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I ALWAYS THOUGHT the Boathouse was one of the most romantic buildings in Prospect Park. No, in Brooklyn. No, anywhere. The 1907 Beaux Arts structure sits on a pond called the Lullwater, which also sounds impossibly romantic in the manner of the Park’s original 1860s design by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Last time I looked, maybe 12 years ago, the Boathouse was dilapidated and deserted. In fact, the white terracotta, Tuscan-columned building came this close to being demolished in the 1960s before being saved by community protests (it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places).
And though I glimpsed it through the trees every one of the countless times I walked or ran the Park’s 3-1/3-mile loop, and vaguely realized the place had been renovated, that sketchy earlier encounter still resonated, and I hadn’t been down there in eons.
Yesterday, encouraged by my daughter, who’s visiting from Hawaii, we deviated from the course and explored not only the Boathouse but other sections of the park that were new to me. The 1907 boathouse, which replaced an earlier wooden structure by Vaux and Olmsted, is now used as an Audobon Center for nature education.
Its vaulted, tiled interior, above, now contains displays on birds and birding (who knew there were 200+ species in the Park?) and a small cafe. Yesterday, a rare sunny Sunday in this desperately rainy month of May, it was crawling with kids.
Unlike in Victorian times, when people ice skated, fished, and boated on the Lullwater, all that is now forbidden. The Lullwater today, above, is strictly a reflecting pool, mirroring an 1890 bridge by McKim, Mead, and White that also replaced Vaux’s original.
Skating on the Lullwater, c. 1886. Photo: Brooklyn Historical Society. This image shows the original wooden Lullwood Bridge, designed by Calvert Vaux, in the background.
The rowboats seen arrayed in William Merritt Chase’s painting of the original rustic boathouse, below, were nowhere in sight.
We then took a path I’d never traveled, which revealed an apparently unused pavilion, below (one imagines uniformed brass bands playing there 100 years ago), and emerged at Grand Army Plaza, feeling like we’d been somewhere new.
To read more about the Prospect Park Boathouse, go here.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE EXTRAORDINARY Olana? It’s well worth a field trip (and a picnic), especially as they’ve just opened two upstairs rooms restored to the late-Victorian era of Olana’s original occupant, the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.
In the 1870s, there was a fashion for Middle Eastern exotica, and Church and his wife Isabel embraced it to the max. They visited Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus, returning with visions of arches, loggias, fancy brickwork, and other dazzling design elements. With their architect, Calvert Vaux, they incorporated all these into the hilltop house they were building in Columbia County, and they decorated accordingly, with imported Persian rugs and furnishings imported from that part of the world.
To today’s eyes, Olana appears more bohemian than Victorian, tasteful and arty as opposed to excessive and overwrought.
In 1964, when the widow of the Churches’ youngest son died there, Olana was still intact, decorated as it had been when Frederic and Isabel lived there. The next Church heirs, however, sought to auction the furnishings and sell the house. They were stopped by the timely formation of an Olana preservation society. With help from New York State, the house and its contents were saved, restored, and the main floor opened to the public in 1967.
This weekend, for the first time ever, the Churches’ second-floor bedroom and dressing room will be added to the tour, finally allowing us to see what’s above the fantastic staircase in the main hall. Another upstairs bedroom is a gallery containing art and photographs that had long been in storage.
The amazing wallpapers in these rooms have been painstakingly reproduced from scraps found beneath mantels and moldings.
To read more about Olana’s history and see more pictures, go here.
Olana State Historic Site
Route 9G, just south of Route 23
Greenport, NY, between Hudson & Germantown
Guided house tours: Tuesday-Sunday + holiday Mondays, 10AM-5PM
Reservations recommended: 518/828-0135