26 April 2014

Wyndcliffe: An Old House On The Hudson

“The effect of terror produced by the house at Rhinecliff was no doubt due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness. My visual sensibility must always have been too keen for middling pleasure; my photographic memory of rooms and houses - even those seen but briefly, or at long intervals - was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness. I can still remember hating everything at Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on rediscovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic; and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granite exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff.” (Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance,p. 28), New York, Charles Scribners' Sons: 1933)

Harsh criticism from the author of  the classic treatises  The Decoration of Houses (with Ogden Codman, 1897) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904).  If Edith Wharton could see Wyndcliffe in its current state of advanced decay, would she second the sentiments of her friend Henry James who, on first seeing the ruins of ancient Rome as a young man, wrote:  “To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.”  The Norman style brick house, even in its heyday, looked to be the setting for  a Gothic novel and Wharton had nothing good to say about it.    Today moss grip the exterior walls, while most interior walls have collapsed, filling in what had been the basement, and bringing down stairways and fireplaces along the way.  Wyndcliffe stands, barely, but in ruins.

In The Necessity for Ruins, (Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press: 1980) John Brinckerhoff Jackson wrote the following about  “The Impact of Religions on the Landscape” by geographer Erich Isaac:
“It is probably not necessary to point to the current movement to preserve wildness or natural areas as fragments of what we might call the original design of creation. The instinct behind the drive is very similar to that which inspires our architectural restorations: to restore as much a possible of the original aspect of the landscape.   It is perfectly true that to restore part of a town to its mid-19th Century appearance is not in fact to restore it to its original form.  But anthropologists tell us that, in the thought of most peoples, primal time -  the golden age, that is to say – begins precisely where active memory ends – thus about the time of one's great grandfather.”

“First there is that golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings.  There ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect.  Finally comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.
But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential.  That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and of a return to origins.”

If a way to restore Wyndcliffe could be found, what would that mean?  Edith Wharton had no pleasant memories of the house or of her visits to her aunt Elizabeth, “a ramrod-backed old lady compounded of steel and granite, had been threatened in her youth with the 'consumption' which had already carried off a brother and sister. Few families in that day escaped the scourge of tuberculosis...when Elizabeth in her turn began to pine, her parents decided to try curing her at home. They therefore shut her up on October in her bedroom in the New York house in Mercer Street, lit the fire, sealed up the windows, and did not let her out again until the following June, when she emerged in perfect health, to live till seventy. My aunt's house, called Rhinecliff, afterward became a vivid picture in the gallery of my little girlhood; but among those earliest impressions only one is connected with it; that of a night when, as I was ready to affirm, there was a Wolf under by bed...” (A Backward Glance, p. 27)

And Wharton's comments about the social circle her family was enmeshed in show, she was dry-eyed about its characteristics and its passing.
“The weakness of the social structure of my parents' day was a blind dread of innovation, an instinctive shrinking from responsibility.” ( A Backward Glance, p. 22)

Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones (1810-1876) of New York City was well-connected; along with being the aunt of the future novelist, then Edith Newbold Jones, Mrs. William B. Astor was a cousin and the brothers William and Henry James were frequent guests.  Jones purchased l80 acres south of Rhinebeck in 1852 for a summer home to overlook the Hudson River.  Little information is available about her chosen architect, George Veitch but work began on the house in 1853. 
Jones never married although  she had been engaged to a man who died.  She enjoyed tennis and had courts constructed on the grounds at Wyndcliffe.  After her death, her nephew Edward B. Jones, Jr. retained a life tenancy until is death, when the property passed out of family hands.    Andrew Finck, a brewer from New York City, purchased Wyndcliffe from the Jones estate in 1886, and the house and its furnishings remained intact until 1936.   The house  stood empty until  it was sold again in 1950,  reportedly to a group of Hungarian nudists.

After more changes of ownership, the acreage surrounding Wyndcliffe was subdivided and houses built, providing Wyndcliffe with some protection from vandalism but nothing to prevent the deterioration that follows abandonment.  First, part of the east wall of the house where the front parlor had been collapsed.  In 1997, photographer, Monica Randall described Wyndcliffe as a dangerous place.  "The Victorian boathouse that once stood on the water's edge has long since fallen into the river.  All the meandering paths and garden walks have crumbled and been reclaimed by the earth.” More recently, the space around the second and third west windows on the north wall has caved in.
Which brings me back  to my question, what would restoration  mean?  The acclaimed novelist whose connection to Wyndcliffe draws our attention might well find its nature better revealed  in its current state than she did when it was a showplace.  Among other genres in which she excelled, Wharton was a writer of terrific ghost stories.    "(S)ome dark unseen menace...I could feel it behind me, upon me, and if there was any delay in the opening of the door I was seized by a choking agony of terror." Who can doubt that this was inspired, at least in part, by her feelings about Wyndcliffe?  The restored vacation home of a rich relative hardly seems an apt monument to this particular vivisectionist of the pretensions of  rich people.  The ruminations of  landscape geographer  J.B. Jackson are illuminating but maybe not for this case.  Do we really need  Wyndcliffe with a gift shop?

Images: unless otherwise noted, are from the Historic American Buildings Survey, Jack Boucher, photographer, 1979, Library of Congress.
1. Wyndcliffe facade viewed from the southeest, on southwest Mill Road, Rhinebeck, Kodachrome.
2. undated photograph by unidentified photographer of Wyndcliffe, from Phantoms of the Hudson Valley by Monica Randall (Woodstock, Overlook Press: 1996).
3.Wyndlciffe, its front viewed from the south and its east side, kodachrome.
4. Wyndcliffe, the west side viewed from the northwest, kodachrome.
5. Wyndclifee first floor parlo at southeast corner of house. 
6. Wyndlciffe, the north side, 1979, before the second and third upstairs windows on the west side (at right in photo) caved in.