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LAST WEEK, I FINALLY ACHIEVED ENTRY into a pair of restored 18th century houses in Philadelphia that had eluded me for years. The modest 1776 Todd house, above on left, and the elegant 1786 home of Bishop William White are on the same block in Center City, Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th. They’ve always been closed when I’ve tried to visit in the past. They’re only open in the summer months; sometimes they’re understaffed; they only allow 10 at a time inside; you call for information and can’t get through — so a certain mystique had built up for me around these sites. Then there’s the ticketing rigamarole: you have to first pick up a (free) ticket at the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park, a few blocks away at Market and 6th, and sign up for a scheduled half-hour tour, which happen once or twice a day.

On Friday morning, however, I did it. Five showed up for the tour, including people from Missouri and Washington State. First we visited the middle class house where John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, his wife Dolley Payne Todd, and their two children lived (with just a single servant). It’s very much a Philadelphia row house of the late 18th century, with narrow twisting wooden stairs, a tiny kitchen, a dining room and parlor, small bedrooms, and an office in a prime corner where Todd practiced law. He died here in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, as did 4,000 other Philadelphians , including one of their young sons. Dolley went on to meet another young lawyer, James Madison, in that very house two months later, and eventually became the 4th First Lady of the U.S. The house is furnished with period pieces, though they’re not original to the house — and well done as the restoration is, it is just a warm-up for the Federal-style Bishop White house a few doors down.

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Above: The side of the Todd house is more impressive than the front, which is only two windows wide. We entered through a door behind the picket fence.

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From top: kitchen, dining, study in Todd house.

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The 4-inch-wide door to the left of the stairs is a candle closet(!)

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Above: Fire buckets hang from the ceiling in the Todd house.

IMG_0100When Kevin O’Neill, the National Park Service ranger who led the tour, opened the fanlight door to the Bishop White House, left, we all gasped. It is grand, especially by comparison to the Todd house: the plaster archway in the front hall, the diamond-patterned floor cloth, the wide stair landings and turned balusters, the painstakingly reproduced Scalamandre (or did he say Schumacher?) wallpapers in every room. This house is filled almost exclusively with furnishings that belonged to the original homeowner, a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church just around the corner. The artifacts were rounded up in the late 1940s and ’50s from as far away as Texas and South Africa; they’d been sold off after the Bishop’s death in 1836, but their provenance was apparently traceable down to the silver and china. The Bishop had 11 children and quite a few servants; Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were among the elite guests. He seems to have been an admirable guy — an abolitionist, of an ecumenical bent (rabbis dined here as well), a charitable fellow who never turned a beggar away empty-handed from his door, the story goes.

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Above: The very wallpaper patterns in place in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

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The painting propped on a stand, above, commissioned by one of the Bishop’s children shortly after his death, is of this second-floor study. It greatly enabled an accurate re-creation of the room, even after the house had been occupied by an insurance company for decades (happily, they did no damage to the house’s architectural integrity).

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Above: The Park Ranger peering down the hall to where I was lagging behind to take a picture. He’s hoping I’m not some kind of stealth graffiti artist, or perhaps just anxious to keep to his schedule.

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Above: All the mod cons in a room at the back of the hall — from here straight into an alley that ran behind the house.

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Above: A kitchen much larger than those in other houses of this period. Below: The Bishop’s mosquito-netted bed.

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Some of the Ranger’s statements were questionable, such as that Philly went into decline after the 1790s (when the nation’s capital was moved to D.C. and the founders, who had gathered there as a central point while the Constitution was being written and the nation formed, repaired back to their Virginia plantations and homes elsewhere), and that the city’s reputation and vitality didn’t return until the Bicentennial of 1976. Huh? What about the Industrial Revolution? The 1876 Exposition? American Bandstand?

But it may be true that nothing that came later — not even the current real estate boom, which makes Brooklyn’s look sleepy — ever quite recaptured the glory and opportunity of those post-Revolutionary years, preserved for our consumption in a pair of brick row houses.

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Above: On the same Center City block as the Todd and Bishop White houses, a park in the style of the late 18th century, always worth a look.

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ONCE-MIGHTY TROY, N.Y., one of the nation’s wealthiest cities in the glory days of the Industrial Revolution (iron, steel, precision tools, shirts and collars), fell on hard times in the 20th century, but much of its impressive — in fact, gorgeous — architecture remains intact. Some of its brownstones are more stellar, even, than Brooklyn’s best, and its commercial buildings, in the uniformly antique downtown area, are great beauties.

There’s much for an architecture aficionada to explore, and explore I did last Saturday, in the company of my travelin’ cousin Susan and Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris), a new Troy resident and now expert on the buildings of that city. (Her recent New York Daily News article on the revitalization of Troy is here.)

photoHere we are at Lucas Confectionery, a hip new wine bar/ restaurant/grocery that retains the name of the original 1863 store in this space, toasting the wonders of the city named after the ancient Troy, whose motto is “Ilium fuit, Troja est (Latin for “Ilium was, Troy is”) — and, young entrepreneurs and real estate developers hope, will be.

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Above, Suzanne with Lucas Confectionery owner Vic Christopher, formerly of…Brooklyn!

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The obvious place to begin a walking tour of vintage Troy is Monument Square, where a towering column topped by a figure of Liberty commemorates Civil War dead, and around which are a few thriving boutiques like Truly Rhe and a phenomenally unspoiled Victorian bar/cafe, Illium Cafe (photos below of the building that houses it and its wholly original interior). Try the strawberry mimosa.

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The elegant 1904 McCarthy building on Monument Square, of terra cotta with a proscenium-style arched window, below, just waiting for the right tenant.

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Angling off Monument Square toward the Hudson River — narrower here than in New York City, but the original source of Troy’s commercial success — is River Street, below. The spectacular wedge-shaped Rice Building, an 1871 High Gothic landmark at the corner of River at First, replaced an earlier structure wiped out in an 1820 fire that destroyed all the businesses and warehouses along River Street, which had been a busy commercial district since the 1790s.

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River Street is optimistically dubbed Antiques Row. More buildings are vacant than occupied at present, though the potential in its sturdy, attractive building stock, below, is evident. One of the best stores now open: Country Charm at #188, where painted cupboards and iron bedsteads similar to those found in Hudson, N.Y., shops are offered at a fraction of the price. Another goodie: Playing on the Furniture, a place to find cheerily repainted and refurbished secondhand pieces.

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Off Monument Square in the other direction, on River and Third Streets, are livelier boutiques, vintage clothing stores and flower shops (The Botanic Studio specializes in terrariums), and more fine commercial buildings in need of tenants.

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Above, Dang! That’s Cherry, a vintage clothing boutique that also sells mid-century kitsch and kitchenware.

Troy seems to have no shortage of fine public buildings. Below, the interior of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, an 1870s auditorium with original pipe organ, long famed for its acoustics, has a full calendar of important names in classical, jazz and popular music.

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Below, the Troy Public Library, remnant of proud bygone days, with magnificent iron sconces.

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Below, two early buildings at Russell Sage College, founded in 1916 in a public park in Downtown Troy.

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There are numerous blocks of well-preserved row houses — a few early Federal clapboards and many later homes of brick or stone, in Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and other fanciful late 19th century styles. The best of them seem to be along 2nd Street, which we wandered, admiring bay windows, cupolas, friezes, ironwork, cornices, and other details.

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Above: the Federal style Hart-Cluett House, built in 1827 with a marble facade, now the home of the Rensselaer County Historical Society.

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Eventually we came to Washington Park, below, established in 1840 and one of only two private ornamental parks in the state, open by key to residents of surrounding buildings (the other such park is Gramercy Park in NYC). Some of the homes are freestanding mansions, below; others are row houses.

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Above, one of the last remaining cobblestone streets in Troy.

We returned to Monument Square along 3rd Street, where the homes are more modest. There are two interesting houses of worship: the 1827 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, below, whose 1890s interior is all Tiffany; stained glass windows, woodwork, metalwork and lighting. And a cute blue-painted 1870 synagogue, in continuous use for the past 144 years.

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Wherever you roam, there’s interesting stuff to see, like the leaded glass storefront and rusting Art Deco hotel sign, below.

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That’s Troy 101 for you. What do you make of it?

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I’VE JUST RETURNED from a four-day vacation in Virginia, taken with my wasband to commemorate our 40th unniversary and shared interest in American history, old houses, gardens, and many other things. We both recently read Founding Gardeners, Andrea Wulf’s story of the early founders’ vision of the U.S. as an agrarian society, full of fascinating details such as Thomas Jefferson experimenting with 40 kinds of rice on a Philadelphia windowsill and George Washington planting trees in January (they failed, but he just couldn’t wait). Each owned thousands of Virginia acres planted in tobacco and wheat, and hundreds of slaves, the irony of which became clearer and more bitter as our trip unfolded.

Our first stop was Alexandria, a convenient base for visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon a few miles to the south. I had a single distant memory of Alexandria from a long-ago visit — a rose bush climbing out of the sidewalk to arch over the doorway of a tiny brick row house. I knew there had to be more to Alexandria, and indeed there is.

Founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants, Alexandria’s Old Town has an extensive collection of 18th and 19th century townhouses on a grid of streets surveyed by, among others, a young George Washington. You can walk along streets named Prince, Princess, Duke, Queen, and King reading commemorative plaques (Robert E. Lee grew up here, and Washington kept a pied-a-terre), glimpse Colonial-style gardens down alleys and over fences, and tour the c.1750 Carlyle House, below, for a real sense of gentrified life in that era.

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Unlike at Mount Vernon and Monticello, photography is permitted in the Carlyle House,  modeled on an English country manor and painstakingly restored with bold wall colors and fine antique furniture. The house is currently decked out for Halloween, set up to look as if John Carlyle had recently died. His coffin is in the main parlor, below, and mirrors and portraits are draped in black. Mannequins of slaves in livery kept startling me as we traipsed through the rooms with a docent and one other visitor, a woman veiled and draped in black herself (she had just attended a witches’ tea on the back porch).

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John Carlyle 1720-1780

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The wonderful yellow entry hall

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The bed in which John Carlyle died, predeceased by two wives and all but two of his eleven children

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Carlyle’s manservant, Moses, above

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A bed set up on the floor of an upstairs landing for the physician who attended Carlyle’s death, part of the Halloween display

More of what Alexandria has to offer the history- and/or architecture-obsessed visitor, below. (These are private homes, closed to the public.)

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Replica of George Washington’s townhouse on Cameron Street, above, based on a sketch done by a neighbor

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The John Douglass Brown house, above, a farmhouse that may date in part to the 17th century

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Alley, above, was used for walking horses through to the backyard

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The c.1806 Patton-Fowle House, above, possibly by architect Charles Bulfinch, considered one of the country’s best examples of Federal architecture

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Above: Elegant 19th century townhouses in styles from Gothic to Italianate to Greek Revival

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Above, “Captain’s Row,” a street sloping down to the Potomac River, paved with stones originally used as ships’ ballast

DSC_0885We stayed at the 42-room Morrison House, left, a comfortable boutique hotel built in the 1980s but passable at a glance as a Federal building. We missed the lantern tour and the view of the ballroom at the c.1790 Gadsby’s Tavern, but enjoyed our dinner in one of four candlelit rooms (the fried oysters and porter stand out). In any case, I can see the original ballroom woodwork here in New York City; it was removed in 1917 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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JUST BACK from a few days visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, where I was amazed at the number of Victorian villas. The area is a catalogue of 19th century styles including Second Empire and Italianate, with details like arched, porthole, and bay windows; porches, balconies, and cupolas; and all manner of decorative molding.

Sadly, these grand dames of yesteryear are often located on now-busy roads, and they mostly look like white elephants  — enormous and drafty and difficult to heat without servants to stoke the many fireplaces. Some are in sorry shape. Others, like the blue- shuttered example here, in the town of Lee, seem well-maintained.

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We stopped in Lee for lunch at the Cakewalk Cafe, then checked out a couple of thrift/antique stores on the intact 19th century main street, below.

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Then into nearby Lenox, where my friend had managed to dig up the one historic house in the area — of some 75 such Berkshires “cottages” — open on a mid-winter weekday: Ventfort Hall, below, a 28,000-square foot Jacobean Revival mansion with 54 rooms, designed in 1893 by the Boston architectural firm Rotch & Tilden for Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P., and her husband George.

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Like so many unwieldy mansions of that era, it had been abandoned for some time and fallen into ruin. As recently as the 1990s, the floors were ice-covered and littered with chunks of fallen ceiling plaster. Oak wall panels were missing, and the exterior was crumbling.

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Docent Marsha McDermott, above, showed us ‘before’ photos — that is, before a small group of concerned locals formed the non-profit Ventfort Hall Association and purchased the property, then raised $4million in private and public funds to restore it and open it to public view. Then she sent us off to explore, giving us carte blanche to open doors and poke around.

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Being avid Downton Abbey watchers, my friend and I could well visualize the family that lived here, enjoying such amenities as indoor plumbing, electric and gas lighting, radiant heat in the basement ceiling, a burglar alarm system, internal fire hoses, copper speaking tubes in the walls, and an electric elevator. Above, the Great Hall. Newly carved American red oak panels were left unstained, below, to distinguish them from the original woodwork. Unfortunately, there are no original furnishings left in the house; they were sold off long ago.

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Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.

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Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.

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Delicate plasterwork and an onyx marble fireplace in the drawing room, below, which was used by Sarah Morgan and her daughter Caroline to entertain guests. It’s now a gift shop.

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We exited onto the rear verandah, below, made of wood painted a ruddy color to match the stone facade. (If this elevation looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a set in the film The Cider House Rules.) The breeze coming off Stockbridge Bowl Lake, now obscured by trees, gave the house its name: Ventfort means “strong wind.”

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Open 360 days a year, Ventfort Hall is available for weddings, receptions, dinners, parties, corporate meetings, and Victorian teas — not to mention picnicking on 12 acres of surrounding park. For more info: 413/637-3206, www.GildedAge.org

IT’S BEEN A TRADITION on Long Island’s East End for almost three decades: the East Hampton House & Garden Tour, held Thanksgiving weekend to benefit the East Hampton Historical Society — a worthy cause if ever there was one. It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 24, from 1-4:30PM, with a benefit cocktail party on the evening of Friday, November 23.

My favorite of the five houses on this year’s self-guided tour is (no surprise) the oldest: the late 18th century Stafford-Hedges House above and below, said to have a tumultuous history of scandal and rumor over the course of its 230 years. It’s a “half house,” with the front door to the extreme right of the original structure, intended later to be expanded with its mirror image. In this case, that never happened. Instead, there’s a modern addition at the back.

The other houses represent a mix of periods and styles, from an 1894 Amagansett farmhouse to a cottage described as “East Hampton meets Nantucket via Harbour Island (Bahamas),” designed by a prominent interior designer and owned by a local landscape architect, below.

There’s also a 21st century modern home in Wainscott, heavy on the glass and incorporating indoor hanging gardens, designed by East End architect Maziar Behrooz, and a newly built “Tuscan casetta” in the Northwest Woods section.

The Opening Night Cocktail Party on Friday Nov. 23 from 6-8, a fund-raiser for the Historical Society, will be held at the 1891 William E. Wheelock House on 10 manicured acres, one of East Hampton Village’s first grand shingle-style cottages.

Tickets to the Opening Night Cocktail Party start at $200, which includes entry to the tour the following day.  Tickets to the House & Garden Tour are $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the tour.  Ticket proceeds benefit the East Hampton Historical Society and are on sale via:

  • EHHS office, 101 Main Street, Tuesday – Saturday, 10-4
  • By phone at 631-324-6850
  • Website: www.easthamptonhistory.org.
  • Clinton Academy, 151 Main Street, Friday, November 23 and Saturday, November 24, 10-4

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