The Realms Of Gould

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In the summer of 1841 Philip Hone, the New York merchant and politician whose diary has been such a rich mine of illuminating comment upon his contemporaries, “went on another pleasant excursion up the [Hudson] valley to Tarrytown.…” One of the sights of that idyllic countryside to inspire his diaristic pen was the new country villa of his old political rival, General William Paulding.

“In the course of our drive we went to see Mr. Paulding’s magnificent house, yet unfinished, on the bank below Tarrytown. It is an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery, with towers, turrets and trellises; archways, armories and airholes; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantastics too tedious to enumerate, the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it; which if I mistake not, will one of these days be designated as ‘Paulding’s folly’…”

Throughout the ages men have been given to erecting monuments of unsuitable grandeur to their own glory. In the nineteenth century the banks of the lordly Hudson were especially conducive to the construction of a host of inappropriately palatial or uniquely fantastic dwellings. Unlike the enormous “cottages” that erupted at Newport and other fashionable resorts near the close of the century, when ostentatious display had become an essential ingredient of social rank, the large houses of the Hudson Valley were the products of a more romantic and idealistic spirit. Many were buried in remote fastnesses where only eagles and hawks could be impressed by their grandeur. In the dreamy vale of the mists enshrouding the great river, inspired by long attachment to the forts, castles, and other trappings of feudal ancestors and by a deep sense of insecurity here on earth, many men were tempted to build their “castles in the sand” of stone and mortar.

Mr. Hone’s dire prophecy did not come true. Unlike other architectural excrescences that mushroomed over the American landscape in the nineteenth century, General Paulding’s “immense edifice” never became a derelict monument to the folly of man’s pride and vanity. Lyndhurst, as it was christened by a later owner, still stands, recognized by connoisseurs of architecture as “one of the great houses of America … uniting in its walls the beginning and the culmination of Hudson River Gothic.”

For the social historian, the men and women who have lived at Lyndhurst provide a superb epitome of the growth of the American economy in the nineteenth century and an unglossed portrait gallery of those who have been both its leaders and often its choicest beneficiaries. General Paulding was a rich lawyer who married an heiress of the Rhinelander family richer than himself. George Merritt, who bought Lyndhurst from Paulding’s descendants in 1864, was first a prosperous merchant and later a successful investor in the booming industrial by-products of the tremendous growth of railroads in the eighteen-fifties and sixties. But the Pauldings and Merritts have long been forgotten, and Lyndhurst itself would have shared their fate if one of the greatest of the robber barons who dominated the American economy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had not rescued it from oblivion. For more than eighty of the 130 years of its existence Lyndhurst was the home of a family whose name still bears a sinister fame in the annals of American business and finance.

In a land where costly and substantial structures are built and demolished with more reckless abandon than ever before in the history of the world, it is a miracle that so many of America’s great houses have been able to survive the ravages of death, taxes, and social change to which they are a natural prey. Without roots in a stillfunctioning landed aristocracy, once the fortune that gave them life is scattered their existence becomes a series of crises, each greater than the one before.

The last and most crucial period in Lyndhurst’s own struggle for survival began far away in Paris on November 29, 1961, with the death of a sad old lady who had long outlived her time. Anna, Duchesse de TalleyrandPérigord, was dead at the age of eighty-six. Though her name and her exalted title, dating back to the twelfth century in France, meant nothing to most Americans, the obituary accounts of her fairy-tale life stirred memories of an era in our past that still haunts us. The Duchesse, long ago, before the turn of the century, had been plain Anna Gould. She was the last of the six children of Jay Gould and the last mistress of Lyndhurst.

In 1838, when General Paulding was building Lyndhurst, Jay Gould was an infant, two years old, growing up on a small hillside farm in the Catskills near Roxbury, New York, where his parents struggled to make a decent living. The Goulds were proud, respectable folk of old New England stock, but in that day, when only the rags of the rags-to-riches tradition were yet evident, they would never have dared to dream that a son of theirs could cross the immense gulf of wealth and social position between themselves and the Pauldings. Yet forty-two years later, in 1880, when Jay Gould bought Lyndhurst as casually as most men buy a pair of shoes, his swift rise from humble beginnings to wealth and power had already become a familiar story that any ambitious young man could at least hope to emulate.