Friday, October 25, 2013

Imagining Arryl House: Piecing Together an Architectural Masterpiece

Over and over again, I get questions about "the ruin at the end of the parking lot."  Poor Arryl House!  Once it was the Chancellor's shining beacon of an American villa, perched above the the Hudson River where all could see.  Now it is a stabilized ruin--a curiosity nestled in the trees.  I have spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct it in my head, and it takes some doing to get a mental picture with any sort of detail.

The Chancellor built this house as his country estate after the American Revolution.  It was highly unusual, built in a H-shape, of which there are few comparables in the US from that time.  It's hard for people (including me) to imagine what it looked like inside, and because of this I was excited when I recently located a floor-plan of the mansion, which appears to show the house much later in the 19th century.

I only wish I knew the source of this image!  Nevertheless, I've decided on the date primarily because because the Chancellor's large orangerie was torn off the south side (at right) in the mid 19th century and replaced with a small "conservatory."  Even this seemingly-sparse picture can be a huge help in trying to piece together what it was like to actually walk through the mansion.

For one, there's the orangerie itself.  This was a spectacular feature of the house--something akin to a greenhouse--where the Chancellor grew citrus trees and other exotic plants.  Although I can't be sure, I've always guessed that this unusual picture below shows the house during the removal of that structure.  You can see curious damage to the stucco as though some sort of strapping has been removed.  It also appears that the shutters may have been closed over the window to protect them as the work was going on:

If that is so then you can see that the glassed-in structure was quite enormous, stretching almost the entire 75 foot width of the house.  You can also see that the structure had a second story--the "gallery" in which LaFayette was served a magnificent feast in 1824.  To recreate the orangerie in your mind, you also have to remember that glass was still being hand-blown, and that the common method for making window glass was called crown glass.  It limited the size of each pane to no bigger than the smooth part of the disc (the center was marred by a bullseye) that could be spun out flat, as seen at right.  The large stretches of the Chancellor's glassed-in walls would then have been constructed of small panes and criss-crossed with wooden slats like house windows of the same time period.  Nevertheless all that glass would have thoroughly impressed just anyone of the time period.

Of course, it could also be a garden trellis. It's tough to tell.
As I mentioned the orangerie was eventually torn off and smaller conservatory put in its place.  You can see the replacement at left in a picture from the late 19th century.  A large swath of earth has also been peeled away to allow light to enter three basement windows.  As far as I can tell from clicking through different angles of the house, that's the only place the basement got any natural light at all.

So what else can we learn from the floorplan?

For one, I can't help but note the centrally-located main staircase.  Leading up from the front door, it would have presented 18th century visitors with a familiar view: the grand front hall.  Upon entering the house, you would have been treated to a view straight through the house to the back courtyard and up a big staircase, much like at Clermont and other Georgian or Federal mansions.

What would have been more surprising to visitors however, would have been the broad gallery or receiving hall that stretched away to the right and left as you stepped in the front door.

It was 46 feet wide and 10 feet deep with huge west-facing windows that flanked the front door and would have glistened with afternoon sunlight.  The towering ceilings were approximately 13 feet tall, and the sense of space this all gave you must have been duly impressive.  Then of course you add in the large Gobelin tapestries that were said to line the walls in here.  This was all after coming in through an impressive courtyard and heavily-ornamented front door (seen below after years of neglect).  Quite simply, it's evident that the Chancellor wanted his guests floored when they entered his house.

Two of the house's wings served the major functions of a wealthy 18th century home.  In the words of a 1790s visitor, "One of its wings forms a dining room, another the drawing room," while a third might be thought of as a bit of an extravagance, "farther on a library."  I'd like to point out that all these rooms were huge--about the size of Clermont's library (seen at left).  They were about 21 X 25 feet, as large as many homes.  Dining and entertaining were central features of 18th century wealthy culture, and apparently the Chancellor took this seriously too.

Both front wings (listed in the 19th century floor plan as Dining Room and Library) include recessed cabinets to one side of the of the fireplace, likely with a door that created a symmetrical appearance.  Symmetry in architecture was valued as part of the reinterpretation of Palladian works of the Renaissance.  You can see a similar layout with two doors on either side of the fireplace in Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Of course, instead of plain paint on the walls, the Chancellor covered his walls with fancy French papers (according to a visitor's account), "the patterns being more beautiful, elegant, & lively, than what are manufactured in, & exported from England..."  We don't know what these French wallpapers looked like precisely, but they were most likely brightly-colored with curvy, floral-based designs.  The image at left is one that would not have been out of place.

To finish off the grandeur in these rooms, there is the matter of windows.  Five enormous windows adorn the walls of the front two wings.  To get a sense of how truly large they were, you have to look at the 1860s or 70s photo of John Henry Livingston standing in front of them (at right).  What you have to remember is that John Henry Livingston was 6 foot, 5 inches tall, and his head only barely reaches the height of the top sash.  Adding half-again that height would make these about 9 or 10 foot tall windows, and the light and views that they would let in would be simply gorgeous. 

As a triple-sashed window, the Livingstons would also have been able to open the bottom two sections and walk right out of them onto the piazza that surrounded the house.  You can see a similar use of windows again at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (at left).

Most vernacular homes of the time boasted few windows, often 12 panes of glass such as our neighbor "The Stone Jug" at right.  The Chancellor's windows required 36 panes each! (The only draw-back to this being that the house was notoriously cold in the winter.  As someone who sits in a river-facing office through the wintertime, I can tell you that the wind just rips right through historic windows here!)

In 1797, visiting Polishman Niemcewicz mentioned that the Chancellor had a "room for billiards" in the central block of the house.  I can only imagine that this is the Billiards room depicted in the center of the house in our 19th century floorplan.  Billiards was not uncommon in the homes of the very wealthy by this time, but still you have to admit that it's a nice addition. 

I do wonder that Niemcewicz also mentions "downstairs three bedrooms for the family," which seem to have been carved up or eliminated by the 19th century.  Perhaps one of the wings on the back (by this time used for servants' areas and "own bedroom") was used for one or multiple bed chambers in the Chancellor's time.  There is also the question of the "paneled room" and "butler's panty" of the 19th century.  Could either of these have been bedrooms?  They do have fireplaces, which would have been a necessity.  The "spare room" has no fireplace, making it impossibly cold after October, and the adjoining bathroom is also a "modern" addition.  Considering that the "spare room" also contains the door which leads out to the Chancellor's formal gardens on the house's north side (shown at left), I wonder what the original use of this space was.

All in all, the more I looked at Arryl House while putting together this blog entry, the more I realized that it was a stellar and highly unusual piece of American architecture.  The rooms were almost palatial in scale, and the layout was uncommon enough to have made it a real treasure had it survived.  In fact, I tend to think that it would have rivaled some of the presidential mansions that tens of thousands of people flock to each year: Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier.  It just makes it all the sadder that it first declined so severely and then finally burned in 1909. 

I suppose I will never have a chance to see the house in it's full glory, but at least by gleaning what details I can from the various documentary sources, I begin to get a sense of what an architectural masterpiece the Chancellor's home really was.

**Want to see inside?  The only known interior photographs of Arryl House can be seen in this blog entry.