Much of the magic of Central Park is due to Calvert Vaux’s architectural genius – and yet most of the people who visit the park have never heard of the man. Though Frederic Olmsted is universally recognized as the designer of the park, it was the English-born Vaux who brought the unknown Olmsted on board as his partner in the design-winning plan for the park in 1857, and it was Vaux who designed the park’s bridges, gazebos, Dairy, Belvedere, Terrace and other fanciful structures. Vaux’s Romantically inspired architectural accents transform the winding paths, intimate woodlands and carefully created vistas of meadowlands and lake into a pastoral Arcadia, while also serving the practical purpose of creating pleasurable places for the public to sit, snack and be entertained. His legacy of picturesque garden architecture remains unrivaled in its ability to inspire emotion and captivate our imaginations.
Vaux got started here in the Hudson Valley, where he designed many wonderful houses, including the Hoyt House in Staatsburg: a near-ruin that is finally getting its due. In 1850 the Englishman arrived in Newburgh to work as the assistant to Andrew Jackson Downing, then the leading American authority on horticulture and domestic architecture. After Downing’s death in a steamboat accident, Vaux became the nation’s most prominent architect and landscape architect in the Picturesque style. He continued to visit Europe, studying and sketching the architecture, parks and other landmarks of England and the Continent as the inspiration for his designs. The intimate massing of towers, gables, and dormers and exquisite ornamentation inspired by Gothic, Tuscan and other European styles of his country houses magically integrated them into their rustic settings.
He also designed New York City townhouses, lodging houses for the poor and institutional buildings, and following the success of Central Park designed with Olmsted a number of other parks, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Vaux spent most of his career in New York City, but he never lost his connection to the Hudson Valley: He married the sister of Kingston-based landscape painter Jervis McEntee, designing McEntee’s Gothic-inspired studio on a bluff in the Rondout, which became a second home to him and his family.
Vaux designed the Gothic Revival mansion for Lydig Hoyt, the heir of a wealthy New York City merchant, and his wife, Blanche Livingston, in 1855. It was built of bluestone quarried from the site, located in what’s now Norrie State Park, adjacent to the Mills Mansion, in Staatsburg, on a magnificent spot overlooking the Hudson River. In 1962, the New York Office of Parks and Recreation, under the leadership of Robert Moses – another personage who shaped the New York City landscape, though in radically different ways – acquired the mansion from Hoyt’s descendants as part of its consolidation of riverfront land for a 900-acre state park. The state planned to tear it down (a fate unfortunately shared by many Vaux houses in the region) and build a swimming pool; but after the local community protested, it let it stand, where it has languished for five decades.
One day ten years ago Alan Strauber, a History professor at Westchester Community College and City College, was walking his dog in the park when he came upon the boarded-up, dilapidated mansion and was transfixed. To preserve the house, in 2007 he and other academics and concerned citizens organized the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance (CVPA). Several years ago, the group raised enough money to repair some of the exterior stonework to prevent further vandalism. With the recent awarding of $750,000 in state and matching federal grants, they are now ready to start the restoration officially, beginning with the repair of the roof, gutters and chimneys. Next on the list, after more money is raised, are installation of utilities, new windows and drainage-related improvements, which will be followed by work on the interior.
The first floor had been redesigned in the 20th century, but the upper floors still have the original moldings. Most of the mantels are missing, though the state has several of the originals in storage. CVPA also plans to recreate the original verandah, which once wrapped around three sides of the house and extended from either side of the castlelike brownstone entrance porch.
What are more or less intact, although extensively overgrown, are the 92-acre grounds, which also include a barn, carriagehouse and greenhouse. The long, winding entry road was designed by Vaux in harmony with the landscape of woods, marshes and meadows, including some spectacular trees that he took special care to preserve. The approach to the house, through a set of gates that prefigure the entrance to Central Park from Columbus Circle, is still impressive, with trees lining the circular driveway and the original stone pillars in place, according to Strauber.
Vaux’s masterful harmonization of his houses with the environment has inspired the CVPA to think about how the historic house could be integrated with the needs of today: a plan that eschews creating another house museum in favor of an adaptive reuse, in which the building would serve as a center of educational programs on history, related to architecture, the region, the US and, of course, the restoration of the house. Strauber said that residencies by a chamber ensemble and theater company that have both expressed interest are also being considered. Down the road, the property would be ideal for “sustainable agriculture. We’d love to get a restaurant to inhabit the dining room, featuring garden-to-table eating.” The group also plans to incorporate solar heating and other renewable energy programs into the restoration.
To find out more about the history, architectural significance and future plans for the Hoyt House, come to Stauber’s free talk at the Staatsburg Library on Tuesday, April 22 at 7 p.m. There’s still a lot of work to do, with the total cost of restoring the house, grounds and outbuildings estimated at $6 to $7 million, he said. But he believes that the investment would not only save an important architectural historic site, but also benefit the community through its educational programs and economic assets as a tourist attraction. And it would be another step in resurrecting the reputation of Vaux, whose buildings and parks, as much as the canvases of the painters of his day, helped establish the Hudson Valley as the epitome of the Romantic landscape.
Hoyt House talk, Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance president Alan Strauber, Tuesday, April 22, 7 p.m., free, Staatsburg Library, 72 Old Post Road, Staatsburgh; (845) 889-4683, www.staatsburghlibrary.org.