Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Big Old Houses: The Titanic, on Land

The Titanic, on Land
by John Foreman


This isn't it, the "Titanic," I mean. This is Altamont, an incoherent, if appealing, country house built on a hilltop in 1885 in the soon-to-be fashionable Dutchess County village of Millbrook, NY. The architect was James E. Ware (1846-1918), whose many local mansions put Millbrook on the nation's fashion radar and made Ware rich. Altamont is a symbol — well, perhaps "evidence" is a better term — of the money it took to build today's shipwreck metaphor. Altamont's owner, Henry J. Davison (1835-1890), started a high income career in 1858 when, at age 23, he landed a contract from the City of New York to clear away a mega-block of twisted iron, shattered glass and smoudering rubble on West 42nd between 5th and 6th Avenues. This had been the famous (and supposedly fireproof) Crystal Palace. Davison went on to build ships, direct gas illumination companies, and make and lose several fortunes before dropping dead at age 55, leaving five children with way too much money and the perception that anything they wanted to do was possible. Architectural footnote: When built, Altamont was described by professionals as "Colonial." (Really).

In 1891, a year after his father's death, Davison's eldest son Harry wed a Millbrook belle named Marie Weed Alden, granddaughter of newspaper publisher and political kingmaker, Thurlow Weed. "The wedding day is to be a gala one in the village of Millbrook," noted the local press, with cause. "Miss Weed is so much beloved and respected that the shopkeepers have one and all declared that the wedding day shall be a holiday ... (celebrated with) bonfires and other jubilant demonstrations."
In the wake of Davison Sr.'s death the Altamont estate was cut in half. Harry inherited the big house on the hill; his brother Howard moved into what I think started out as a farmhouse, before the ubiquitous Ware "mansionized" it into the building in the image below, nerve center of the famous Altamont Stock Farm. Howard Davison's Shropshire sheep, Berkshire pigs and Guernsey cattle made him famous in American agricultural circles, a highly respected if somewhat dim lamp beside his flamboyant brother Harry.
By the time Harry married Marie Alden he was well launched on a bonfire of Davison family assets. A stint at Columbia earned him a sheepskkin in law (1884) but no success in corporate America. Around the time his father and Ware were building Altamont, Harry invested in Godey's Lady's Book, the "Queen of Monthlies" of the 1860s. This would consign another chunk of Davison cash to the dustbin. As much — or perhaps more than — anyone else, Harry's father had transformed rural Millbrook Station from farm country whistlestop to a district of country estates. He did it by convincing rich friends to build houses of substance near his own, houses James E. Ware designed. By the beginning of the 1890s, Altamont, Edgewood, Sandanona and Daheim had joined Thorndale and other new estates abuilding on the hills to form a manicured necklace around little Millbrook. Now Harry set out to do his dad one better.
"If an English country home could entertain several hundred guests on a weekend," Harry mused to the The Poughkeepsie Journal, "then a replica can be made for American enjoyment ... Everything, "he added," suggesting a hotel will be subordinated." In 1892 Harry opened the cash spigots wide, James E. Ware let his architectural fancies fly very high and very free, mobs of Italian workers swarmed a rocky outcrop on the southern edge of the village, groaning locomotives staggered into Millbrook at the head of cars packed with Turkish rugs, hardwood panelling, a Chilean mine's worth of brass fittings, the largest, newest and best in industrial sized cooking and kitchen ware, and tons (literally) of elaborately carved solid oak furniture.

According to The London Illustrated News, alerted evidently by Harry's "English country house" remark, the whole thing "clearly cost an immense fortune." Beadle's Orchestra, ranked by The Millbrook Round Table as second only to the Boston Symphony, played not one, but three daily concerts for the pleasure of guests. Fresh cut flowers ornamented the public rooms in such abundance as to constitute a hay fever threat. The Grand Opening in 1893 unfortunately coincided with the infamous Wall Street Panic of the same year. A bad omen.
Halcyon Hall was every mansion architect Ware had built in Millbrook, raised to the power of four. It was hard not to be charmed by its zany confabulation of gables and chimneys, oriels and bays, overhangs, snaking porches, and sinuous towers wrapped in a variegated skin of shingles, dressed stone and half timbering with stucco infill.
The Halcyon offered private stables, needle showers, mountain views, golf, tennis, ping pong, no malaria, no mosquitos, local roads "as good as those in Central Park" and, to quote the ad above, "adjacent estates occupied by New York millionaires whose summer homes in this regiuon are a guarantee of its bracing healthfullness." The only thing it didn't have was guests, an early problem exacerbated by the Panic of 1897. By 1898, Harry and Marie were forced to rent Altamont and move into a cottage across the road. In 1902, Harry made yet another bad judgement call and leased the hotel to Henry F. Gillig, a shyster operator who'd duped Mark Twain out of a $10,000 investment in something called the American Exchange in Europe, Ltd. "Where do you put the blame?" reporters asked Twain at the time. "On that fellow Gillig," the great man snapped, "and it's good riddance to bad rubbish if he has quit the country."

By 1903 Harry was bankrupt, Altamont was sold, his hotel was closed, and his siblings were in the process of having him removed as executor of their father's estates, lest he squander what little was left. The Country Gentleman of September 1, 1904 (seen above) knew something was amiss, but wasn't quite sure what. The writer noted the Halcyon's "superb structure is said to have cost half a million of dollars," but apparently missed the fact that it wasn't going to open in the spring. Three Purgatorial years, of darkened and broken windows, uncut lawns, and blowing trash, commenced, after which salvation appeared in the form of Miss May F. Bennett.

Those of us who remember Bennett, a dwindling number I suspect, recall it as a finishing school. In the mid-1970s Bennett jettisoned its traditional curriculum of fashion design, equine studies, drama and child development in a doomed attempt to compete in the world of co-education, militant feminism and Timothy Leary. It's easy to forget that Miss Bennett, who founded the school at Irvington-on-Hudson in 1890, was a pioneer in female educaion when there really wasn't any. In 1907, she bought the Halcyon Hall and moved into it with 120 students.
As the 20th century progressed, Bennett students became more modern, and the school itself became a junior college. The physical plant expanded, not very aesthetically, but the place retained a vaguely country club-ish air.
In 1978, after a couple of frantic years exploring mergers, admitting men, and (disasterously, as it turned out) an expensive capital building program, Bennett Junior College went bust. The Halcyon was closed again, this time for good. This was Bennett (below) in 1978, and it looked pretty much like this in 1982, when I arrived in Millbrook. A local developer named James O'Dea tried initially to sell Halcyon Hall together with a series of free-standing modern dormitory buildings as multi-family condos. Wouldln't you know it, the former dormitories — eight 4-story cinderblock basements above ground — were reborn as Bennett Commons and sold fairly rapidly. The old hotel, which was already beginning to look like a ruin, was marketed with a singular lack of skill. Absent renovated public spaces or sample units, no one could imagine living there.
The property was foreclosed, the bank that foreclosed on it went under in 1991, then the FDIC took over and left the place unsecured. By 1998, it looked like this, which was just the start.
This is what the Halcyon Hall looks like today. I can't say it's an entirely bad thing that the missing interior architectural fabric now survives inside houses throughout the Hudson Valley. This is better that than turning into mulch at the hands of the FDIC.
I can testify the missing mantle in the image above is safe and sound. I had drinks at a friend's house last year, and there it was. And no, I didn't snap all these interiors. The internet is awash with 'em.
Local preservationists, not surprisingly, sued the FDIC at one point, settling in exchange for a 9-month window to sell the building subject to preservation covenants. Too wrecked; no luck. In 2005 a developer appeared with a plan to pull the hotel down and cluster 91 residential units on the 26-acre site. Clustering is intended to preserve open space, however, and 91 units on 26 acres wouldn't leave much of that. In 2009, the Village of Millbrook issued a demolition order, but six years later the building is still standing due to the costs — in the millions, by some estimates — of pulling it down. The village doesn't have the money and Bennett Acquisitions, the owner at the time, didn't either — or they said they didn't. Actually, they just ducked the whole issue.

We hear the property either has, or is about to be, purchased by the Tribute Garden, Millbrook's wonderfully named, guardian angel foundation. The Tribute Garden itself, dedicated originally to W.W. I veterans, is a surprisingly refinied Parisian park crowning a hill at the western end of Millbrook's main drag, Franklin Avenue. The foundation which maintains that garden has stood in the shadows for a century, regularly dipping into cash lined pockets to help Millbrook out with parking, building maintenance, tree planting, churches at holiday time, etc., etc. The perception in the village is that if anyone will do the right thing, it'll be the Tribute Garden. We shall see.
The condition of Bennett College has horrified everyone in Millbrook for almost forty years — well, at least for the last thirty of those years. No one could have been more horrified, however, than the residents of Bennett Commons, whose pleasant (if architecturally unexciting) complex is surrounded on three sides by ragged fields and devastated former campus buildings. Among these is the Science Building, whose dated 1970s architecture is gradually disappearing under vines, Chernobyl-style. Local rumor has it that at least some of the hotel's fine stonework will be preserved. Maybe those big black birds (what are they, anyway?) won't have to move, demoliton or no.
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