Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Big Old Houses: Time Travel in Onteora Park

Big Old Houses: Time Travel in Onteora Park
by John Foreman

This redoubtable female, who looks ready to take an ax to her local tavern, is Candace Wheeler (1827-1923). Mrs. Wheeler's battleground was neither moral nor political, but aesthetic. Dubbed "Mother Interior" by New York Times writer Susan Dominus, she was America's first female interior designer. (Yes, way ahead of Elsie de Wolfe).

Candace Wheeler (1827-1923).
My favorite Wheeler quote: "Probably no art has so few masters as that of decoration." Too true; too true.

Wheeler was an indefatigable do-gooder whose New York Society of Decorative Art, founded in 1877 with Louis Comfort Tiffany, sought to empower aspirant craftswomen by teaching them crafts and helping them sell them. In 1883 she split with Tiffany and founded Associated Artists, a more streamlined vehicle for what became a cottage industry in needlepoint, textiles, wallpaper design, book publishing and, rather unexpectedly, real estate.

It is the latter category that brings "Big Old Houses" once again to Onteora Park, founded by Mrs. Wheeler and her rich brother Francis Thurber in 1887 as a dedicated artists' colony deep in the mountain fastness of the Catskills.

Onteora Park began as a cottage industry outpost whose workrooms, at least on occasion, produced grand things — for example, the Madison Square Theater's magnificent needlework curtain, or the applique and silk embroidered wall panels in pharmaceutical czar George Kemp's 5th Avenue mansion. Mrs. Wheeler also managed to transfer, at least in summertime, the artists' salon she and her husband Thomas had established at their sprawling Queens estate, Nestledown. (How charming to think of an estate in Queens as 'sprawling'). Onteora remains a summer camp today, one with unpaved Victorian era roads which, like the houses they lead to, are closed in the winter.
Like Bruce Price in Tuxedo Park, Associated Artists built all the early cottages. Dutch doors, diamond pane windows, bark trimmed interiors and stone fireplaces make these old places deliciously picturesque but, in the manner of many antique mountain camps, structurally insubstantial. Floors and walls, rooflines and (alarmingly) some chimneys, have settled over the years into every possible angle but that of 90 degrees.
These are glimpses of Wildwood, an original Associated Artists spec cottage built in the late 1880s or very early 1890s. Like others of its ilk, it is tucked into deep woods. Cottage owners were expected to take meals at the Park inn, called the Bear and Fox (now a private house), and rough it, mountain camp style, with an outhouse.
Wildwood's north wing is a circa World War One addition. Although the house has undergone significant alterations over the years, the finished product looks remarkably of a piece. Let's circle around to the west.
When built, Wildwood's front door was on the eastern side of the house, at the top of a flight of steep stone stairs. Subsequent owners abandoned the pitons and rappelling ropes necessary to get indoors, moved the entrance to the second floor of the building's west facade and constructed this picturesque bridge to connect it to the drive.
Wildwood's first owner was Luisita Leland (1873-1956), daughter of Charles H. Leland of 563 Park Avenue, which is practically across the street from me in New York. Miss Leland, a rich and unmarried society girl, evidently found Onteora's signature mix of poetry readings, chamber music, amateur theatricals, artistic cottagers, writers and actresses, not forgetting Mrs. Wheeler's needlepointers, more congenial than the starchy elitism of Newport or Lenox. After the war, the French government made Miss Leland a member of the Legion of Honor for her work promoting The Fatherless Children of France, Inc. She married late, in 1919 at the age of 46, to a former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General named Dr. Leland Cofer, seen in the image below.
The Cofers called Wildwood Clematis. They also entered it on the first floor. We're crossing the new bridge — well, "newish" — in the image below and entering a small anteroom on the second floor.
There are 4 bedrooms on the second floor, plus a sort of library/study/television room and three terrific old fashioned country bathrooms. Immediately south of the front door, a two-room suite with bath doesn't appear to have changed in a hundred years.
In the image below, I'm standing in the open front door. The south bedroom is behind the wall on the right. That little hall on the left leads to the rest of the rooms on the the second floor, the first of which is a bathroom.
Does it matter that Wildwood has sagged to the point where there are no more rectangles, only parallelograms? Not to me, it doesn't.
This view of the second floor hall looks south toward the front anteroom. The stairs go up to a 3rd floor bedroom, and down to entertaining rooms and the kitchen on 1.
Our first stop is an east-facing guestroom with drop dead mountain views, a small porch, and a look of uber-authenticity. Despite many changes, the sensation in this house of stepping back in time is everywhere undiluted.
Let's cross the hall and look at the third bedroom — alas, without a mountain view — and the bathroom beside it.
They call this the "TV room," a name which I, as an old house traditionalist, can't quite manage to say out loud. The evidence of structural settling would drive my brother-in-law bonkers, but to me it's rather endearing. Walking around Wildwood is like being on a yacht, except it's not the yacht that's pitching up and down, it's the house.
The master bedroom also faces mountains.
Let's take the hall south from the master, head downstairs, admire the signature Associated Artists bark wall, and have a look at the first floor.
At the foot of the stairs is the Log Room, so named because of its Onteora style natural bark paneling. I am told that it used to be two rooms: an entry hall adjacent to the original front door, and a drawing room whose fireplace faced south.
The relocated fireplace now faces east.
The old front door now leads to a deck.
Stairs from the deck descend to a vertiginous lower garden, from which glimpses of the house above can be had through the trees.
Back indoors, four log-railed steps (so 'Onteora') lead from the Log Room to the dining room.
South of the dining room is a terrific period kitchen from no discernible period.
We'll peek quickly at the laundry, before returning to the Log Room.
Wildwood's most dramatic feature is the Great Room, located in the new (comparatively, anyway) wing on the north end of the house. Like today's main entrance, it's reached via a bridge. Unlike its charmless namesakes in charmless subdivisions across America, it really is "Great."
It's unclear who built the Great Room. Maybe it was the Cofers after their marriage in 1919, or maybe it was Luisita herself, although I sort of doubt that. Or maybe it was Wildwood's next owner, actor Rollo Peters (1893-1967), seen below playing Newland Archer opposite Katharine Cornell's Ellen in a 1929 production of "The Age of Innocence." Peters began his career as a portraitist, moved from there to set design and acting, became the first general director of The Theatre Guild, and wound up in Rockland County building houses for theatrical pals like Burgess Meredith. His designs for sets and costumes are preserved today at the Yale University Library.
If ever there was a theatrical room, this is it.
Let's retrace our steps, first across the bridge, then across the Log Room, up the stairs to the second floor hall, and finally up to 3.
The 3rd floor bedroom and bath are brand new — well, maybe about the age of my car, or maybe my cat. So is the open log railing between the Log Room and the dining room, and the scalloped shingles on the eastern gable, and the bridge to the front door, and all of the exterior log rails. Would that all old house owners were so clever and sensitive.
Like most of the houses in the Park, Wildwood is closed in the winter. Squirrels won't be getting into this closet.
Time to head downstairs, turn out the lights, and collect the car.
According to an August, 1932 item in the New York Times, "Prince Frederick chose to make his first visit with Prince Louis Ferdinand to an American country club at the Onteora." I'm not sure who Prince Frederick was, but I do know princely visits weren't the norm up here. "The Four Hundred," according to a wit of the period "would have fled in a body from a poet, a painter, a musician or a clever Frenchman." Onteora Park is an upscale place whose upscale residents (mostly) belong to its upscale Club. Historically, however, there's been far too much talent hereabouts to make "society" comfortable.

Wildwood is for sale for what seems to me a very reasonable price, which fact in no way influences my decision to write about it or my opinions about its aesthetic merits. (Do I really need to tell people that? Apparently, for some I do). Mary Mullane of Mary Mullane Real Estate in Hudson, NY represents the owner. You can reach her at www.marymullane.com or 518.828.2041.
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