Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One Man's Castle

The Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), fleeing England to Rome for his health, was killed by a doctor. Treating a hemorrhaging cough by blood letting, and diagnosing the source of Keat's tuberculosis as his stomach (go figure), Dr. James Clark prescribed a diet of one anchovy and one slice of bread per day which quickly finished the patient off. Poor 25-year-old Keats was in such a state of despair at the end that he insisted the words, "Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water" be chiseled on his nameless tomb. When you come right down to it, most of our names might just as well be writ in water, including that of the man who, in 1858, built this fashionable "Gothick" villa on a bluff above the Hudson. His name was Calvin Tomkins (1793-1890), the house is called Boulderberg, it stands in Tomkins Cove, NY, and you've probably never heard of any of this. Tomkins - that's "Tomkins" without a "p" - was a big deal businessman whose descendants played prominent roles in New York City history. He was, among other things, the owner of huge limestone quarries, one of which would still be visible from his house, were it not for the growing trees. Unlike Riverdale's conservation-minded George Perkins - you can read about him at http://bigoldhouses.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-most-distinguished-rental.html - Calvin Tomkins was of the Victorian persuasion which believed that "progress" justified anything and aesthetics were fine unless they got in the way. He is responsible for a still-working limestone crater at Tomkins Cove, which makes Krakatoa look petite, as well as brickyards, plaster factories and cement plants up and down the Hudson, and even into Canada. The vintage image below shows the mansion he called Boulderberg at high tide, sometime in the late 19th century. The drive sweeps around from the left, headed for the front door behind a lacy porch overlooking the river.
Here's the house today, looking remarkably intact. Well, the original porch is gone, replaced in the 1970s by an unsympathetic modern covered terrace that, for a time, sheltered restaurant tables.
That covered terrace is not good, although the view is impressive.
However, it is not pristine. Railroad tracks and the active quarry lie immediately to the south at the foot of the bluff. In the other direction, mostly out of sight, is a power station. On the opposite side of the river from that, a bit to the left of the smoke, is Con Edison's Indian Point nuclear plant.
I doubt any of this would have bothered Calvin Tomkins, and it is moot whether it bothers anybody today. Tomkins Cove seems a modest place at first blush, but there turn out to be surprisingly luxurious places up in the hills. None, however, comes close to Boulderberg in terms of architectural inventiveness.
The image below shows the inland side of the house. The modern driveway has been rerouted and a former side entrance, seen on the right, has become the new front door. Boulderberg has the curious distinction of being the largest poured concrete domestic structure in the state of New York. Indeed, the New York Concrete Construction Institute describes it, perhaps not disinterestedly, as a "monument to the versatility and durability of cast-in-place concrete." A concrete house makes sense, given that Tomkins was the concrete king of New York. Raymond Huen, who wrote the Institute article, attributes the architectural design to Calvert Vaux, a man best known for his work on Central park with Frederick Olmsted. The attribution seems reasonable, given Vaux's high Victorian aesthetic, although I have not seen it elsewhere.
Because I am a front door kind of a guy, we're retracing our steps to the ugly covered terrace, ignoring the added glassed in porch, and entering Boulderberg through the original front door.
You're probably wondering what it is; I did too; it's a monkey.
How about this plasterwork? Besides brick, cement, gravel and lime businesses, Tomkins owned the Newark Plaster Company, founded in 1818. Apparently, if anybody knew a good decorative plasterer, it was Calvin Tomkins.
Boulderberg's floor plan is basic "Big Old House," with a notable (albeit understandable, given the date of construction) lack of bathrooms. The first floor of the main block contains the four obligatory rooms seen in your better class of vintage house, to wit: reception room, drawing room, library and dining room. Kitchen and pantries are housed in a wing to the west. The front door is behind me in the image below, the reception room to the right and the drawing room to the left. I explored the reception room first, before crossing the hall and checking out the drawing room.
The interior shutters in this house, when not in use, are hidden away in wall pockets. When pulled out, the louvered elements can be configured in a variety of positions.
A small sun room with a beautiful southeast view straddles the boundary between drawing room and original library. The latter is presently set up as a dining room, for reasons you shall shortly see. P.S. I'm guessing the "Gothick" bookcase next to the fireplace is original to the house.
The dining room was converted to a barroom during Boulderberg's stint as a restaurant. (Where's my ax?)
Not a shred of serving pantry detail survives from the original construction. Same for the kitchen, save for the stove wall. The servants' stair and back door remain unchanged.
Time to go upstairs. My friends will please note that mine is not the only house in the Hudson Valley that is chilly in January.
There are four bedrooms in the family section of the second floor, plus a single un-wonderful renovated bath.
Also on the second floor, lit by a bay window above the front door, is a boudoir - or conservatory or sitting room or whatever it was - set apart from the rest of the house by its remarkable high style wall finish. Scagliola, which looks for all the world like exotic marble, is a composite of a type of gypsum called selenite (Tomkins also owned gypsum quarries), marble chips, glue and pigments that can be colored, veined, shaped and polished to produce marble-like surfaces that often eclipse the real thing. Many's the time a scagliola column or architrave has fooled me. The name comes from the Italian "scaglia," meaning "chips."
The corridor to the second floor servants' rooms wouldn't originally have had so "family-looking" a rug. Several of the cubicles at its end have been awkwardly combined. That strange wall in the middle of the second image encloses the kitchen chimney.
Time to go to the third floor, where a surprise awaits.
Architecturally, this house is full of them - surprises, that is. Third floors in big old houses traditionally housed children. Calvin Tomkins had seven of those, but by the time he built Boulderberg, the six survivors were already producing grandchildren. I suspect this floor, with six nifty under-the-eaves bedrooms and a jazzy double height lobby, was intended for them. Tomkins' ancestors were ultra-Puritanical pilgrims who wanted to establish a theocratic government in Newark, N.J. (They should see the place now). According to his wife's family website - the Turse/Tuers/Toers Family Pages - Tomkins himself was "a sturdy Republican, staunch Methodist, and an earnest temperance worker." In 1884, he ceded control of the family businesses to his eldest son Walter and retired to Boulderberg to bask in a twilight of honor, family, Methodism, sobriety and lots and lots of money. He died in 1890 at the age of 97.
While we climb to the extremely cool lantern that sits on top of the house, a few words are in order about Tomkins' grandson, also named Calvin Tomkins (1858-1921). This man was as politically influential and public spirited as his grandfather was successful in business. CT-2 (Cornell 1879) ran the family mining and manufacturing empire after his own father's death in 1896. He also found time to act as New York's Commissioner of Docks and Ferries, president of the Municipal Art Society, and a vigorous proponent of the "comprehensive plan" for New York harbor. These latter efforts contributed to the creation of today's Port Authority. While the grandfather blighted the landscape with quarries, the grandson supported City Beautiful, a movement which strove to beautify the urban environment as a means of inspiring civic virtue and moral rectitude. Don't laugh: the anti-squeegee man, anti-graffiti policies of Rudy Giuliani are cousins to this same idea.
Boulderberg stayed in the family through much of the 20th century, passing from one relative to another. Starting in the 1940s, the government's famous mothball fleet, sometimes numbering over 150 decommissioned ships, was anchored out front, apparently bothering no one. A Tomkins granddaughter named Mrs. Rutledge Odell was spending the winter here in 1953 when she died at the age of 93. By the early 1970s, both fleet and Tomkins descendants had given up on the place and Boulderberg became a restaurant.
In January of 1974, the New York Times published a restaurant review titled, "Why Don't You Ever Go To Rockland, They Asked." Reviewer John Hess answered that question by noting the Boulderberg Manor Restaurant's "pathetic underdone quiche," "raw clams utterly devoid of taste," "onion soup with a lump of gummy cheese at the bottom" and (my favorite) "the first hard boiled custard we have ever seen." Ouch. By the late 1980s, Boulderberg was a private house again, which it remains today, although it's now for sale. It is a house - no fooling here - on which somebody could get a really good deal. Richard Ellis of Ellis Sotheby's in Nyack represents the owner; Rich's email is richard.ellis@sothebysrealty.com.
Postscript: Sophisticated readers may wonder whether The New Yorker Magazine's celebrated art critic, Calvin Tomkins, is related to the Tomkins clan of Tomkins Cove. That would be a "yes": Calvin Tomkins is CT-1's great-great-great-grandson, but he unfortunately has never set foot in Boulderberg.

11 comments:

  1. Those Victorians! They sure knew how to build a SOLID house! Crazy, crazy amount of Rococo-Revival plaster work in this house. You have to love that Italianate lantern plunked down atop a Gothic Revival house.

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  2. You'd think by now that the owners would remove the hideous changes linked to the restaurant conversion; I can't imagine how you'd live with them, inside or out. The former restauranteurs and the designer responsible must have been mentally disordered. Thankfully most of the original house survives for the happy Calvert Vaux fan with deep pockets.

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  3. Beautiful House...can I come over for Dinner.. I use to live in Putnam Valley for sixteen years in a old Historic Farm house built in 1790. It was a family inheritance of my ex-husband. Now I move on and live in Duchess, which by the way is Historic as well...It's nice to visit inside these old homes to see how they lived back then. Thanks for sharing..

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  4. Beautifully preserved, in spite of the restaurant business. So many old houses have had the decorations scraped off or painted over - enough to make one weep - but this is nearly pristine.

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  5. Lovely, lovely. Well...except for that wart of a terrace. I believe this home was in "Hudson River Villas", which I just finished reading. The details on the construction were fascinating, and it is nice to see some of them - the slide-away shutters, etc. in your beautiful pictures!

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  6. Yeah, you got to another one of my favorites! I have a friend, whose grandmother, another Calvin Tomkins descendant, grew up in the Bouderberg, and whose immediate family members still live on several smaller, adjacent lots that were kept and built on when the the big house was sold many years ago. I've always loved this house, even back when it was a restaurant. The interior is just spectacular. I'm not if sure the family ever used the bigger fancier door on the river side as a main entrance. It's my understanding that the little wooden porch on the north side is where they came in. But I wasn't there in the mid-19th century, so I could be wrong about that. Rarely does one see this much original detail, especially with so much of it being so very Gothic Revival. I'm so glad it was purchased by someone who would seem to appreciate the place. The property was on and off the market for a very long time, but I guess its price being slashed from over 12 million to under 2 million probably helped to finally sell it.

    I've always wondered about the alleged Calvert Vaux connection I read somewhere that the attribution was based mostly (or only) on the fact that in the 1850s, Vaux briefly wrote (not sure where exactly) about building with concrete and made a reference to a "Mr. Thompson" who had built or was building a concrete house. Apparently some people assumed that Vaux wrote "Thompson" by mistake and actually meant "Tomkins." IDK, could be! This house does differ in many ways from Vaux's other homes from this period but, then again, it could very well be his work, or at least a design he contributed to. Whether it's Vaux's design or not, The Boulderberg will always be one of my most favorite Gothic Revival houses. Thank you so much for this posting.

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    1. Just wanted to add that, on page 236 of Calvert Vaux's "Villas & Cottages," there is an illustration of "an oak mantle-piece" that had been executed for a diningi room in Fishkill Landing (Beacon nowadays, no?) that is almost a dead ringer for the wooden mantel shown in your above photo. Make what you will of that, I guess:)

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  7. I remember running around Boulderberg as a teenager in the 70's and going to a Christmas tree decorating party there! Growing up in Stony Point, the next town over, I always loved this beautiful home on the Hudson; I also remember the battle ships anchored there! So glad it's still standing and hope someone with the love and financial means will see what a wonderful home and piece of history it is and make it their own for their family and generations to come...

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  8. I remember going there in the 80's quite a lot when it was a restaurant since I come from the North Rockland area. I was always fascinated and was in love with that mansion and its history. I've never seen a house quite like it even though I've been in a number of Gothic Revivals. There are a number of these types of houses in Haverstraw NY, a couple towns south of it as well, but none of them in my view compare with its beauty. I hope who ever buys it will have the means and TLC to keep restoring it to its original state. I am with you John that the porch and awning that overlooks the river have to go and should be replaced by a porch that is the same style it was as well that bar need to be dismantled and taken out of there along with remodeling the Kitchen, which is awful. I would love to see this house properly restored to show off its exact original period. Overall though this mansion is stunning and well beloved by many. Thank you for this wonderful post!

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  9. This is an interesting and very informative topic. Thanks for sharing you thoughts on this issue. Keep it up, looking forward to read another one in the future.

    andrew
    best bathroom remodelers in college station

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  10. My wife an I got married there in May of 1989 and had a fantastic day! We returned to the restaurant for their mystery murder dinners (great setting). The covered porch looks out of place but was perfect for housing the 7 piece band and floor was ideal for dancing. Many of our friends still reflect on our wedding as one of the best they ever attended and a lot had to due with the venue. Good memories of a home that we hope will endure.

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