Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Big Old Houses: As Good As It Gets

As Good As It Gets
by John Foreman


Thirty-five years ago, my former wife and I sold a luxe if dilapidated Edwardian castle in Tuxedo Park (Barney & Chapman, 1904), and rented what was, if possible, an even more deluxe mansion (for $2000/month) at the other end of Tuxedo Lake. This house had been known for many years as Lindley Hall, in honor of a benefactress of the catholic school that occupied it in the 1960s. When built, Lindley Hall was called Crow's Nest.
The car we drove back then was no namby-pamby 1980 Cadillac (some of my readers will know what I mean) but a full-blooded 1978 gas guzzler, baby blue with white leather, to which we added a vintage Cadillac flying lady hood ornament and wide sidewall tires. It was a dreamboat and I wouldn't mind driving it today. Lindley Hall looks deceptively morose in some of these images, a function, I think, of missing awnings and minimally (meaning, like, not at all) maintained foundation plantings. If it were mine today, I might let the whole thing be covered with ivy.
Whitney Warren (1864-1942), socialite, very distantly related to the Vanderbilts, partner in the famous firm of Warren & Wetmore, designed Crow's Nest in the late 1890s, when the Park was arguably at its peak. The client was French-American banker Henry Whitney Munroe, for whom Warren produced a weighty chateau-style envelope that contains a string of near palace quality rooms. On the other side of the house is a lawn terrace whose grand view of Tuxedo Lake has been obscured by growing trees.
A lot of the Munroes' outdoor furniture, of the marble Edwardian-era sort, was miraculously in situ in 1980. To it had been added some miscellaneous saints by the Academy of St. Vincent, and former hedged walks had turned into towering view-blocking walls of green. Our first spring, I planted a fountain at the foot of the drive. Fun, but not quite "on image."
There are just four rooms on the ground floor of Crow's Nest — dining room, morning room, drawing room and an oval marble, glass and mirror conservatory, the latter being the most remarkable feature of the house.
In 1851, New York banker John Munroe opened a branch office in Paris. Soon John Munroe & Co. was handling significant American business transactions in France. Munro's son, Henry, was the man who built Crow's Nest. His widow sold it to Mrs. Lindley in 1926. These images all come from a family album (I used to do that sort of thing) and despite much photoshopping they are an eloquent indictment of my former photo skills. The light fixtures in the main hall once clutched little clusters of glass grapes, most of which, alas, were missing by 1980.
The conservatory may be the best room in the house, but both dining room and drawing room are remarkable as well. These rooms look to me like the work of one of those French decorateurs hired by a top tier U.S. architect to construct formal rooms in France for Vanderbilts and the like, then disassemble and ship them to construction sites in America. The drawing room walls (below) are paneled in carved walnut.
I love the paws on the drawing room fireplace. There is throughout this house a muscular, subtly Art Nouveau design undercurrent. The drawing room room became a dining room because the original (now disassembled) kitchen was located in the basement at the other end of the house. During Lindley Hall's stint as a girls' school, the conservatory was converted to a science lab. This in time became an appealing, if ersatz, kitchen cobbled together with lab cabinets and experiment tables when the house went back to private residential use. Cobbled or not, it is a beautiful room whose more inappropriate intrusions were easily hidden by plants.
In the middle of the first floor was a morning room, seen below looking towards the old drawing room and conservatory.
If the conservatory was the best room in the house, the former dining room was the most artistic. The images below, besides constituting a further commentary on my former photo skills, illustrate a room with Fifth Avenue boisserie, much in the tradition of Tuxedo Park.
The library at Shelburne House, if you've read my recent posts, is this same uber-big-old-house dark green color, and just as skillfully picked out in gold. The big problem with Crow's Nest stemmed from its past as a school, when the nuns added a schoolroom wing jutting into the woods behind the blocked window at the center of the image below. The school wing looks like a no frills '56 Chevy that's been backed up against a rear wing of the house. It has blocked windows that once flooded two sides of the dining room with light. Fortunately, the school wing has had little impact on the fabric of the original house and could be demolished seemingly with ease. So why is it still there, lurking in the woods, practically invisible behind summer leaves? Apparently a steel frame and cinderblock structure, in this case two stories plus basement on a footprint equal to about a third of that of the original building, costs so much to pull down that successive owners have opted to live with it instead.

Serving pantry with dumb waiter to the basement kitchen is behind a curtained door to the right of the fireplace. The curved pantry wall traces the line of the main stair hall.
Upstairs is an owners' suite above the drawing and morning rooms, and guest rooms at the southern end of the 2nd floor. Floor 3 is split between guests at one end and servants at the other. Lindley Hall has 17 fireplaces; my favorite statistic.
Around the time we moved it Lindley Hall, the Tuxedo Park School was trying to raise money by selling items left over from its private house days. One item was a vintage rain shower of grand proportions, which we bought and installed at Lindley Hall in the belief that we'd be there a long time. I never thought we'd leave the Park.
There's a famous story in the annals of New York/Newport Society about Harry Lehr and the Monkey Dinner. Henry Symes Lehr (1869-1929), a gay lad from a bankrupt Baltimore family, leveraged youthful good looks and a hilarious sense of humor into an unusual ticket to High Society. During one Newport season Lehr brought a pal's pet monkey to a society dinner his wife was giving. After telling her he was bringing the Prince del Drago to dinner, he arrived with the monkey instead, dressed formally according to some, and causing boundless hilarity at table.

Unfortunately, the Monkey Dinner became a symbol of the selfish excesses of the rich. A morning's worth of nasty press after the dinner was just the start. I'll bet Harry had a terrific time that night with the monkey. Indeed, the evening may have been a higher point in his social career — which was his life, more than he realized. It's often hard to recognize a peak in life, but Lindley Hall was certainly one of mine. We were gone in less than two years, and settled in at Millbrook.
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