No, seriously, I really did, although undeniably the bar lowers for what can be considered dangerous risk in late middle age. No daring do on ocean sailing boats, no climbing of sheer cliffs. No, what I did was merely park illegally for five minutes and step into the middle of speeding commuter traffic (those suburbanites do love to drive their Audis at inappropriate speed) on Rte. 9 in Scarborough New York.
I had to spend three days last week in the Tarrytown region of the Hudson Valley, researching various Maine homes of a family who stuck oil, loaded up their truck and moved to the Hills of Pocantico. The Hudson valley has always been one of my favorite outing destinations, combining as it does world class scenic grandeur, a romantic history and one of the country’s great collections of domestic architecture. Despite the steady march of Dry-Vit and office parks, the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood around Tarrytown and Scarborough in the lower valley still offers much to see, not the least of which is these dramatic gate on Broadway, as the confusing network of routes 9 are often known on their run up the valley.
They are the former entrance to Beechwood, an estate dating back to the 18th century. They were commissioned in the early 20th century by the estate’s then owner, Frank Vanderlip, one of the powers behind First National City Bank. His architect was Rockefeller family favorite William Welles Bosworth, a Beaux Arts trained designer with a special talent for cold, cerebral evocations of the drama of ancient Rome and Greece. For the reader who has never passed these gates, it should be mentioned that the scale is imperial. Although the beautiful Grecian inspired iron gate is kept low to increase the dramatic effect, low in the case is actually around feet high at the crest, and the superb columns, rescued from a great demolished 19th century New York building—I once knew which, the answer now eludes me—are well over twenty feet. Mr. Vanderlip must have felt like an emperor, or more aptly, Croesus, when he arrived home after a hard day of counting piles of money.
Although the gate is abandoned, the estate itself is condominums, and kept in good order, including the Roman gardens and pool added by Vanderlip, also designed by Bosworth. The house, originally a relatively simple structure built in the 18th century, was repeatedly enlarged through the 19th and 20th centuries, is one of those places where degrees of separation abound. The estate was purchased in the late 19th century by H. Walter Webb, a vice president of the New York central, whose brother, Seward, married the boss’s daughter, whose sister Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard owned the estate across the street by McKim, Mead & White, now the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Webb’s widow, Leila Griswold, married Edith Wharton’s partner in decorating crime, the confirmed bachelor Ogden Codman, whose first big job had been for Margaret Shepard’s brother in Newport. And so it goes.
The early Vanderlip years in the 20th century were the estate’s most most glamorous era. Intellectually inclined, Narcisse and Frank Vanderlip built a Montessori school and private theater (above) also designed by Bosworth, on the grounds for their and the neighborhood children. The students later came to include those of John Cheever, who rented a charming studio house on the estate in the mid-20th century (Susan Cheever would return there briefly as a teacher).
By the 1970’s, semi-abandoned, the mansion itself became the setting for Merchant-Ivory’s first production, Savages.
As with all their movies, the set is the star, and James Ivory’s memory of that shoot (click HERE, pg.7
) is worth a read.
|Present day views of Beechwood, and the rotunda library and ballroom added by Bosworth, via Zillow
UPDATE 1: An esteemed and ancient reader with sharp eyes sends this link to a Gant commercial filmed at Beechwood. Would that I looked so lean and fit in my seersucker jacket 😦
UPDATE 2: One of the pleasures of blogging is that if I don’t know it, surely a commenter will (thank-goodness). The columns, whose origin I couldn’t remember, were salvaged from the old New York Customs House designed by Isiah Rogers at 55 Wall Street in 1836-42. After the Customs house removed to Bowling Green, the building was taken over by Vanderlip’s National City Bank, remodeled by McKim Mead & White. Vanderlip had two of the columns, four stories high and turned from single blocks of Quincy granite Think about what I just wrote. Single pieces of granite. Not the pyramids, perhaps, but a fairly huge engineering feat for the time.. No less amazing is that two stories of the columns’ height is buried below ground in their current location.