Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Big Old Houses: March of the Tudors

March of the Tudors
by John Foreman

"Nature is pleased with simplicity," said Isaac Newton, "And Nature is no dummy." I am putting this statement, which I found under the lid of a blueberry yogurt, on my list of Erroneous Pronouncements by Great Men. Nature is no more simple than this house.
Between the 1880s and the early 1930s, a sort of Tudor mania crossed the pond and settled heavily on better located lots and estates throughout America. It picked up speed after the First War, when fashion for the Colonial Revival ebbed and a substantial contingent of rich Americans found themselves charmed by the English, Tudor-ish, quaintness of rambling asymmetrical houses with vertiginous rooflines, usually fake but handsome looking exterior half timbering, towering chimneys, mullioned windows, artsy brick or stonework and sometimes even thatched roofs. You're as likely to see houses like this in Seattle or Atlanta as Long Island or dotting the northern suburbs of Boston. And they come in all sizes.
In Greenwich, CT, however, they mostly come in "Large," as illustrated by today's Big Old House, built in 1930 for Francis A. Bryant, president of the New Bedford Cordage Company. Between 1911 and 1929 New Bedford supplied 80% of all rope cables used in domestic oil drilling. The resultant prosperity enabled its president to build a fashionable English house on a subdivided farm just north of Greenwich, in an area that had come to be called "midcountry."
Mr. Bryant retired in 1947, and in 1961 his estate sold the house to Morse G. Dial, CEO of the Union Carbide Company. Interesting to note, during construction of Union Carbide's 270 Park Avenue headquarters in 1957-1960, Mr. Dial took it upon himself to write letters to every business office he could think of within 3 blocks of the construction site (there were 10,000 of them) and apologized in each for the noise, dust and disruption occasioned by construction.

Dial retired in 1963 but didn't have much time to enjoy the house. It was sold in 1965 to Zilph P. Devereau, daughter of a zillionaire philanthropist named Edgar Palmer, president of the New Jersey Zinc Company. Palmer Stadium at Princeton, now demolished, was a gift of Mrs. Devereau's father. When that father died in 1945 he left his daughter a million in cash and a million in trust which, in 1945, was a big deal. Princeton got $4 million out of the same will.

Mrs. Devereau sold the house in 1979 to Gerald Munera, Chairman of Dynamic Materials Corp., General Manager of Synergex Group and Executive Chairman of Arcadia, Inc., which means I have no idea what the man actually did. That said, he sounded like a good fit for Greenwich. Present owners bought the house in 2002, at which point, the earth beneath it began to move.
A word about the terra cotta shingled roof, a bravura looking restoration job which, um, is all brand new.
... also of note is the clever, very "Tudor Revival 'Twenties," distressed clapboards.
The house sits at the center of 5.29 uber-manicured acres of weed-free lawn, specimen trees of the sort that usually bear brass plaques, carefully curbed macadamized drives, a two-unit guest house, picturesque separate garage building, generator, wine cave ('cellar' is too modest a term), all weather tennis court, large pool and not one but two intimidating gates — well, intimidating to the sort of people you don't want visiting. French doors on the south side of the house (seen below) open onto inviting terraces overlooking the pool.
Immodest as I occasionally am about my ability to date an old house, I was flummoxed to learn that the exterior envelope of this one was not original to 1930. Well, half of it is. The other half is an addition from 2002, designed with amazing skill — amazing yours truly didn't immediately spot it — by New Canaan architect Laurent DuPont. The footprint of Mr. Bryant's house of 1930 is marked by stone on the ground floor. Where vintage stone ends, new stucco-clad construction begins. Look carefully for a moment and the two halves in the image below, and their subtle differences in gable ends, window placement and half timbering become quite obvious. The addition has enlarged the interior from about 6,000 to about 11,000 square feet.
A picturesque guesthouse (2300 square feet, thank you), plus a three-bay garage provide quarters for vehicles, visitors and help, lest any of these get underfoot inside the 11,000 square foot main house interior.
The exterior may look like it was born that way, but no such confusion governs indoors. Alterations like this don't leave much behind in the way of original fabric. In an effort to insure matching exterior roof shingles, Mr. DuPont tore the whole roof off and started from scratch. The walls below that roof are now in new positions as well, designed with a post-modern classicism that caught me by surprise.
I never saw the original interior, nor any photos of it, but I can tell you what it looked like. There would have been a dark heavy stair rail, lots of dark paneling, probably wide plank floors (maybe even pegged), narrow doors, not very large rooms, a double height drawing room with beamed ceiling (cathedral style, in this case) plus the inevitable inglenook with large un-elaborate fireplace, and a scattering of decorated plaster ceilings. The allure of the Tudor Revival was its identification with the pre-industrial tranquility of the countryside, as opposed to the crass gimcrackery of modern industrial life. In a way, Mr. Bryant was another Isaac Newton, seeking simplicity, although the irony of seeking it from the architecture of Henry VIII was evidently lost on him. Grumblers at the time labeled less successful houses in the genre as "Mock Tudor," although today's BOH is too good looking to call it that.

In lieu of restoring the original, architect DuPont gave the client an entirely new, postmodern accented, classical interior, wherein almost everything is a pale shade of something, save for the acres of new Brazilian cherry flooring. The graceful stair is like nothing Henry VIII ever laid eyes on; the drawing room inglenook is gone; the drawing room ceiling lowered to conform to its new classical proportions; and the heart of the house now focused on an immense kitchen and family room complex in the new wing. Let's take a right turn inside the front door, proceed down a columned approach, and have a look at that new classical drawing room.
Drawing room details are worth a closer look — inlaid floor borders, a beautiful new marble fireplace surround, satisfyingly detailed dado and cornice moldings, and a snazzy approach. Let's return to the front hall for a look at the library. There was a library in the original house, (it would have been very odd if there weren't), which I assume was paneled in dark wood, but today's version isn't it. Everything here is new, including the retro-looking plaster strapwork on the ceiling.
A short corridor from the entrance hall passes an elaborate powder room en route to the dining room, whose original look, like that of the drawing room, has been completely changed.
I think the dining room was here all along, as was the adjoining and greatly glamorized pantry. Of the original kitchen, pantries and back stair, there is nary a trace. Beyond the pantry we enter the new wing, the heart of which is a fantasy kitchen with adjoining family room. An informal eating area was occupied at the time of my visit by the owners' pet rabbit.
There's more beyond — mud room and storage, new back stair, and a two-car garage on the floor below. We'll just peek, then head up to 2.
Counting bedrooms in big houses isn't always a straightforward proposition. There are six in this house, depending on how or whether you count the den — five on the second floor and one on the third. (P.S. Those are NOT my footprints).
In addition to ubiquitous and evident construction quality equal to that on the floor below, there is also on 2 an unusual owners' suite. Located in the new wing, it consists of two spacious connected rooms beyond which is a miniature lobby with four doors. Instead of ladies or tigers, two of these open onto separate his and her closet/dressing rooms; the other two onto a pair of elaborate his and her owners' baths, each quite different from the other. A skinny corridor between baths and bedroom leads to a diminutive circular tower room overlooking the pool and the terrace below. Charming, yes; usable, probably not.
A fitness room behind the big gable on 3 is accessed by a stair in the new wing.
Meanwhile, in the old part of the house and accessed via a separate stair from the second landing, is a tucked-away, under the eaves bedroom and bath, perfect for that crazy aunt.
When have I left a big old house without looking in the basement? OK, it happens occasionally, but not here, where I saw, in addition to yet more family/guest lounging areas and the wine cave, but a heating plant that brought tears of envy to my eyes. SIXTEEN ZONES? Daheim is about the same size, and I've got just one!
The city of Greenwich, CT, with a little over 60,000 inhabitants, is actually only the third richest town in Connecticut, the municipalities of New Canaan and Darien being first and second respectively. Hard to imagine, driving around the place, that anywhere could be more luxe. Settled in 1640, fashionable since the Civil War, beloved by hedge fund moguls, Greenwich has a statistical "worth value" of $930,000 per person. In 2005, Money Magazine placed it at the top of their "100 Best Places to Live."
Lots of things happen to big old houses, but in Greenwich, if it isn't a tear-down, apparently the sky is the limit. Today's property, surrounded by picturesque stone wall and tree lined country roads — not to mention a great deal of similarly upscale real estate — is presently on the market for $15,250,000 on 5.29 acres. An additional 2.2 acres are available. Sotheby's Brad and Marijane Bates Hvolbeck represent the owner. You can reach them at Sothebys in Greenwich, tel: 203.983.3832.
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