Whether large, or less large, many of America’s greatest country houses, have become victims of changing times and diminished discernment. Having lost purpose in our more informal time, some of the most remarkable, have been unceremoniously razed to the ground. This turn of events, most often inspired by ignorance and greed, occurs still, even though it might seem that the public’s consciousness has been elevated and that there far remain too few examples of irreplaceable houses to allow their destruction.
The fine qualities of these places, with the power to transport one outside of the ordinary were numerous and varied. “Whitemarsh Hall” possessed a sublime poetry, comparable to a Bach cantata. Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s lakeside “Villa Turicm,” was Charles Adams Platt’s masterpiece! “Villa Rosa, ” by Ogden Codman, like “Little Ispwich,” by Delano & Aldrich, was elegance itself. “Rose Terrace,” represented the perfected distillation of a French ideal. “Casa Bendita,” embodied the escapist romance that was Palm Beach. “Pepper Hill,” in Montecito, David Adler’s adaptation of the Venetian church, Chiesa di Santo Stefano, had a heavenly view. What country house better than “Chestertown”, contrasted the disarming combination of reticence and luxury so characteristic of what is termed ’good taste’ in America? Which ‘Gold Coast’ estate was more reminiscent of ‘Manderly’ , than “Inisfada”?
Among the many casualties to today’s sometimes indifferent sensibility, which loss was greater than the senseless destruction of Harbor Hill? Did any property better combine a sylvan landscape, beautifully graced by formal gardens as well as ancillary dependencies as quaint Marie Antoinette’s miniature farm? Was more magisterial architecture ever realized as the faultless setting for an unparalleled collection of art and fine furniture?
Built from 166,000 tons of granite, faced with blue Indiana limestone, Harbor Hill was as big as “The Breakers”. These blocks of load bearing walls, were largely salvaged from the twenty-eight foot thick walls of New York City’s Murray Hill Reservoir. An Egyptian Revival monument, the looming reservoir stood on four acres, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the library and Bryant Park are. Harbor Hill’s salvaged masonry points to a series of mostly meaningless economies, that also contributed to the building of this extravagant house.
Certainly the great concern that Katherine and Clarence Mackay, the house’s builders, expressed in voluminous correspondence, objecting at every turn, lest they be cheated, contributed to a massive record. “Perhaps no razed mansion in America is better documented than Harbor Hill…” enthused Eve Kahn in her lengthy Period Home review a couple of years ago, in reference to archives filled with bills, blueprints, drawings, photographs and letters. Her exuberance was inspired by, Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House. This commendable work was written by Richard Guy Wilson, the esteemed architectural history professor at the University of Virginia. Although expanding the burgeoning scholarship of Long Island Gold Coast, Gilded Era houses, like Monica Randall’s pioneering efforts, Wilson’s portrayal has limitations. And these failings, almost all of them, stem from two culprits, the demanding, conflicted and imperious Mackays.
1642: François Mansart's Maisons-Laffitte
It is doubtful that their architect Stanford White, a most brilliant practitioner, was ever permitted to design any aspect or element of Harbor Hill only once. Nor were his collaborators spared; not Guy Lowell, the patrician Bostonian, who devised a mostly naturalistic landscape, placing Harbor Hill in a picturesque context reminiscent of “Biltmore”, nor Warren & Wetmore, the firm that planned the stables, casino and farm buildings. Ironically, indecision coupled with resources vast enough to enable the gratification of every whim, added markedly to both cost overruns and time spent amidst the dust and noise of construction. Modeled after François Mansart's 1642 Maisons-Laffitte northwest of Paris, ostensibly, Harbor Hill was completed in 1901. But in reality, work finishing and refining one of America’s most impressive country houses, went on and on for a few decades. Katherine Mackay had predicted that Harbor Hill would take at least, ‘20 years to be complete…’ Actually, major improvements were undertaken as late as 1927. Sorting through and getting straight the myriad details associated with such an open-ended enterprise has challenged and defeated more than one scholar. This post seeks to make the record of what is perhaps America’s most remarkable lost country house, more accurate.
1901: The forecourt at Harbor Hill
1901: Harbor Hill from the lawn, toward the rear grass terrace
Visitors were introduced to Harbor Hill’s splendors by gradual degrees. Imposing but severely plain, at Harbor Hill entry was gained via the lodge. Wrought iron gates, handsome but unexceptional, stood below a sheltered colonnade of Tuscan piers, between two, twin, angled, square, two-storey gatehouses on each side. Housing a gate keeper, the lodges had four high slate-covered mansard roofs. But only the enscrolled brackets of the entrance’s lanterns and a clock’s garland of fruit and flowers, offered any relief from prevailing austerity.
1902: Mature maple trees, at the lodge and along the driveway, were meant to instantly lend Harbor Hill the mellowness of its European models.
Harbor Hill's handsome gateway coyly suggested an interesting house, but hardly hinted at its awaiting magnificence.
Only the enscrolled brackets of the entrance’s lanterns and a clock’s garland of fruit and flowers, offered any relief from prevailing austerity of the Harbor Hill gate lodge.
The gateman's impressive livery only added to Harbor Hill's luster
No sooner had one passed through the gate however, had this formal hauteur vanished. Progress along a circuitous, mile-long drive, bordered by laurels, azaleas and rhododendrons, was designed to present a succession of features meant to enchant the eye. As the vine-hung stone bridge faded from view, a pool covered with lilies appeared. Dense stands of trees suddenly gave way to gently rolling pastures. That is until, at last, centered on a final straight stretch of drive, between an avenue of maples, announced by stone lions, there stood imposing Harbor Hill.
The driveway's rustic bridge
A woodland pool at the driveway's edge
Centered on a final straight stretch of drive, between an avenue of maples, announced by stone lions, there stood imposing Harbor Hill...
Italian loot, supplied by Stanford White
An elevation of peerless nobility...
Adroitly embellished with...
Occasional concentrations of suitable richness
TO BE CONTINUED...