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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

A FRIEND ALERTED ME to these two Catskills listings, about 7 miles apart in Ulster County, near the historic Mohonk Mountain House. They both seem astoundingly inexpensive, or perhaps I’m just used to Long Island prices.

Both are 19th century farmhouses that have been degraded over the years (while their well-meaning owners thought they were improving, of course). Lots of brown paneling and linoleum. But there’s nothing easier or cheaper than ripping out paneling and linoleum (it’s what you may have to patch and repair underneath that’s the problem).

The first house, above, asking $130,000, has 2BR, 2 baths. It’s on half an acre in quiet Alligerville, near Accord, NY. The wraparound screened porch, right, looks lovely, and there’s a detached garage with workshop area.

For a whole lot more photos, including the interior, go here.

In High Falls, there’s this circa 1800 (take that with a grain of salt) farmhouse, below, on a 3-acre property with mature trees and old stone walls. Though it, too, has just two bedrooms, it measures 1,800 square feet. Asking price is 125K.

I’m not very familiar with the area, but I used to work with someone who lived in High Falls and commuted daily to Manhattan (not recommended).

You can see the full listing, with more photos, right here.

A NOTE ON PHOTOGRAPHY: For the past month or so — since my proper camera was stolen out of my checked luggage on my way to the Canary Islands — all the photos on this blog have been taken with my iPhone 4S (beginning with my posts from Lanzarote). Although the iPhone camera doesn’t do as well in low light and certainly doesn’t have the flexibility of the Canon S95, which regular readers may remember I had just learned to use, it certainly does render outdoor color very well indeed (perhaps even pumps it up a little, but who’s complaining). I didn’t mention this before because… well, because I was embarrassed about my stupidity in having packed my camera in a bag I decided at the last minute to check through.

SO MUCH FOR PRECONCEIVED — or rather, outdated — notions. I hadn’t been to Jersey City in probably ten years, so when I went there yesterday (a distance of 7 whole miles from my home in Brooklyn) to visit a friend, my first reaction on driving through the streets was a surprised “This is NOT BAD!”

In fact, it’s pretty great. There are plenty of grubby areas inland, but the waterfront sections, with their sparkling views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, and many blocks around, have been totally spiffed up. It’s not just hi-rise city, either. Fine blocks of 19th century row houses in the historic neighborhoods are likewise in good shape, which means we’ve missed the boat on real estate investment.

For better or worse, depending on your P.O.V., Jersey City has gentrified, and it happened while I wasn’t paying attention. Walking around with my friend Joe (for as long as we could stand in the bitter cold), we passed a brick row house, right, with a nice Greek Revival doorway, colorfully painted, and a ‘For Sale’ sign. “It’s probably over a million,” Joe said. Said I, ever the victim of wishful thinking. “I’m guessing 899K.” Joe quickly found the listing on his iPhone. He was close: the ask is $1.15M, in ‘as is’ condition.

Of architectural delights, there are plenty. They’ve been hiding in plain sight all this time. Have a look.

 

 

IMG_0988JULIA AND JOHN MACK have plenty to do to convert the 19th century Cobble Hill brownstone they bought recently for just under $2 million into the kind of home they want for their family of four. But before they do anything, they have a lot to un-do.

The building has little in the way of original detail; the fireplace mantels are long gone. As we tour the building from bottom to top, you’ll see that it has some…er… unusual features. The most bizarre, a rarity in brownstone Brooklyn, is a large swimming pool occupying the far reaches of the L-shaped lot (how it got to be L-shaped is a matter of speculation, possibly involving an unpaid long-ago debt).

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Julia is a Brooklyn-based interior designer, one of whose finished projects will be the subject of “The Insider,” my new interiors column for Brownstoner.com, next Thursday, Sept. 22. I’ve covered Julia’s work before, in magazines and online (go here to see the Cobble Hill house they owned previously). The family is living in temporary rented quarters until April, at which point they’re moving into this house. Time is of the essence, but Julia is indomitable, full of ideas and energy, and undaunted by the task ahead.

We’re entering on the ground floor, below, to see the future rental apartment first. Not so bad — to my mind, practically rentable as-is. (Well, something must be done about the dowdy flowered wallpaper.) The biggest job here involves closing off the apartment from the rear hall so the homeowners can access the basement.

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Soon it’ll be a perfectly nice apartment.

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The Victorian gingerbread trim is fake and doesn’t go with the ceramic tiles, but it’s lively.

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We’ve now gone up a flight. The hallway on the parlor floor, below, is classic and intact. Julia has dramatic ideas for wallpaper.

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Let’s enter the parlor. Will it be breathtaking? Will it be grand? Unfortunately not. The original long, elegant windows have been shortened. The tongue-in-groove flooring is meh.

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Now turn around… Ugh. The parlor floor has been divided into three rooms with awkward partitions. This mirrored closet wall is, of course, going into a dumpster ASAP.

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The windowless middle room shall remain unshown. The back room, below, with its linoleum floor, is simply claustrophobic.

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As for the bathroom, below, it’s not Julia’s taste, to put it mildly (she can hardly bear to look). It’s gotta go.

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Onward to the second floor. Turn around and look back at the entry — nice arched window over the front door.

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On the second floor, below, Julia’s two teenagers will have bedrooms, common space, and a bath.

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Here the windows are the length they were intended to be, with original shutters to prove it.

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One flight more, and we’re on top floor, which will become a master bedroom and family room, with a new bath. Below, fab forest wallpaper in the existing front room (part of me has always wanted something just like that).

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The long view to the rear of the house…

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and toward the front.

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The kitchen, below, has no place in a master suite.

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Finally, a glimpse of the backyard, where improvements are sure to be forthcoming.

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I can’t wait to see what Julia does with the place, and hope she’ll invite us in for another tour as things unfold.

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One of many on Madison Street

LANDED A NEW ASSIGNMENT from Coastal Living magazine to write about Sag Harbor, mighty 19th century whaling port turned arty shopping village. To me, the town’s outstanding feature is its abundance of historic mid-19th century cottages, tiny capsules of charm and character. Don’t you just love them?

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Could hardly be smaller – or cuter

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I’ve shown this one before but that blue door bears repeating

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Rather fancy, with that fabulous fanlight

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Wellnest, a newish home furnishings/gift store/beauty spa, impeccably tasteful and frightfully expensive

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Handcrafted skateboards in Wellnest

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Signage at Ruby Beets, a longtime fixture for vintage and new home decor

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Inside Ruby Beets

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LT Burger on Main Street, new this year and instantly successful

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