Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Castles on the Hudson, July 24-25, 2017

Twilight at Boscobel
Following our entertaining day at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, we departed southwards for the next chapter in our trip: fancy houses along the Hudson River.  Following the GPS recommendations, we found ourselves on the Taconic State Parkway.  We had driven a section of this road further north and it was a "parkway" there but approaching New York City the traffic was crazy and the road was not wide.  Where it did widen out the traffic was even crazier and then it began to rain

We crossed the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, which was under construction as the old span was being replaced and with some relief came to our hotel, the HNA Palisades Resort and Conference Center.  We had picked this due to its proximity to the first historic house on our list and its reasonable price (especially for something close to New York City) but were pleasantly surprised by how nice it was.  A one-time IBM conference center, it was very spacious, had friendly staff, and offered a good buffet breakfast.

The next morning we crossed Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge again and exited the busy highway almost immediately after crossing as the exit for Tarrytown was right there.  We soon found ourselves at the gatehouse in front of Lyndhurst, our stop for the morning and the first Hudson River estate on this trip.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain at this point in the day.  But we received a cheerful welcome from the gatehouse attendant, who was very impressed with the Corvette.

Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, New York
Designed in 1838 by architect Alexander Jackson Davis for former New York City mayor William Paulding, this summer residence on the Hudson is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival in the United States.  With its pointed spires and asymmetry it was quite unlike any other homes built in the post-Colonial period.  Davis subsequently redesigned the house for its second owner, New York merchant George Merritt, doubling it in size.  It was named "Lyndenhurst" at this point as a nod to the fine linden trees on the extensive grounds.

Seven years after Merritt died in 1873, the property was purchased by one of the Gilded Age's notorious financial operators, Jay Gould.  Gould, who attempted to corner the market in gold in 1869 with his partner Jim Fisk, was one of the most reviled of the so-called Robber Barons. He and his associates were linked to the infamous Tweed Ring and the corruption of New York City politics.  Gould, Fisk and Daniel Drew waged a titanic war with Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railroad but were unsuccessful.  Surprisingly, during the Erie episode Gould was swindled out of $1 million by a confidence trickster, Lord Gordon-Gordon, who fled to Canada after cheating the financier out of Erie Railroad stock.  Gould and associates attempted to kidnap him from Manitoba and bring him back to the US but were foiled by the Northwest Mounted Police although it became an international incident.
Entry vestibule to the house
In any event, by 1884 Gould controlled the Western Union Telegraph Company, the Union Pacific Railway, and the New York Elevated Railway.  Lyndhurst was his retreat from the pressures of Wall Street and he spend a great deal of time at the estate, particularly after his health failed due to tuberculosis.  He died in 1892, aged 56.  His oldest daughter had charge of Lyndhurst until her death in 1938, when her younger sister inherited it.  The house and its 67 acres was subsequently deeded to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1961 upon her passing.

The art gallery

The state bedroom

The dining room
From the Lyndhurst website: "Lyndhurst’s vast collection of art, antiques, and furniture have remained largely intact due to the mansion’s use primarily as a country residence. In most instances, the furnishings are original to the house, and more than fifty pieces were designed by the architect himself, Alexander Jackson Davis. The arrangement of the rooms reflects the lives of one of the three major families and the five major owners that lived here. As such, the mansion reflects the development of American identity and taste during the 19th and early 20th centuries."

Our tour guide was very entertaining.  When he posed questions, if you had the correct answer you were rewarded with a TicTac mint.  Needless to say, the Canadian visitors left with very fresh breaths.  After the tour we spoke about our travel plans and he suggested that instead of our intended next destination on the Hudson, a Vanderbilt mansion, we go to a different house in Garrison, New York.  Although the Vanderbilt house was very impressive, he said it was also undergoing renovations and many of the rooms had had their furniture taken out or were under plastic sheeting.  So we took his advice and were glad that we did.

Boscobel, Hudson River elevation (photo by Bill Irwin)
A superb example of the Federalist style of architecture, Boscobel is a house with quite a remarkable history.  It was built from 1804 to 1808 by States Dyckman, a descendant of an old Dutch family in New York, and, oddly, a committed Loyalist.  During the War of Independence, he served in the British Army's Quartermaster Corps, maintaining accounts.  When the Quartermaster General Sir William Erskine was recalled to London in 1779 for an audit and to defend himself from charges of war profiteering, he took Dyckman with him.  Dyckman ended up remaining in England for a decade, helping with other investigations.  He returned to now-independent America in 1789 with his finances in good shape, partially due to an annuity from Erskine, and accompanied by many fine articles of art and furniture..  He married in 1794 to a lady of Loyalist stock, Elizabeth Corne, and set himself up as a gentleman farmer, but went through his money fairly quickly.  After a shorter sojourn in England from 1799 to 1802, he came back considerably wealthier but in poor health.  Construction of the house, on a 250 acre farm near Montrose, New York, began in 1804 but he died in 1806, so did not live to see its completion in 1808.  The name Boscobel is probably derived from Boscobel House in Shropshire, England.  It means "beautiful woodland" it Italian.

Entrance hall
The Dyckman family retained ownership of the house until the 1920s but by the 1950s it had deteriorated considerably.  The grounds were used for a Veterans Administration hospital and a contractor had won a bid for $35 to tear down the old house.  A group was formed to save the house and what was left of it was relocated to its present site near Garrison, New York, 10 miles away, on grounds that are much more like a country estate than the original farm would have been.  The house was reconstructed, opening to the public in 1961, but was closed for six months in 1977 and redecorated when documents were discovered giving a more accurate picture of what it was like when the Dyckmans were there.  

Drawing room

The library

Dining room
The house features a superb collection of silver, ceramics, and glassware, including items owned by the Dyckmans, as well as one of the finest collections of New York furniture from the Federalist period, including documented pieces by Duncan Phyfe, the noted cabinetmaker.

Peter Dyckman's bedroom
The excellence of the house is complimented by the grounds, which are beautifully set out but also feature fabulous views over the Hudson River.

View across the Hudson River, West Point to the left
After strolling through the herb and rose gardens and admiring the bronze busts of famous Hudson River School artists, we returned to the car and headed north on I-87 to Coxsackie, New York, where we put in for the night, ending our first day of Hudson River house visits.

Up early the next morning, we enjoyed fine weather as we backtracked a bit and returned south, driving for 20 minutes to reach Catskill, New York (still on the west side of the Hudson River) and our morning's destination: the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Born in Lancashire in 1801, Thomas Cole emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818.  He found work as an engraver and began to work as an artist, although largely self-taught.  At first concentrating on portraits, he eventually switched to landscape art.  He moved from Philadelphia to Catskill, New York in 1825 and his landscape painting of the Hudson Valley region soon gained the notice of prominent backers.  In addition to his paintings of nature, he also did allegorical works, the most famous being the five painting set "Course of Empire," showing the rise and fall of a civilization.  Cole travelled in Europe to learn from Old Master painting styles and while in England met Turner and Constable.  His work established him as the first of the romantic Hudson River School of painters, who celebrated the American landscape and addressed the themes of discovery, exploration and settlement.  Cole was deeply concerned about the disappearing wilderness and wanted to capture the beauty of what remained.

Thomas Cole, "The Oxbow" 1836

Thomas Cole, "Course of Empire--Savage State" 1836
He spent time at this house, called Cedar Grove, and eventually married the niece of the owner in 1836 and although intending to build a new house on the property Cole and his family (eventually five children) remained at Cedar Grove.  In 1839 the artist took over part of a barn on the property as a studio, with an additional window put in to provide northern light.  This structure still stands.

Achieving a degree of commercial as well as critical success, Thomas Cole was able to construct a new studio building but was only able to use it in the year prior to his death in 1848.  This building was used by artists of the Hudson River School, of which Cole had been the guiding influence, for some years until it was torn down in the 1970s.  This exterior of this building was reconstructed, with the interior serving as a modern museum-quality gallery, and dedicated in 2016.

New Studio reconstruction (Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO)
Although Cole was a major figure in American art and highly respected, his family fell on hard financial times and the property, much reduced in area due to local development, eventually ended up in the hands of four art lovers after the State of New York declined to preserve it and the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development listed it for sale with restrictive covenants in 1981.  Restoration work was commenced.  The National Park Service also declined to acquire it but the Greene County Historical Society did in 1998, at which point restoration work began in earnest.  Cedar Grove was opened for visitors in 2001.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
The house has been restored but given the value of Cole's paintings there is not much original art in the house, although, interestingly, he did paint the decorative borders of the rooms and these were rediscovered when the house was restored.  In addition to rooms that would have looked similar to their appearance in Cole's time, there is a room with a multimedia display devoted to his life and work.

Cedar Grove parlor (Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO)
Crossing the Hudson River on the Rip van Winkle Bridge (which, when built, had taken some of Cedar Grove's acreage), we turned north on NY 9 and 45 minutes later were in Kinderhook, a charming village where we stopped for coffee and a sandwich lunch at the Broad Street Bagel Compan, across the street from the James Vanderpoel House of History, a c. 1819 Federal style building that houses exhibits of the Columbia County Historical Society.

James Vanderpoel House of History, Kinderhook, New York
Lunch finished, we left Kinderhook and drove the 2 miles to the Martin van Buren National Historic Site.  Van Buren, who nobody thinks much about these days, was the eighth President of the United States and the first President born in an independent United States of America.

Martin van Buren (1782-1862), portrait by George Healey
Martin van Buren had a remarkable career in politics.  A lawyer by training, he served as a New York State Senator, a US Senator for New York, Governor of New York, Secretary of State, Minister to Britain, and Vice-President before his election as President, as the anointed successor to the popular Andrew Jackson, in 1836.  He was a capable political leader, working to build his fractious colleagues in the Democratic-Republican (later Democratic) Party into a cohesive and unified organization.  This was the dawn of party politics in America and he was seen by opponents as corrupt and untrustworthy, neither of which was accurate.  His Presidency coincided with the Panic of 1837, which led to five years of economic depression.  A brilliant political organizer, (his machine in New York was called "the Albany Regency"  by rivals) van Buren proved ineffectual in addressing the economic crisis and was defeated by his Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, in 1840.  "The Fox of Kinderhook," also nicknamed "The Little Magician," sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination again in 1844 without success.  Becoming more and more opposed to slavery, he ran as the Free Soil Party candidate in 1848 and although he received over 215,000 votes in that closely-contested election, he got no electoral votes.

While still President in 1839, he purchased a farming property of 137 acres 2 miles from Kinderhook, moving into the house in 1841 and expanding his holdings to 225 acres by 1845.  The house, built in 1797, had been owned by the Van Ness family and it was where Washington Irving wrote much of  his famous "History of New York."  Irving and van Buren were to become friends.  

The Formal Parlour, where van Buren would meet with political colleagues

The Green Room, where the family and guests would socialize after dinner

The Main Hall, made up from two rooms and furnished with a dining room table and French wallpaper

The library

The Best Bedroom, reserved for special guests such as Senator Henry Clay
Van Buren, whose wife had died in 1819, had four adult sons and invited them to move into the house, now called Lindenwald.  It was remodelled and expanded to 36 rooms in 1849 and became an Italianate villa, a popular style at the time.  Van Buren's farm was a successful enterprise, growing vegetables on 191 acres, and the park today includes 12.8 acres of the original farm property.  Van Buren died at home at Lindenwald in 1862 as the Civil War raged.

The President's Bedroom, where van Buren died.  The walking stick on the bed was a gift from Andrew Jackson
And thus concluded our tour of historic houses along the Hudson River.  We returned to the car and headed north again to our excellent Bed & Breakfast establishment just outside of Saratoga Springs.

Note on the photographs: as I accidentally/stupidly deleted all my excellent photos from these two days of travelling along the Hudson River, all the photos here are from the websites of the places named and not mine.

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