Wednesday, August 30, 2023

If It's Tuesday This Must Be Hudson

Sometime this spring, I decided I would leave State College during the Arts Festival. I thought the new team would do better by not having me metaphorically looking over their shoulders. Plus, it’s usually beastly hot and town would be dreadfully crowded. While heat and crowds make a memorable festival, they also make it a great time to get out of Dodge. 

As I was mulling over what to do, I got an email from the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust announcing a tour of historic estates of the Hudson Valley. It sounded promising. 

The Classical American Homes Preservation Trust (CAHPT) was established by Wall Street bigwig Dick Jenrette, one of the founders of the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette.  DLJ was purchased for megabucks by Equitable Insurance in 1985. Jenrette became chairman of Equitable’s board and retired in 1996.

Instead of scarfing up hideous modern art, mega yachts, or professional sports teams in the manner of today’s hedge fund guys, Jenrette indulged a passion from a seemingly simpler time. He purchased and restored several architecturally significant historic homes, filling them with museum-quality decorative arts and art.  

The mission of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust is to “preserve, protect, and open to the public examples of classical American residential architecture with their surrounding landscapes and scenic trails, as well as fine and decorative arts of the first half of the nineteenth century.” Jenrette endowed the organization generously at his death in 2018. Today the organization owns historic homes in New York and the Carolinas.

I first became aware of Dick Jenrette when I was in college. One of my architectural history classes went on a field trip—traveling overnight by train—to Charleston, South Carolina. One of our stops was the Roper House, which Jenrette purchased in 1968. 

At the time, I gotta admit, I thought the house belonged to another famous—no, make that notorious—Jenrette, Congressman John Jenrette

For those who don’t recall their 1970s scandals, Congressman John Jenrette was convicted of taking a bribe in the Abscam Scandal and served 13 months in the federal pokey. But more importantly, he famously boinked his wife Rita behind a column on the steps of the US Capitol during a late-night Congressional session. The musical comedy group, The Capitol Steps, took its name from this famous boinking.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that Rita Jenrette was a hot tub friend (like a Facebook friend, but from the 1970s) of my late friend Sharon McCarthy, a former Congressional wife. Sharon asked me to be one of the speakers at her funeral so I told the story of Rita J showing up at Sharon’s house wearing a mink coat over, well, absolutely nothing. On second thought, it could have been a sheared beaver. The coat I mean!!

Anyway, back to the Roper House. It's a historic “single house” near The Battery in Charleston. Folks watching from the roof would have had a 50-yard line seat for the shelling of Fort Sumpter in 1861. 

When Prince Charles came to Charleston on an official visit in 1990 he stayed at The Roper House. Its garden was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo a few days before Charles’ arrival, but Dick Jenrette was able to have the garden replaced in time for the royal visit. A few years later, Prince Charles wrote the introduction to Jenrette’s book, Adventures with Old Houses

Dick Jenrette was a man who got things done. 

The e-news that I received from CAHPT promised “an exclusive, three-day tour of the Hudson River Valley’s greatest homes. Special access to the region’s architectural wonders, sweeping vistas, and compelling histories will make this a tour to remember.”  It sounded just like a UVa architectural history field trip. What wasn’t to like? 

I’ve never been on an organized tour, preferring to go it alone. As alluring as the commercials for Viking River Cruises are, when I think of tours, my go-to is the 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium. starring Suzanne Pleshette. (Yes, Suzanne Pleshette. Seriously.) 

But an opportunity like this wasn’t going to come around too often. So, using the “how bad could it possibly be?” font, I signed up. 

The trip didn’t get off to an auspicious start. My drive to tour HQ in Poughkeepsie coincided with a huge storm and so what normally would have been a four-hour trip took more than six.  On arrival, I’d planned to do the Walkway Over the Hudson, an old railroad bridge that has been turned into the world's longest elevated pedestrian bridge. 

It’s almost a mile long and over 200 feet above the Hudson River and I’m deathly afraid of heights, so it was going to be a challenge. When I got to the bridge it was raining cats and dogs. The bridge was closed.  Oh well. There’s always a plan B.

The tour hotel was the Hyatt Place Poughkeepsie, conveniently located on Route 9 next to its architectural cousin, a self-storage facility.  

I checked in just in time to hear the person in front of me in line go on and on (and on, if you wanna know the truth) about the indignity of housekeeping servicing rooms every third day.  As I rolled my eyes I thought, “I bet she’s on the tour….” 

The tour was to start at 8:45 on Monday. As I checked out the people eating in the hotel’s breakfast nook, I wondered which of them would be on the tour. 

The woman who complained about not having daily maid service? The overdressed guy in starched Oxford cloth? The two older women in sensible shoes? 

I was still mentally sorting diners into yays and nays when our thirty-or-maybe-twenty-something-on-Grindr tour leader gave a quick welcome to the group and passed out tote bags. 

A tour tote bag…NOW things were getting serious. 

Bags in hand, it was time to load the tour bus. As I experienced a little junior high PTSD, I wondered if this was going to be like the Presbyterian church, and you’d be sentenced to sit in the seat that you picked out at random forever.  Mindful that I didn’t want to get stuck next to the guy I’d already decided was insufferable, I took a seat by myself.  Sometimes intimacy issues come in handy. 

Spoiler alert: just as in junior high, the good kids sat up front, leaving the rear to the fun folks.  

Our first stop was Locust Grove, the former home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.  Later owners, the Young family, greatly expanded the house. The house was in the Italianate style, though one wag pointed out that the less you know about Italy the more Italian it looks. 

Fortunately for historians of American material culture and unfortunately for us, the Young family never threw a thing away and our docent decided to tell us about every single object in the house starting with the cold meat fork and ending with the bouquet of stuffed songbirds.  

Bird bouquets, apparently they were a thing. (There’s probably a gay angle to bird bouquets but I’ll leave that bit of scholarship to someone else.) Our tour guide had never heard of the show business adage, “always leave them wanting more” and so fortunately there was no time for the gift shop...

...but it did take time away from communing in the pet cemetery. 

Our next stop was the only place on our tour that I’d been before, Hyde Park, the home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

It's conveniently located right across the street from the Hyde Park Drive-In Theatre. 

After watching the introductory movie in the visitors’ center (it’s no Williamsburg: Story of a Patriot, the famous Colonial Williamsburg film) we trooped over to the big house while a Park Service ranger gave us the lowdown on the site. 

The house is a grand Colonial Revival redo of an older house by FDR himself--he was a bit of an amateur architect.  Interestingly enough, the house was the property of FDR’s mother, world class battleaxe Sara Delano Roosevelt until her death in 1941 when the house passed to the President.

The ranger told us that Sara’s father made money in the “China trade” which I wanted to point out was a euphemism for selling opium to the Chinese. If we’re calling a spade a spade (and sometimes calling a spade a fucking shovel) when it comes to slavery in the South, it seems appropriate to also do it when we’re talking about commercial activity above the Mason Dixon Line. 

To his credit, the ranger did not describe every single object in the house. He spent some time reminding us that Roosevelt used a wheelchair and as a result was focused on fire safety since he couldn't just run out of a burning building.  As they say on LinkedIn, our ranger added value to our visit. Who needed to hear about Sara’s whatnot shelf filled with porcelain whatnots? Not me! But I would have been OK with more info about the case of stuffed songbirds...

Confident of his place in history, FDR made arrangements to give the house to the American people while he was still living there. He, First Lady Eleanor, and First Scottie Fala are interred in the front yard. Try that in suburbia! As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich are different.

Having had my fill of the house, I stopped at the Presidential Library, which was a short walk from the house and not included in the price of the tour.  Unique among Presidents, FDR designed and built his Presidential Library while he was still in office. And that was interesting but not as interesting as the fact that they used to have high school proms at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.

The FDR Library had the usual exhibits of personal effects, campaign ephemera, newsreel footage, and so on. 

The scripts obviously weren’t written by my grandparents who were out and proud as voters for Hoover, Landon, Wilkie, and Dewey. But as they say, it’s the winners who get to write history. 

The most interesting object in the library was FDR’s 1936 Ford Phaeton, which is what they used to call a four-door convertible. In my childhood, during the time when my father was interested in old cars, he had a 1936 Ford 3-Window Coupe and a 1937 Ford Phaeton, so the President’s ride was familiar to me.  

However, the Presidential Ford had been modified by a local mechanic to operate with hand controls since the Prez could not use his legs due to the effects of polio.   The car had a gizmo attached to the dash that would dispense LIT Camel cigs. While Joan Claybrook wouldn’t have approved, my mother would have been all over that like a cheap suit. 

I just had time to walk out the back door of the visitors’ center to see a Beatrix Jones Farrand garden. Farrand was an early twentieth-century landscape designer and cousin of Edith Wharton.  Farrand worked for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and a slew of other A-listers. This garden was a rectangle of lawn surrounded by a perennial border and hedge. Nice, but nothing to knock one’s socks off. 

Having had our fill of FDR, it was back on the bus for the short drive to Staatsburgh, the home of Ogden Mills, a Gilded Age financier, and his wife Ruth.  Ruth was a descendant of the prominent Livingston family and the property had been in the family since the dawn of time. This gave Ogden and Ruth a social leg up on arrivistes like the Astors and Vanderbilts and so they loaded up on ancestral portraits to, as my father used to say, show them where the crow pissed in the buckwheat. 

As Ogden and Ruth found it, the house wasn’t nearly grand enough, so they had McKim, Mead & White turn it into a Newport “cottage”—which is to say, like a mansion, but on steroids.

Today Staatsburgh is rundown and for all its heft, only a small portion of the house is open to the public. While I enjoy a house museum, as far as Newport cottages are concerned, I think if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. 

Our docent, whose name may or may not have been Zack, was much more interesting than the house. He was an elfin sort wearing fashionably skinny trousers, statement socks, and sporting a handlebar mustache.  

I wasn’t sure which church Zack went to, but I was reminded of my friend Martha—yes, Martha of the good books and borax mine fame--that she’d never date anyone with what she called an “ostentatious presentation of self”.  Meaning wackadoodle facial hair, excess piercings, tats, and well, you get the picture.  

I looked over Zack and his handlebar mustache over and thought, What happens to that soup strainer during oral sex? (with whatever gender—just call me Mr. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging!).

After Staatsburgh we boarded the bus for the short ride to Edgewater, Dick Jenrette’s home and the crown jewel of the tour.

Edgewater is a temple-fronted Greek Revival house set on an immaculate lawn that sweeps from the portico to the east bank of the Hudson River. The main house has been attributed to architect Robert Mills, a protégé of Thomas Jefferson. With the addition of an octagonal library designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1854, the volume on the house was turned up to 11. 

Powers of description fail me, but the interior of the house looks like what Jackie Kennedy might have done to the White House if she’d had good taste and a crapload of money.  I mean, really. 

Here’s a suite of Duncan Phyfe furniture; there’s a pair of Gilbert Stuart portraits; not to mention gilded French mantle clocks, Bohemian glass, a library of 20,000 books, AND a powder room with circa 1980 chocolate brown Kohler fixtures.  It was all quite something. 

It was news to me that Dick Jenrette lived here with his partner Bill Thompson. A partner?! How’d I miss this? I have the book about his houses and I certainly don’t remember any partner. 

Plus, I didn’t know that there were gay Wall Street titans.  PLUS, he would have been a honcho on Wall Street as the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. My politicized 1990s AIDS-activist-March-on-Washington self started to have the vapors.   

When I snapped out of it, the docent said that Dick and Bill met shortly after they both served in the armed forces during the Korean War (when my father was posted to the Hamptons, but that’s for a different story). Had anyone raised an eyebrow at their relationship, the story was going to be that Bill was Dick’s butler. I was this close to blurting out “Because screwing the help is a much better cover story!”  Oy! I thought it was about the saddest thing ever.  

I also thought it was a bit odd that there was a large oil portrait of Bill in his own bedroom and one of Dick in his own bedroom. I would have thought that Bill would have had Dick’s portrait in his room and vice-versa. Hey, I’m bad at relationships, what do I know? 

Somewhat later one of the foundation insiders said that Dick enjoyed what he called Drunk Decorating, as is moving the furniture and art around after a few cocktails.  And he skinny-dipped in the pool, where he, I mean they, built a small neoclassical temple as the pool house. 

The pool house is now the mausoleum for Dick and Bill’s earthly remains. 

Oh, and did I mention that Dick and Bill bought the property from none other than Gore Vidal? True fact. 

After getting our fill of Edgewater, we loaded ourselves back on the bus so that we could have dinner in Rhinebeck at the Beekman Arms.  The property has operated continuously since 1766, making it America's oldest continuously operating inn. Sometime during the evening, we all had to stand up and give the proverbial elevator speech on who we were and so on.

Of course, I don’t remember what anyone said, other than the folks at my table. But at the end of the tour, I made some notes on the spreadsheet of tour participants. 

Here’s a sample of my notes on seven of my tour mates:

     Trumpy gay from Richmond, UVa '80. Wants to shoot the homeless.

     Ginger bear. Works in logistics.  Went to Liberty University!

     “I’ve known Robert Kennedy Jr. personally for over 20 years. Not only is he a kook, he’s an IDIOT.”

     Married to the guy with badly dyed hair. Complained about lack of maid service at hotel.

     Ichabod Crane but with better clothes.

     Went to Wellesley, but older than Susan. Didn't ask about Hillary. 
     The guy you’re glad you didn’t sit by on the bus.

A fun group, no?

The second day our first stop was the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Cole was an English immigrant to America and the founder of the Hudson River School of painting. 

If you took Latin in high school, his series of paintings The Course of Empire might have been an illustration in your Latin book—they’re chock-a-block with togas and classical columns. Wiki says they portray pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization and express the fear that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. Sounds about right to me.  

Cole’s house is modest, and there aren’t too many artifacts from his time there.  The curators employ modern means such as sound and video rather than having a docent point out everything right down to the proverbial cold meat fork. 

The gallery in the backyard of the site was showing an exhibition of the works of 19th-century American artist Susie Barstow. The Cole site is a gem I’d never have seen if it weren’t for the tour. 

That day’s lunch was on our own in the town of Hudson, which is a colony of NYC’s Chelsea. The town seems to exist to sell tchotchkes to the affluent, attractive, and fabulously gay. That’s all well and good, but not much is open if you’re looking for a sandwich on a Tuesday at noon.  

Post lunch, our next stop was the Oliver Bronson House, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. It’s not open to the public since it’s on the grounds of a state prison, the Big House to end all big houses. 

Although the Bronson house had been lived in until perhaps the 1960s, in the house’s current state there were no mod cons: it looked like Miss Havisham had just moved out. 

That made it easy to appreciate the home’s design and craftsmanship and frankly gave the place a bit of a romantic air.  

The house has a complicated backstory, which of course included Dick Jenrette in a walk-on role having something to do with its preservation some years back. I can’t give you a whole lot of details since in the heat, humidity, and post-lunch stupor, much of it was lost on me. 

Our final stop that day was Olana, the home of Frederick Edwin Church, the Hudson River School painter and student of Thomas Cole. Olana and its landscape were preserved in the 1960s through the efforts of lots of folks including Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and (are you sensing a theme here?) Dick Jenrette. 

Church was rich, talented, and entrepreneurial so his home was many times the size of the Cole house. Church paid as much attention to Olana’s grounds and views (it’s atop a mountain) so even though it was hotter—and more humid—than a steam bath, the site manager took us on a mid-afternoon trek down and up the mountain. We experienced every vista, tree, bush, flower, and even individual blades of grass in all their glory.  I don’t know how I missed the paragraph in the tour brochure that as an added bonus there would be a Bataan Death March reenactment.  

Church—who paid for a substitute rather than serve in the Civil War—had traveled extensively in the Middle East and decorated Olana in the style of a seraglio/opium den. In today’s world, he would be the person who decorates his house for Halloween to such an extent that the local TV station covers it.  So, while I’m glad it's been preserved, in that moment I would have traded it for a tall gin and tonic.

Determined to keep the gay economy of Hudson humming, my buds from the back of the tour bus and I went back for dinner. We enjoyed a delightful meal at a testosterone-forward place where I’m sure the hiring process included a swimsuit competition, graduate-level instruction on hair product, and the submission of an essay on the topic, “What My Tattoos Mean to Me Personally”. 

Wednesday’s first stop was Wilderstein, a few miles from Hyde Park. Wilderstein was the home of Daisy Suckley, FDR’s fifth cousin, close personal friend, archivist, and at least according to the 2012 biopic, Hyde Park on the Hudson, a woman who gave the President a handjob in the front seat of his 1936 Ford Phaeton. In addition to the occasional “happy ending”, Daisy also gave FDR his Scotty dog, Fala

Wilderstein is a grand Victorian pile, that remained largely unchanged over the years due to the Suckely family’s downward mobility. No photos were allowed in the house, but the docent, who had some years on her, thoughtfully took us outside for what she called the “money shot” of Wilderstein photography.  In the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up. 

The Wilderstein gift shoppe was quite a treat since the staff member totaled purchases using pencil and paper and I’m pretty sure she didn’t get an 800 on her math SATs.  Her attention to 19th-century retail authenticity gave me time to watch part of the orientation movie which featured vintage footage of Daisy and her sister yammering at each other like Big and Little Edie in Grey Gardens.

Rokeby, our next stop was even more Grey Gardens than a film clip of Daisy and her sister. Rokeby’s a large vaguely French pile in a setting worthy of Erskine Caldwell’s novel, Tobacco Road.  Cars on blocks, rusting hulks of farm equipment, old tractors, whatever, it’s all there, and it’s been there for a long time. And the next time a car, tractor, or whatever dies, I have no doubt it’ll remain where it breathed its last. 

Rokeby dates to the early 19th century and has an octagonal library attributed to…drum roll please…. Alexander Jackson Davis. In the 1870s Rokeby was the home of Margaret Astor Ward and John Winthrop Chanler.  After they both died of pneumonia they left a pile of money and instructions that their servants should rear their ten kids at Rokeby.  The kids were known as The Astor Orphans. I don’t know about you, but I think this makes interring FDR in the front yard at Hyde Park look completely normal. 
At some point, family friend Stanford White was called in to tart the place up a bit, and Stanford White Jr. offered some advice along those lines too.  

While our visit was limited to the ground floor, Rokeby was tidy, but a time capsule from I don’t know, 1920 maybe?  It was quite something. 

In 2013, the Chanler’s great-great granddaughter Alexandra Aldrich wrote a well-received memoir The Astor Orphan about growing up at Rokeby. Apparently, three families of descendants still live on the third floor, busy with not cleaning up all the junk that litters the property. Rokeby was a welcome reminder that history is, well, messy both figuratively and literally. 

After Rokeby, there was one more place to visit, Montgomery Place, adjacent to the campus of Bard College in Annandale. One of our tour mates worked in PR at the time that Montgomery Place was opened to the public and shared a charming story about Brooke Astor (a friend of….you guessed it, Dick Jenrette) arriving by helicopter for the dedication.  The mansion is now closed for maintenance but our excellent guide gave us the lowdown on the grounds and house without going into numbing detail.   

Since we were right there, we had an unplanned detour through the campus of Bard College. I’m not sure what I was expecting but the campus was quite a surprise. It wasn’t manicured to within an inch of its life, but it did have a huge Frank Gehry building, which is something I bet college presidents brag about when they get together. (“My Gehry is bigger than yours….”)  

There was much discussion on the bus about Bard being the alma mater of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the founders of my favorite band Steely Dan. Their song My Old School references Annandale, though when I first heard the song, I thought they were singing about the Annandale in northern Virginia rather than New York. 

I don’t think there are many tour groups that can elide effortlessly from Duncan Phyfe to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. I don’t know how I picked this one, but as they say, even a blind hog can get an acorn. Thank you, Dick Jenrette for making it all possible.