Preservationists seek to restore Staatsburg Calvert Vaux mansion that prefigured Central Park

Beyond its architectural style, the Hoyt House/The Point – more precisely, the building and the way it connected with its riverside setting – is significant as having a direct influence on the design of Central Park. Calvert Vaux was finishing the construction of the house and landscaping of its grounds just as he was working on the initial plan for a 750-acre park in New York City with his partner on the project, Frederick Law Olmsted. (Photo by Julie O’Connor)

The abandoned mansion is off the beaten path, seemingly stuck in a time when the Hudson Valley was a sleepy backwater. The Point, as it is known, is sequestered at the end of a winding road in a forested section of Mills-Norrie State Park, located in Staatsburg. It’s set at an angle on a high promontory of the Hudson River, which glimmers through the thick growth of trees. The windows are boarded up, the roof of the large stone portico at the entrance has half collapsed, the porch is gone and the bare lawn is surrounded by a utilitarian chain-link fence; yet the Gothic-style building, with its tall gables graced by carved verge boards, bay windows and squared-off, compact mass, exudes an echo of fairytale magic. Constructed of bluestone, whose soft, faded gray tones blend in with the site, the house has a cottagelike intimacy.

As you get up close, however, the mansion is monolithic, much larger than it appears from a distance; its stone walls tower over you, their verticality no longer mitigated by the capacious porch with a decorative wooden bannister that once extended off either side of the portico. But inside, despite the Gilded Age redesign of much of the first floor, the sense of intimacy is again apparent, in the generous-but-comfortable proportions of the rooms, the window alcoves with their built-in seats, the warm dark hue of the original black walnut paneling in the library and the wealth of fireplaces (unfortunately, most of the mantels have been stripped).

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For all its dilapidation – water damage has destroyed parts of the ceiling on the second floor and a wooden scaffolding fills the darkened dining room – the house is clearly special. Designed by Calvert Vaux in 1855 for Lydig Hoyt, son of a wealthy New York merchant, and his wife, Geraldine Livingston Hoyt, whose parents lived next door at the Staatsburgh House (today the site of the Mills Mansion), the Point, also known as Hoyt House, is an exemplar of the Romantic style and constitutes an important link in the necklace of historic estates on the Hudson’s eastern shore. Acquired by the state in 1963 as a way to consolidate the lands for Mills-Norrie State Park, it was originally slated to be torn down. Fortunately, the state instead decided to save the building, although lack of funds put the house at increasing risk from neglect.

In 2007, the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance (CVPA) was formed and came to the rescue. Over the past decade, the not-for-profit organization has worked with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to raise the necessary funds to stabilize the building, resulting in a new slate roof, rebuilding of the chimneys, restoration of the gutters, stabilization and repointing of the masonry walls and removal of a ramshackle 20th-century addition.

The price of admission this Saturday also includes tours of Hoyt House, with continuous screenings inside of the silent film Camille. The cast includes Julia Hoyt, whose third husband was Lydig Monson Hoyt. (Lydig hired Vaux to design the Hoyt House, or what they called “The Point,” in the 1850s.)

Postcard of The Point Courtesy of Tom Daley | Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance

Beyond its architectural style, the building – more precisely, the building and the way it connected with its riverside setting – is significant as having a direct influence on the design of Central Park. Vaux was finishing the construction of the house and landscaping of its grounds just as he was working on the initial plan for a 750-acre park in New York City with his partner on the project, Frederick Law Olmsted. “Greensward,” as the two men called their plan, was the entry that won the competition sponsored by the City’s newly appointed board of park commissioners, and in June 1858, construction began.

The Point was one of many country houses designed by Vaux, an Englishman who had been hired by Andrew Jackson Downing, the prominent Newburgh-based horticulturist and writer, to be his partner in his landscape design firm. After Downing drowned in a steamboat accident in 1852, Vaux ran the business from Newburgh before moving to New York City, where he and Olmstead spent many years creating Central Park, followed by Prospect Park, as well as other park commissions. Vaux also designed city mansions, modest houses for the middle class (including for a plumber in Newburgh), cemeteries, hospitals, apartment buildings, children’s shelters (a social reformer, Vaux was the architect of the Children’s Aid Society in the 1870s and 1880s), a church and cultural institutions, including a wing at the American Museum of Natural History.

While many of his buildings have been torn down, the Warren House, located on Grand Street in Newburgh, has been authentically restored, enabling us to appreciate Vaux’s Picturesque style in all its delightful details, from the sweep of the carved verge boards of the gabled windows to the hooded wooden balcony over the entrance; the horizontal lines of the roof and sunporch in the back of the house illustrate his skill at adapting different parts of the building to the varying topography as well as functions of the site. Designed in 1853, the Warren House has many stylistic similarities with the Point. But it’s his garden architecture – the bridges, Dairy, Belvedere and other recreational structures that he designed for Central Park – that constitutes his best-known legacy, though few of the multitudes who have enjoyed these delightful structures are familiar with the name of their creator.

Francis R. Kowsky, in his book Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux, describes aspects of the Point that relate to Vaux’s design of Central Park. The architect took special care to integrate the structure with the existing site: Rather than level the sloping ground on top of the promontory, he designed the house – built of stone quarried from the property – to fit into the uneven topography, positioning it so that mature trees didn’t have to be cut down. The three-quarter-mile approach to the house was laid out to take in a variety of views: “Rounding an upland marsh, the drive hugged the base of a forested ridge while offering the traveler bucolic glimpses of cattle grazing in an open meadowland across the way,” Kowsky writes. Vaux included the Point as one of his designs in his book Villas and Cottages; and, in an article he wrote for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, titled “Hints for Country House Builders,” published in November 1855, the architect describes how “a single existing tree ought often to be all-sufficient reason of slightly diverting the line of a road, so as to take advantage of its shade, instead of cutting it down and grubbing up its roots.”

Calvert Vaux

Just as Vaux creates a series of subtle transitions in his architecture – in the form of porches, porticos, hoods over windows or balconies, foyers and alcoves, all of which enrich our sense of interior space and create visual frames that relate near elements with distant views of the river – his landscape designs subtly direct the flow of space between varying topographies and establish focal points by highlighting existing natural features. “With his guiding principle in mind that the ‘great charm in the forms of natural landscape lies in its well-balanced irregularity,’ Vaux proceeded to lay out roads and to site the house and other buildings with the aim of preserving and enhancing the rich treasure of scenery that nature had stored up at the Point,” writes Kowsky.

But at the Central Park site, Vaux and Olmsted were hindered by the relative poverty of the land. To make up for the lack of a natural center of interest, Vaux created one in his design for the Terrace, in which a pair of cascading stairs lead from the Mall down to the lake, separated by a stone arcade of round arches: an Italian Baroque-style masterpiece that was the most sophisticated piece of garden architecture in the US at the time and to this day the climactic focal point of the park.

Vaux also included a terrace at the Point. It extended off the three sides of the house facing the river and was accessed from the drawing, billiard and dining rooms. The hood that overhung it was supported by chains, precluding the need for posts or columns, which would have obstructed the view.

Acknowledging the close association between the Point and Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy has partnered with CVPA to help raise awareness of Vaux’s seminal role in American architecture and landscape design. “Hoyt House and its promontory setting…stand as a seminal example of the approach to picturesque design that Vaux, in partnership with Olmsted, would further develop and apply on a civic scale in Central Park,” writes Christopher Nolan, chief landscape architect for Central Park and the park manager. “In this regard, the seeds for Central Park and for Vaux and Olmsted’s legacy – from the launching of the park movement, to the founding of the profession of landscape architecture, to the shaping of the American landscape for generations to come – were all planted at the Point.”

Preservationists have overwhelmingly made the case for saving and restoring the Point. But raising the necessary funds is an enormous challenge. Kathryn McCullough, a member of CVPA’s board, said that a complete restoration of the house and grounds carries a pricetag of approximately $30 million: an amount that is currently beyond feasible fundraising goals. Using the proceeds from a $28,000 state grant (with a $10,000 match by CVPA), CVPA retained Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, an architectural preservation firm, to come up with a phased-in plan for the overall restoration of the 80-acre property.

Pokorny recommended some next steps: Restore the portico and formal entry, which are in dire condition; improve the trail that connects the property to the rest of the park and add a small visitors’ parking area; restore the entry hall and place Plexiglas sheets over the windows, so that visitors could experience the multiple river views from the house interior; as part of that initiative, begin the restoration of the original viewlines by selective removal of trees and shrubbery. CVPA has also retained planning consulting firm Hone Strategic, LLC, to identify sustainable uses for the Point, tied to practical market needs. Given the exorbitant cost of lead paint abatement and installing utility and HVAC systems in the main house, McCullough noted that restoring the two large brick carriage houses/garages and the barn on the property as office and event space is much more feasible.

Calvert Vaux’s grave at Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston. (Photo by Julie O’Connor)

Meanwhile, as part of its fundraising efforts, the CVPA board has sponsored an annual photography exhibition at the Montgomery Row Art Exhibition Space in Rhinebeck, which opened March 6 and was on display until the gallery closed due to the coronavirus (the show has been extended to May 16, in the hope that the gallery will reopen by then). Curated by artist Franc Palaia, this year’s exhibit consists of 70 photographs by 28 photographers. On May 2, CVPA plans to recruit volunteers to trim shrubs and otherwise spiff up the grounds, and from June 12 to 20, the Point will host the Boston Architectural College Historic Preservation Field School for the second year.

Hopefully COVID-19 will not disrupt these plans. By the way, Vaux has a special relationship with Kingston: He married the sister of artist Jervis McEntee and designed McEntee’s studio on West Chestnut Street (moved from its original site, the studio survives as the addition to a house). A few of the mansions that he designed for clients in Kingston and what was then Rondout, a separate city, survive – though, unfortunately, the sprawling mansion he designed for Samuel Coykendall, whose businesses made him the most powerful man in Ulster County, was destroyed. Though he died in Brooklyn, Vaux, along with McEntee, is buried in Kingston’s Montrepose Cemetery.

There is one comment

  1. Franc Palaia

    Dear Lynn Woods and Almanac,

    Thank you so much for your wonderfully comprehensive and highly informative article on the Hoyt House and Calvert Vaux. We have such a treasure here at the Point and I am pleased to have contributed, as curator, to the challenge of raising the profile and raising the funds to save this gem hidden in the woods.
    I was honored to curate the photography show at Montgomery Row Gallery in Rhinebeck and I also want to mention that the show has been extended again to May 31. On May 15,16 and 17th there will be a free self-guided gallery Art Walk in the village of Rhinebeck and hopefully the show will be open to the public by that time. Please check with the Montgomery Row website for revised gallery hours.
    Sincerely,
    Franc Palaia
    Rhinebeck

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