Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Big Old Houses: Swags and Tassels

Swags and Tassels
by John Foreman


Closed today, but not for me. A bit earlier (finished 1808) than my usual favorites, Boscobel (meaning Beautiful Forest) is a fine early house that's well worth a visit.
The man behind the project — I started to call him the "builder," then remembered he died 2 years before the place was finished — was named States Morris Dyckman (1755-1806). He was not born into the mansion world, but clambered his way into it, extorting his personal millions (or today 's equivalent) during the first years of the 19th century.
Dyckman, a Tory during the Revolution, worked with — and ultimately managed to blackmail — thieving British quartermasters operating in Manhattan. He bounced back and forth between Manhattan and London, alternately defending his employers before the king's government, and blackmailing those same employers with promises to obscure their crimes. He returned to the U.S. in 1789, during an amnesty proclaimed by our new government, and in 1794 married a pretty 18-year-old from Peekskill named Betsey Corne. On one of his trips to England he had managed to obtain a fat annuity from one Sir William Erskine. It was revoked by Erskine's son, which led to Dyckman's return to the U.K. in order to have it restored. He was a cagey fellow, certainly he became rich, but he was never very healthy. States Dyckman died in 1806 at the tender (or so it seems to me) age of 51. His Hudson Riverfront mansion was only a foundation at the time. The 28-year-old widow Betsey finished it off.
Below is the west or riverfront facade of the house. There was no architect. Dyckman brought Robert Adam's books back with him from the U.K., huddled with his cousin, builder William Vermilye, and I am reliably informed that the result is the only house in the States with swags and tassels as parts of its exterior detailing. The name Boscobel is another touch of Englishness. In the mid-17th century, the future King Charles II, then a prince on the run from Oliver Cromwell, hid in an English house with this same name. Dyckman visited and was charmed by it, and took its name home.
The view is amazing, especially without fog.
There was a kitchen court on the north. It's now a terrace adjoining a formal garden which wouldn't have been there in private house days. Boscobel hasn't been a private house for almost a century. In fact, it's not even located where it was originally built.
Before Executive Director Steve Miller takes us around, a bit more background is in order. This house originally stood on a 250-acre agricultural estate about 15 miles from its present location. Now it's just south of the charming village of Cold Spring. The original site became a VA hospital in the 1940s, but the house endured until the mid-1950s, alternately appreciated and neglected, until the VA decided finally to tear it down. Wreckers bought it for $35 and pulled it apart. Luckily, Depression-era HABS (Historical American Building Survey) workers had fully diagramed and photographed it in 1932, invaluable to local preservationists led by a fellow named Benjamin West Frazier. Absent anyplace to reconstruct it, Frazier initially found a gaggle of barns and garages to store the pieces.
Further complicating matters was a Long Island socialite named Mrs. Henry Davison, who shopped the architectural fabric for accent pieces to be used in a new house in Locust Valley. Then suddenly an angel appeared in the form of Lila Wallace, cofounder with husband DeWitt Wallace of the Reader's Digest. During her lifetime Mrs. Wallace gave away some $60 million to worthy causes, a particular target of her generosity being Boscobel. Besides buying land, she lavished millions on interior upgrades, elaborate new gardens, a remarkable collection of antique Federal period furniture, and a whopping big endowment. With the house unexpectedly saved, Mrs. Davison kindly returned the architectural elements she'd bought.
By the middle on the 1970s, thanks to rediscovery of an original furniture inventory, more exacting scholarship led to a total redecoration of the interior, paid for by Mrs. Wallace. They didn't locate original furniture, but what's there today is similar and, in many cases, of museum quality. Custom wallpaper and a painted (with a turkey feather) canvas floorcloth are parts of a six figure renovation of the main hall.
Standard double parlors flank the hall on the south. The more important of the two — we'd call it a drawing room today — is furnished with Duncan Phyfe, contains a portrait of States Dyckman, and windows with river views.
The adjoining second parlor is notable for, among other things, a correct-to-the-period Xmas tree, it being a small, potted holly bush hung with nuts.
Across the hall is the dining room, with a tabletop full of actual Dyckman possessions. During his last trip to London, having secured for himself a fortune that would raise him numerous social notches, Dyckman shopped heartily for luxury goods. The dining room door is at the extreme left below.
Beyond is a pantry — admittedly a little hard to perceive as such — plus connection to the servants' stairs. Four freed slaves worked inside this house during the widow Dyckman' 20-year tenure.
A reconstructed kitchen shares the basement with new meeting, storage and boiler rooms.
There are 3 family bedrooms on the second floor. Disguised iron balusters, constituting about 10% of the total, anchor the wooden stair rail.
There are dressing rooms, but naturally no bathrooms. Instead are carefully disguised chamber pots, illustrated by Curator Jennifer Carlquist and Director Miller.
The middle section of the second floor, located directly above the main hall below, is devoted to a combination library (a significant luxury in 1808) and upstairs living room. Mr. Dyckman was said to have accumulated some 1400 books for the house he never saw. About 500 are on the shelves today. The bedroom on the north side of the house was son Peter's. Peter died in 1825, a year after his mother. The house remained with Dyckman descendants until 1888.
The tub would have been in the basement. Not sure what it's doing here. Beyond is Sill's room. Nee Sarah Wilkerson, she was a freed slave who not only served the family (and was paid for it) but lived with them in the main house.
The back stair continues up, but there is no 3rd floor, just an attic crawl.
I think we've seen it all.
By 1923, the last private resident had abandoned the house and Westchester County bought the land for a state park. I don't know why, but the park never happened. In 1945 the U.S. Veterans Administration began construction of a hospital on land surrounding the house. For a while the old building was maintained, but in time fell derelict. In 1954 the VA decided it was a problem waiting to happen and decided to demolish. John H. O'Mally's Peekskill demo firm purchased it at an auction with a high bid of $35. By 1957, the new site was bought, Mrs. Davison on Long Island had returned the elements she'd bought, and reconstruction began. Boscobel was opened to the public, albeit not in its present exalted state, in 1961.
Dyckman's 18-year-old bride, widowed at 28, raised two children of her own, another two rumored to be products of her husband's clandestine amours, and managed hundreds of acres of cattle, hogs, chickens, geese, and turkeys. She died at age 49. Rescued Boscobel has landscape features — gardens, allĂ©es, a charming orangerie — that she never saw. It is a beautiful place, moreso today than ever, and open daily from April until the end of December. The link is www.boscobel.org.
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