Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Beechwood and vicinity

The Vanderlips, whose (sub-) urban renewal project changed the face of Sparta, lived on a neighboring estate called Beechwood. The place calls forth quite a few interesting associations for me.

One of my earliest childhood memories takes place on its lawns during a late-1940s country fair held to raise money for some local cause. The memory is no more than an image of my sister, two years older and all of five, standing and then walking a few steps on stilts. I was in awe and believed I could never hope to do such a thing.

The estate was large and held many buildings, including Scarborough Country Day School. The Vanderlips had founded the school in 1913 and made sure that it was run on the most progressive principles of the time. My class in the public elementary school of nearby Briarcliff went there a few times to see performances in the fully-equipped three-quarter scale replica of New York's Music Box Theatre. Later, one of my best friends would spend his last two years of high school there and take pride in performing a leading role in Pirates of Penzance on that stage.

The Cheever family rented a house on the estate for a in the 1950s. John's biographers describe his experience of the place and the impact it, and the Vanderlip family, had on his writing. His daughter, Susan, has written about her experience growing up there. She attended the Scarborough School but was also briefly a classmate of mine in the Briarcliff school system.

There was a time when I and the guys I hung out with liked to climb the fence surrounding the swimming pool to take illicit nighttime skinny dips. We public school kids nurtured a reverse snobbery aimed at the wealthy families who lived all around us and I remember my parents managing to embarrass me once by telling one of the Vanderlip children, Dudley Schoales, about these swimming exploits while we were eating out at a restaurant Dudley ran in nearby Ossining. The embarrassment came from feeling the glory of the adventure slip away, to be replaced by a street-urchin feeling of social second-classness.

Beechwood's owners and Dudley's grandparents, Frank and Narcissa Vanderlip, saw themselves as culturally advanced and invited talented artists to weekend parties. At one of these it's recorded that the talented and scandalous Isadora Duncan danced on the lawn. But though they associated with a creative elite, they were not themselves avant garde. One of their artistic treasures was a huge painting that was at the time attributed to Anthony van Dyck but is now thought to be by an imitator. It shows Andromeda, a damsel in distress of Greek mythology, who was punished by being chained to a rock because he mother bragged about her good looks. The painting does not show her to be particularly handsome and is itself, according to a curator in the museum where it's now held, somewhat awkward and in places rather unpleasant. Scroll down to see what it looks like.

The extent of the Vanderlips' cultural conventionality is indicated in the mottos displayed at the Scarborough School, which has LIFE IS FOR SERVICE and MANNERS MAKETH MAN engraved over its entrances.

It's shown too in their preference for socializing mainly with people of their own class and social outlook. They themselves were "new money" and the others with whom the associated were also "new money" or, to the extent possible, old. They respected artists and intellectuals, but did not really enjoy their company. The Cheevers got on well with the Schoales who had their own house on the Beechwood estate, but not so much with the elder Vanderlips, and the Schoales were not quite on level with the two elders. (Mrs. Schoales, Dudley's mom, was one of the Vanderlip daughters, but she had a rebelious streak that separated her from her parents somewhat; she had not married a man of whom they approved and she was, like John Cheever and his daughter, over-fond of drinking.)

In 1911, when a magnificent Vanderbilt property came on the real estate market, Frank A. Vanderbilt and William Rockefeller, whose estates lay on either side of the property, decided to buy it and make it over into a country club. Frank did not then play golf and never took up the sport, but he became the club's president nonetheless and the subscribing members were a very homogeneous group: WASP, wealthy, and accustomed to social dominance. The club's home page provides a brief history and lists these men by name. Its photo gallery shows the exclusive ambiance of the place but also its glorious setting on the hillsides overlooking Haverstraw Bay of the Hudson.

I've already mentioned the very limited connection I had with the club; a couple of visits with friends whose parents belonged and a couple of times my parents put me in a rented tux to hang around a coming out party as a male recruited to balance the ratio of the sexes.

However, there's a tangential association that's intriguing. The list of the club's original subscribers included Edward W. Harden. Like Frank Vanderlip, Edward Harden owned a nearby estate. His was called the Wilderness. It lay on the east side of the club while Vanderlip's was on the west and Rockefeller's on the south. When Frank became club president, Harden became its secretary.

I've marked this USGS map of 1892 to show Beechwood, Sleepy Hollow CC, the Wilderness, and the northern part the Rockefeller estates. The map also shows the route of the Croton Aqueduct, north-south, in green. Looking at this map I'm reminded that my paper route took me right past the Wilderness Road entrance to the Harden estate every weekday for a year, but, as I pedaled by back then, I never gave it a thought.

Edward Harden had earlier married Frank's sister Ruth and had been best man at Frank's wedding to Narcissa Cox, so its' clear they had close personal ties. The tangential connection stems from this friendship though I'm not sure exactly how. In 1938, when my parents married, they were treated to an extravagant honeymoon which involved flying to Los Angeles and staying for a fortnight at the Vanderlip Mansions in Palos Verdes Estates.

When I was young, my parents would occasionally show slides, some of the first color slides for amateur photographers, of the flights and their stay on the peninsula. The means of travel was exotic; few people flew coast-to-coast back then, or took many commercial flights at all. And the destination was even more tony than they expected. When they drove up in their little rented car, the housekeeper asked my mom what staff she would require; it took her aback but she managed to say that as newlyweds they planned to do without. The other memorable anecdote involved a local hunt. They were invited to bring their horses and join the chase of the fox itself, but, having none, they declined and, attending the cocktail party at day's end, my dad discovered just how much he was allergic not just to horses, but also to the men and women who had been astride them all day.

My father and his parents arranged for this memorable trip via the Harden family. I can't recall and may never have known what connection there was but I think my father was a fraternity brother of Edward Harden's son, Richard, at Columbia University.

If that's so, it seems likely they stayed at the Harden Gatehouse, described thus: "Edward Walker Harden married Ruth Isabel Vanderlip in 1908, in Chicago. They built the gatehouse, as it stands today, in 1926. ... The imposing structure is of Tuscan design. The planned villa was not built due to the 1929 stock market disaster. 1.94 acres remain and command one of the most beautiful ocean views on the peninsula."

When my parents moved to Briarcliff early in the 1940s they lived only a couple of miles from the Wilderness, but there was no social interaction that I can recall between them and the Hardens. I think Richard, who was an alcoholic, had moved far from home and, not surprisingly, my parents had no link with his parents. (I remember my father describing Richard's alcoholism by saying he was careful not to drink before 5:00pm but once started wouldn't stop until he fell asleep.) In driving around that day, what I recall most clearly is the six-car garage through whose windows we could see six great old sport cars. I don't recall exactly but one might have been a Bugatti.

These, then, are the main associations with the Vanderlips' Beechwood estate and environs, but there are some other odd facts which come to mind:

1. In her memoir, Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever remembers Narcissa, "old Mrs. Vanderlip" in her silk-curtained bedroom, a sharp, stooped grande dame. As a child she remembers dancing class in ballroom, spying through hedges on elegant party-goers, the huge "Van Dyck" of which Narcissa was very proud, and the occasional formal meal in the grand dining room, feeling like a poor relative invited out of pity and social obligation.

2. Susan also tells an anecdote about the first owners of the house, although the account she received as a child is inaccurate. Her tale involves an eccentric owner named Mathias the Prophet who drove a chariot pulled by white horses and who was murdered in the footman's attic, above the nursery. Here's a version that I think is closer to the truth:
During the early nineteenth century, the estate was the property of a Benjamin Folger, who became a disciple of a man called variously "Matthias the Prophet" and "Matthias the Impostor." Matthias, claiming to be the "Angel of Revelation," lived in Folger's house for two years, 1833-34. He called the residence Mt. Zion and drove around the countryside in a chariot drawn by four horses, proclaiming his particular version of the gospel. Having bankrupted Folger, and after apparently trying to murder Folger and his family, Matthias was tried in White Plains in 1835 for the murder of another disciple. Acquitted because of lack of evidence, Matthias left Westchester soon after the trial.
-- Scarborough Historic District
3. Susan remembers accompanying her father when he would visit Art Spears. My connection with the Spears family is two-fold. (a) They lived not far from our house and had a daughter in my public-school class during elementary years, but who went to private school when older. (b) The family usually spent a long summer vacation on the coast of Maine and one summer I watched over the house while they were gone, clipping their enormous hedge and feeding song birds whose cage occupied a good third of their dining room. I recall that out of a couple dozen pretties I suffered only one death in the few weeks they were under my care.

4. Frank Vanderlip and Edward Harden were self-made; both had both been newspaper reporters and later became Wall Street bankers. Harden was famous for being the first to break the news of Dewey's defeat of the Spanish in Manila Bay in 1898. He was a friend of Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine insurrection of that time. Vanderlip grew up on an Illinois farm and became successively an apprentice in a machine shop, a cub reporter on the Chicago Tribune, financial editor of the Economist magazine, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and vice-president, then president of National City Bank, now Citi. Both men believed in progressive education, but it was Harden who convinced Vanderlip to try the Montessori system at Scarborough School. Harden and his wife had begun a Montessori kindergarten in their home at the Wilderness and hoped that the system would take hold in Vanderlip's school (it did not, although the education remained progressive). As it happens, I know a couple of Montessori teachers, one a niece and the other a close friend. In 1921, Harden helped out the Sleepy Hollow CC by buying about 12 acres from them (contiguous with his property) when they needed funds to help retire a mortgage.

5. At the time the Wilderness was sold off in 1956 it consisted of 133 acres and 2 miles of driveway on high elevation giving a panoramic view of the river. The stone mansion was said to have cost $1million in 1929. The account of the real estate offering said "the mosaic tile in the main foyer was taken from the ruins of Pompeii." The property included gardens, a pool, wild life sanctuaries, the 6-car garage, and other buildings
{-- source: "Investors Buy Wilderness, Showy Estate," Herald Statesman, Yonkers, 23 Mar 1956.}

6. Frank's wife, Narcissa, was a noted feminist. She was one of the founders of the League of Women Voters (of which my mother was a proud and active member). She was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose biographer says "Vanderlip's pragmatic politics, administrative ability, interest in learning, and passion impressed ER, and ER learned a great deal from her friend's leadership of the league."
{ -- source: Narcissa Cox Vanderlip on the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site page}

7. The original subscribers of the Sleepy Hollow Country Club included two distant relatives of our family: Oakleigh Thorne and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Thorne and my grandmother were cousins seven generations removed and Vanderbilt's brother, William H., had married Mary Louisa Kissam, who was also a distant cousin. They were all descended from William Thorne, signer of the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657, about whom I've written before. Oakleigh Thorne owned and ran the Commerce Clearing House publishing firm. There's a family connection to it in that my brother's father-in-law worked for CCH.


{Alas, this is not my actual sister on the actual stilts; source: nyfolklore.org}

{Haverstraw Bay from Sleepy Hollow CC; source: the club page}

{Harden Gatehouse; source: palosverdesdailyphoto}

{Carriage house and servants' quarters on the Vanderlip estate; source: Scarborough Country Day School}

{Andromeda chained to a rock, painted 1638-1639 by an anonymous imitator and originally thought to be by Van Dyck; source: LA County Museum of Art}
One day in 17th century London -- probably -- a painter stepped into a studio with a palette full of pigments, a canvas 7 feet high and a naked woman. Maybe she was his mistress, maybe not. Either way, the result was "Andromeda Chained to the Rock," credited for more than 150 years to the Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck. The Ahmanson Foundation acquired it in 1985 as a 20th birthday present to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put it up right away. ... "This is not a fake. It's a painting of the period, a painting that has some quality," Marandel says. "But the painting, when you start looking at it, is full of these awkward moments.... That body is, to me, awkward. The head is hopelessly small, compared to the huge vastness of torso, which is rather unpleasant." And the belly button, which is placed dead in the middle of the composition, "is the biggest belly button in the history of belly buttons," Marandel says.
-- When the Artist Is Sketchy, May 04, 2006, by Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Some sources:

Susan Cheever, her home page which lists all her books including memoirs that describe Beechwood and Scarborough School

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey (Macmillan, 2004), describes the time when Yates and his mother rented a house at Beechwood and he attended Scarborough School


Biography of Frank A. Vanderlip by C.E. Booth (1914)

Scarborough Country Day School

Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, Eleanor Roosevelt Historic Site, Hyde Park, NY

Scarborough Historic District
The name of the locality derives from the fact that St. Mary's Church, at the southern end of the district, is a replica of the fourteenth-century church of St. Mary's, Scarborough, England. ... Woodlea [the mansion that would become the Sleepy Hollow CC] is a late nineteenth century Renaissance Revival residence of major importance. It was completed in 1895 at a cost of $808,764.00 for Margaret Vanderbilt as a summer residence. ... Her husband, Colonel Elliott Fitche Shepard, died in 1894. Shortly after the turn of the century, Woodlea went on the market. Frank Arthur Vanderlip, then vice-president of First National Bank (now Citibank), purchased for $165,000 the property on which he said "over $2,000,000 had been spent." Mrs. Vanderlip, however, felt the house was far too grand, and refused to move in. Vanderlip then organized the country club, the first meeting of the Board of Directors being held on May 16, 1911, at 55 Wall Street. Early members of the club included Averill Harriman, Percy and William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Stillman (president of First National), and members of the Colgate and Choate families. The course was laid out under Vanderlip's supervision[11] by "the famous golfer Charley McDonald," and Frank Vanderlip served as the club's president for many years. [He did not play golf.]

Beechwood is an architecturally significant estate with a rich history. During the early nineteenth century, the estate was the property of a Benjamin Folger, who became a disciple of a man called variously "Matthias the Prophet" and "Matthias the Imposter." Matthias, claiming to be the "Angel of Revelation," lived in Folger's house for two years, 1833-34. He called the residence Mt. Zion and drove around the countryside in a chariot drawn by four horses, proclaiming his particular version of the gospel. Having bankrupted Folger, and after apparently trying to murder Folger and his family, Matthias was tried in White Plains in 1835 for the murder of another disciple. Acquitted because of lack of evidence, Matthias left Westchester soon after the trial. The estate was purchased in 1895 by Walter Webb, a vice-president of the New York Central Railroad. Webb, enlarged the original late eighteenth century structure and gave it the name "Beechwood." ... Frank A. Vanderlip bought Beechwood, including twenty-three acres of land, in 1906. He acquired more land, bringing the total acreage to 125, and commissioned William Welles Bosworth to landscape the spacious grounds. Landscape-enhancing components of Bosworth's original plan, still in place at Beechwood, include swimming and reflecting pools, formal gardens, a tempietto, the pergola and a tea house. Vanderlip also commissioned Bosworth to expand the large frame residence to the north with the addition of a luxuriously appointed Neoclassical library with a sky-lit octagonal ante-room.
Narcissa and Frank Vanderlip had six children. Wanting to keep the children close at hand instead of sending them off to boarding school, the Vanderlips were determined to provide them with a quality education locally. They were introduced by a friend to the educational theories of Maria Montessori and met Madame Montessori herself.[29] They hired as a teacher a woman who had studied with Madame Montessori, set her up in October, 1913 in a building on the estate property, "and in a little while, down near our gate, she had six or eight pupils, including one or two of our children. That was the nucleus of the Scarborough School."

Although they eventually decided the Montessori theories were not as appropriate as they had originally thought, the Vanderlips chose to continue and expand the local school. They commissioned Bosworth again, this time to design an educational facility. From a 1919 promotional booklet: "The new school building, designed by William Welles Bosworth, the architect of a new group of buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was completed early in 1917. In formulating the plans, advice was sought from experienced school authorities, with the result that the structure is modern in every respect. The problem of procuring the best lighting, heating, and ventilation was given particular attention. Moreover a distinct effort was made to create an artistic whole, to surround the child with beautiful architecture, equipment, and landscape.[31]

The Scarborough School theatre, which opened in 1918 with a piano recital by Paderewski, was a notable architectural and educational addition. The work of theatre designer Winthrop Ames, it was described in school promotional material as having "... a completely equipped stage, with the most approved three-color system of lighting, scene loft, and all the mechanism of the modern stage." Classroom work was enriched by presentations in the theatre that included lectures illustrated by "motion or stereopticon pictures, musicales, and...performances." Poetry recitals were given by Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, and the English Poet-Laureate, John Masefield. Isodora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rockwell Kent also appeared on the Scarborough School stage.
The 338 acres of “Washington Irving” hills and woodlands that make up the Sleepy Hollow Country Club were once known as Woodlea, the country estate of Mr. Butler Wright. The former Golf House, which was situated adjacent to the north end of the pool complex, was the family residence. Later this estate was purchased by Colonel Eliot F. Shepard, husband of Cornelius Vanderbilt's granddaughter, Margaret Vanderbilt, and in 1893 the palatial home – now the main Club House – was constructed along with the magnificent stables. The plans were by Stanford White of McKim, Meade & White, and constituted one of the last works of the famous architect.

The entire estate was purchased in 1910 by Mr. William Rockefeller and Mr. Frank A. Vanderlip, who in May 1911 sold and turned it over to the organizers of The Sleepy Hollow Country Club. The following list of the first 27 directors of the corporation includes the names of leaders in the social and business life of the day. The list includes ... One of these was a distant relative, Oakleigh Thorne.


ChrisinNH10 said...

Very interesting post!
I lived in Beechwood from about 1975 to 1981 and have so many memories from that time. Thanks for sharing yours.

Unknown said...

Hi. I am doing some research on the Vanderlips and would like to contact you about a couple of items in this blog. How?? Is there some link here that I'm missing?

Unknown said...

Hi. I am doing some research on the Vanderlips and would like to contact you about a couple of items in this blog. How?? Is there some link here that I'm missing?

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said...

Hi, Deidre,

You can retrieve my email address here:

I've added a "contact me" widget so others can also discover it.

-- Jeff

marilla said...

235I'm amazed reading your blog posts on Beechwood and the Vanderlips. Frank and Narcissa were my great grandparents and I spent every holiday at Beechwood until I was 12, when Narcissa died. Beechwood was the most magical and at times terrifying place to spend summers, Christmas, etc. Even though I'm a direct descendant so much about them is a mystery. I haven't found much online, and unfortunately there was so much vituperation my mother rarely talked about them. BUt I loved reading the history in your blog and adding it to my memories. I'll try to find an email to contact you directly, wondering if there will be anything published on them in the future?

sarah c said...

Fascinating - Edward Harden was my grandmother's second husband's father she was married to his son Walker. . .He died when I was little but I have two chairs and some other smaller decorative pieces that were in Edward's house the Wilderness which was sold long before I was born in 1954. In college I had a gorgeous 1930's black seal opera length coat that had belonged to one of the Vanderlip ladies.

sarah c said...

and yes I'd love to learn more if anyone knows more my email is sabagup @ yahoo dot com

Unknown said...

Fascinating. I'm interested in another estate in pocantico. Who are you and can we talk?