Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Big Old Houses: A Visit to Rumson

A Visit to Rumson
by John Foreman

It is a fact of life: Republicans live well. In defense of this assertion, I submit to you the Monmouth County, New Jersey Borough of Rumson, population 7,122, where registered Republicans outnumber their Democratic neighbors by 2 to 1. Rumson is located approximately 20 miles south of the Battery as the crow flies, which would be very convenient if you were a crow. As it is, travelers between Manhattan and this former swell summer colony turned posh suburb must either do battle on BOTH the Garden State and I-95, or take a far superior one-hour ferry ride from Atlantic Highlands to East 35th Street. The latter ain't cheap, but if you live in Rumson what's the big deal?

Here is Riverside, designed by Beaux-Arts trained architect William Welles Bosworth (1868-1966) as it looked when completed in 1908. The client was James Guyon Timolat, presumably a business heayweight, about whom I have been unable to find one single biographical reference. If he hired Bosworth to design a place in Rumson, however, he must have been doing all right. Rumson occupies the western tip of a peninsula bordered on the north and south by the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers respectively, anchored on the west by the picturesque Borough of Red Bank (where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1), and shielded from the Atlantic on the east by a barrier beach known, ungrammatically, as "Down the Shore." That beach long ago succumbed to architectural banality. Not so Rumson.
Here's the house with mature landscaping. Riverside isn't actually in Rumson at all. It's located on the north side of the Navesink River in what is technically Middletown with a Red Bank mailing address. Psychologically, however, this is Rumson. The house sits on a 13-acre waterfront parcel that includes a separate 3-car garage, two cottages, winding drives, specimen trees and a private dock. It is surrounded by numerous similar or larger properties that either border the river itself or gaze from wooded heights across it to manicured Rumson on the opposite shore. The 20th century has surrounded Rumson and environs with a lot of pretty ordinary stuff. Places like Navesink River Road, however, preserve a rural atmosphere of vintage country estates.
This is Riverside today, an appealing house on a manageable estate, although whoever fiddled with the front porch and walled up the flanking windows should be slapped upside the head. Bosworth did numerous big houses in town and in the country, but he is famous for designing the new (1913) campus of his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT's School of Architecture, interestingly, was a proponent of Beaux Arts techniques. This undoubtedly contributed to Bosworth's desire and success when he left the U.S. and finished his studies in Paris in 1896. His later work on Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller's house in Pocantico Hills, changed the course of his life. So pleased was Rockefeller with Bosworth's work that he invited him in 1924 to be supervising architect for the Rockefeller financed restoration of Versailles and Notre Dame de Reims. Bosworth never came home, dying in France in 1966, the recipient of many honors including the French Legion of Honor.
Riverside may not be Bosworth's best work but, notwithstanding the above-noted meddling, its exteriors are vigorous and original, particularly the river facade.
As we shall see, this house has been totally, thoroughly and intensively restored — well, renovated in some places, restored in others — with all new electric, water service, gas piping, "Timberline" lifetime roof, whole house generator, not to mention a new Dura-Lift elevator, all new lighting fixtures, etc., etc. The original shutters have been stripped and repainted, the windows restored, new lighting installed on the drive, and the ornate entrance gates removed, re-welded, repainted and replaced on new pillars. There is really nothing that could have been done that hasn't, including the replacement of a dilapidated greenhouse with the 3-car garage, the back of which is seen in the image below.
Morgan Cline,
When built, Riverside was neither a manor house nor a country seat, but a stylish summer place in a smart town. It was a getaway, albeit a swell one, where formal people could live informally. The interior plan is gracious but simple, the finishes handsome but not elegant. By 2013 it had fallen into such a state of dilapidation that its future was uncertain.

Enter retired advertising executive and philanthropist Morgan Cline, a neighbor on Navesink River Road, who bought and began to restore the house purely in order to save it. Cline was a preservation legend in New Jersey, the savior of many an old building and a key player in the dramatic rebirth of Hoboken.

It is an interesting coincidence that his firm, Cline Davis & Mann, was behind the successful launch of Viagra. Cline died suddenly in April, 2014, and his estate continued the restoration he had started.
Much of the charm of an old house derives from a patine acquired over years of being lived in. The fireplace bought at a 1920 auction, the wall coverings put up by somebody's grandmother, the over-scaled plumbing fixtures, silk-shaded sconces, even the shortage of closets and over-abundance of maids' rooms conspire mysteriously to transform often unexceptional rooms into places you absolutely love. Riverside is a "new" old house. It has been restored to the condition it was in on the day it was built. This insures structural longevity and improves marketability, and most people would never put up with the inconveniences I live with at Daheim. Don't get me wrong, I like it a lot, but it's not exactly an old house any more.
First stop, the drawing room. With all the space, light, big french doors and fab pillared porch with river view, how could you not make this into a knockout?
The adjacent library has a summer cottage feel to it. Behind a door on the north wall is a corridor with a new powder room.
My host, P.J. Rotchford from Gloria Nilson Real Estate, is standing in the sun room, looking more serious than he actually was that day. There's a water view from almost every room in the house.
Let's return through the library and the drawing room for a look at the dining room. Love birds on the fireplace tiles strike an Arts and Crafts note.
Live-in servants were part of the world for which Riverside was built. Bosworth provided a well planned series of connecting spaces on the north wall of the building that enabled the help to circulate efficiently without intruding on the family. The serving or butler's pantry, which functions as one of these spaces, interprets traditional old house pantry vocabulary — glass door cabinets, marble countertops — with style.
New it may be, but this kitchen complements the original house. In fact, I wouldn't mind having one like it at Daheim.
Let's take the servants' path to the main stair and have a look at the second floor.
The straightforward second floor plan compensates for a lack of architectural brio with space, abundant bathrooms, tremendous light and decorating potential. Empty of furniture and window treatments, walls painted the same no-color color, the owners' suite in the images below looks kind of flat. The bathrooms don't help; despite some marble moments, they're not great.
Family bedrooms are distributed along a narrow east-west hallway with a new elevator at its eastern end. A few feet from the elevator door is the entrance to the servants' quarters.
The service wing is connected to the kitchen below by a back stair. I rather like the un-renovated bath. The wonderful room at the eastern end of the house, which I have labeled Nursery, was probably intended as more than a bedroom.
I think we have seen Riverside.
Let me close today's post with the following observations: 1) It's a pleasure writing about old houses in private hands, without velvet ropes and "no go" zones; 2) Despite my occasional criticisms, I think Mr. Cline, and his estate after his death, did a noble thing fixing up this fine old house; and 3) There was nary a scratch, a nick or a crack in the whole place, which for me was ... eerie. Ready to pull out that checkbook and start writing? If so, you can contact either P.J. Rotchford or Geralyn Behring at Gloria Nilson & Co. Real Estate in Rumson; that's www.glorianilson.com.
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