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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

“Boscobel “ an American Federal Treasure

Recently I had the opportunity to visit “Boscobel”, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Federal interiors in the country. Boscobel was originally located in Montrose, New York, about fifteen miles south of the present site, with views overlooking the Hudson River at Haverstraw Bay. It was built by States Morris Dyckman (1755-1806), a descendant of one of the early Dutch families of New Amsterdam. As a Loyalist during the American Revolution, States became a clerk for the British Army's Quartermaster Department in New York. He and his family returned to England to wait out the War and after receiving a pardon from the new American Govt. they arrived back in New York in 1804. He immediately started the work on his mansion and sadly he died before the foundation was finished. His widow carried on and “Boscobel” was finished in 1809. Although no architect has been identified for the building, it has long been considered to be an outstanding example of Federal domestic architecture in America. One can assume that States was influenced by what he had seen in England, particularly the designs of Robert Adam (1728-1792) and his contemporaries. It is possible that he had the architectural plans for his new house drawn in England since construction was started within six months of his return to the Hudson Valley in the summer of 1804. Boscobel is distinguished by its delicate neoclassical detailing on the exterior, as well as for a unique architectural feature on the front facade--the carved wooden swags of drapery with bowknots and tassels installed between the columns supporting the pediment above the second floor balcony. Several other architectural refinements are used to help convey a feeling of lightness and airiness that make the house seem more elegant and graceful than many of its contemporaries. About one-third of the front facade is glass. The three part windows used on the first and second stories are slightly recessed to accent the central pavilion. Recent technological advances in the manufacture of stronger crown glass enabled the builders to use larger panes of glass and much thinner glazing bars. Another architectural feature worth noting is the closely fitted matched boards on the front facade, in contrast to the overlapping clapboards used on the side and rear elevations. This provided for a smoother surface probably meant to simulate masonry rather than wood on the dress front of the house.

The house was almost lost in the 1950s when it was declared "excess" by the federal government and sold at auction to a demolition contractor for the sum of $35. In a dramatic, last-ditch effort led by Benjamin West Frazier, funds were raised to acquire the remaining portions of the structure, dismantle it, and move it piece-by-piece to its new home in Garrison, New York. It was stored in barns and other vacant buildings until a twenty-six acre tract of land with sweeping views of the Hudson River, West Point and Constitution Island came on the market in Garrison in 1956. An anonymous donation of $50,000 received in June 1956 allowed the newly incorporated Boscobel Restoration, Inc. to acquire the property and begin the restoration. The original anonymous donation of $50,000 received in 1956 for the purchase of the land came from Lila Acheson Wallace, who, with her husband DeWitt Wallace, had co-founded The Reader's Digest. The Wallaces became Boscobel's most prominent and generous patrons. But in addition to her financial backing, Mrs. Wallace served on the board of directors and took a strong personal interest in the restoration. She was particularly influential in the landscaping of the grounds and the furnishing and decorating of the interiors. In 1959, she brought in the Roslyn, Long Island, landscape architectural firm of Innocenti and Webel to provide an appropriate historic setting for the restored house. She also brought in William Kennedy and Benjamin Garber, the interior designers who decorated the offices for The Reader's Digest, to furnish the house. Since both concerns worked for The Reader's Digest Corporation and for Mrs. Wallace personally, they reported to her and her advisors as they proceeded with their plans. The intent of William Kennedy and Benjamin Garber was not to accurately furnish the interiors of Boscobel based upon historical research. Instead, they tried to create elegantly decorated rooms that complimented the beauty of the architecture. The items they selected represented the very best of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to conform to the taste and standards of States Dyckman as established by his own purchases in London. Because States lived in England for such a long time, they also felt it would be appropriate to The intent of William Kennedy and Benjamin Garber was not to accurately furnish the interiors of Boscobel based upon historical research. Instead, they tried to create elegantly decorated rooms that complimented the beauty of the architecture. The items they selected represented the very best of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to conform to the taste and standards of States Dyckman as established by his own purchases in London. Because States lived in England for such a long time, they also felt it would be appropriate to furnish the house mainly in eighteenth-century English and European antiques, which they acquired over several years both in America and abroad selecting and assembling appropriate personal and household effects for each room. By the mid-1970s, new information came to light about States Dyckman's original furnishings that led to the decision to totally redo the interiors of the house so they were more historically accurate. Information found in the Dyckman family papers, States Dyckman's recently discovered household inventory of 1806, and from examples of surviving furniture owned by the Dyckman family revealed that contrary to the Kennedy and Garber assemblage of mostly English furnishings, Boscobel was originally furnished with pieces made by New York cabinetmakers of the early nineteenth century. Berry B. Tracy, Curator-in-Charge of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was hired as a consultant to research the new interiors and oversee the installation. Mr. Tracy worked closely with Frederick W. Stanyer, executive director of Boscobel. The English pieces were replaced by an outstanding collection of Federal period furniture made mostly in New York City. The reproduction carpets, paint colors, wallpaper, fabrics and window treatments used were all based upon documented period examples. The objective of the reinterpretation was to restore the house to the way it would have looked while Elizabeth Dyckman lived in the house from 1808 until her death in 1823. When the house reopened to the public in June 1977, after six months of intense restoration work, Boscobel was featured in a cover article by Rita Reif in the Home Section of The New York Times on July 21, 1977. The headline read, "The Tour de Force Of Redecorating Boscobel."

Today, Boscobel is considered to be one of the nation's leading historic house museums. It features an important collection of decorative arts from the Federal period with high-style furniture by Duncan Phyfe and other recognized New York cabinetmakers of the day. Many of States Dyckman's original purchases of English china, silver, glass and part of his library have also survived and are on exhibit in the mansion.

I was so fortunate to be given a tour by the acting curator Judith Pavelock, she was generous with her time and I was enthralled with the amazing history of this beautiful house.

Bosobel is, as all historic house museums, a challenge to fund and operate, from what I experienced, the Dyckeman’s would be so pleased with the stewardship of the staff. I urge you to visit and support this American treasure, it is so worth the effort and if you are a student American Decorative Arts it is a must.

much of the above text was taken from a history written by Charles T. Lyle.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A kitchen full of memories

“A the symbolic center of the home, the kitchen gives meaning to family life. It is a place where parents nurture their children, families gather at breakfast and dinner, share chores, and discuss the world outside. Women especially see it as the space that connects them to past generations.”

“America’s Kitchen”, Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasrdinov

I visit many historic homes and museums and most of them have restored kitchens set up as they would have been, depicting whatever period and station in life of the family represented. As I look over the exhibit I often think about who the family was that lived in this house, what were they concerned with, how old and how many were their children, did they even have any children? What stories would they tell to us if we had the ability to hear the conversations around that kitchen table.

I think I feel this so personally because of my own history of growing up in two historic houses with great kitchens that were the center of life for our large family.

So many of our memories are centered in the kitchen---coming together to celebrate or simply being together around a convivial meal is the stuff that gets us through tough times. All families have their own styles, but the kitchen is where most family traditions begin. Whether it is a favorite requested meal your mom made for you on your birthday or when you get home after a really bad day the crockpot is there on the counter holding something ready for dinner---you hold on to the traditions that worked personally for you, and discard the rest.

I am from a family that does EVERYTHING around food. We use it to celebrate and comfort. Coming from a large family of seven, I think that because our mother had to come up with inexpensive, hearty meals that fed five children with leftovers my mother (we called her “Moo”) would cook with an eye toward something that we would eat with the least amount of fuss. It also would have to be reincarnated into something that could stretch to another meal or lunch for us. We lived in a very old (1780) house that had a huge hearth, and though it could probably still be used for a fire, had an electric range placed inside.

My earliest memories are seeing my mother stir something on the stove with another baby on her hip and no doubt one underfoot. Even at the age of 38 she had very gray hair, which she wore in a bun at the nape of her neck. Being a poor professor’s wife gave her nothing to spend on glamour, yet I don’t remember that she looked anything but beautiful as she bustled about our small house cleaning, doing the wash in the FREEZING root cellar with a wringer washer, or hanging the sheets out on the line. To this day, sheets that are devoid of the scents of added softeners ---that just have the scent of the clean air are sooo sweet, and I much prefer them even though they are “scratchy.”

We had simple celebrations and our birthdays were centered on my parents putting penny candy in a brown bag and hanging it from the branches of our apple tree. We screeched and yelled in excitement as the birthday boy or girl got the first crack at the swinging bag with a cutoff broom stick.

Even when my father was lost in a car accident in the early ‘70s, the atmosphere about the large house (we moved to a very large house in Shepherdstown eight years earlier) was still much like a party instead of a wake. My dad had a great sense of humor and was very witty and the house murmured that day with his friends and students retelling many stories about him. The dining room had many beautiful stained glass windows, and I remember the look of the sun shining through them onto the large dining table gleaming with all the dishes the neighbors brought---all given in love and kindness in the tradition I grew up with.

Many more stories could be told of all the celebrations that my family has had over the years and the meals now are even more important to us as we gather without our beloved parents. Right before Moo died we were blessed to have her live with us and one evening her nurse wheeled her into the kitchen to sit and watch me make dinner. She loved to watch me cook, a pastime she missed very much, and she did not hesitate to let me know that I should “turn down the fire under the chicken” or add more seasonings to whatever I was cooking. This particular evening I remember (in retrospect it turned out it was right before she died ), she sat watching me move around the stove and suddenly she loudly called to me raising her glass with her nightly drink, and said, “Louise, do you know what the great thing about being terminal is?” Puzzled and a little horrified I responded “No, Moo what is it?” She threw back her head and laughed heartily saying, “The great thing about being terminal is that your green vegetable for the day can be the olive in your martini!” Her nurse slid out of her chair laughing and through my watering eyes Moo never looked more gorgeous.

She soon quietly died in her small little room filled with windows and sun and we still call our family room “Moo’s room,” but the kitchen is where I remember her the most and on a regular basis I wish that I could “channel” her grace and kindness that she showed to everyone she met, and her ability to make any leftover into a meal fit for kings or more importantly her beloved children.

As I have often mentioned, your historic house has had many memories formed within its walls. You really need to be aware that you have the opportunity to make memories with your children, friends and family. To this day, I cannot get myself to paint over the Doxology a friend painted for me in the kitchen after Moo died. My friend had performed a really profound act of kindness and comfort for my 45th birthday by painting this around the ceiling of the eating space in my kitchen. She was inspired by hearing me say that I was reluctant to attend church because I could not seem to get through the offering without crying as I had such a vivid memory of my mother in church, and for some reason the opening bars of the Doxology always made her seem so close. So one day I came home to find this beautiful hymn painted around the perimeter of the kitchen eating area, and now everyday Moo is there at my table.

Make your own families memories in your kitchen. Now more than ever, our families need to connect in a space that binds them with memories and traditions that are part of their family’s customs and history.