Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Under-appreciated Classic

Today I am in Greenwich, CT, land of the hedge fund king and the $20 million "tear-down," a fate which may well await this fine mid-country Colonial Revival period piece from 1923.

Its intentional lack of flash - so scholarly, so restrained - reflects not only the rejection of Edwardian theatricality of the fashionable world of its time, but the architect's thoroughgoing familiarity with 18th century American design and detailing.



At 9200 square feet, you can hardly call this a mansion, at least by Greenwich standards. It was built for a 38-year old business executive named Louis William Dommerich (1885-1952), a Yale grad (Class of '07) and partner in a family firm that would in time become a part of Chemical Bank. Dommerich and his wife Elsa, whom he married in 1913, lived here and in New York with 3 children - Elsa, Clara and William. Interestingly, a 1914 Social Register lists the Dommerichs' Manhattan address as 314 West 75th St. What were they doing on the West Side? "Real New Yorkers live on the West Side," quipped a long departed grandmother of a society friend. "People from Pittsburgh live over there," (meaning Fifth Avenue).






The fashion for Greenwich started in the late 19th century. By the '20s it was thick with people named Converse, Milbank, Havemeyer, Rockefeller, Greenway, and generally acknowledged to be the richest town in the world. I don't know if it still is, but it sure looks that way. "Vanity Fair" describes the Greenwich grandees of today as "a closely knit, inscrutable group of men who run hedge funds..(and build)..swollen over-ambitious mansions...Who uses 25 parking spots? Does anyone sleep in all those beds?" Today's Big Old House isn't swollen, and it sits on 17 already subdivided mid-country acres, none of which bodes particuarly well for its future.

The Colonial Revival started in the late 1870s, when young American architects, brimful of post-Civil War nationalism, began a self-conscious search for a uniquely American style of architecture. The initial result was the so-called "Modernized Colonial," a pastiche of pre-revolutionary details - windows, eaves, dormers, bays, what have you - tossed into a figurative pot and shaken out in original combinations. This created undeniably original looking houses which, to the non-professional eye, just look "Victorian." P.S. The Shingle Style is a sub-category of Modernized Colonials.

Georgian symmetry, design discipline and common sense entered the picture in the 1890s, when society architects began giving rich clients grander sized but more compositionally balanced interpretations of the colonial tradition. Big Colonial Revival houses built between the '90s and the First War combine scale, formality and Edwardian detailing in a manner precisely to my taste. Today's house is another breed of colonial cat - scaled down, purposely restrained, rigorously scholarly in detail - but so well done I can't help but admire it.

The architect of this house has succeeded where the past practitioners of modernized colonialism failed. Historically correct design elements - gorgeous turned newels and balusters, wide plank floors, a well proportioned dado, recessed doors, correct reproduction hinges and hardware, etc., etc. - are employed in precisely the manner our colonial ancestors would have employed them. Of course, everything here is four times as big, but the result is an authentically American look with legitimate American antecedents.




Good Colonial Revival houses are notable for sunshine and light. Don't be fooled by the purposeful simplicity of the fireplace and cornice, the dado and the doors. This spacious drawing room was designed as an elegant setting for fine antiques.




There are 13 windows across the front of this house, 7 in the central block and 3 in each of the two flanking wings. A sunroom, designated as "South Porch" on the kitchen annunciator, occupies the ground floor of the southern wing. It is flooded with light from windows on three sides, plus a peculiar pair of glazed doors opening onto a walled garden on the south. Why are there two doors instead of one? Beats me. If the room were ever divided in half, you'd see evidence on the floor, which you don't. Plus which, the fireplace, an elaborate interpretation of some fairytale 18th century farmhouse kitchen, is located directly on axis with the two doors. Perhaps one of my readers will know the explanation, because I sure don't.







Let's return to the main hall (so colonial), admire a bit of repro (or possibly antique) hardware, and proceed to the library.



There is an almost modern simplicity to the library, whose design speaks eloquently to the architect's over-riding aesthetic of restrained good taste. Things to note here and in the adjoining powder room: a lack of elaborate moldings; unusual surface texture of the wall paneling; vintage ceramic flooring; beautiful colonial style hardware.









The dining room door, like others in the house, could be in Colonial Williamsburg.





A swing door to the right of the dining room fireplace leads to a modern (ca. 1923) serving pantry and kitchen. Had this house been built ten years earlier, it's even money the kitchen would have been in the basement. Locating it on the main floor made life easier for the servants. Save for the 1970s insertion of an unlovely pantry sink, and the substitution of new appliances in the surprisingly small kitchen, little has changed here since the house was built.









The rest of the main floor on the north wing is taken up by a former servant hall (disguised, it would seem, as a set from 'That '70s Show'), laundry room, servants' half bath, and a back hall stair to five maids' rooms on the floor above.







We, however, will take the main stair. The Palladian window at the top of it is actually a door to a terrace above the porch. The seat converts to a step, the diminutive double doors beneath the sill open inwards, and the double sash retracts into the ceiling.





More scholarly colonial design work is seen in this door on the south end of the stair landing. Beyond it is a private corridor giving access to a complex of 4 family bedrooms. Let's look first at the master, which is not overly large, has neither dressing room nor adjacent boudoir, and connects to a bathroom which lacks a separate servants' entrance. Mr. & Mrs. Dommerich apparently had a much simpler lifestyle than people in their position had a generation earlier.







Back in the private corridor outside the master, a door leads to a pair of cheerful corner bedrooms with shared bath which I assume belonged to the Dommerich girls. The box locks and strap hinges look like genuine antiques. The textured plaster is an homage to old farmhouse finishes.








In the image below, the girls' bedrooms are behind the camera and their bathroom door is on the right. The door to the private corridor is dead ahead; their parents' room is out of sight beyond it on the left; their brother's room, seen in the 2nd and 3rd images below, is beyond it on the right. The arched door in the distance marks the boundary between the private corridor and the second floor landing.



Three guestrooms and 3 baths flank the 2nd floor hall, which ends at the door to the servants' quarters.






The flooring and stair rail are simpler and the bedrooms smaller, but these cheery accommodations represent a quantum leap from the attic cubicles endured by earlier generations of hapless maids who cooked in the summer, froze in the winter, and hiked epic distances every time the annunciator buzzed.





Of course I went up to the attic, where I discovered that this rambling shingled manse was framed with steel beams.



I also checked out the basement.



Louis W. Dommerich died eleven days before Christmas, 1952. He was only 67. The "Times" described him as an insurance company exec, chairman of the board of L.F. Dommerich, clubman (Union League, Manursing Island, Indian Harbor Yacht, Greenwich Country Club), father of 3, and lifelong Republican. Mrs. Dommerich survived him by 14 years, dying in Greenwich in 1966. The present owner has been here since the early 1970s.

I try not to roll my eyes when I hear somebody calling a 2-acre property an "estate." I mean, get real. However, I suppose 17 acres on Round Hill Road does qualify. The aforementioned subdivision, which exists only on paper at the moment, is gentle as subdivisions go. The main house, heated pool, tennis court, small lake and caretaker's cottage of a type that city people kill to rent, sit on 8.74 acres.

The large building in the image below, now altered into apartments but probably built as a garage sits together with a small guesthouse on 2.1 acres to the north. The diminutive pavilion we glimpsed at the foot of the walled garden is on a 2.11 acre plot. Two additional 2-acre lots are completely out of sight and accessed from an earlier subdivision road called Sheffield Way. Perhaps you'll buy the whole thing for $16 million, keep it together and save this very worthy house. Bill Andruss of Sothebys represents the owner; his email is bill.andruss@sothebyshomes.com.

19 comments:

  1. Hi John - another mini-vacation to a beautiful house. Quick question - do you think the display case to the right of the fire in the drawing room was ever a second doorway to the sun room beyond or is it original? I like to get these important details straight in my head. :) Cheers!

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    1. I'm pretty sure those recessed shelves are original

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  2. Thank you for indulging my voyeurism! As a teenager my family lived in an old house on Govenors Island in New York City. If you ever visit our home is now the visitor center. The dining room had a toe buzzer to call for the next course and the kitchen had the call panel shown in many of your posts. My dad used them to call my siblings and myself.
    I enjoy your posts very much

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  3. Very handsome with all the hallmarks of late Colonial Revival: crisp detailing, solid construction, good proportions, livable scale. Very tasteful. The outside is a bit bland and the house will need some work to make it more vialbe for modern tastes (maybe a wing with a media room? And how's the wiring?) Still, a lovely setting for someone's antiques collection.

    That farmhouse-like fireplace in the sun room makes me thing that perhaps someone in the long ago collected "Colonial" kitchen antiques and this was the display area? I saw a similar affectation in the "tap room" at Cater's Grove plantation in Virginia when it was restored to its1920s state (Colonial Williamsburg subsequently closed it as a museum, auctioned the contents and sold the estate to a private owner).

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  4. "People from Pittsburgh live over there." Hilarious, and being from Cleveland, I'm pleased to see Pittsburgh take on the chin for a change.

    I too love original hardware and the details of original bathrooms!

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  5. By the way, recently saw this house on Old House Dreams which put me in mind of this house. Cheers. http://www.oldhousedreams.com/2014/02/20/york-pa/

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  6. Lovely rambling home. A bit severe and strait-laced. I'd hate to see this torn down. Is it an estate? I'd say that 17 acres more than qualifies....that size is nearly 4 blocks sq. Steel framing is most unusual....built to last. This would take a special type of person as a new owner.

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  7. Though I appreciate the attention to accurate reproduction, I can't help noticing room after room of white and delicate pastel paint. Would the colonials have had it that way I wonder? I'd have a hard time not striping and refinishing some of the wood (?) detailing to get some warmth - but I wouldn't remove or change any of it. Really love the hardware and vintage baths and kitchen. The restraint is refreshing after the modern trend to "master spas" and "retreats." How hard could it be to get some privacy in a house this size? Overall a beautiful and worthy home.

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  8. What a serene scene for family life on a grand scale! And therein may lie the solution to the two doors: kids and dogs tend to scramble and squabble through a single narrow opening. Two period-correct doors dampen the herd movement, as well as drafts, without creating a barn-door effect. ?

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  9. I am really appreciating very much by seeing your interesting posts. ROMA

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  10. Another great old house to love. Thanks for the visit!

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  11. This is a glorious big old house - it seems to go on and on! Wonderful details everywhere and so well done - this is a All American House! The owners have been very kind and respectful to this house over the years. I afraid I have little faith in the new owners (whoever they turn out to be) - I hate to think it or let alone say it but - too much money, too many "designers"...God, I hope someone who really cares, really loves this house, will get it. If I were so lucky, I don't think I would change anything - well...maybe the 70's wallpaper! Thanks for showing us this great house!

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  12. I spent time in this house as a kid in the 70's it was and is owned by a family that also used it as a summer house..live on 5th ave in Nyc...relatively untouched since I was last there..fortunately....The Owner bought the main house after the carraige house garage property was sold off as part of the subdivision and then spent many years trying to buy it back from the neighbors she couldn't stand..looks like that was accomplished at some point...putting the original structures back together as one family compound which is a nice trend... that is still happening in Greenwich today...You should definitely go see the Greenway Property on Indian Field Road...its an amazing house...also relatively untouched....only house I have ever seen whose sleeping porch blinds are still intact!....Kitchen still in the basement..

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  13. One of the loveliest homes I've ever seen. Thank you so much for your well-done virtual tours.

    There is something that looks like a dumbwaiter in one of the kitchen/pantry pictures, but the kitchen is on the main floor. ??? just curious.

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  14. Did this house ever sell? Was it torn down?

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  15. My parents place on cape cod....elegant, beautifully restored and perfectly clean. http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/681-Head-Of-The-Bay-Rd-Bourne-MA-02532/55860348_zpid/

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  16. My parents place on cape cod....elegant, beautifully restored and perfectly clean. http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/681-Head-Of-The-Bay-Rd-Bourne-MA-02532/55860348_zpid/

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  17. My parents place on cape cod....elegant, beautifully restored and perfectly clean. http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/681-Head-Of-The-Bay-Rd-Bourne-MA-02532/55860348_zpid/

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  18. The final building was a garage. The building was lived in by the butler on one side and the chauffeur on the other. Each side has four bedrooms, kitchen, dining and living rooms, storage pantries and more. The Dommerich Estate burned down in 1927 so when all the buildings were rebuilt, all were built with 4 inch steel reinforced concrete interior walls. Hence the steel beams in the main house attic you've seen. We used to put mattresses at the end of the attic in the main house and shoot at targets with German Mauser rifles. Lotta fun :-) The concrete makes rennovating any of the buildings problematic. Costs a fortune. Not standard contractor fare. Also makes a tear down expensive. The Dommerich's rebuilt everything to never burn down again. To that end, the final building, that became our home, was the nucleus of the estate's own fire fighting system. There was no town water out this way on Round Hill Road in the 20s. The estate ran on well water two of which are now buried under the raised Earth behind the guest house of the final building You picture. The Dommerichs installed two 60,000 gallon water tanks and pumps in the basement of the eight bedroom house we owned. Independent fire hydrants are strategically located across the property. When we moved in we had a Rolls Royce and a Formula One speed boat in the garage. Big garage! We transformed this into a grand entry gallery, living room/library and dining room which we populated with art from our business travels. Principally California artists. The guest cottage you now see used to be dilapidated stables and storage for estate maintenance equipment under the oversight of estate gardener Mr. Clark. He and his wife were great people. So nice. Beneath the stable down a drive a story beneath we have a nine car garage which dad, a strategic management consultant in new products and product positioning to companies such as Procter & Gamble transformed, with the rest of the property, into what is seen today. He, Martin Calle, Jr. was the architect. Louis Guineri, "Louie" did all the fine work and craftsmanship. Like Leonardo, he worked over a decade, alone, creating a one of a kind home that was 132 Round Hill Road, officially "Spring Hill." We acquired this portion of the property in 1964, including Cemetary dating from the 1600s, and sold it back to the estate owned by Norma Asnes (purchased from Oliver Grace) not long ago. Dad started out as a sales executive with CBS building affiliate stations into the CBS television network in the earlier days of television. Sander van Oker and Walter Cronkite used to baby sit me when dad opened the DC affiliate in the mid 50s. We then moved to Greenwich on North Street (old Pearson Estate) by the Merritt Parkway entrance and the reservoir. We bought Round Hill Road in 1964. Thanks for surfacing all those memories. We used to play in the big house all the time. On the far side of the pond were apple orchards until just after WWII. A cave was dug into the hillside serving as a root cellar for apple storage. It was great fun. What a childhood we had roaming that pre and post Sheffield Way, Lismore Lane 108 acre estate! By the way, a bit of trivia, Oliver and the Grace family are descendants of Oliver Cromwell. Brother J. Peter Grace headed the Presidential Grace Commission, Marine Midland Bank used to be Grace Marine Midland Bank, owned Grace Chemical and more. As you enter the main house gallery and turn to the left, we'd all gather to watch movies on weekends. Mrs. Grace was a wonderful woman who also had the best quiche lorraine recipe this side of Julia Childs. Weekend were spent swimming many days, and that quiche was, I hate to say it because I once worked for Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago, better than any Chicago deep dish pizza. So much more to tell. Thanks for the journey. May this place never take a turn down the path to mediocrity!

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