Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Big Old Houses: Playing Detective on North Broadway

Playing Detective on North Broadway
by John Foreman


The thing about hypotheses, specifically my own, is that they're usually right. On that immodest note, let me report to you on a most pleasurable afternoon I spent last week crawling around a battered old manse in North Yonkers, and figuring out precisely when, in what manner, and by whose hand it arrived at its present condition. The house is called Lenoir — pronounced "luh-NORE," not 'len-WAH," as some would have it — and for most of its history was the property of C.C. Dula (1864-1930), president of the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, and his descendants. Mr. Dula was born in Lenoir, North Carolina (now home to a google server farm), hence the name. It enjoys grand views of the Hudson and the Palisades — or used to, before the trees grew up — from high ground at the southern end of a 40-acre nature preserve.

The Dula estate was saved from suburbanization in 1977, when Westchester County purchased and combined it with a neighboring property immediately to the north, and rechristening the whole as the Lenoir Preserve. The other mansion, called Ardenwold, burned down. Lenoir survives, untenanted at present, the property of a parks department that wants to do right by it, but has neither the funds nor the expertise to do so. An example of the latter is the excellent original approach, calculated to give visitors an aesthetic first impression. Unfortunately, you can't go this way anymore, at least not in a car. The county has made the drive one-way in the wrong direction, requiring visitors to approach the house from a secondary service entrance, passing the garage and the kitchen wing en route to the front door. I'd change that right away.
Lenoir started life in the 1860s as a prototypical Second Empire manse with all the brooding self-consciousness of the genre, a Bates Motel of the future. Note the tiny people dancing in front of it; one hopes they were children. The house was built by a fellow named Edward Martin, and subsequently sold to one Adam Norrie who christened it Montrose after his own hometown in Scotland. Norrie died in 1882, after which his heirs lingered for another 24 years before selling it in 1906 to Mr. Dula. (Frivolous Historical Note: Remember 'Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,' the insufferably tuneful theme of the folk generation? The murderer in the song was actually named Tom Dula).
Caleb Conley Dula joined the world of "big tobacco" at the age of 22, rising from buyer to chief of sales for the Drummond Tobacco Corporation.

In the roiling corporate waters following purchase of Drummond by James B. Duke's American Tobacco, Dula climbed inexorably upwards, relocated to American headquarters in New York, became vice president of an American subsidiary called Continental Tobacco, and started shopping for high class real estate.

You can bet he didn't buy Montrose for the house; he bought it for the view, which was second to none.
In 1907, Mr. Dula tripled the size of Lenoir, as he now called it, with wings on both ends. There is disagreement on the construction date of what is clearly a porte cochere on the southern end. To my eye, there isn't much doubt it was built in 1907, both because of what it looks like and where it is. Dula's new porte cochere is a juiced up version of the original, executed in stone, and extended from the body of the original house in order to accommodate on its second floor what one hesitates, on a house like this, to call a "sun" porch. The vehicular drive beneath it was subsequently moved, and its floor raised and connected to a piazza on the river side of the house. Then the front door behind it was retired from active duty, under circumstances we shall shortly see.
The river facade of Lenoir overlooks a broad lawn which, unfortunately, is not broad enough. Towering trees at its lower edge now obscure the amazing view. Lenoir's history and charm go a long way towards excusing the uncertain architecture of its north wing, constructed, if I am correct, at the same time as the extended porte cochere. It almost looks like a separate building, connected to the original by a hyphen which, at least in its present condition, I believe dates from 1916. I think there was a major "do-over" of the property in that year, one which also included an extension of the kitchen suite on the far left, a garage some hundred yards to the north, and a considerable reworking of the house interiors.
The image below shows the eastern facade overlooking North Broadway. Since the drive is now one-way (the wrong way), this is the first view you get of the place. I don't believe that flat-roofed kitchen extension was built in 1907; it just wouldn't have been finished that way.
Mr. Dula finessed his neighbor to the south, mining magnate William Boyce Thompson, by purchasing the Norrie property, literally from under the latter's nose. The two subsequently became friends. In 1911, Dula became president of Liggett and Myers, producers of Chesterfield Cigarets (the "Diet Pepsi" to Camels' "Diet Coke"). In 1912, the society firm of Carrere and Hastings completed a sophisticated Renaissance Revival house next door for Col. Thompson, within sight of Dula's 1907 porte cochere. Also in 1912, architect Horace Trumbauer completed 1 East 78th St in New York for Dula's long time associate and personal pal James B. Duke (Doris's dad). Put these facts together and what emerges is a reasonable context that explains what happened next. Westchester Parks' well-informed curator, Gigi Carnes, tells me the City of Yonkers in 1916 issued a building permit for a two-story addition to Lenoir. I think we're looking at it in the image below. The architect, whoever he was, gave Mr. Dula a handsome Neo-Classical entrance to an old and painfully out of date house. The entrance was just the beginning.
Here's my welcoming committee — Gigi, Mindy and Dave. There is nothing 1907 about this hall, which could easily be the work Carrere and Hastings, although I have no citation to confirm that.
Gigi reliably informs me that Col. Thompson and Mr. Dula went swaps on a load of marble and an entire mahogany tree, the former to floor their respective main halls, the latter for fancy new doors. The first image below shows the main stair in Col. Thompson's Alder Manor, bruised but still extant next door, the subject of 'Big Old Houses' in July of 2012. The second shows Lenoir.
Gigi tells me the garage, also built in 1916, was designed by W.D. Blair. Could this be Walter Dabney Blair (1878-1953), a Beaux Arts trained Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, resident of Tarrytown with an office in New York, designer of office buildings in Nashville, college halls at the University of Virginia and the beautiful (if you ignore the new wing) Warner Library in Tarrytown? Blair doesn't sound like the sort of guy you'd have do your garage, and then go and hire someone else to design a new classical entrance to your house, plus a suite of luxurious interiors beyond. But ... compelling as this logic may be (at least to me), I'm hypothesizing without citations.
The stair hall and the new front door are in the hyphen. A broad corridor leads south from the stair hall to a large paneled drawing room. Those double doors in the distance lead to a stone anteroom whose iron doors open onto the former porte cochere. On either side of the foreground corridor are the obligatory library (on the left) and reception room (on the right). Both rooms appear to be contemporary with the new stair hall. Let's look at the library first.
I see where that mahogany tree went, although I've never seen mahogany milled in quite this manner. Also of note in the library is a conspicuous absence of bookcases. Maybe Dula used it as a study. I don't know what to say about the chandelier, except to note those odd stalks can probably just be unscrewed.
Across the hall is the reception room. French doors open onto a piazza with views of the Hudson (at least in past times) rolling, and the Palisades rising, both majestically. The family called it the Blue Room, and it could be 1907 work.
What is surely 1907 work — or at least, it sure looks that way to me — is the great drawing room at the south end of the house. Blair's rearrangement of Lenoir's interior plan — if indeed it was Blair who did it — converted an inconvenient "living hall," of the sort much loved by architects of the 1880s and '90s, into an elegant entertainment space reached via a suitably dramatic approach. You don't want to just bungle into a room like this, straight from the out of doors. The desired impact requires a bit of theatre. By moving the front door and creating a new circulation plan, Blair achieved precisely that.
The old front door is handsome, but not in the same league as the new one. The stone anteroom that formerly comprised the sole transition from the outdoors to drawing room has become essentially vestigial.
If we retrace our steps to the north side of the entrance hall, as many a formal dinner guest once did, we'll wind up in the dining room. I'm pretty sure this room and the kitchen suite beyond it were redone at the same time as the entrance hall, library, stair, etc. Oddly, there is no fireplace in the dining room and apparently there never was.
C.C. Dula and his neighbor Col. Thompson both died in 1930. Dula was 66; the Col. 61, both of them younger than I am now. When Dula's granddaughter died in 1966, the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, a Yonkers institution dedicated to ending world hunger, bought the property its founder had missed back in 1906. One tumultuous decade later, the Institute despaired of troubled Yonkers and prepared to decamp to calmer precincts in the environs of upstate Cornell University. At this point Westchester County stepped in (over the objections of Yonkers Mayor Angelo Martinelli), floated a half million dollar bond issue and bought Lenoir. By the early 1980s, the Yonkers Board of Education was renting the house for $1 a year. A cooking school replaced the former kitchen suite at the expense of some probably wonderful vintage architecture. I know, I know, I'm being impractical. But look at it now.
I'm rejoining my posse for a trip to the second floor.
Who knows what the 1907 stair to 3 looked like, but I doubt it looked anything like the Parisian number below. The corridor ahead leads south to the owners suite which, frankly, is pure heaven. Mrs. Dula's bedroom, facing south and west, is vast. It connects to her husband's room on the north, the sun porch above the porte cochere on the south, and a dressing room and bath on the east. This entire section of the second floor, occupying the envelope of the original 1860s house, looks like Blair's work to me — assuming the architect was indeed Mr. Blair. (And that's the last time I'll qualify that).
The door to her husband's room is on the north wall. Another room with bath, located across the hall, was probably a boudoir. At least, that's what I'd have used it for — assuming I was married to, or living with, someone who wanted a boudoir. We wouldn't be sleeping in separate rooms, of course. But, I digress.
Let's leave the owners' suite, save the 3rd floor for now, and have a look at family bedrooms on the north side of the main hall landing. If I'm right, that landing marks the end of the 1916 alterations. The finish in the rooms beyond looks older to me. The bathrooms match those in the rest of the house. I'll guess they were all done over at the same time.
The 1960s television set in the corner of the image below dates it to the last years of family occupancy. Mrs. Dula's daughter Purl, married to Dr. Orrin Sage Wightman, inherited Lenoir in 1939. After Dr. Wightman's death in 1966, his daughter Julia sold it to the Thompson Institute. The furniture in the view below had probably been there since 1916.
We glimpsed this stair when we explored the kitchen, or what was left of it. It goes down to the basement and up to servants' rooms on 3. For now we're returning to that Parisian number outside the owners' suite.
I'm told the bedrooms on the 3rd floor landing were guestrooms, which makes sense plan-wise. This area is part of the original 1860s envelope. Even if you didn't notice that, the Victorian fireplaces give it away. The dropped ceilings are easily removed, but whether that'll ever happen is moot.
A curious passage, tucked behind an innocent looking door, crosses the hyphen and connects with third floor servants' quarters at the other end of the house.
We'll take the back stair to 2, then switch over to the grand stair where my posse is meeting me on 1.
Too bad smoking was bad for us, because we used to look so good doing it. A great deal of effort has gone into developing the grounds at the Lenoir Preserve, which is today a venue for nature camps, birthday parties, scout programs, festivals, hawk watches, etc., etc., plus soul soothing walks in the woods. Westchester County has done the best it could with the old house, but it's done so, figuratively speaking, with one hand tied behind its back. Finding another tenant might be good, assuming that tenant didn't ruin the interiors with destructive upgrades. I'm glad I saw it when I did, with so much important vintage fabric still intact — well, "bloodied, but unbowed" might be more apt.
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