Instead, they were forced to vacate in 1938, less than 9 years after moving in.
In the depths of the Depression, Shadow Lawn still cost $300,000/year to run, not counting unpaid taxes and mortgage defaults. As Parson's personal finances deteriorated from bad to terrible, Woolworth's directors stepped in and gave him a million dollar mortgage on Shadow Lawn and 72 Avenue Foch. This was not done out of any love for Parson, but from fear of a splashly tabloid bankruptcy that would expose their former president as living in a 130-room house with 100 in staff.
There's the solarium, all too painfully obvious on the roof. On September 25, 1939, a Monmouth County undersheriff named Dorman McFaddin sold Shadow Lawn at a foreclosure auction to a sole bidder, the Borough of West Long Branch. The price was $100. Parson died in 1940, in a rented house in Allenhurst, N.J. leaving an estate of $2500. He'd tucked away enough for Maysie to live another 16 years in relative, if not palatial, comfort. Shadow Lawn first became a girls' school, then in 1956 was purchased by Monmouth Junior College, today's Monmouth University. And what good stewards they've been, getting the house listed on the National Register, raising money for sensitive stabilization and renovation projects and, best of all, resisting the depressing urge found in so many public and educational institutions, to "improve" the heart out of it. Self-guided tours of Wilson Hall, as Monmouth calls it, are fun and free. The link is www.monmouth.edu/wilson_hall
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