Big Old Houses: Yonkers, of all places

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This splendid old house, until recently an orchid on uncaring waters, sits atop a 300-foot bluff overlooking the Hudson in northern Yonkers. When completed in 1912 the riverfront hereabouts was lined with big places. That was a different world. Even today, however, North Broadway from the gates of this house to the nearby village of Hastings, still winds through deep woods lined with the long walls of former country estates.

William Boyce Thompson.

You gotta love a guy born in a Montana mining camp called Alder Gulch, who gets rich, builds a mansion and calls it Alder Manor. William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930) crammed a lot of living into his 61 years. He made a fortune in copper and gold, controlled companies as varied as Indian Motorcycles, Cuban Cane Sugar Corp., Wright-Martin Aeroplanes and Pierce-Arrow Motor Cars.

He was a director of the New York Federal Reserve, a two-time delegate to Republican National Conventions and Wilson’s special envoy to revolutionary Russia during the last days of the Kerensky regime.

In 1910, the 40-year-old multi-millionaire hired New York society architects, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, to build a country house on 21 still rural acres in north Yonkers. Carrere and Hastings’ high end clients at the time included Henry Clay Frick, Col. Oliver Hazard Payne and Alfred I. Dupont, all of whose celebrated houses survive today. The world seems to have forgot about Alder Manor, however, which is very much in the same class.

Carrere & Hastings gave Thompson what is usually described as a “Renaissance Revival” house. To me this description illustrates the old saw about adding the word “Revival” when you’re not completely sure what you’re describing. Alder Manor is clad entirely in limestone, and I cannot even guess how many tens of thousands of square feet it contains.

The central design element on the river facade is a Palladian arcade, being a three-part recessed porch whose tall central arch is flanked by matching flat-roofed sections. The arcade opens onto a vast balustraded terrace that runs the length of the house. Unusual formal gardens, designed by Carrere and Hastings and about 80% intact, lie immediately north and south of the building itself.

Alder Manor’s exteriors are very fine, but the interiors are remarkable. Let’s go inside and take a look.

I’m going to hold myself back on the superlatives and say “magnificent” just once. There’s certainly no other word for this staircase.

Typical of big old houses, gents’ and ladies’ rooms are located on either side of the front door. The angelic and very naked boys, oddly, face the entrance to the ladies’; the bit of door visible next to them is the elevator; the ladies’ room itself is behind the camera. Fixtures and finishes in both bathrooms are happily intact.

We’re going to tour the main floor of Alder Manor in a (mostly) counter-clockwise direction, starting with Col. Thompson’s study. This exquisite — OK, another superlative I couldn’t hold back — room overlooks the entry court immediately north of the ladies’ dressing room. If anything, its faded colors add to a patine of genuine luxe.

Thompson was never in the military, but was made a colonel in the Red Cross prior to traveling to Russia in 1918. Consensus in the Wilson administration held that a private citizen wouldn’t be listened to, but a colonel would. Thompson’s mission was to prevent the Russians’ from surrendering to the Germans, which happened anyway despite his best efforts. The main impression he took from the experience was a realization of the fatal danger that faced any government that couldn’t feed its citizens.

The study is immediately to the left. We’re going to retrace our steps to the middle of the main entrance hall ahead.

Now we’re looking in the other direction. Alder Manor’s front door is just outside the frame on the right. The second visible door on the right leads to the colonel’s study; the grand entrance in front of us leads to the dining room.

At the age of 17, Thompson left the wild west to enroll in, of all places, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. There is a Thompson biography titled “Magnate,” which no doubt explains this unexpected volte-face, but I haven’t read it. Thompson’s years at Exeter are often cited as the explanation for his ease in dealing with the “white shoe” types he came across in later life, and for the development of his cultivated taste in art and architecture. In the mid-1990s, Alder Manor went through a derelict period, which is perhaps when the Francesco Albani overmantel in the dining room disappeared.

Almost all the sconces and light fixtures “grew legs,” as they say, around this same time. These dining room sconces, while simple, look original to me.

Thompson was felled by a fatal stroke in 1930. His will, interestingly, provided that his widow would inherit only if she continued to live at Alder Manor. This she did until her death in 1950. Elaborate mansions were dogs on the market in those days, especially in Yonkers. Mrs. Thompson’s will, likely as not anticipating that fact, left Alder Manor to the Catholic Church, which eventually made it into the centerpiece of Elizabeth Seton Junior College. Seton (1774-1821) was the first native born American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The institutional kitchen in the image below dates from the Seton College period. The servant hall and an assortment of other kitchen-related spaces beyond it were gutted and replaced by the modern dining hall with the blue walls.

Let’s return now to the interesting part of the house. The image below was taken in the dining room, looking south across the main hall to the drawing room in the distance.

Now we’re in the drawing room looking in the opposite direction toward the dining room. These two major rooms, as well as the marble entry hall between them, give directly onto the afore-mentioned terrace. Of note in this beautiful room are the trompe-l’oeil ceiling, walnut paneling, carved overdoors, and painted door panels. One yearns to have seen it in the ’20s, filled with thick orientals, damask covered sofas, old masters in gilt frames, fringed curtains, silk lampshades, and fine antique tables.

We’re going to leave the drawing room and go into a corridor that extends south from the main hall. The door on the right of the hall in the second image below leads back to the drawing room; the door in the distance leads to the library; we’re going to the left, into a rather erudite Italian Renaissance reception room.

I’d guess the walls in this room were originally covered in some kind of dark crimson stuff — antique velvet perhaps, or maybe silk. I’ll bet Thompson had religious-themed old masters hanging from the picture moldings, and seriously grand tables and chairs made of dark carved wood. The fireplace is 15th Century Italian; the windows overlook the drive; the door beside the fireplace leads to the library.

The library is at the south end of the house, between the drawing and reception rooms. It’s been kicked around, but it’s a thoroughbred.

Would that my own library fireplace had hooves.

Time to go upstairs. The image below looks north from the library towards the main stair. The third floor organ pipes belong to a Welte Philharmonic Organ, whose Renaissance style keyboard sits in a lobby on the second floor.

The most interesting — though not the most beautiful — feature of Alder Manor is the vintage 1912 indoor swimming pool. A stained glass window at the end of the pool was looted during the derelict days.

The middle section of the second floor is full of bedrooms, some in good condition …

… others mutilated in the course of conversion to classroom use. All the old bathrooms are gone.

A sort of second floor lobby is located directly above the main floor entrance hall. The elevator landing is behind the door on the left. The organ console faces it on the opposite wall.

On the south wall of the lobby is the entrance to an unusual master bedroom suite. Colonel and Mrs. Thompson’s bedrooms were separated by a central corridor of closets. I suppose there’s no point cluttering up your bedroom with closets if you’ve got a maid or a valet choosing and laying out your clothes.

I’m pretty sure the image below is of Mrs. T’s bedroom, for two reasons: 1) it faces the river and the lady of the house always got the good view; and 2) it has (or had) an en suite bath, discernible in spite of a walled up door. The poop brown color of the dado is awful; Mrs. Thompson’s connecting boudoir shows what a difference light colors can make.

Col. Thompson’s bedroom is on the other side of the closet hall and faces south and east. His adjoining bath, no doubt originally quite grand, is only a memory — and unfortunately not one of mine.

The staircase in the image below is located adjacent to the swimming pool and leads to a third floor gallery overlooking the main stair. Alder Manor’s top floor is divided into two parts: servants’ rooms overlooking the drive are accessible via one hall; riverview rooms for children and (possibly) guests and (possibly) upper servants (like governesses) are accessed via anothe

We’ll take a quick backward glance at the organ pipes, then head down the servants’ corridor.

The rooms on the family side are bigger and a few of the bathrooms have survived, albeit in partly dismantled condition.

If I can get into a big old house attic, I will. What mighty steel beams these are, and how beautifully finished with tongue-in-groove paneling is this unvisited space beneath the roof.

So much for the house. Let’s head downstairs and go outside.

Here’s the Palladian porch overlooking the balustraded terrace.

Alder Manor is today separated from the southernmost of its two formal gardens by a modern parking lot. The garden itself, while only minimally maintained, remains largely intact.

Featureless modern buildings constructed by Seton College in the 1960s are, alas, disturbingly nearby.

A more interesting garden survives on the north side of the house. To get there, we’ll cross the entry court, where I am posing on the hood of the Big Old House-mobile, then skirt the back of the kitchen wing. That porch is located just outside the ugly blue dining hall.

Some sources claim this to be a “replica” of the Theatre of Dionysis in Athens. If you believe that, I’ve a got a bridge to show you. Thompson’s ancient world garden is indeed full of authentic ancient fragments, but they ornament a series of original outdoor rooms designed by Carrere and Hastings. I suspect most of the walls were intended to look ruinous from the beginning. I don’t know for sure who’s responsible for the glaring blue tiles, but I’m suspecting Seton College.

At some point in time — I doubt coincident either with construction of the house or the garden — a fragment of a 16th Century Baroque church was affixed to Alder Manor’s north wall. The upper window marks the north end of the indoor swimming pool.

Alder Manor, let’s be frank, is kind of run down. But it is also largely intact and spectacularly beautiful. We often wonder why bad things happen to good people. A corollary might be to wonder why good people do bad things.

This 1960’s dormitory was constructed by Seton College directly in front of Alder Manor and completely obstructs the river view. The Alder Manor estate that Mrs. Thompson willed to the church covered 21 acres. There was no excuse for not building it someplace else.

The victory of Russian Bolshevism convinced Thompson that the world’s political future depended on food supply. “There will be two hundred million people in this country pretty soon,” he said, during a junket to Peru for the Harding administration. To address the problem, he founded the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, and located it in a 16,000 square foot research and greenhouse facility across North Broadway from his Yonkers estate. For 54 years, the Institute was an anchor of the Yonkers community. In 1978 it moved to the Ithaca campus of Cornell University and the Yonkers building fell into ruins.

In 1929, the year before his death, Col. Thompson bought Savarona, a 294-foot steam yacht built originally for Mrs. Thomas S. Cadwallader of Philadelphia. Perhaps not surprisingly, he rechristened her Alder. She is, sadly, a sort of emblem of his life. Thompson’s widow kept Alder for a decade, selling her in 1940 to the Navy. She was then stripped of her luxurious fittings, camouflaged, armed, and reemerged as the gunboat Jamestown. Surviving the war in the Pacific Theatre, the former Jamestown ended her days as a tramp full of bananas. She foundered off the Cayman Islands in 1961.

At about the same time the Jamestown settled onto the sea bottom, Seton was busy defacing the Thompson estate with insensitively sited new construction. By the mid-1980s, the college’s previous optimism was dampened by falling enrollment and rising costs, and in 1989, Seton merged with Iona College in nearby New Rochelle. Maintaining two campuses soon proved impractical, however, and in 1993 Iona announced the imminent closing of the Yonkers campus. The following year, a handful of elderly Sisters of Charity, who had expected to live out their lives on the top floor of Alder Manor, were the last to go.

The City of Yonkers bought the property in 1995, converted Seton/Iona’s former classroom building into a public grade school called the Foxfire School, and left the mansion vacant. Vandalism ensued until 2000, when an Irish cultural organization called Tara Circle bought the mansion and the view wrecking dormitory on 5.8 acres for $1.2 million. Since then, Tara has struggled to do the work of the angels and hold Alder together as best it can. The goal is to ultimately convert the house into a center of Irish arts and education. For the time being, they’re scraping by on income from weddings, events and photo and film shoots.

NOTE: Alder Manor is now owned by the Goren Group out of NYC and plans to make it a catering and boutique hotel for conferences and weddings.

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