Great Houses Along The Hudson

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Church spoke of the home, hilltop, and views beyond as together composing a work of living landscape art. He named the house Olana, which in Persian meant a treasure house or fortress, and he threw up turrets and towers of multi-colored brick and slate. He planned the road to the house so it would lead from one great view to another—“I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio,” he wrote—and cut a lake into the hillside where the scene wanted improvement.

The Hudson reached its peak of popularity as a front yard for the moneyed toward the end of the nineteenth century, when its east bank became known as millionaire’s row. Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, one of America’s earliest and finest Gothic Revival mansions, was designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis for William Paulding, a mayor of New York City. It was owned after 1880 by the supreme railroad plunderer, Jay Gould.

From the outside the house looks almost small—Gothic arches and spires usually adorn more majestic buildings. But inside (you enter through a vestibule that has a fifteen-foot-high vaulted ceiling, eleven-foot-high doors, and two carved bishop’s chairs bearing the Jay Gould coat of arms) everything is grand and theatrical. In nearly every room the lavish marble and bronze and leather are really wood and plaster and canvas, brilliantly disguised in the best high-style fakery of the day. Most of the furniture is outright playful. Davis designed chairs and tables and beds and bureaus to intermingle Gothic patterns with details from the house’s natural surroundings —twining oak leaves and acorn finials. Gould reached the peak of his power during the time he lived at Lyndhurst and did a good deal of business there. His big Wooton desk is fortresslike, with a wall of forty metal containers that looks like part of a bank vault.

Gilded Age grandiosity reaches a pinnacle at the 1896 mansion of the goldrush banking heir Ogden Mills, in Staatsburg, New York, a sixty-five-room Renaissance chateau with fourteen baths, twenty-five all-different marble fireplaces, a forty-foot-long dining-room table, forty outbuildings, and a six-foot-high safe in the pantry for the silver. The Millses lived here for about two months each autumn, when they weren’t at another of their places in New York, Paris, California, or Newport. The house was really not a home so much as a large hotel, laid out to accommodate guests and their servants by the dozens and to hold balls for crowds of hundreds. All the antiques here are real, and prominently displayed in one airy room is a large silver platter inscribed “To my friends Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills, as a slight token of appreciation for their generosity and courtesy to me, and their real service to the American Expeditionary Forces in the gift of their beautiful Paris house for my headquarters while in Paris. John J. Pershing.”

The river’s popularity as a front yard for the moneyed peaked at the end of the nineteenth century.

Across the Hudson and downriver in Newburgh, the house where another general stayed makes a contrasting impression. It is a plain, one-story Dutch building of seven small rooms, with whitewashed walls and open hearths. This was George Washington’s home and headquarters during sixteen uneasy months beginning in April 1782, after the British had surrendered at Yorktown but before the Treaty of Paris. The close, unadorned quarters seem to embody the spirit behind the letter Washington wrote there to a colonel who suggested he make himself king of America: “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

—Frederick Alien