Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Big Old Houses: A Short History of Millbrook (Part 2 of 2)

Big Old Houses: A Short History of Millbrook (Part 2 of 2)
by John Foreman


My house is about half a mile on the other side of this highly recognizable Millbrook landmark, the portcullis gate to Daheim. Natually, I'm watching the new season of "Downton Abbey," which Daheim ain't. While I haven't lost my sense of proportion, Daheim indisputably has scale.

Not everybody who lives near a mine, a hot spring, a natural harbor or a famous beach works as a miner, spa attendant, sailor or lifeguard. The Millbrook Millionaires, who played baseball here in the early 20th century, still reflected the essential nature of the place. Millbrook has always been a low profile, non-destination town, favored by the self-made rich, and anchored by an institution most people don't even know exists — an American fox hunt.
As the 20th century progressed, Millbrook grew, but neither extensively nor rapidly. Immigrants gradually joined the local Anglo-German stock, the Italians to build big houses, the Irish to work in them. For the first half the last century, there was both an "Italian town" and an "Irish town" in the village, although neither extended much more than a block. While the hilltoppers gave houseparties and hunted foxes, the townsfolk started businesses and bought property.
The big houses that were already here got bigger.
Edgewood in particular became immense, and its gardens quite extraordinary.
After the death of his parents, J. Morgan Wing tore down the original Sandanona and replaced it with a fashionable (and less visually challenging) Tudor Revival manse, much in the taste of the late 'teens and 'twenties.
Morgan Wing's brother moved into Shadow Lodge, the other big house on the Sandanona estate. His sister married a New York doctor named Austin Flint and built Overlook on a adjacent hill.
In 1929 Henry Davison's Altamont, first of architect Ware's unbridled Millbrook experiments, burned to the ground. The owner at the time, Miss Elizabeth Lamont, whose father had bought the estate from spendthrift Harry Davison in 1903, replaced the James Ware original with this soignee Georgian Revival, the work of a New York firm called Peabody, Wilson & Brown (never heard of 'em). Like the new Sandanona, the new Altamont was a signal departure from Millbrook's original aesthetic.
New houses and re-builds weren't the only additions to the hilltops. At Thorndale, Oakleigh Thorne built a second house on the estate for his married daughter Mrs. Parshall. In time, he built a third (not illustrated) for her sister, Mrs. Chancellor.
Large houses continued to rise in the hills, built as often as not by people with friends here already, or who rode to hounds, or both. This is Caradoc, built in 1902 by railroad executive Roswell Miller.
In 1919, Miller's son, Roswell Jr., married Andrew Carnegie's daughter. In 1927 his doting mother-in-law paid for construction — and made him a specific gift — of Migdale, named after woods on a Carnegies estate in Scotland.
Society real estate developer Robert L. Burton, posing below with his estate manager, made a killing developing and selling the entire village of Woodmere, Long Island. After which, he purchased land from the Thornes and built Crawford Farms.
Enlarging early American houses was an Eastern seaboard fad during the 'twenties. Typical of many colonial aficionados, Alfred Maclay bought a distinguished 1832 farmhouse and transformed it into a gentleman's country place.
Lithgow, built in 1758, had been cleverly doubled in size in 1910 by descendants of the original builder.
Stone masons employed by the Tuxedo firm of Mead and Taft, were among the first Italians to arrive in Millbrook. Charles Dieterish, having seen or at least read about the firm's famous work at Tuxedo Park, hired them to build Daheim. Mead & Taft masons were soon encouraging relatives to immigrate to America, where stone work for rich men seemed unlimited. The workers soon became employers, like Rodrigo Ciferri, seen below with one of his crews at Edgewood. Ciferri masons used the vocabulary of classical architecture — pediments, pilasters, moldings, etc. — to build the greenhouse pavilions a Daheim out of field stone.
And then came the Depression.
As if that hadn't been bad enough, in 1963 Timothy Leary arrived in town, the guest of new, young and impressionable owners at Daheim. The village initially welcomed him — Harvard professor and all — but the honeymoon didn't last. The League for Spiritual Discovery (get it? LSD?) soon turned the old Dieterich mansion into a destination for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, a mini-Balkans of competing "gurus" and a magnet for zonked out hippies from God only knew where and local youngsters ready to try, well, just about anything. It wasn't all bad, of course. I'm sure some of my readers were actually there, spiritually if not physically.
Although Daheim ran down pretty badly during the 1960s, at least it remained standing. By contrast, Sandanona and Edgewood were both demolished. Leary's meteoric local career ended in 1966, when he abandoned Daheim to the Egalitarian Primitivists and whatever narcotized hippies happened to be sleeping the day he left, and evacuated to Oakland, CA. There he joined forces, improbably, with the Black Panthers, but that is a story for another column.
A good question.
Despite all of the above, Millbrook's essential nature did not change. The village remained economically viable and the estates surrounding it stayed largely intact. This remains the case today. In fact, during each of the 34 years I've lived here, the village has become steadily better looking, in a comfortable non-flashy sort of way. The surrounding woods and field have likewise been groomed, the horse population expanded, and the country roads ornamented with miles (and miles) of expensive new fencing. Millbrook is, and always was, a very small place and comparing it to famous resorts ten times its size is delusional. I once saw a 4th of July parade here that proceeded two blocks to the gates of the Tribute Garden, turned around, and proceeded 2 blocks back.
The architecture in the village is like comfort food; tasty, but not particularly memorable. Even ugly buildings, notably the post office and the poorly proportioned band shell, are surprisingly likable, although that's probably because we're just used to them.
Houses in the village reflect a pecking order, but a democratic one.
My former wife lives on the top floor of this one.
Mr. Sloan's house looks as good as new, and Sloans still live there.
If there is an "eminence grise" in Millbrook it is the Tribute Garden. The name refers not only to the surprisingly sophisticated — indeed almost Parisian — public garden at the western end of town, but also to a philanthropic foundation that has watched over the village ever since its endowment by the first Oakleigh Thorne. The Tribute Garden makes grants to all sorts of worthy causes, from facade improvements to 5-figure Christmas gifts to every Millbrook church.
In the 'twenties, the Millbrook Hunt had a fixture on the terrace at Edgewood. The house is gone today, but the view's still there.
What's also gone, since its 1977 implosion, is Bennett College, formerly the Halcyon Hall Hotel. When I came to Millbrook in 1981, the building was intact. I don't know what combination of ineptness, greed or plain stupidity brought it to its present state, but its shocking decline is the community's single most shaming event. Word has it the Tribute Garden has now acquired the property and, like everyone else, my fingers are crossed.
Despite what's gone, most has survived. Crawford Farms is still here, occupied for years by a rehab facility and now on the market for sale.
Migdale not only survives but, much in the pattern of a century ago, has undergone millions (and millions) of dollars in improvements.
Same thing at Altamont where, among other things, a new greenhouse worthy of Long Island in 1910 is visible from the public road.
Shadow Lodge, Overlook and Killearn Farm are still with us, the latter two also having undergone substantial recent upgrades.
While the old house at Lithgow hasn't changed, it is now surrounded by a spectacular garden.
As income inequality swashbuckles into the 21st century, grand new houses have been rising around Millbrook — not quite in our zip code perhaps, but close enough. Today's hilltoppers don't tolerate postcard views of their houses stocked in the local pharmacy, so we must make do with tantalizing glimpses.
What's also survived, happily for me, is Daheim. So has Mr. Dieterich's Swiss Chalet style bowing alley. And so has the Millbrook Hunt.
Although I came to Millbrook before a lot of people here were born, I'll always be one of the guys from New York. That said, I can't imagine another home.
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