Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Big Old Houses: March of the Tudors — Episode Two

March of the Tudors — Episode Two
by John Foreman


Not so "Big," you say? Then how about this?
These images are of the same house, the second illustrating a fashionable 1925 Tudorization undertaken by the family of the first resident, a certain William Sewell. Had I not been told, I would never have guessed this typically Tudor looking house started life as a different breed of cat. Indeed, the original bears a strong resemblance to the very early Tuxedo Park cottages of Bruce Price, no accident since Price did work in this same neighborhood.

Ridgecrest is a fun puzzle for us architectural historian types. The original porte cochere has been replaced by a two-story wing; the original open porch on the right in the first house has been enclosed and combined with two existing interior rooms to create a zowie knotty pine paneled drawing room. The sweeping west-facing gable that defined the original design has been truncated to enlarge the second floor, and the double windows under the old south facing shed dormer, while still in situ, are now shaded beneath a hooded lintel in the middle of a new south facing gable. The shingles are gone, replaced by stucco and half timbers plus an appropriately Tudor looking slate roof, leaded windows and involved chimneys.

Ridgecrest version #1 was an 1892 spec house put up by local landowner Nelson Mead, one of three houses the architect designed in the same vicinity for the same guy. All are located in an 1884 "residence park" designed by the Olmsteds, much in the spirit of the era, with Casino building, private beach, serpentine roads, association-maintained landscaping, and scenic vistas of the Long Island Sound. It's called Belle Haven, and I'm sure bells are ringing in many readers' minds, this being a swank waterfront section of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Managed by a Landowners Association, Belle Haven consists of 100-or-so houses, the vast majority exemplifying a gratifying assortment of involved late 19th and early 20th century architectural styles. Most are big, some enormous. My sense of the place is that it's always appealed to rich businessmen, as opposed to Tuxedo type socialites. It's private and the roads are salted with security booths, although access isn't blocked the way it is at Tuxedo or Llewelyn Parks. I'm not sure what (if any) conclusions are to be drawn from access limited only by the intimidating stares of security persons. More democratic, I suppose, in the philosophical, as opposed to the political sense. Belle Haven is an house lover's dream, possessed of an appealing club (successor to the developers' casino). Statistically, a house here will cost more than it would in 99% of America's other neighborhoods.
Also on the manicured lot are a small pool and a former carriage house, now containing covered car bays and a 2-bed apartment on the 2nd floor. The original architect of today's BOH was Wilbur S. Knowles (1857-1944), a man who designed buildings for 50 years before dying in retirement at the age of 87 in Orange, New Jersey. This project must have been an early commission, as he only graduated from Cornell's School of Architecture in 1884, the same year Belle Haven was platted. Perhaps that explains the resemblance of the original design to Bruce Price's famous William Kent cottage in Tuxedo Park — new guy, influenced by the old master.
Belle Haven started life as a summer resort, but by the 1920s it was morphing, thanks to easy transportation to New York City, into a year 'round community. During my Tuxedo days, a neighbor once confessed he had bought his rambling Tuxedan manse in the late 1960s for $35,000. The same plunge in big house values afflicted Belle Haven too, but a slow recovery starting in the 1980s has culminated in the robust state of prices today.
I don't know who did the Tudor conversion for the Sewells, but whoever it was gave the client a house full of correct detail that doesn't look like a renovation. Scientific American, in a shelter mag frame of mind in 1891, did a piece on the original house, titled "A Cottage at Greenwich." The author complimented the "modern rustic style," "huge boulders" positioned "so as not to disturb the growth of moss," the sheath of weathering shingles on walls and roof, and the oak and birch paneled interior, almost all of which have been either obscured or removed.
What Tudor house is complete without a wishing well?
To my eye, the two-story wing on the west which replaced the old porte cochere is the most successful part of the exterior alteration. Its ground floor is now a lobby with linenfold (some parts of which look antique) paneling and a small powder room. Above it is a delicious and very 1920s looking library, which we'll get to in a moment.
Up a few steps from the lobby is the main hall. The first door on the right leads to the drawing room. Let me say here how charming I found the interiors of this house. I may have an issue or two with proportions on the exterior — I like the heft of 1915 a bit more than the restraint of 1925 — but the interiors are consistently stylish and elegant despite they're not being overly large. Much of the original floor plan survives (unexpectedly), the biggest change being the new drawing room. An undersized parlor and library have been combined with the former outdoor porch, and the result is spacious, sophisticated and a quantum leap (in the right direction) from the original.
There used to be a fireplace in the main hall, plus two others angled into the library and parlor behind it, and sharing the same chimney. All three were combined into a single new fireplace in the drawing room. The dining room on the opposite side of the main hall occupies its original footprint, but the kitchen and pantry beyond it were transformed in 2011 into an enlarged and relocated family room with adjacent open kitchen.
I may like everything old, but people who buy houses in places like Belle Haven don't necessarily agree with me. The old pantry is gone, the kitchen is now open and modern, and in order to do this the house has been expanded slightly northwards (in 2011, I think) to provide more room for the kitchen, the new family room, and a screened porch out back.
The back stair accessing basement and driveway was likely an open area that was enclosed and upgraded, at least from the looks of it, in 2011. We'll take a quick peek, return to the main hall and head upstairs.
The second best room in the house is the library, located on the second floor of the new west wing. The lower ceilings on this wing require a short flight of steps down. Like the drawing room on 1, the library captures the suavity of upscale 1920s design, a mix of retro elements with a downsizing of the preceding generation's taste for scale.
The third best room is the owners' bedroom, another combination of rooms — this time, twin former bedrooms — enlarged by means of raising the roof in the corners of the original downward sweeping gable. The old 1925 bathroom was probably fab, but the new one is undeniably luxurious.
Plan-wise, the balance of the 2nd floor — with 3 more bedrooms (one's a den) and 2 more baths (one having once been the only one in the original house) — appears unchanged.
There are 2 more bedrooms and a bath on 3, but just how maids' rooms used to fit in up here — and they were certainly here once — is no longer obvious.
Ridgecrest has changed ownership 9 times since it was built, the Sewell clan being not just the first but by far the longest lasting of its inhabitants (1892 to 1938).
Is it the showplace of Belle Haven? That would be a no. You want a showplace? One is paying $135,000 a year in real estate taxes. Showplace or no, I found this an extremely interesting, comfortable, and stylish old house. It can be yours, for $5,850,000. Joseph Barbieri at Sotheby's in Greenwich has the listing. His number is 203.940.2025, and if you call him, tell him it was me who convinced you to buy it.
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