At long last, here is the second part of our Hudson River series by Richard Holt. Enjoy!
The next morning we begin with a visit to Teviotdale (c.1773) which is more inland, in Linlithgo. Built by Walter Livingston, a son of Robert Livingston Jr., the stone and brick Georgian style house is considered to be one of the finest examples of this style from this period. Its most famous resident was Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat. In 1808, Fulton married Walter Livingston’s youngest daughter, Harriet. They added the Palladian and French windows. By the 1920’s, the house was abandoned and remained that way until the 1970’s, when it was rescued by the late interior designer Harrison Cultra. With his partner, Richard Barker, Cultra lovingly restored the house, and the results were featured in Architectural Digest. Check your June, 1980 issue.
Our next stop is another former property of the Livington clan, Forth House (c.1835), in the actual town of Livingston. An imposing brick home of high-style Greek Revival form, the structure and architectural details have remained essentially the same since it was built, with the exception of an Edgewater-style conservatory added in the 1960’s.
We are greeted warmly, with bundt cake and cider, by the current owners, architect James Joseph and composer Scott Frankel, who have been restoring the house since they bought it in 2004. They have done a magnificent job with the gardens, exterior, and the interiors, especially the conservatory, which they have turned into a kitchen. Their biggest project now is fortifying the actual structure of the conservatory.
Here we visit Hillstead (c.1817, c.1835) originally built in the Federal style, and painted brick red, by descendants of the Van Rennsalaers. In the 1830’s a Greek Revival cornice was added to the main part of the house, and it was all painted white, as we see it today. The current owners, Bruce Shostak and Craig Fitt, welcome us and introduce us to architectural historian Jeremiah Rusconi, who has been leading the team of skilled artisans and craftsmen. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of the most painstaking effort: all the systems and finishes, the restored plaster and paint, the woodwork and hardware, and new Colonial Revival porches. Bruce and Craig have furnished their home in a comfortable, period-sympathetic style, which somehow feels very contemporary. The Federal interior of the living room could easily be on the cover of Elle Décor.
It’s lunch time, and we Classicists head to Athens for pizza at Howard Hall Farm (early 1800’s). This is one of our few stops on the west side of the Hudson, and the attraction is not just the pies from the beehive oven. Here we also find a fascinating restoration in progress, with an inspirational team of skilled craftsmen, who work on period houses with a focus on lime mortar and plaster, as well as green finishes and materials.
Reggie Young, the proprietor, provides a tutorial in lime mortar, as opposed to Portland cement. As he takes us through the house, we are mindful of our newly heightened awareness of plaster. The bus beckons and we’re on the road again, crossing the Hudson to reach Hudson, the town.
Our destination is the Plumb-Bronson House (c.1812, 1839, 1849), truly a ghost of its many former selves. Abandoned for more than thirty years, and nearly forgotten, this house is now beginning to get the attention it deserves. In its first incarnation, the house was a large Federal-style mansion built in 1812 by Samuel Plumb, a local businessman. Architect unknown.
In 1838 the 263-acre property was bought by Dr. Oliver Bronson, who hired Alexander Jackson Davis to redesign and expand the home. At this point in his career, Davis had recently transformed himself from a traditional classicist to an impassioned champion of the Picturesque, in a variety of styles including Tuscan, Gothic and Italian Villa.
So in 1839, the house took on a new identity, in Davis’s unique new “Hudson River Bracketed” style. He remodeled the house’s exterior, building an ornate veranda along its east façade, and adding wooden brackets under the eaves. The landscape was changed as well, possibly through collaboration with Andrew Jackson Downing. In 1849, Davis again worked with Bronson to make even more dramatic changes to the house. It was reoriented so that the main façade faced west toward the river and the Catskills. On this façade Davis added additional living spaces, a new veranda and a three-story ItalianVilla-style central tower. On the north and south ends of the house, he added semi-octagonal rooms.
Standing inside this decrepit structure we can sense the graciousness of these spaces. In particular, we marvel at—and actually ascend—the extraordinary three story staircase dating to the house’s original construction.
Greeting us at the site are Timothy Dunleavy, president of of Historic Hudson, Inc., and Alan Neumann, an architect and restoration advisor to this volunteer organization which leases the property from the New York State Office of General Services. Today is a big day for them: as we look on, workmen are installing new windows in the building that had been boarded up for years. We learn of the stabilization work that has been done. And our hopes now mingle with theirs, that funding can be found to open the house as a museum.
P.S.- Stay tuned for Part Three!