“This is the Past,” Vance Weston, musing in the library at The Willows, decides. “If only I could get back into it.”
– Edith Wharton
Hudson River Bracketed, 1929
In her 1933 autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton recounts her youthful impressions of Wyndclyffe, the Rhinecliff home of her father’s sister, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones: “The effect of terror produced by the house at Rhinecliff was no doubt due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness…for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness. I can still remember hating everything at Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on rediscovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic; and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granite exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff.”
Wharton’s recollections are at odds with the frequently repeated belief that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is derived from the lifestyle maintained at Wyndclyffe. But Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones’ primary residence was in New York City, with the Hudson Valley estate a weekend and summer home, and that phrase may have been coined about the life that she lived in Manhattan. (As for “the Joneses,” plural, Wharton’s aunt was an unmarried woman – although one would suppose that other members of the Jones family could have been in residence part of the time. Perhaps the family, as a whole, lived a life so large that it inspired the neighbors.)
Wyndclyffe still stands in Rhinecliff today, but only barely. Abandoned in the 1950s and neglected since, the three-story, 24-room mansion of nearly 8,000 square feet is a ruin, its terra-cotta chimneys rubble and Tiffany skylight gone, the whole place forlorn and forgotten by all except those who seek out such curiosities. Entire portions of the house have fallen in, leaving a gaping hole on one side. Once a nine-bedroom home with five bathrooms and four fireplaces on 80 acres, the ruin now sits on a 2.5-acre parcel of land.
Wyndclyffe Castle, as it is sometimes known, was commissioned by Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones in 1853. The architect was George Veitch. The house was originally called “Rhinecliff,” its name possibly changed at some point to avoid confusion when the nearby hamlet to the estate’s north changed its name from Kipsbergen to Rhinecliff.
Writer Henry Winthrop Sargent praised Wyndclyffe in 1859 as “a very successful and distinctive house, with much the appearance of some of the smaller Scotch castles.”
Wharton used the house – “a vivid picture in the gallery of my little girlhood,” as she wrote in her autobiography – as inspiration for a home called “The Willows” in her 1929 novel, Hudson River Bracketed, and its 1932 sequel, The Gods Arrive. (The two books, incidentally, though lesser-known in her pantheon, are among the five novels that she herself named as the best work of her lifetime.) Serving as a metaphor for the characters’ quintessential Americanness, The Willows – built in the Hudson River Bracketed architectural style made popular by influential architect A. J. Downing – becomes almost a character in the books, as well as providing the setting for the action, such as in this excerpt from Hudson River Bracketed:
“The three walked up the drive, their steps muffled by the long grass and clover which had pushed up through the gravel. When the front of the house was before them, disengaged from the fluctuating veil of willows, Vance saw that it was smaller than he had expected; but the air of fantasy and mystery remained. Everything about the front was irregular, but with an irregularity unfamiliar to him. The shuttered windows were very tall and narrow, and narrow too the balconies, which projected at odd angles, supported by ornate wooden brackets. One corner of the house rose into a tower with a high shingled roof, and arched windows which seemed to simulate the openings in a belfry. A sort of sloping roof over the front door also rested on elaborately ornamented brackets, and on each side of the steps was a large urn of fluted iron painted to imitate stone, in which some half-dead geraniums languished.”
Wharton’s protagonist, Vance Weston, is introduced to the house based on Wyndclyffe in the fictional Hudson Valley town of Paul’s Landing, where he goes to stay with distant cousins after leaving his home in the Midwest to become a writer:
“Upton stopped before a padlocked gate overhung with trees. A deep green lane led up to it, so rutty and grass-grown that the cousins, jumping from their bicycles, climbed it on foot. Upton pulled out a key, unlocked the padlock of the gate, and led the way in, followed by Vance and Laura Lou. The house, which was painted a dark brown, stood at the end of a short grass-grown drive, its front so veiled in the showering gold-green foliage of two ancient weeping willows that Vance could only catch, here and there, a hint of a steep roof, a jutting balcony, an aspiring turret. The façade, thus seen in trembling glimpses, as if it were as fluid as the trees, suggested vastness, fantasy, and secrecy. Green slopes of unmown grass, and heavy shrubberies of unpruned syringa and lilac, surrounded it; and beyond the view was closed in on all sides by trees and more trees. ‘An old house – this is the way an old house looks!’ Vance thought.”
After Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones’ death in 1876, when Wharton (née Edith Newbold Jones) was age 14, a family member who inherited Wyndclyffe sold it to New York City beer baron Andrew Finck, who renamed it Linden Grove and installed an elaborate underground pipe system that allowed cold beer to run from the mansion to the tennis courts. The property was sold again in 1927, remaining a private residence through 1936, when it became known as Linden Hall for a time, used as a high-class summer hotel renting rooms for $4 a night when $2 was the norm, according to Rhinebeck town historian Nancy Kelly. The hotel even used the landing strip nearby to fly guests to and from the City. By the 1950s, the costs of maintaining such a large property were too much for any owner to bear, and the house and land were abandoned for the better part of a half-century.
Photographer Robert Yasinsac, co-author along with Thomas Rinaldi of Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape, has photographed the Wyndclyffe site a number of times over the years. He wrote about Wyndclyffe in 1999 that, considering that the building had been exposed to the elements for more than 50 years, it remained “remarkably intact,” although the decay was worsening. “The eastern turret collapsed in 1998, and other sections have fallen since. Yet Wyndclyffe is still an imposing sight. It’s amazing that such a fascinating building has been left to ruin.”
Yasinsac’s description of Wyndclyffe in 1999 paints a vivid picture of both what it was then and what it once must have been: “Only the exterior walls still stand, allowing a glimpse of the interior. Several interior support columns stand amidst the debris. Fine wood panels still line the walls, and great sliding doors open to what was once the library. Stairways end in midair and continue somewhere else. There was an opening in the staircase above the first floor, which once allowed light in from a skylight, [but] its sideboards hang suspended in the air today. The skylight is still in place, but its windows have long been destroyed by vandals, or time.” In 2001, a section of the northwest corner of the mansion’s first floor collapsed into the basement.
Wyndclyffe was purchased in 2003. The new owner boarded up the windows and fenced off the property, announcing plans for restoration. But when Yasinsac wrote an update for the Hudson Valley Ruins website in 2007, nothing had yet been done to the house, although there were signs of movement outside. “Numerous trees surrounding the house have been cut down. The ground behind the house has been dug up with large earth-moving equipment. I can only speculate at the purpose of such work.”
Yasinsac paid another visit to Wyndclyffe in the summer of 2016, noting that not only had there been no further developments, but also that “a small forest” had grown back where the trees had been cut down less than a decade earlier. He learned shortly afterward that the house and property were going up for sale again.
Wyndclyffe was sold at auction for $120,000 as part of a bankruptcy proceeding on September 21, 2016. As of January 3, 2017, the buyer has put the house and land at number 25 Wyndclyffe Court back up for sale at $289,000: more than was paid for it several months ago, but still less than its most recent assessed value of $312,900. The listing agent is Northern Dutchess Realty.
The cost of restoring Wyndclyffe Castle would be an enormous sum; it’s hard to imagine that its next owner will undertake such a venture. More likely is the prospect of demolition and the loss of this piece of Hudson Valley history. But it’s tempting to imagine what the house might be once restored, its spectacular views of the Hudson once again revealed.