There is obviously continuity in the physical landscape as you leave New England (in either Vermont, Massachusetts or Connecticut) and enter New York but almost immediate contrast in the built environment. The older houses look different, and this difference becomes more pronounced as soon as you get into some towns. There are some universal styles (Greek Revival, High Victorian, all those post 1945 “capes”), but the New England colonial and federal styles do not seem to have penetrated New York, where you see far more center gables, little second-floor windows, board and batten, and most especially flat roofs. New York State really embraced the Italianate in the mid-nineteenth century, in a variety of forms: from the whimsical gothic and picturesque to the more straightforward and streamlined flat-roofed buildings–built of both brick and wood–that have always represented “New York” to me, because you just don’t see them in New England. Inspired by the rural villas of Renaissance Italy, these houses represent a more democratic diffusion of a style that seems to have spread everywhere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This past weekend in Saratoga, when I was walking up Broadway (renown for its High Victorian mansions but obviously experiencing some McMansionization) it was these houses that captured my attention, and then I ran around the city looking for more.
The Inspiration: View of the Villa La Petraia: From Vedute delle ville, e d’altri luoghi della Toscana (plate 33), 1744, Filippo Morghen (Italian, 1730–after 1807), after a drawing by Giuseppe Zocchi (Italian, 1711/17–1767), Metropolitan Museum of Art, and flat-roofed houses in Saratoga Springs.
It seems to me that from time to time one of our Founding Fathers emerges from the pack, to glow just a little brighter in a blaze of adulation. Certainly John Adams had his time a few years back, singled out by David McCullough’s book and the HBO series; more recently “Sexy Sam Adams” emerged as the hero of the History Channel’s (or as most historians refer to it, the Hitler Channel) Sons of Liberty miniseries, sponsored, of course, by Sam Adams beer. Now it’s all about Alexander Hamilton, the star of a namesake, sold-out musical on off-Broadway. Hamilton, written, directed and starring Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on Hamilton’s rag-to-riches life, as charted by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, set to a score that sounds far more lively than that of 1776.
I don’t find the spotlight on Hamilton, or the success of Hamilton, even remotely surprising. After all, I live in Alexander Hamilton world: the first thing I see every morning when I wake up is Hamilton Hall, the c. 1805 assembly hall named after the Federalist hero/martyr, and the sign boldly attesting to that fact. And even if you’re just familiar with the outline of his life you can understand that it would make for a good story: illegitimate Caribbean orphan sent to New York, student, lawyer, lover, soldier, author, first Secretary of the Treasury, victim of a duel. Fill in the details and you’ve got a blockbuster!
Hamilton updated: 1957 Rand McNally ad; defaced $10 Batman bill; Alexander Hamilton birthday print by A5/Day; Alexander Hamilton small-batch Vodka.
I drove into one of the most distressed small cities in America this past Monday, and was both assaulted and astonished by: rows and rows of brick townhouses from the nineteenth century and before, many gone to rot, manifest poverty, amazing elevated Hudson River views, a historic district of restored Gilded Age mansions saved from a sweeping program of urban renewal and by their courageous owners, and a fisher cat. Perhaps I would not have ventured into Newburgh if I had known that it was “The MurderCapital of New York“, but then I would not have seen the deterioration or the restoration (or the fisher cat, which is not a cat at all but a rare weasel-like creature–it fled into an abandoned wooded lot before I could turn on my camera, but I knew immediately that that’s what it was). I went to Newburgh to see Washington’s Headquarters, but came away seeing a whole lot more. I’m going to refrain from including images of Newburgh’s distress–but let me assure you that its surviving restored structures are all the more picturesque because of the contrast.
Along Montgomery Street in Newburgh, New York; villas and a foundation garden. The influence of Calvert Vaux (1824-95) and Andrew Jackson Downing is very apparent. There is a park named after Downing in Newburgh, and this last house is clearly based on “Design no. 14” in Vaux’s Villas and cottages. A series of designs prepared for execution in the United States.
The Hudson River Valley is, of course, picturesque in both natural and man-made ways: and when they come together they really grab hold of you! The whole region is dotted with romantic structures, large and small, alone and in assemblages like Montgomery Street. On the other side of the river, I captured a few more romantic structures, and, for contrast, the USSSlater (the last World War II destroyer afloat) on its way up the river to Albany.
On the other side of the river: houses (actually I don’t think this first structure is a house–some sort of chapel?) in Cold Spring and Rhinecliff; the USS Slater on the Hudson.
Just back from a long celebratory Thanksgiving weekend in the Hudson River Valley, stuffed and tired. In between the festivities, I indulged in my usual activities: looking around for interesting houses, and things. Almost as soon as you cross over the line from Massachusetts into New York the traditional domestic architecture is different, which never ceases to amaze me. You enter into a world of board and batten, center gable roofs, and little square second-story windows. Lots more pillars. I believe that the Dutch influence is much less evident on the eastern side of the Hudson River where my brother lives than the western, but I could be wrong: my favorite house of the weekend, which I’ll start with below, has a Dutch look to it along with lots of interesting outbuildings, all of which possess an irresistible air of abandonment–love the Gothic Revival windows casually propped up against the side of its barn.
Some more Rhinebeck houses that caught my eye, beginning with the center-gabled ones that are everywhere in this area, and ending with a house that is in Red Hook, just to the north along route 9G: Rhinebeck was a bit crowded on Black Friday so I ventured up there.
I have pledged to do all my Christmas shopping in downtown Salem, but I can look elsewhere, so I popped in all the shops of Rhinebeck and then drove up to less-precious Red Hook. Just a few things that caught my eye–still-trendy mismatched pattern plates from Spruce Design & Decor, embroidered pictures and cardboard “busts” (dressed for the holidays) from Paper Trail, and an assortment of creatures from Tivoli Mercantile.
We’re repainting our double parlor, finally. For years friends have been telling me to go darker, to highlight the serious moldings in these rooms. It’s painted a very subtle blush pink now, but it just looks like a rather shabby off-white in the pictures below. And it looks cold. Clearly it’s time to paint: I’ve taken down all the pictures and removed all the moveable stuff, now out with the rugs, the couches and the mirrors–Moneypenny will stay on the radiator for as long as she possibly can. We haven’t quite decided on the exact color yet: I really like Rundlett Peach from California Paints Historic Colors of America, while my husband is leaning toward something a bit more something with a bit more orange, or perhaps a warm grey (is there such a thing?) or something “buffy”. We tried a rather vibrant persimmon last year and realized we could not live with quite that much color in these rooms. Any suggestions would be welcome; there’s a lot of prep work to do so we have a few days to decide. The double parlor is really one large room separated by pocket doors which we rarely close; while it is a large area it is always rather dark, as our house is north-facing. The matching grey marble mantles are the other consideration; obviously we want a color that complements them. Here’s a few pictures of the space now.
There are “fake doors” in both the front and rear parlors for symmetry, which is very Greek Revival.
After painting, lighting. I’ve never really liked the fixture in the rear parlor, and what you are seeing above is a cap where a gas fixture once was so we need some wiring in the front parlor.
It’s fun to turn your house (and your cat) into a pencil sketch!
While looking around for some inspiration and colors for my double parlor, I kept coming across images of the Greek Revival house in Brooklyn Heights where Truman Capote lived when he wrote In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. No doubt Google was directing me there because I was searching for “Greek Revival Double Parlors” and this house is a Greek Revival with several parlors (I don’t think they are contiguous) but also because this house has recently been in the news for setting the sales record for a single-family home in Brooklyn: $12 million (though the asking price was $18 million–sign of the times). The house looks stunning even though it has a bit of an ’80s ambiance (1980s not 1880s, though neither is good); it has a lovely enclosed garden in back and the colors of its parlors are close to what I want for mine, although I think I need a warmer, slightly rosier color than that pictured below. I must admit that I like my softer grey mantles better.
I think both Federal and Greek Revival houses are quite adaptable to a range of furnishings. You can go very period if you like, or in a more contemporary direction, or mix it up (my preference), and it all seems to work in these spare, classical spaces. I love looking in my Richard Jenrette books, but that kind of grandeur is unattainable. House museums like the Merchant‘s House in New York City are fun to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. On the other hand, the parlor in cosmetics scion Aerin Lauder’s Greek Revival country house in the Hamptons is a bit too modern for me (although that orange might be just what my husband wants).
Richard Jenrette’s great book, followed up by More Adventures with Old Houses, which focuses on Edgewater, his amazing Greek Revival estate on the Hudson River, the front parlor of the Merchant’s House Museum in NYC, and Aerin Lauder’s Hamptons living room photographed for Elle Decor.
I think the warmer, traditional yet updated look that appeals to me the most is well represented by the double parlor of an 1838 Nantucket house designed by Thomas Jayne Design Studio for clients “who were committed to adapting to the historic architecture of their home rather than altering it to fit contemporary tastes”. A lovely attitude and a lovely room.