Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Big Old Houses: My Kind of House

My Kind of House
by John Foreman

What could be finer than a house on the water with a boat? Not much, especially if the house is a limestone-clad Renaissance palace designed by Carrere and Hastings, and the boat is a 260' ocean-going yacht named Aphrodite. The view above shows both, taken about 1912 from the east bank of the Hudson River immediately north of the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Park.

The owner of said house and boat, Col. Oliver Hazard Payne (1839-1917), is seen below on the right, yachting with an unidentified friend. Payne was a complicated man, which is a polite way of NOT describing his personality. Raised in luxury on Cleveland's Euclid Ave., he enlisted straight out of Yale and fought with distinction in the Civil War. He marched with Sherman to the sea, was grievously wounded at Chickamauga, returned to the fighting as soon as he could. Although brevetted to the rank of brigadier general during the war, Payne properly called himself colonel for the rest of his life.
The Hudson, like Manhattan, is divided into an East and a West Side — or more properly an east and west bank. Both banks have their adherents, but Society historically has preferred the eastern side. I once knew a girl whose family home, located north of the west bank city of Kingston, was actually called Wrongside. Payne was an enormously rich man, treasurer of Standard Oil and largest shareholder in American Tobacco, among other things. He lacked neither money nor social connections, but his house was on the west bank of the river. Apparently he didn't care.
From 1937 to 1986, the Payne estate was owned by religious institutions. The Marist Brothers owned it longest, using the house as a school and later as a retreat house. They still own most of the original acreage, including the gatehouse and the driveway beyond these standards. The mansion is on a separately owned sixty-acre parcel.
After proceeding past a miscellany of former estate buildings, I arrived at a second gate that marks the entrance to the mansion.
In order to build this house, Payne razed an 1851 villa — another era's "tear-down." Between 1909 and 1910, a crew of 400 laborers swarmed over the site, producing the present house in record time. Payne was a demanding client, insisting the building be clad in soft French limestone, even though everybody warned him it wouldn't last 20 years in the harsh local winters. He supposedly replied that it didn't matter whether it lasted or not, since in 20 years he'd be dead.
This is Raymond A. Rich, the appropriately named industrialist who bought the Payne mansion in 1986. When he arrived, the Marists had been covering sections of crumbling limestone with aluminum siding. Rich brilliantly restored the house, lived in it (when not at his other residences) for 23 years, and died here in 2009 at the age of 97
I would be astonished if a single one of my readers has even heard of this house. It's been on the National Register since 2002, but because it's private there's been no way to see it. That is, unless you are authorized to use the magic words, "New York Social Diary." I am, I did, and here we go.
The door at the end of the entrance hall leads to a central courtyard, reportedly inspired by Payne's happy memories of Italian villas. Those are his initials in the middle of each wrought iron grill. Whitehall Carrere and Hasting's house in Palm Beach for Henry Flagler, has much in common with their design for Col. Payne, although a house with large empty space in the middle makes a lot more sense in the Florida climate.
After 20 years of showing real estate for the Halstead Property Company, I have made certain observations. For example, women will almost always head straight for the kitchen. Granted, that wouldn't have occurred to my former wife, but she is the exception that proves the rule.

Men by contrast, head for the living room. I head for the bathrooms — or at least, that's where I head in big old houses. This guest bath, located steps from the entrance hall, is in breathtakingly original condition. OK, I will stop hyperventilating. P.S. The sink is great, the mirror less so.
Around the corner from this bathroom — which is actually one of a pair — is a service corridor running along the western flank of the house. Lit by windows on the courtyard, it gives access to a range of domestic offices, restaurant-sized walk-ins, kitchen pantries, and more recently a caretaker's apartment.
Enough with servants' corridors. Let's head down some grander halls.
This reception room is the first in a suite of major rooms that wraps around three sides of the house.
The staircase will probably disappoint some people's expectations. Edith Wharton argues in The Decoration of Houses that since they lead to private family areas, stairways shouldn't be obvious public features. Carrere and Hastings seem to have hit on an uncomfortable compromise here. The stairway is clearly visible from a major traffic route, but it's hardly a central architectural feature.
This magnificent living room opens onto a porch overlooking the Hudson. Payne was a cultivated art collector and client of the famous Joseph Duveen. This room, plus the library and billiard room that flank it, were once filled with old masters.
This is the northerly of twin marble fireplaces that originally anchored each end of the living room. The Marist Brothers demolished the southern fireplace — a decision one hopes they came to regret — when they converted the room to a chapel. That's me in the baseball cap.
Double doors on either side of the surviving living room fireplace open into a panelled library.
When Col. Payne died in 1917, he left the bulk of his estate — some sixty-three million dollars — to his nephew, Payne Whitney. His house at Esopus, however, was left to another nephew named Harry Payne Bingham. The view below shows the billiard room during construction.
The woodwork originally had an ebony finish overlaid with gold tracery which, in combination with silvery light off the river, supposedly gave the room's collection of Turners a special frisson. Mrs. Bingham didn't like the dark wood and painted the room white.
We're looking from the billiard room into the dining room. That's Raymond Rich's portrait over the fireplace.
This small breakfast room is located between the dining room and the serving pantry — small being a relative term.
Even after seeing that first old bathroom, I was totally unprepared for the magnificent preserved condition of the serving pantry — complete with mezzanine, no less — not to mention the original kitchen. These parts of old houses are so rich with detail and character, and so often gratuitously destroyed. Happily, this is not the case here.
Outside the kitchen is a tiled stair leading up to the pantry mezzanine. The box at the top held a fire hose.
There are two secondary staircases on the western or service flank of the house, each containing three flights of steps. This confusing fact is caused by the lower ceilings in the servants quarters. In order to reach bedrooms on the second floor of the higher studded family wing, the stairs need an extra flight.
We're now on the second floor, looking down the main staircase at the hall outside the living room.
This is Col. Payne's bedroom, located on the southeast corner of the house. The Colonel never married, preferring instead to meddle in other people's marriages. Payne's feud with his former Yale classmate and brother-in-law, William Collins Whitney, was a famous Gilded Age society scandal that did the colonel little credit, not that he cared.

Whitney, a New York Society figure and Secretary of the Navy under Cleveland, had married Payne's sister, Flora. Upon her death, he was shocked to discover that his erstwhile friend, Payne, expected him to remain true to his dead wife's memory. When Whitney remarried, Payne reacted by telling Whitney's sons that whichever abandoned their father would become his heir. Payne Whitney inherited the Colonel's estate; Harry Whitney didn't.
Aside from the plastic shower curtain and the aluminum door on the out of view stall shower, the colonel's bathroom is just about perfect.
This hall gives access to bedrooms and bathrooms overlooking a terraced lawn on the south side of the house. The door at the end leads to one of those back stairs, in this case, the one leading down to the pantry mezzanine and the former servants' quarters. Mr. Rich converted the latter into a suite of offices.
This hall leads to bedrooms on the river side of the house. The railing overlooks the main stair.
This secondary stairway, adjacent to guestrooms and quarters for upper servants, is more formal than the tiled stairhall by the kitchen.
A certain number of first and second floor servants' rooms are located in the northeast corner of the house. However, most of the original quarters are now part of Mr. Rich's office.
Here's the stair to the attic, where I discovered steel beams supporting the roof and a poured concrete floor.
My hosts from Marist College in Poughkeepsie completely understood that I wanted to see EVERYTHING, and that's exactly what they showed me. This is the main fuse panel in the basement, still in use. Whether you have fuses or a breaker panel in your house, I'll bet you have only the vaguest idea of which fuse or breaker controls which circuit. If you were Col. Payne, however, you'd have insisted this useful information be engraved on small brass plates.
Here's the courtyard at the center of the house, a divine feature in a temperate or tropical climate, but somewhat problematic in the chilly north. Let's forget about heat loss, since people who own houses like this don't care about fuel bills. The issue is snow removal. A local man named Julian Burroughs, hired by Payne as his estate superintendent in 1913, criticized Carrere and Hastings for designing what he called a "snow trap." Burroughs pointed out, with some justification, that the only way to get rid of a major accumulation would be to haul it out the front door.
The south side of the house faces a broad terraced lawn, which probably once had an elaborate garden. The colonel's bedroom is on the second floor on the right; the dining room is in the middle of the first floor; the kitchen is on the first floor all the way on the left.
The eastern facade of the house faces the Hudson River. French doors from the living room open onto the porch.
Instead of having Carrere and Hastings design the estate's stable complex, Payne gave the job to his untrained superintendent, Julian Burroughs. Located on the other side of Route 9W from the main house, the complex is grand, although the design is not in Carrere and Hastings' league.

For many years this building housed the Wiltwyck school, a private philanthropic attempt to provide education and guidance to impoverished black children who'd been caught up in the legal system. Wiltwyck's supporters included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Carson. After 44 years, it closed in 1981 for lack of funds.
The boathouse is another Burroughs design. Payne's decision to go with plans drawn by his superintendent stemmed from an acrimonious falling out with Carrere and Hastings. I suspect this was a pattern with the colonel. Burroughs father, incidentally, was the famous naturalist and essayist, John Burroughs, which may have influenced the son's use of local stone. Carrere and Hastings' main house is an exotic flower on the Hudson; Burroughs' stable and boathouse are hardier looking species.
Raymond Rich's will bequeathed the Payne mansion, together with a ten million dollar trust for upkeep, to Marist College, located across the river on the northern fringe of the city of Poughkeepsie. The house is currently called the Raymond A. Rich Institute, dedicated according to its literature to "developing the communication, interpersonal, and social skills necessary to lead complex organizations in a global setting."

Lest the college be compelled to mutilate the house with bar doors, sprinkler systems, handicap bathrooms, code elevators, etc., etc., Marist has left the zoning alone. It is still officially a private house and who knows, maybe one day another Raymond Rich will come along.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
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