Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Houses and Homes

It's been a while since we've written, and we've seen and done a lot, so this may be a longer post than most.  As you can see from the title, our focus for the past two-plus weeks has been houses and homes, literal and figurative, starting with our first major destination of Cooperstown NY, "home" of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It's hard to pass through Cooperstown without knowing this, as some of the store names and signs make clear.  Our favorite was the place where you could repurchase the baseball cards "your mother threw away."

Cooperstown is also "home" to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, which each summer puts on four operas with quite excellent casts.  We went to a matinee of The Marriage of Figaro and were enchanted.  This may be the only opera house in the world with movable outer walls, which were open before the performance and during intermission, then slid closed for the performance.  While it was not permitted to take any photos during the performance, we don't think they would mind this shot of the conductor and cast taking their bows at the end of the show.

While opera was and baseball wasn't part of the draw, the main reason for coming here was "Sunnyside," our home on Lake Otsego for a wonderful week.  It was part of a group of 15 cabins all painted dark red with white trim, seen here from the nearby state park.  Well, some of it is -- they're quite buried in the trees.  The first few days there were kept busy with some sightseeing and a grocery run into town.  With our panniers already fairly full as we first rode into town, we could barely carry a day's worth of food with us to the cabin initially.  As it was a somewhat hilly sixteen-mile round trip along the lake and through town to the supermarket for the rest of our food needs, this was a bigger deal than you might at first imagine -- we probably brought back 40 to 50 pounds of food (hey, a gallon of milk alone is 8 pounds!).  We also used our trip into town to get much-needed haircuts and to visit the small but excellent collection of American art at the Fenimore Museum on the edge of town.

We also walked down the road to Glimmerglass State Park and the first of our fortnight-long festival of historic homes, Hyde Hall.  Several generations of Clarks lived here starting in the 1830s, almost all the men named George and their spouses Ann.  The guide had nicknames for each generation of George and Ann Clarks.  Alas no indoor shots allowed, but no prohibition on repeating some of the stories, such as the one about the George Clark who went to the funeral of James Fenimore Cooper's brother, Richard Cooper, and returned home with Richard's widow, fortuitously named Ann, with whom he had five more children (each had already had five apiece with their first spouses!).  To say the least, that kept the neighborhood buzzing for a few years!  It was a grand, manorial house with a magnificent view down the lake to Cooperstown, but it must have been pretty lonely between visitors since the nearest town of any size for the first few decades was Albany, about 60 miles away.  Except for those 15 kids, that is . . .

After 3 nights to ourselves, Sunnyside then came alive when daughter Lisa, son-in-law Ray and grandkids Hanachan and Issei arrived.  There's Issei giving us a cute smile on the porch, Hanachan doing some art work with Louise using stencils that we brought with us from a museum in Ohio and coloring pencils her mom was alerted to bring along.  Hanachan also was into showing us string tricks including the Cat's Cradle, Jacob's Ladder, and this other trick that was nameless but looks like Child Eating the Eifel Tower.

Lisa was training for the swimming leg of a triathlon so we went out one day with a canoe to accompany her until the lake grass wiggling along her legs and the chop of the lake wiggling our canoe brought the trip to an early end.  A few days later we did get in some more canoe trips back to Glimmerglass Park to see the covered bridge, which a nearby sign asserts is the oldest extant covered bridge in New York, having been built in 1825.  All in all, Sunnyside was a great place to be with the family along Lake Otsego, complete with a new tandem event we had not previously observed, Tandem Book Reading.  We left Sunnyside with many warm memories, not all of them subject to being photographed.

Incidentally, we hit the 1000 mile mark for our trip while in Cooperstown, with only one serious glitch on the way there.  Two days before, and with no wiggle room due to long-fixed reservations, we hit a day of solid heavy rain.  To make matters worse, the road was one of the hilliest of the trip.  We punted.  Our wonderful B&B host called Tim, a friend of a friend, and he graciously drove us 45 miles to our next destination in his van.  Big THANK YOU to Tim!!!

Leaving Cooperstown we did a big loop around the north end of the Catskill Mountains, actually descending the valley of the Catskill ("Kill" is old Dutch for river or stream) to the Hudson River.  We were now in the homeland of the first significant art movement in America, the so-called Hudson River School.  Getting back into house and home mode, we swung past the home of Thomas Cole, the painter who started it all.  However, the inside of the home was closed that day and the outside covered in scaffolding as they undertake a major renovation.  The view of the mountains is also a bit crowded with almost 2 centuries of change, not always for the better when it comes to picturesqueness, so we'll move the photographic part of our blog on to nearby Saugerties and the Kiersted House, built about 1727 using native fieldstone. 

25 miles further south we hit a mother lode of historic homes, Hugeunot Street in the town of New Paltz.  There are 6 homes built in the 1700s, mostly in the very first years of the 1700s, along a two-block-long section of this street.  We took a tour through three of them, starting with the Bevier-Elting House, where our tour guide is showing us the Dutch door the French/Belgian Hugeunots adopted from their Dutch neighbors in the Hudson Valley (the Dutch settled the area from 1624 until the English took over the colonizing in 1664).  They admired how it let air and light in while keeping the cows, pigs and dogs outside the home.  Here's a third view of the house showing the kitchen.  Until New York abolished slavery in the early 1800s, this family and many others in New York had slaves, but mainly for domestic tasks, not field work as in the south, so this kitchen was in the basement where the slaves (and later servants) lived and worked.

Nearby was Hasbrouck House, with a chimney that the guide claimed had more bricks in it than any other colonial home in America.  Given the size, that's entirely possible!  A third home nearby was called Fort DuBois.  It was actually a home, but it had rifle ports for defense.  In early colonial days, it was common for at least one home in a community to be outfitted with defenses like this as a place of refuge when relations went south with the local Native Americans.  Another home that we did not enter as it is currently being restored is the LeFevre House of 1799, with its fancy brick Federal style front and its more modest side and rear walls of field stone.

The west bank of the Hudson in this area had the best colonial homes and history, but the east side has the glorious mansions, and off we went to that side, in style, starting with a few miles on the Mid-Hudson Rail Trail.  Then we came to one of the highlights of this trip! 

In 1888 a railroad bridge went up over the Hudson near Poughkeepsie, and carried much of the freight traffic between New England and the rest of the country for almost a century.  Then it sat unused for 35 years until reopened last Fall as Walkway Over the Hudson State Park.  In less than a year it has become the second-most-visited state park in New York!  As the photos below perhaps show, that's unsurprising.  Unfortunately it was a hot hazy day in August.  We will recross the Hudson on this bridge in late September, and we're hoping for a cool crisp day with color in the foliage. Check back then to see how we do.

Our first destination on the storied east bank of the Hudson was the Vanderbilt Mansion.  This one was built by Commodore Vanderbilt's grandson Frederick, not to be confused with others of his brothers like Wm. K, Cornelius Jr., and Geo. Washington Vanderbilt, who, respectively, built the Marble House and the Breakers in Newport and Biltmore in Ashville NC.  They were a spendy family, that one. 

Frederick picked up a large country house known as Hyde Park and enlarged and converted it, with the help of architects McKim, Mead and White, into a neo-classical temple.  Cozy it was not.  Alas, no photos allowed again on the inside, but it was just as stiff and formal inside as out.  Keep in mind, this home was only used for a few weeks each spring and each fall, until Frederick retired here after the death of his wife in 1926. 

When Frederick died in 1938, the heir recognized a white elephant when he saw one, and walked down the street to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mansion, wanting to know if the people of the United States would like it, cheap?  They did, and got it for a dollar!  And the million-dollar view of the Hudson to your left came for nothing extra!  Thanks to our Senior Passes from the National Park Service, that was a dollar more than we had to pay for the tour through it.  Fortunately there were a lot of under-62 youngsters paying $8 a head to help cover the considerable overhead.

Next day we took the walking trails the Park Service has created from old carriage roads over to FDR's place.  It was one of the lovliest forest walks we've taken but for one big problem -- the great heat wave of 2010 was still going, and we were drenched from the heat and humidity.

As we approached Springwood, as the house is called, we could begin to see why he loved this place so much.  While still somewhat formal, it had a warmth from FDR's presence and electricity still in the air from the many important visitors that arrived and the bold ideas that emanated from it.  Yet again, no photos inside, but good stories to compensate.  One involved the king and queen of England, who arrived here as part of a goodwill tour of the US and Canada in early 1939 as war clouds gathered in Europe.  FDR told his mother that he had his best whiskey ready for the king.  His mother told him that she rather expected the king of England would be wanting tea, not whiskey.  When the king arrived, the President told him he had some whiskey available, but that his mother thought he would rather be wanting tea.  "That's what my mother would have said also," said King George.  "Now, about that whiskey . . . !"

Oh, yes, the mother.  Technically it was his mother's house until she passed away in 1942.  Imagine having your grown son and daughter-in-law come back to your home for a visit, and having a few dozen Secret Service agents tagging along behind them!

There is a small visitor's center with some info about FDR, but the major exhibits are in the FDR museum, next door.  Frankly one day was not enough to see all we wanted to, particularly that museum, so a return trip may be in the cards for us.  We did make time, however, to see Eleanor Roosevelt's getaway home, Val-Kill.  This was a truly cozy place two miles back from the main house where she stayed when FDR was not in town.  Yes, even First Ladies have problems with their mother-in-laws!  After FDR's death, Springwood was given to the American public but Eleanor continued to live at Val-Kill until her own death in 1962.  She was no recluse, that widow!  She was named as Ambassador to the United Nations by Harry Truman, and kept on moving and shaking for the rest of her days.  It was an exciting place to visit.

The next day we moved on to the north, passing through the hamlet of Staatsburg.  We were now in Livingstone territory.  Ruth Livingstone, from the fourth or fifth generation of this rich and powerful New York family, married an equally wealthy fellow named Ogden Mills.  As leaders of New York society, they needed a place in the country where they could have a few friends over.  Their 29-room place on the Hudson just wouldn't do, so they had Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White convert it into a 79-room place where they could relax in style -- if one can ever truly relax in a pile of stone like this one!  Alas we arrived too early in the day to catch the first tour, and in any event the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome gets a bit cloying when repeated too often, so we passed up on waiting around for the place to open.  We hear it's quite opulent inside, where all the preservation money has been spent.  The outside certainly said "money pit" loud and clear, as a close look at the crumbling facade of Mills Mansion makes it look more and more like it wants to resemble a Roman ruins one day, not just a Roman temple.

Next up was Wilderstein, the home of the Suckley family, relatives of FDR and of other Hudson River grandees such as the Livingstones and Beekmans.  This was the most stunning place we had come to yet, by far.  Alas, once again too early in the day for tours, so we wandered around taking photos of the house and the view down the Hudson and past one of its many lighthouses from the front yard.  Perhaps another reason to return to the Hudson Valley.

Five historic homes in three days, and we weren't done by a long shot.  We spent two nights in our next motel and did a 25-mile ride without luggage on our "rest" day to visit two more.  While Wilderstein was the most stunning and Springwood the most moving, Clermont was the most historic.  It was already an ancient place when the British burned it to the foundations during the Revolutionary War.  Seems they had a grudge against Chancellor Robert R. Livingstone, the third generation of seven to live here.  It was bad enough that his brother Phillip was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  What really got a burr under them was that Robert had joined Tom Jefferson and three others in writing that scurrilous document!

Not longer after the embers of what had been the house had cooled, the Livingstones were rebuilding Clermont.  It was from this house that Robert travelled to New York City to administer the oath of office to George Washington (as Chancellor of the state, he was the highest-ranking judge in New York, then the federal capital). 

He again left Clermont and its view of the Hudson (at that time minus the lighthouse on the extreme right side of the photo above) for France where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.  While there he met a chap named Robert Fulton, and agreed to go into business with him.  You may recall Fulton as the inventor of the first successful steamboat, originally named the North River (the old Dutch name for the Hudson), later renamed the Clermont after Livingstone's beautiful home, where the steamboat stopped on its maiden voyage.  In the visitor center they had a nice model of the boat.  By the way, the house has an original Gilbert Stuart (you've seen his artwork on the $1 bill) of Chancellor Livingstone.  But before leaving Clermont, lets catch a glimpse of a decidedly un-colonial crank telephone, a reminder that seven generations of Livingstones lived here and adapted the home to the needs of their day.

The Livingstones at one time owned vast portions of the Hudson Valley, thanks in part to dynastic marriages with other wealthy families, such as the Rensellaers and Beekmans.  One of the Livingstone daughters, Janet, caught the eye of an Anglo-Irish soldier named Richard Montgomery.  Denied advancement in the British army, he came to America and picked up patriotic sentiment as well as Janet as his wife.  He was given a commission as general and asked by the Continental Congress to lead one prong of the attack on Canada, together with Benedict Arnold (who was then very much on the patriot side).  He seized Montreal but was killed in the attack on Quebec, and his soldiers withdrew, causing Arnold to also fail in the attempt.

As one of the highest-ranking casualties of the war, he became a national hero.  Janet built Montgomery Place after the war as a memorial to him, and the home passed down through the generations until, like so many other of these mansions, it was turned over to a non-profit organization to maintain and run.  We passed up on the tour, but had a marvelous time exploring the grounds and enjoying the view.  We also enjoyed the frogs in a pond they created a short distance from the house.  Indeed, he had a lot of company.  Click on the second photo to enlarge it and see how many you can find.  Hint: be sure to count the one with only one eyeball poking out of the water!

As we announced above, the theme for this blog is houses and homes, so we have another wildlife photo to share with you -- and what better bit of fauna than an animal who carries his home around with him!  This fellow was on the shoulder of the highway headed for a disasterous encounter with a car or truck when we lifted him up and carried him twenty feet to a small stream.  Hopefully he got the right idea.

Did we say that Wilderstein was stunning.  Hmmm, need a stronger adjective for the next historic home.  Stupendous?  Over-the-top?  Exotic?  All those and more.  Frederick Church was a student of Thomas Cole, and lived with Cole for two years.  If Cole was the Father of the Hudson River School, Church was the apotheosis of it.  He was also a clever businessman, and managed to earn money from his enormous canvasses by first exhibiting them at 25 cents a person, a tidy sum in the mid-1800s, then selling them for even tidier prices.  With his wealth secure, he started building his dream house, Olana

Although he and his wife never got nearer to Persia than Turkey and Lebanon, the Churches were enamored by Persian art and incorporated many Persian themes into it.  When the State of New York purchased it 40 years ago, they discovered a wealth of paintings -- mainly studies for larger works -- and documentation, and furnishings that had been in the family from completion of the house in 1872.  No photos inside, once again, but it was every bit as gorgeous as the outside.

The site was a challenge to reach by bike, as it is at the top of a hill 500 feet above the Hudson.  The views were worth it.  First is the view to the southwest from the front of the house, then the view westward from the piazza.  To be sure, the Hudson-Catskill Bridge was not there until 1930, long after the Churches.
Well, in keeping with "houses and homes," we have three more houses to close with.  The first is yet another of the Hudson River lighthouses, this one just below the city of Hudson NY.  The second is a house of God, specifically St. Luke's Episcopal Church, a classic example of the Carpenter Gothic style that we had seen a photo of the day before we found ourselves biking past it, open-mouthed at our good luck in seeing it in person, as it were.
And for our last "house"?  The grandest one of all, the State House, aka State Capitol, in Albany.  If anything could make all those mansions downstream look small, this is it.  We wandered through for an hour, admiring the Senate chamber seen below, but really focusing on the staircases.  Staircases?  Yup.  The East Staircase was pretty impressive, but the West Staircase takes the cake.  It's known as the "Million Dollar Staircase," but the actual cost was over a million and a half.  And those were late-1800's dollars!  It's not only elaborate, but it also has over a thousand carved faces, from Republican party boss Roscoe Conkling, the last person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to actually say, "No, thanks," to James Fenimore Cooper and Geo. Washington.  And who is that fellow in between them?  Who knows?  Could have been a friend or relative of the stonemason, or maybe even a stranger passing by who agreed to be a model for the stonecarver.  It's an amazing place!

We're temporarily back on the west bank of the Hudson, seen here looking upstream from the bridge at Albany.  We head north next to Vermont, where we'll bike up the east side of Lake Champlain before heading across the state to Lake Willoughby.  We'll blog to you next from the Green Mountain State of Vermont!

1 comment:

Greg said...

I like your photos of the Bevier-Elting house. Louis Bevier is my Great x 9 Grandfather. I've been to the home several times, but never heard the bit about their being slaves in the home. I'll have to check with the family historian on that one...