Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Books and Covers


This gingerbread trimmed mansion, perched on a bluff above the Hudson at Staatsburg, NY, doesn't look like this any more. Descendants of the man who built it in 1855 were literally chased out of it in 1963, victims of parkland acquisition policies of the late Robert Moses. Not to deny Mr. Moses his due, but he was no lover of big old houses. The State of New York, which only wanted the land, hadn't a clue what to do with the house. An early plan to demolish it and build a public swimming pool on the site died stillborn, the victim of state budgetary constraints. Instead it was boarded up and abandoned.

When Lydig Monson Hoyt (1821-1869) built this house, he named it The Point, although nowadays it's simply referred to as the Hoyt house. Despite being dissed by the State of New York for the better part of half a century, it is actually a famous building. Architectural historians consider it a sort of apotheosis of the mid-nineteenth century work of architect and landscape designer, Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), seen below. Vaux is probably best known as the designer, with Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York's Central Park. His equally famous houses, I will admit, are an acquired taste. Born in England and trained there under a famous proponent of the Gothic Revival named Lewis Cottingham, Vaux absorbed a highly picturesque aesthetic which, for a brief period anyway, flourished madly in his adopted America.




Books have been written about Vaux and his famous associations with Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Withers and Frederick Law Olmsted. This is too big a meal for now. Suffice it to say he was just the type of cutting edge new architect to whom a young, rich and fashionable client like Lydig Hoyt would probably gravitate. The image below shows the Hoyt house in the time of Hoyt's son, Gerald Livingston Hoyt (1851-1926). Around 1901, the son made very substantial alterations to the interiors. The outside elevations, however, remained essentially unchanged, save for a new glazed rectangular bay on the north wall of the dining room, visible in the image below.




There is something resoundingly authentic about Lydig Monson and Geraldine Livingston Hoyt. His father, Goold Hoyt, grew rich from the China trade; his maternal grandfather was a neighbor of George Washington; Lydig himself is the subject of an amusing passage in the Diary of Philip Hone. His wife Geraldine (1822-1897) was a Livingston, whose ancestors controlled hundreds of thousands of Hudson Valley acres. The core of her husband's estate was a gift from her mother, Margaret Livingston. Lydig and Geraldine Hoyt were connected by a web of marriages and cousinships to ancient families from Philadelphia to Albany. Hoyt was only forty-eight when he died, leaving his widow with five children. When she followed him to the grave in 1897, the house passed to their son Gerald Livingston Hoyt. I'm pretty sure that's the son and his wife Mary Appleton on the terrace below. They weren't identified on this image, but it is contemporary with the one showing the glazed north bay, which was their doing.




Here's the house at mid-century, after a hundred years of occupancy by the same family. For better or (probably) worse the main facade has been been simplified. The ornate vergeboards on the eaves are gone, as are Vaux's elaborate window hoods and the frilly piazzas that once flanked the front door. Whether this was a function of deteriorating woodwork or the virus of "modernization" that afflicted old houses after the Second World War is unclear. The building looks deceptively compact, considering there are seven bedrooms on the second floor.




Now it's 1975. Sixteen years have passed since the death of the last male Hoyt, also named Lydig. Twelve years have passed since his widow, Helen Hoadley Willis, was evicted from her home in the wake of state condemnation proceedings. She didn't want to go and was heartbroken by the whole affair. The State threw her a sop in the form of a five-year lease offer contingent on her paying for maintenance, but she declined.




In the absence of maintenance by the Hoyts, there was no maintenance at all. Formerly sculpted bushes grew wild and the lawn reverted to a hayfield. It wasn't Kamikaze birds that broke those windows. The state nailed plywood sheets over the doors and first floor windows in the vain hope of keeping people out.




Now the pages of the calendar fly by and it's a fine day in May, 2012. I'm standing on the Old Post Road north of Staatsburg, gazing at the main entrance to the Hoyt estate.




Historic preservation has by now entered the mindset of the renamed New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation - OPRHP for short. Has it come too late for the Hoyt house? We're going to see.




Often in this column we've crossed a bridge whose purpose was the symbolic departure from a world of daily troubles to a realm of peace and (admittedly contrived) beauty. Much the same is going on here, except instead of a rushing brook or ornamental lake, the bridge crosses the New York Central (now Metro-North) tracks. Perhaps equally symbolic - albeit for different reasons - the bridge has become unsafe for vehicles.







It's a very very long driveway, twisting for over a mile past rocky outcrops buried in dark woods. Vaux is said to have had a hand in the plan of this approach, although that hand is hard to see. My OPRHP guide, Don Frazer, and I took a Parks Dept truck from the safe side of the bridge to the house.






If it were still 1975, the house would have looked like this.




Instead, it looks like this.












What looks like a wood box in the center of the image below is the glazed bay added to the dining room in 1901 by Gerald and Mary Hoyt. Vaux's original kitchen was in the basement. The collapsed roof on the left covered a new twentieth century kitchen tacked onto the existing main floor pantry. This new kitchen was convenient but never very good looking, nor from the looks of it very well built. The vergeboards still decorate the gables and dormers on this side of the house, convincing me that they were purposely stripped from the entry facade for aesthetic reasons.










This dashing fellow is Robert Palmer Huntington (1869-1949), a neighbor of the Gerald Hoyts who lived at Hopeland, a few estates up the river. In 1892 he married Helen Dinsmore, the Adams (later American) Express heiress whose family estate in Staatsburg, called the Locusts, is still in private hands. Huntington was a rich diletante with good taste, who studied architecture both at MIT and in Paris. He was a Yalie, an amateur lawn tennis champion, a sometime employee of J. Pierpont Morgan and the elite architectural firm of Hoppin and Koen. Mostly he was a country gentleman. Robert Huntington was Vincent Astor's father-in-law, at least until Vincent married Brooke. In 1901 he redesigned the first floor of The Point, transforming the merely historic into the truly remarkable. Don is removing a padlock from what the state hopes is the only way in, so we can have a look.






Honestly now, who ever would have dreamed the inside of the Hoyt house would look like this? It is a miniature Whitemarsh Hall. The images of the entrance hall below have a confident elegance that is, if anything, increased by the bare electric bulbs, shattered mirrors and random missing pieces.












Huntington left the Vaux floor plan undisturbed, but his hybrid English-French eighteenth century wall treatments transformed the house into an entirely different place. Here's the reception room, serene in spite of the vandalized fireplace and absence of what was probably a very fine mirrored overmantel.








Across the hall is a paneled library that's not as far gone as it looks.








The boarded-up door originally let onto a terrace (now collapsed) with vast views up and down the Hudson. This was a billiard room on the Vaux plan, a drawing room on Huntington's.
















We're back in the main hall, looking at the door to the dining room.




It used to look like this. See that column on the right?




Well, it's still there, or at least most of it is.




The floor above us is structurally sound, but the dining room's heavy plasterwork ceiling is threatening to collapse anyway. See that door through the forest of two-by-four supports?




It looked a lot better in 1975. Those with restoration experience will easily recognize that this room, like the library, is quite restorable.




The door from dining room to serving pantry was impassable, so we've detoured back through the main hall and past the main stair. Interestingly, the house never had a separate service stair.




Minus the fine moldings, a sort of desolation informs other areas of the house. I love old pantries, bathrooms and kitchens, but it's hard to warm to this one.








It's time to head upstairs. New York State has obviously made serious attempts to stabilize the building, barn doors and fleeing horses notwithstanding.










Aficionados of Calvert Vaux rejoice in the original appearance of the second floor - well, original but for paint, fallen ceilings and light to moderate vandalism.








This is the master bedroom. Large windows flanked by matching closets are recommended on the pages of Vaux's famous (and only) book, "Villas and Cottages," published in 1857. There would be sweeping river views outside these windows, if the forest hadn't grown up.








More bedrooms, with better anti-vandalism.








This was a bathroom - indeed, the only bathroom on the original plan.




The third floor - we can hardly call it an attic - is surprisingly large, with spacious rooms for guests, storage and servants.














It's time to get out of here.




Back on the main floor. But wait; I forgot the basement.




It takes real vision to see lost charm down here. Interestingly, the original stove remains in situ, but even I'd call this one beyond hope.








It's easy to cast New York State as the villain in this tale, largely because it is. To be fair, Parks and Recreation in the early sixties not only lacked a mandate to preserve, it lacked both experience and expertise in preservation. Only latterly has it become known as the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation. Well-intentioned and usually insufficient efforts have been made over the years to secure and stabilize the place, but recently those efforts have become more effective. Here I am, back outside for my obligatory "locator shot." Next stop, the stable and garages.




In 1973, New York State's Office of General Services studied the feasibility of converting the Hoyt house into Parks and Recreation's Taconic Regional headquarters. After admitting it would be "a shame to remove the plaster work on the first floor," the study recommended the interiors be gutted. Fortunately the plan was shelved. In May of 1998, OPRHP invited interested parties to submit proposals to renovate and live in the house, in exchange for a 40-year lease. Again no luck. In 2007, a preservation-minded City College professor named Alan Strauber founded the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance. Recently, OPRHP and Vaux Preservation secured almost $700,000, primarily from the Environmental Protection Fund and a Save America's Treasures grant. These funds were earmarked for much needed roof and chimney repairs.





A great many people in the Hudson Valley are hoping somebody will step forward.





WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

The early vintage images of the Hoyt house that appear at the beginning of this post are courtesy of the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance.

The views of the property in 1975 are courtesy of Jack Boucher and the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The rest of the photos are mine. I dislike the distortion attendant on flash photography, and always attempt to use natural - often insufficient - light.

18 comments:

  1. Well, knock me over with an acanthus leaf---I certainly wasn't expecting those interiors at all. Quel surpris.

    Oh, how I envy you. A top to bottom tour of the Mills house will be too fascinating for words.

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  2. Disturbing how many treasures are left to rot away, not only in NY but elsewhere because there is no plan or vision to utilize them when they are acquired and here the acquisition seems to have been particularly brutal. To force someone out of their home via condemnation when the State could have just let the owner have a life lease on the property and live out her days in her own home. Sad in so many ways. NY States plan was to just boarded up the home and walked away. Disturbing and foolishly stupid to say the least. Hopefully a viable organization will step forward and restore the home and stables since the 40 year lease is a super deal. One probably could get an even longer lease if you negotiate it properly.

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  3. Excellent post! I would have been surprised to see these interiors if I hadn't already been shocked by seeing them a few months ago while cruising around the net looking for pictures of The Point and finding similar pics on Facebook. There's no sign of Calvert Vaux left in the first floor of that place any more, but they're great interiors anyway. Still, New York State and its governmental mismanagement of historic sites makes me sick. Greedy home-stealing Nazis!

    I'm looking forward to seeing your Mills Mansion (I refuse to call it "Staatsburg") essay in the near future. About fifteen years ago our local historical society was given a private tour of the mansion, and the best part, for me at least, was seeing all those dusty corners that were never meant to be seen by anyone but employees...back hallways, third floor maid's rooms and such. The corners of the house were really showing their age, but I understand a lot of repairs have been made to the house since that time.

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  4. Love this! You should look into Carolands in Hillsborough, CA. Went into ruins, was restored. there is a book as well as a documentary well worth your time.

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  5. These posts are great! Can you add an RSS feed? I'd love to stay current with Google Reader.

    Thank you!

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  6. I stumbled upon this house a decade ago while meandering along the paths through the woods south of the Mills house. Dazzled and confused I was, trying to make out why it was there and in such condition.

    Knowing where it is located, I wonder why, why they evicted the family? Why? Nothing was done with the property at all, nor did it impede any other constructions. They just threw them out for no sound reason. Evil clowns.

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    1. Members of the family lived in Rhinebeck when I spoke with them in the 1980s. They were quietly angry about the vandalism and the home’s semi-ruinous condition. They had been forced out by New York’s plans to build public sports facilities – just who did the state believe would drive to Staatsburg to swim or play tennis? One family member told me she believed that Governor Rockefeller halted the plans to destroy the Point along with a chunk of Staatsburg, for which she was grateful.
      Gregory Hubbard

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  7. I am floored by the difference between the outside and the interiors. What an incredible find. Thanks so much!

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  8. This has long been one of my favorite houses and I have watched its steady and sad decline for nearly thirty years. I have often wondered what lay beyond the wooden doors and am in awe how much remains intact. I hope something can be done to restore it to some semblance of its past self and give it purpose once more.

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  9. I grew up there, spent many summers in the 70's playing in that old house, it was something of a calling to me. We kids would pretend as if we were living in those times. For the house had been left with many many pieces of furniture, I clearly remember dinning tables, chairs and a big old icebox, unfortunately going largely unchecked for years I imagine they were stolen! The story you wrote so well was history that over the years I myself discovered through such lost and hard to find research. Thank you for this wonderful post! It solidifies what I knew, and entices me to know more.. Those pictures of the inside and the early seventies are very nice, however the inside during that time like I said had a great deal of furniture and even the kitchen had a pantry filled with home canned goods.. I would love to see it come alive

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  10. wonderful photographs of this house

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  11. ‘Robert Huntington……….redesigned the first floor of The Point, transforming the merely historic into the truly remarkable.’ ????

    ‘…merely historic…?? Forgive me, but in my opinion, and perhaps I am very arrogant, this house was never ‘merely historic’ before the ‘oafish’ renovations of 1901.

    I wandered through The Point, it stood wide open, while a student at the nearby Culinary Institute of America. I and an equally passionate friend decided to attempt forcing the state into stabilizing the house, which had developed several critical structural problems, the result of failing gutters, which funneled water into the brick and stonework. The rear bay was particularly perilous, were some of the facing masonry had dropped, and pulled away from the wall structure.

    We received a series of pointless bureaucratic excuses, all of which the state had been using, almost literally word for word, for perhaps two decades. We decided the house had no time left, and wrote a witheringly polite letter of concern. We sent copies to everyone we could think of. Several times. Within a very short period of time, the state stabilized the stonework, secured the house against vandals, and eventually reordered the surrounding landscape to more closely resemble Vaux’s original intent.

    Before the house was secured, we walked through it a number of times with Vaux’s book Villas and Cottages, and discovered that many interior details in his book were directly shared with the plans of The Point. Even to proportions and locations. At the very least, it represents Vaux’s architectural ideas at the time The Point was designed and the book written.

    This home was never ‘merely historic.’

    What is more, the stair hall was relatively intact at the time we wandered through the house, and with details hidden behind the overblown neo-classical remodeling, it was obvious, at least to us, that the house could and must be fully restored to its Gothic Revival appearance.

    There were two very exciting ‘discoveries.’ First, my friend tracked many of the original plans to a private collection. Second, we found a trove of original Gothic Revival exterior and interior trim. We secured this material to the best of our ability. These finds further convinced us the house must be restored.

    Finally, a brief note about those 1901 interiors. My sneering remark is based on the plain fact that they are overblown for the surprisingly modest scale of the house’s interior. In addition, many similar interiors survive across New York State, while domestic Gothic Revival interiors by any Victorian, but particularly Vaux, are a rarity.

    The Gothic interiors may or may not be restored, but the original interiors were never ‘merely historic.’

    Gregory Hubbard
    Chatsworth, California

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  12. An additional note:
    Presuming that you are not too angry with me for the above remarks, please accept my further recommendation, and walk to the house up the original drive from Staatsburg in winter. With the leaves gone, Vaux's original dramatic entry drive makes a great deal of sense. It is picturesque beyond belief. There are surprising vistas, glances up toward the house, and unnecessary but very dramatic turns and twists.

    This house and its park really do represent Calvert Vaux and his ideas on good design.

    Gregory Hubbard

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  13. hi, on a recent trip in that area I went for a walk out to the house because I saw your blog. I am happy to say that there is a lot of work going on at the house! a new roof has been added and the old kitchen that was added on was torn off. I was just wondering if you know what that hole is in the floor on the third floor that you had photographed and also, do you know what they plan to do with the house

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  14. To All: There are many false assumptions and much misinformation contained in many of these comments. As the last commenter stated, the house is being restored as I type - between New York State Parks and Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance, just about $1 million has gone into a first restoration phase - mainly restoration of the roof and repairs/restoration of exterior masonry, all under the supervision of NYS Parks. Please go to the Hoyt House page at www.calvertvaux.org for details on history, the restoration and adaptive reuse plans. E-mail us at info@calvertvaux.org if you have any questions.

    TO GREGORY HUBBARD: Concerning any interior elements of the house that you state that you "secured," icncluding the trim work you mention- if any such items from the house are in your possession, Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance is searching for all original elements and furnishings - we want to put as many of those items back into the house as possible. Many people have already come forward with items either bought at auction or just carried off. There will be no penalties or legal ramifications - we just want those items back in the house where they belong - this applies to everyone. Please e-mail astrauber@calvertvaux.org and let us know what you have. Thank you.

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    1. Wonderful to hear that the house is being stabilized and restored by NYS of all sources and your wonderful society. I presume the restoration will show the house as it changed over time and that will mean retaining the updated classical interior decoration and panelling so I am sure your society will never hear back from good old Gregory Hubbard, having stolen the Gothic interior trim from the house in the first place. It was obviously left in the basement or out buildings when the home was renovated at the turn of the 20th century by the family. I am sure the thief will not being willing to part with it without making demands that the interiors be restored as he sees fit since he is unhappy with the Gilded Age interiors as they were changed by the family to keep up with changing tastes. Please let us know when your incredible work will be finished and of course if you ever heard back from Chef Hubbard. I doubt it.

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  15. I grew up hiking around that area of Staatsburg. When i was around 7 I was with my father by the old Hoyt house. I couldn't beleive such a nice place could be left to rot like that...then a large black snake slithered past us and that was the end of my days getting even remotely close to the structure. But it is great to see that the care it deserves is being applied in recent days.

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