Driving home to Massachusetts from the Hudson River Valley last weekend, I actually drove west, as my brother told me there was a village across the river which I might enjoy: Athens. All the day before when we were touring the riverfront estates of my last post we would look across and see some great house and every time I asked him where it was he would say Athens. I don’t think he was correct as it is a bit more to the north, but still I had Athens on my mind when I woke up the next day and was determined to go there. It’s just across the Rip Van Winkle bridge from Hudson, north of Catskill, which I visited last year, bordered by Cairo (of course) on the west. Apparently there is both a town and a village of Athens and I believe I was in the latter; no one has ever been able to explain the differing jurisdictions that you find in New York and New Jersey—hamlets, villages, boroughs, towns and townships—to me so I am perpetually confused. This seemed like a village, a river village, and it was absolutely charming. Probably the most famous building in Athens is its lighthouse, which really is a lighthouse, but my sentry was the 1706 Jan van Loon house: how different Dutch and English First-Period houses are!
There are several streets of historic houses clustered along the river and I immediately focused on the brick structures. The Northrup house (1803, first up below) is in need of some work but it features the characteristic elevated first floor that I saw on several Athens houses, an architectural feature which I always associated exclusively with southern houses for some reason. There were some lovely wooden houses, but the region’s clay banks supported as many as eight brickyards in nineteenth-century Athens, and fostered masonry construction: I just couldn’t capture enough of these old brick houses, glowing in the autumn sun.
This past weekend I toured six “country seats” built by various members of the venerable and prominent Livingston family of the Hudson River Valley in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: most privately-owned, one owned by the state of New York. My brother and brother-in-law live in Rhinebeck, so I have visited this region quite a bit, but I find new old houses every single time I return, and this time was no exception. When we started off, I was thinking only 6 houses? we’ll be done in a flash and $60 for six houses! as our Christmas in Salem tour features more houses and a lower ticket price but it took us most of the day and was well worth it: I had an urban house tour in my mind where you just walk from place to place but these are rural county seats situated on vast acres of land—-mostly waterfront. The scale of both houses and land was much larger than your average house tour, and the tour was a bargain: I’m alway happy to support historic preservation in any case, and in this case it was Hudson River Heritage. I’m going to present the tour in the very order that we saw these houses and give you my impressions of each along the way: no interior photography was allowed except in the state-owned property, Clermont, but as one of the houses is currently for sale and others are included in the amazing (again, expensive but worth it) newly-published book by Pieter Estersohn titled Life Along the Hudson. The Historic Country Estates of the Livingston Family and other publications I can show you some interior views.
You will notice it getting progressively brighter; the day started out pretty dreary and ended with sun. Still all houses shone.
RICHMOND HILL, built in 1808
This federal—-no I think proper Palladian is more accurate–house was simply stunning: beautiful proportions and details. It is the most formal farmhouse I have ever seen as it sits in the midst of 58 acres and many outbuildings, including a period Dutch barn, also unlike anything I have ever seen (I’m such a New Englander!). It has not been lived in for some time and is currently for sale: the photographs on the real estate site (I’m including the west bedroom and basement kitchen below–there’s a modern kitchen too!) are not really doing it justice in terms of the details: one of the mantles had a pinecone design which (again) I have never seen before.
CHIDDINGSTONE, Built in 1860
This is a “Bracketed Italianate” house which has recently been restored and redecorated with 15-foot ceilings and a stunning river view. The interior is all about height over width: the rooms were not all that large in terms of size but those high ceilings, along with the floor-to-ceiling windows and furnishings, made them seem positively grand.
The front parlor photographed by Pieter Estersohn
CLERMONT, Built from 1779-82
Then it was on to the oldest Livingston house, Clermont, which was built in the 1730s but burned mostly to the ground by the British during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt between 1779 and 1782. Clermont is a state historic site with an informative visitors’ center and extensive grounds along the river. Here we had a proper (essentially genealogical) tour and were able to take photographs: the interiors are furnished in the Colonial Revival style adopted by the last Livingstons to live at Clermont in the 1930s.
MIDWOOD, built in 1888
Midwood is a sprawling Colonial Revival house situated on 87 acres along the Hudson: it made quite the contrast from Clermont as it is a very much lived-in and lively house, furnished in an eclectic style that must reflect the spirit of its owner and felt very “Bloomsbury” to me: we spent quite some time there just because there was so much to see and we were not alone. You can take your own tour here, and I’m sharing two interior views below.
Side Parlors photographed by Christopher Baker
CLARKSON CHAPEL, built c. 1860
One of many board and batten Carpenter Gothic structures in the region, the Clarkson Chapel was built following a dispute–a schism, I suppose– at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in nearby Tivoli. Here we met a wonderful guide/steward who had made her own chart of the division of the original Livingston Manor. This was very helpful, and another informative source is here.
EDGEWATER, Built in 1825
Our last stop was at Edgewater, a magnificent Greek Revival mansion perched on the Hudson shore in Barrytown, the long-time home of Richard Jenrette, who died earlier this year. My first house was a Greek Revival, and so I studied and bought everything I could about this iconic architectural style, and Mr. Jenrette’s Adventures with Old Houses (1995) became a bible of sorts: my copy is coffee-cup stained, page-marked, and well-worn. Edgewater is preserved, polished, and furnished to perfection, and signs of Mr. Jenrette were all around within: notes, cards, the lift on the magnificent stairs, the program to his memorial service. Of course the whole house is a memorial to him, as is the foundation which now owns Edgewater and his other homes: the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. I had pored over pictures of Edgewater so many times that when I finally found myself inside, I felt like I was returning to it, which is the first time I’ve had that experience. That said, it’s even more beautiful than its photographs and is a very real, much-loved house indeed.
Photographs of the Music Room and Dining Room by Dorothy Hong for the Wall Street Journal (above); the Edgewater guesthouse (below) was built in 1996.
On Saturday morning I drove straight across Massachusetts into New York State to Catskill, home to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The artist lived and worked at Cedar Grove, a bright, airy and porch-encircled Federal house overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, from 1833 until his premature death in 1848. Given the glorious weather we’ve been having this October, it was my intent to explore Cole country via the Hudson River School Art Trail, but I was waylaid by Cedar Grove and the village of Catskill: by the time I was done with both it was twilight. Oh well, next time, but at the very least I should have taken the Skywalk across the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the majestic Olana, the home of Cole’s protege Frederic Edwin Church. These two men were linked in life and now their houses are linked thereafter. Cedar Grove was purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1988 and declared a National Historic Site in the next year: after an extensive renovation it was opened to the public on the 200th birthday of Thomas Cole in 2001.
As you can see, Cedar Grove is not a large house so how or why did I spend so much time there? It’s all about the interpretation: and the fact that it is such an inviting place to be: the public is invited to come in, wander around, take pictures (with no flash, of course), and even sit down, on blue-cushioned chairs that looks exactly like the period chairs on which Cole himself sat. His cape is draped casually on a bench; reproductions of his letters are scattered on every surface. By the time that this house museum was created, Cole’s works and papers had been long dispersed and ensconced in museum and archive collections: consequently the curators had to be creative in their interpretation. They have used the familiar–or rather the intimate, the aesthetic (striking paint colors throughout and modern art works in rotating exhibitions, plus reproductions of Cole’s works), and technology, in the form of Second Story’s immersive interpretations which plunge the visitor into Cole’s worldview and creative process. It’s very effective.
And then there was the Old Studio, where Cole worked, and the New Studio, and one of the loveliest outhouses (a three-seater) I have ever seen: a lot to appreciate. Some grounds: not as many as once were as a large parcel was taken for construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge in 1935.
I misjudged the time because our weather has been so warm: it feels like summer but the days are much shorter. Actually, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Cedar Grove because I dawdled in Catskill, which was a happy surprise. It is one of those perfect New York State river towns, with a lovely main street lined with nineteenth-century buildings with more flourish and color than you’ll ever find in New England. Within were antiques, art, and food, and every narrow lot fronting the street that does not have a building on it has been turned into a perfectly-maintained little park. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cleaner town. There was an old movie theater, of course, and a courthouse, and beyond the main street was the river on one side and neighborhoods of old houses on the other in many different architectural styles: stately Greek Revivals, eclectic Victorians, lots of those New York Italianates with compressed windows on the third floor. Certainly not Cole’s Catskill, likely much better, and I never say that when comparing the present to the past.