The Lordly Hudson

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While the valley dwellers were improving the architecture of government, they were equally thoughtful and energetic in planning a social way of life. The prosperity of the city at the river’s mouth had provided its inhabitants with the means for a cultured and secure existence. Smarting at the comments of European visitors who had come to America to sneer at its lack of background and its money-grubbing materialism, the well-to-do New Yorkers moved upriver to construct elegant Italian villas, white-pillared Greek Revival mansions, and rambling country houses decorated by poetic carpenters whose pointed windows and improvised scroll-saw fabrications came to be known as Hudson River Gothic, and whose insistence that roofs be given visible and elaborately carved supports gave birth to the term Hudson River Bracketed.

In these homes set high above the wide river, the life of the “gentleman” became the eagerly sought goal. Arbiter of quiet (but elaborate) taste was young Andrew Jackson Downing, tall, dark, reserved, and handsome. The son of a west-bank gardener, he had from the days of his youth been the favorite of the valley families who looked upon themselves as the river aristocracy, and he had proved the democratic American formula by rising above his lowly birth to the most perfect model of a river aristocrat. Let your estates, he advised his neighbors, be either “beautiful” like the well-ordered, man-disciplined landscapes of Claude Lorrain, or “picturesque” like Salvator Rosa’s paintings of deep, wild glens whose foam-covered streams dash beneath dead trees to shatter against jagged rocks. Whichever of these effects you desire, he said, must be achieved without apparent effort. If your lawns must be mowed, your hedges clipped, your walks made symmetrical, see that the labor is done while your guests are asleep or at a time when they may be supposed to be indoors, so that none of them may be aware of the sweat and muscular aches that made their environment a paradise of the “beautiful.”

Summer began during the Moon of Roses. Breakfast was an outdoor ritual celebrated in the shade of blossoming honey locusts. Guests found beside their plates bouquets that in the language of flowers bespoke the host’s opinion of their virtues. There was a reading of poems—this was a literary valley—and talk of music and painting. Noon brought a pilgrimage to a high place and the opening of picnic baskets laden with roasted capon and cold bottles of champagne. At sunset a wail of flutes combed the mist over the cooling river. Dinner was turtle soup haunted by sherry, sweetbread and oyster patties in a shower of Rainwater Madeira, saddle of lamb jeweled by a garnet Burgundy, custards molded to the shapes of lions, whales, grape arbors—and a port, counted like the beads of a circling rosary. In the river parlors followed a harp glissando and a gentle, sad song—perhaps “On the Lake Where Drooped the Willow”—and a stroll on the riverside toward the moonlight and a glittering passenger packet, trimmed with white gingerbread, hissing softly through a cliff-lined channel.

These were the years when painters tramped the wooded slopes of the Catskills looking for vistas they might literally translate. The Hudson offered scenery matched nowhere else in the world, they said, and it was the painter’s mission to reproduce it realistically in order that all who looked might see how God had wrought an awesome beauty in America. Variety lay not in the approach of these artists but in the variety of nature. The result was painting by formula—a foreground rock or plant to show the virtuosity of the painter, then the river, misty in the middle ground, and last, the mountain rising majestically to prove the divinity of its Creator. There were many of these painters—skillful and dedicated. They formed the only recognized and titled group America has ever offered to the art of the world—The Hudson River school- and their works have outlasted the scorn of immediately succeeding generations. The big canvases of Cole, Durand, Kensett, Cropsey, Whittredge, Church, and a score of others are now treasured by collectors and bring prices almost as high as those for which they were originally sold to rich Hudson Valley patrons.

Though most of the great houses built in the Hudson’s golden age have been destroyed, enough of them remain to perpetuate the transitory dream of a great river flowing between lordly estates. Too many of them are in danger of oblivion, however, unless the people of New York State care enough for their past to preserve them as historic landmarks. Here and there lies a community in which the whole record of the region’s architecture remains intact, though its important items are uncared for and crumbling—Dutch houses over whose stone walls no eaves remain; Yankee salt-boxes that once sheltered Washington and his generals; octagons whose functional properties were praised by America’s foremost phrenologist, Orson S. Fowler; stone castles, crenelated and moated; Downing’s “country cottages”; and, of late, stern “modern” boxlike structures punctuated by picture windows and glass walls.