Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big Old Houses: But Would I Live Here?

Big Old Houses: But Would I Live Here?
by John Foreman

Back in 1931, the Hutchinson River Parkway ended at Westchester Avenue, then a two-lane country road between White Plains and the chic Westchester suburb of Purchase. A mile or so west of this intersection, a great stone gatehouse (no longer extant) marked the entrance to Ophir Hall, estate of the late Whitelaw Reid.

Ben Holladay (1819-1887).
Whitelaw Reid (1837-1912).
That year, the King of Siam was a guest of the widow Reid who, at the behest of the State Department, had vacated her house, boarded the SS Leviathan, caught a nasty cold on board, and died of pneumonia two weeks later in Nice. Still woodsy Westchester Avenue is today the service road to I-287 and Mrs. Reid's former estate has been criss-crossed by the extended Hutch and I-684.

The image above shows Ophir Hall shortly after Ben Holladay (1819-1887), the Stagecoach King, built it at the end of the Civil War. The house has a signature "bigness" typical of many buildings of the period — think Seventh Regiment Armory and Tweed Courthouse. Holladay's career had a meteoric quality that was also typical of the period.

Zooming from obscurity to great financial heights — stagecoaches, railroads, steamships and, most spectacularly, a stake in Utah's famous Ophir silver mine — the Panic of 1873 sent him earthwards in flames as precipitately as he'd risen. He died at age 68 in what historians like to call "relative obscurity."

This elegant chap to the right is Mrs. Reid's husband, the eminent journalist, politican and diplomat Whitelaw Reid (1837-1912). In 1888, Reid was the owner of the late Horace Greeley's "New York Tribune," and evidently prosperous enough to go shopping for a country house of scale.

Five years earlier, Ben Holladay's son had unloaded Ophir on a rich shipbuilder named John Roach who, four years later, went financially belly up himself. It was then the turn of Roach's son to sell Ophir at another knock down price, this time to Whitelaw Reid.

Between the waning days of Holladay and the uncertain ones of Roach, Ophir had degenerated ruinously. Reid poured a pile of money into the place, upon which it promptly burned to the ground.
Undeterred, he rebuilt in a style similar, although not identical, to the original house. In the modern view below, the tourelle on the east side of the central tower is missing, the fenestration on the second floor is slightly different, and the porte cochere is obviously not the same. Reid hired Stanford White, partner in the newly formed firm of McKim Mead and White, to rebuild Ophir Hall, then promptly left for France where he would serve as American ambassador from 1889 to 1892. Holladay had imported elk and bison to roam on his estate; Reid had his architect install rescued paneling from a French chateau.
Back from France in '92, Reid became Benjamin Harrison's vice-presidential running mate in an unsuccessful bid for national office. Reid was back and forth to Europe on diplomatic missions throughout the late 1890s, rising ever higher in the world of influence and diplomacy. The world before 1914 was run almost exclusively by people who lived in palaces and country houses. Ophir evidently came to seem small in its owner's eyes. To remedy that, he had Stanford White add an enormous wing on the west. The aerial below was probably taken in the 'twenties, when Ophir was still at its height. The original house is on the right, the new wing on the left.
Reid had a knack for picking up real estate bargains. Railroad magnate Henry Villard was another overnight bankrupt whose famous McKim Mead and White palazzo on Madison between 50th and 51st wound up on the auction block. Reid purchased the southern unit of the Villard complex (on the right in the image below) in 1886 and it stayed in the family until 1934. (LeCirque used to be in this house).
Ophir Hall, renamed Reid Hall for reasons I can't say I approve of, has been the centerpiece of Manhattanville College since 1949. Although the college has surrounded it with modern institutional buildings, it has also been a sensitive steward of the mansion itself. I could almost imagine tearing down all the new stuff and moving into the house myself — at least, were it more my style. This view taken from the east illustrates its beautifully preserved condition.
The O'Byrne Chapel, attached to Ophir Hall in 1961, is probably on its way (at least in some minds) to becoming a "mid-century modern" icon. It may not complement the original structure, but neither has it done it any damage.
Before meeting my hosts, I circumnavigated the building and was suitably impressed by its scale. You may wonder why someone would want to live in a place this big. The answer, I suppose, lies in the nature of the society in which the owner traveled. Whitelaw Reid's later life was spent in a world of French chateaux and English country houses, private dwellings with which Ophir Hall seems perfectly in scale.
The new wing looked west across terraced gardens in the direction of the main gate on Westchester Avenue. Below are images of those terraces today, and of what they used to be.
In the back of the house is a kitchen and service court whose high wall screened all manner of messy necessities.
I'm back at the front, ready to go inside.
The front door is in the old wing, whose interiors date from Stanford White's 1892 reconstruction. In August of 1897, the New York Times printed an illustrated tour of Ophir Hall. "One must enter to appreciate its magnificence," wrote the author, noting in particular the yellow Numidian and pinkish Etowah marble that completely clads the main hall. It looks a bit like a furniture salesroom to today's eye, although all that upholstered sumptuousness is a look I find appealing. Even empty, it's gorgeous.
Behind the college's modern glass doors are these vintage glass doors. Ophir's real front doors are hidden away in pockets.
White's main staircase is truly a tour de force.
I thought at first this entire run of steps was cut from a single slab. Not so; the separate treads are actually pieced together, but so brilliantly they appear to be carved from a single piece of marble.
Here's the drawing room, paneled with salvage from the Chateau Villennes near Poissy, France.
An adjacent small salon has paneling from the same chateau. The drawing room is through the door on the right; the original library is through the door on the left of the fireplace.
The library, its dado-height bookshelves obscured by furniture in the vintage view below, measures 43' by 32' with a painted ceiling hovering a full 15' above the floor. In 1897, Mr. Reid's desk — another whopper, 18' long by 12' wide — sat to the left of the fireplace. The flowery slipcovers in the image below look to me like a post-WWI redecoration scheme. This room is pure Stanford White; he is said to have designed every single piece of it.
The small room in the image below is tucked away behind a nearly invisible door on the south wall of the library. If I hadn't seen a picture of Reid's desk in the other room, I would have assumed this was his office.
An enclosed porch runs along the back of the house and serves as the main access to the new wing. The fate of the original glass ceiling is a mystery.
Before continuing to the new wing, I detoured into the dining room. The Times' 1897 description of its original enthusiastic decor bears no resemblance to the room I saw. That room appears to have been architecturally "sedated" with dark paneling and heavy ceiling plasterwork, probably at the time White added the new wing.
The hall in the image below runs along the spine of the new wing. In 1905, Reid was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James, a post in which he remained until his death in 1912. The new wing at Ophir Hall dates from this period, and its interiors reflect an aesthetic altogether different from that of the original house. Goodbye Numidian marble and cut velvet; hello heavy oak and leaded windows. Like any self-respecting millionaire of his era, Reid's walls and halls were lined with old masters. According to the Times, "Many visitors call daily to see Mr. Reid's wonderful palace at Ophir Farms. Many of the visitors are artists and during the summer months easels can be seen here and there all over the place."
The room below is in the logical place for the family dining room. It's hard to judge its aesthetics without the original furniture, which was no doubt gorgeously and legitimately antique. With everything gone, and a location so near to all that voluptuous French boiserie, it looks a little plain.
This bewildering choice of call buttons is the same everywhere else in the house.
Stanford White gave the stairs in the new wing a very different look.
Ophir was a house that was big on libraries. Behind the stair in the image above is this exquisite paneled room, lined with the same dado-height bookcases I saw in the library at the other end of the house. Fine mansions that passed into public hands half a century ago — unless mutilated by horrid "modernizations" — usually retain original sconces and chandeliers.
The principal feature of the new wing is the so-called Great Library, which clearly doubled as a gala room. Stacked ballroom chairs obscure the bookcases.
Ophir is shockingly short on bathrooms. I couldn't tell if this vintage fragment wasn't really a part of the serving pantry for the original kitchen below.
Determined to find that kitchen, I took the English stair to the basement and found myself in a wide corridor lined with modern offices. The kitchen had to be somewhere near.
I found the door to the kitchen court, and the kitchen court outside. The only thing I couldn't find was the kitchen. (Gone, I guess).
Disappointed, I retraced my steps to the old wing and took the marble stairs to the second floor.
The second floor appears to have the normal arrangement of big old house bedrooms. His and her suites flank either side of a central stair lobby, with what I assume was a boudoir in between.
Here's the boudoir between the master bedrooms. Ophir Hall is four miles from Long Island Sound, but before growing trees and institutional buildings partially obscured the view, it enjoyed a stirring prospect of rolling fields, distant villages, the waters of the Sound, and faraway Long Island. The view from the boudoir window is still kind of exciting. The three misty highrises on the horizon are North Shore Towers, an apartment complex on the border of Queens and Nassau.
The fireplace in this bedroom, now the office of the college president, matches the one in the boudoir, so I'm guessing these rooms were Mrs. Reid's. Ophir Hall is full of fireplaces in oddly asymmetrical locations.
The bedroom on the other side of the boudoir, now the office of the provost, has a highly wrought, vaguely Indian, definitely masculine looking mantelpiece (alas, my photo didn't come out), so I'm guessing it was Mr. Reid's. It connects to another suite of rooms, including a confusing complex over the original library. I'm sure there were once great — or at least interesting — bathrooms for both these suites, but both are casualties of history.
The new wing had grander and more convenient owner suites, but before checking them out, I wanted to see the third floor and the tower in the old wing.
A third floor stair lobby, similar to the one on two, gives access to guest rooms now in use as offices.
At the south end of the third floor lobby is the stair to tower floors four and five.
One lucky college employee has an office in this terrific 4th floor tower bedroom with drop dead view (when you get this high) and the only intact vintage bathroom I could find in the entire house.
At the very top of the tower, unfortunately, there is no pot of gold.
I retraced my steps to the second floor, then zigzagged through a maze of little halls before joining the main corridor on the second floor of the new wing. The route is not straightforward. In fact, the two wings of Ophir Hall are not well integrated on any floor except the first.
A door at the western end of the new wing corridor lets onto to a small balcony with this unusual view of the ceiling in the Great Library.
There are guestrooms on the second floor, plus an English looking stairway to a broad corridor on the floor above with more guestrooms and (originally, anyway) a pair of improved master bedroom suites.
This grandly proportioned and much abused room which looks south to the Sound and west over what were once extensive formal gardens, was Mrs. Reid's bedroom. The door beside the fireplace leads into a fragment of her now truncated bathroom. There is a large boudoir adjacent, and beyond that her husband's suite, the latter now chopped into small offices and virtually un-photographable. The new wing wasn't finished until 1912, the year her husband died of overwork in London. Mrs. Reid lived here alone, albeit busy with good works, until her own sudden death in 1931.
After the departure of the King of Siam, Mrs. Reid's son Ogden (1882-1947) auctioned the furniture and closed the house down. In 1924, Ogden Mills Reid, who had been running the family newspaper business for years, purchased the New York Herald and combined it with the family's Tribune into the new Herald-Tribune. Business boomed and Reid soon found it necessary to open a Paris office for a growing foreign staff.

Ogden Mills Reid.
In a review of "Trials of the Trib," by Richard and Phyllis Kluger, reviewer David Shaw asks, "What did Karl Marx, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Bret Harte, Jacob Riis and John O'Hara have in common?" The answer is, they all worked for either the Trib or one of its precursors. The paper folded, after a blessedly short period of deterioration, in 1966.

In 1949, two years after the death of Ogden Reid, his mother's Purchase estate was sold to Manhattanville College. The early 1950s saw a beehive of activity on the grounds of Ophir Farms, as a new campus rose in the architectural style of the day (see below). From the beginning, however, Ophir Hall was loved, cherished, appreciated and protected.

The awful things that have happened — and indeed are happening to great houses in New York right now — didn't happen here. Manhattanville's campus is home to 1700 undergraduate and 1000 graduate students, is non-denominational, co-educational and, as of this writing, appears to be thriving. They were great hosts and let me roam wherever I wanted. The link is www.mville.edu.
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