Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Big Old Houses: Big Man; Big House

Big Man; Big House
by John Foreman


This is Daniel Guggenheim (1856-1930), in his day one of the richest men in the world. His father Meyer, a man in the lace trade who came to America in 1847, fell into the mining business quite by accident. A business acquaintance in Colorado suggested he invest in a mine in Leadville, a suggestion that led to empire. By the mid-1920s the Guggenheims' American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO) mined tin, gold, diamonds, copper and raised rubber around the world. After his father's death in 1905, Daniel became the face of a family business described as "success upon success," He has an uncertain — almost a vulnerable — look to him in the candid above, taken not long before his death in 1930.

During one of his battles with the Rockefellers in Alaska in 1916, Dan Guggenheim locked striking Alaskan miners out of their bunkhouses in minus-30-degree weather. Gifford Pinchot battled constantly with the Guggenheims over their abuse of the environment. ASARCO prices got so out of control during W.W.I that President Wilson threatened to nationalize it. Guggenheim was a hard employer, ever alert to his own advantages. In retirement, however, he formed a foundation with his wife and dedicated himself to good deeds. Good plan, I suppose, since he is today remembered as an open handed philanthropist, not the man who turned the miners out in 30-below.
Now this is my idea of a gate. There are actually two gates to the former Guggenheim estate, located a few hundred feet from one another on Middle Neck Road in the village of Sands Point, Long Island. The gates are shabby and the landscape's overgrown, but if old Sands Point lingers anywhere, it's along this still country-seeming stretch of Middle Neck Road.
Guggenheim bought the estate in 1917 from Jay Gould's son Howard (1871-1959). The enormous carriage house seen in the image below was designed in 1902 by Heydel & Shepard, a society firm probably best known for its connection to the family of Col. Elliott Fitch Shepard house, husband of Margaret Vanderbilt. Howard Gould's firecracker of an actress wife put the horns on him for, of all people, Buffalo Bill Cody. They separated in 1907 or 1909, after which Gould dilly-dallied with his Long Island property. He seems early on to have decided not to make the carriage house into the main residence, as originally intended. Instead, he hired Hunt & Hunt, being the sons of Richard Morris Hunt, to design a new house and call it Hempstead House.
History is a little murky here, but the best I can figure is Gould hired the Hunts to build the second house and Guggenheim paid them to finish it. It is an odd looking concoction, somewhere between the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and an electrical schematic. The Hunts had their moments, but this was not one of them. From the standpoint of heft and style, Hempstead House is most appropriate to its owner, in scale and presence. During Guggenheim's life, according to his New York TImes obit, the house was "filled with objects of art from the four corners of the world," (and) ... "the conservatories to which he gave personal attention were famous for their orchids, rare plants, and flowers of exotic variety. In his picture galleries were masterpieces by Corot, Daubigny, Isabay, Tryon and Jakob Maris."
Guggenheim spent seven of his last ten years in retirement in this house. It's a vivid image — the obsessive, power-hungry business barracuda grown mellow, become a philanthropist no less, in his 70s experimenting with orchids in the marble palm court of his Long Island mansion — brothers and children on close-by estates. The garden side of Hempsted House overlooks a broad lawn terrace, beyond which is a sand beach and the Long Island Sound. Scaffolding inhibits photography, but I'm glad the place is getting maintenance.
Hempstead House, for all its grandeur, has had a sedate history. After her husband's death in 1930, Florence Guggenheim hired Polhemus & Coffin to design a smaller house on the estate. She called it Milles Fleures and moved there in 1932. Hempstead was closed up and draped with sheets until war broke out in Europe. Upon which Florence auctioned the contents and turned it over to refugee English children. In 1946 the U.S. Navy bought it, removed the woodwork (most of it's back), tore out the bathrooms and the kitchen and painted the interiors battleship gray. Most of this has happily been reversed. In 1971, Nassau County bought 127 acres, including house and carriage house, opened it to the public, and christened it the Sands Point Preserve.

If a man's house is the biggest symbol of how he views himself, Mr. Guggenheim's front hall speaks volumes. The ceiling is 60' high.
Hempstead has a showy plan calculated for big entertainments. Below the first floor plan is the marble palm court where a mellowed Daniel Guggenheim tended his orchids. We're looking north toward the Sound, across one of the Hunts' dramatic interiors that looks like its part of a hotel lobby. The room beyond the first line of arches is the winter living room; the summer living room is beyond it.
The winter living room, seen above, serves as a sort of traffic terminal for the dining room, billiard room and library, which are arranged around it and its adjoining palm court. The lower floors of this house are very public, which speaks to the era in which it was built. Family life was scrupulously confined to the second floor.
The western half of Hempstead is occupied by state rooms on the ground floor, and family bedrooms plus a terrific morning room upstairs. The kitchen and original service suites are only partly extant on the eastern side of the ground floor, with guest rooms above. At the center of the third floor is a long snaking corridor that accesses multiple maids' rooms. The new ground floor corridor in the image below passes a few old house artifacts (silver safe, original kitchen tiles, etc.) before arriving at catering upgrades and meeting rooms. There is naturally a back stair. And an elevator. But that's not where we're going.
The room below is the nicest in the house, situated on a sort of mezzanine over the porte cochere. I see Daniel Guggenheim in this room at the height of his power and influence, a latter day Plantagenet in his Long Island palace.
It is a feature of our age that if you are not a new plutocrat building a 50,000 square foot house, you might well be planning to get married in a 50,000 square foot house that somebody else built a hundred years ago. Hempstead House, like practically every other old pile in public hands, marries people off as rapidly as possible. It's a big source of income. Wedding venues by their catering house nature tend to obscure the delicate original elegance of even big old houses. Hempsted's upstairs rooms are well proportioned and detailed, and in good condition, but have an unintended Ramada Renaissance gestalt.
The other side of the 2nd floor is guest rooms; the 3rd floor is servants.
When Mrs. Guggenheim died in May of 1944, the Times headline read "Guggenheim Estate Rich." I guess that was when $7,216,386 was thought to be a lot of money. She seems to have been a quiet type of millionaire's wife, much in the mode of the late 19th century. She bore children, maintained a cultured home life, and kept in her husband's shadow. His estate — it was really his house more than hers; witness her escape the minute he died — has been, since 1971, the property of the County of Nassau under the stewardship of something called the Friends of the Sands Point Preserve.
Paying the bills on a house this size — even if the county owns it — is a daunting task. Which is why I urge you, if you're not already, to get married here without further delay. The "Friends" is a reasonably priced membership organization that entitles members to all manner of events. The closest on the horizon is the annual Haunted Castle at Hempstead House, which runs from October 23rd to the 31st, with a daytime family party on the 25th.

The Sands Point Preserve is located at 127 Middle Neck Road, Sands Point, NY. You can visit their website at thesandspointpreserve.com, Email: info@friendsspp.org, Tel: 516.571.7901
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