Say “Jay Gould” and people think, “Robber baron.” Say “George Jay Gould”and people think, “Who?” Jay Gould (1836-1892) was a no-boundaries capitalist who wrought indiscriminate havoc on financial markets and business enemies alike while becoming the 9th richest man in American history. Gould loved, encouraged and trusted his son George (1865-1923), who tried his best, but couldn’t measure up.
In the mid-1890s, however, George Gould’s eventual decline would have been unthinkable. In command of his late father’s empire, he and his glamorous wife, the actress Edith Kingdon, decided to build a country house appropriate to their position. They wisely avoided socially hidebound resorts like Newport or Lenox. His father was, after all, one of the most hated men in America, and she was, not that it matters today, but it did then, an actress. So instead they wound up in the then fashionable resort of Lakewood, New Jersey, celebrated for its piney woods, fresh air, temperate climate and rich, recently arrived and tolerant local plutocracy. If gates and walls proclaim a showplace — and in my book, they do — the Goulds’ Georgian Court was and still is the greatest one in Lakewood.
George and Edith Gould were married in 1886. He was 21; she was 22. They were only in their early 30s (so young!) when in 1897 they moved with 5 (eventually 7) children into their not quite finished Lakewood mansion. George Gould’s dream of controlling a transcontinental railroad, a dream that had eluded his father, seemed imminent. His wife’s position as a society queen, thanks to the Gould fortune, appeared secure.
Edith Kingdon’s stage career was short but sweet. The New York Timesdescribed her as “a Brooklyn girl of modest circumstances” who, after appearing in a few amateur productions, was spotted by a Boston theatrical manager and offered a job in stock. She jumped at the chance and toured for 2 years. Then in 1884 a New York impresario named Augustin Daly offered her a job in New York. She was soon starring in a string of hits on the Daly Theatre’s famous stage at Broadway and 30th Street. Gould was one of those top hat millionaires who appear nightly at the leading lady’s dressing room with armloads of roses, jewels in velvet boxes and invitations to lobster palace suppers. During the Daly company’s 1886 summer tour, he followed Edith to Paris and asked her to marry him.
Some speculated at the time that Jay Gould would be angry at his young prince for marrying an actress. However, not being one to throw rocks on the subject of appearances, Gould embraced his new daughter-in-law. According to the Times, “The (wedding) ceremony was at the country home of the groom’s father — in the parlors of the palace at Irvington-on-the-Hudson.” That palace, of course, is today’s National Trust property, Lyndhurst. For a time, life seemed ideal.
Georgian Court was designed by Bruce Price (1845-1903), whose mid-1880’s work at Pierre Lorillard‘s Tuxedo Park had made him a society favorite. The name Georgian Court supposedly speaks to its Georgian architecture — Georgian with a distinct American accent. To me the name seems another way of saying “George’s House.” The view below shows the building shortly after completion in 1898, surrounded by Lakewood’s signature pines, appropriately neatened for the Goulds.
Here’s the house at high tide, probably around the time of the First World War. Note the beautifully barbered ivy and perfect formal plantings. No one would ever have guessed George Gould’s growing financial troubles from the condition of his Lakewood estate.
And here it is today, in amazingly good condition after 90 years of loving stewardship. In 1923, the Sisters of Mercy established what is now called Georgian Court University on the then 200-acre Gould estate. The butchering of fine old properties by insensitive religious organizations is a depressingly familiar story. Georgian Court is a happy exception.
I’m a front door kind of a guy, but unfortunately we couldn’t get this one open. Had we done so, our first steps would have been inside this marble and gilt foyer.
Price’s dramatic two-story entrance hall, a meeting of big money and theatricality, is an apt metaphor for the Goulds’ marriage. Canvasses painted by Robert Sewell and forming a frieze on 3 walls depict pilgrims from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales. If you’ve been to the Central Park Studios at 15 West 67th St., you’ve seen more of Sewell’s work in the lobby. Entwined “G’s” appear repeatedly on the walls of Georgian Court.
The door on the right behind the columns in the image below leads to the music room. Located on axis with the front door, its windows overlook another manicured pine forest and, at one time anyway, Lake Carasaljo on the other side of North Lake Drive.
Georgian Court was built in an era that witnessed great “decorateurs” at work in Newport and New York. The Goulds engaged a quartet of them — named Shean, Maynard, Pennington and Wiles respectively — to produce, at considerable expense, 30 painted Rococo panels for this room. The first view below looks east towards the dining room.
Now we’re looking west towards the obligatory white and gold drawing room. The double height entrance hall is through the door on the right.
There is such a thing as too much gold and I wonder if, in the course of an otherwise meticulous restoration, enthusiastic artists didn’t pick out one or two unnecessary elements.
The view below looks east towards the music room, with the dining room (which we’ll get to in a minute) in the far distance. The door on the left leads to a corridor running east and west along the main body of the house. At its western end is a conservatory with glazed ceiling, marble walls, and memories of a high maintenance jungle. For almost a century the Goulds’ conservatory has been the Sisters’ chapel.
Now we’re back in the hall; the doors to the conservatory are behind us; the white and gold drawing room is to the right; across the hall from it is the library.
Subject-wise, the intellectual and artistic references on the library’s opulently painted beams and burnt wood panels are all over the map. I thought, irreverently, of China Fun on Columbus Avenue, whose awning promises “Dim Sum, Bar-B-Q and Sushi.”
At the eastern end of the main floor is a handsome dining room. The former billiard room is across the hall from it.
The service wing beyond the swing door below is only partially intact, but what’s left is pretty terrific.
High on a wall in the corridor between the dining and billiard rooms is the dinner bell.
This service corridor leads from the butler’s pantry to assorted offices and storage rooms, plus the sites of the original kitchen and servant hall. Would that I could roll up those red mats and pull down the acoustical ceiling.
The original kitchen, not a trace of which remains, has been converted into an informal dining/meeting room. The adjacent scullery survives in virtually original condition, as does a storage room with marble shelving.
The old servants’ hall is now the kitchen.
Plans for the first two floors of the house are below. The second floor, occupied by the Goulds and their guests, contains 9 bedrooms, a boudoir, study, linen room and 6 baths. Children and servants shared another 15 rooms and 3 baths on the floor above. 4 more servants were billeted on floor four. A staff of 20 — at least 6 of whom lived in — worked in the house. Another 100 day laborers cared for enormous gardens, and a casino and stable complex, about which more later.
Some staircase, isn’t it? The ceiling on the 2nd floor bedroom hall illustrates the merit of holding back on the gold.
A 3-room master suite in the southwest corner of the 2nd floor contains bedroom, boudoir, study and en suite bath. The Goulds may well have shared the same bedroom. We never know these things for sure, but I would find that odd.
This boudoir adjacent to the master bedroom has a typical 1890’s “frou frou” femininity.
On the opposite side of the master bedroom is a bath, and beyond that Mr. Gould’s study.
What’s not on the plan illustrated above is this door, which connects the study to another bedroom. One he used? I suspect yes. The Panic of 1907 sent Gould into a financial tailspin. The transcontinental railroad of his dreams was torn from his hands by a powerful cabal of enemies headed by Ned Harriman.Gould admitted in later years that his greatest regret in life was not having been a “big figure” on Wall Street like his father. Perhaps not unconnected to business failures was Gould’s decision to take up with a mistress. He would eventually father 3 children with Guinevere Jeanne Sinclair, who lived in high style at his expense on an estate at Manursing Island in Rye, NY.
Long corridors on the second floor lead to the many many bedrooms. Some could be in country inns; others couldn’t. So much good restoration work has been done in this house that it is a shock to still see acoustical ceilings.
The bathrooms are about 70% intact — and 30% “Omigod!”
The curse of Weldwood paneling, visited upon many a fine old house, has been inflicted here as well. The beds and baths up these stairs on floor three have survived in various states.
But wait, there’s more. Georgian Court’s 4th floor contains more storage and more servants’ rooms.
Since we can’t open the front door, we may as well take the back stairs to one, and exit the house via the servants’ entrance.
Georgian Court didn’t age gracefully all by itself. After generations of benign neglect — witness the Weldwood and the acoustical tiles — the University’s Building, Grounds and Security subcommittee got serious about preservation and hired a professional preservation architect. Lisa Easton assessed the estate’s historic fabric and prepared a master plan, the result of which was a series of targeted projects — gutters, chapel ceiling, billiard room paneling, second floor re-wallpapering, etc., etc. Grants were sought and obtained from the New Jersey Historic Trust, Save America’s Treasures and the Snite Foundation. The result has been to secure the exterior envelope and restore an amazing amount of Gilded Age glitter inside. Georgian Court is a designated National Historic Landmark, an honor many institutional owners would have fought tooth and nail.
I once heard of a man who gave his wife a chainsaw for her birthday, the better for him to cut wood. In 1902 George gave Edith this statue of Apollo for her 38th birthday, the work of sculptor John Massey Rhind. The statue commands a view down a long formal axis at the end of which is an elaborate casino building. When I wonder how much Edith knew about Mrs. Sinclair, I am reminded of the Newport society matron who remarked, “Yes, I am his wife, but I have an assistant down the street.” On the afternoon of November 14, 1921, while golfing with her husband on their private links, Edith Gould dropped dead. She was 57 years old. George was married to Mrs. Sinclair within the year.
The idea for Georgian Court’s extraordinary casino arose during an early house party, when hosts and guests alike were bored out of their skulls by unrelenting rain. Bruce Price gave the client what is essentially a deluxe private athletic club, complete with indoor riding ring, bowling alley, Turkish bath, swimming pool, squash courts, billiard room, a racquets (not to be confused with racquetball) court, a ballroom and one of only 10 “Real” or “Court” tennis courts in the country. Court tennis, which I played a few times in my Tuxedo days, is arguably the most challenging and enjoyable — not to mention the most obscure — racquet sport in the world. Students use the restored court today.
The so-called sunken garden is guarded by a pride of marble lions. George Gould died in 1923 at age 58, arguably killed by King Tut. Picking up a mysterious bug during a visit to the famous tomb, he succumbed to it several months later in France. Gould’s fortune turned out to be a fraction of what America expected it to be. Six years earlier, his siblings had forcibly removed him as trustee of their father’s estate, claiming he’d “mishandled” $20 million dollars. The courts subsequently impounded his income, although like many rich men in similar circumstances, this didn’t appear to impact his style of living. Gould’s will made generous provisions for his second wife and their 3 children, but his 7 children by Edith proceeded to do everything in their power to deny the former mistress a cent. Litigation over what finally boiled down to an estate of a little over $5 million went on for years.
The picturesque rural village of Lakewood, where George Gould and (actually, not so many) other millionaires built their country places, is a very different world today. Exit 89 on the Garden State Parkway is no longer in the country. Lakewood’s population of 3,000 in 1900 has swelled to 93,000 in 2010. The largest industrial park in New Jersey, spreading over 1,800 acres, is located in Lakewood.
Interestingly, Lakewood has one of the largest and fastest growing ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in America. Normally insular in the extreme, the recent prospect of gay marriage in New Jersey brought this community to the barricades.
Not as dramatic, but equally transformative, is the sharp growth of Lakewood’s Spanish speaking population, satirized by an anonymous grafitti artist who had political incorrectness down pat.
Rounding things out is a sprawling tent city of homeless people — a sort of latter day Hooverville — located about half way between Main Street and the Parkway. It has been the target of multiple eviction efforts, but doesn’t look to me like it’s going anywhere soon.
Editor’s Note: As of 2019, Tent City in Lakewood has closed as its residents moved to temporary housing.