Down and Out on the Hudson
The mansion that inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" is for sale as a possible teardown.
By David V. Griffin | Online Only | Feb. 21, 2003
Wyndcliffe, a once-grand Hudson River estate with links to Edith Wharton, is entering a new phase of its 150-year history—one that may see its rejuvenation or destruction. Since late 2000, the dilapidated house has been on the real-estate market for the first time in decades and may be sold as a "teardown" property.
Located near Rhinebeck, N.Y., 90 miles north of Manhattan, the house was the residence of an Astor family cousin named Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, who had Wyndcliffe constructed in 1853 as her country home. So magnificent was the Romanesque Revival structure that it is said to have touched off a fashion for splendid additions to neighboring properties and thus engendered the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses."
Now enveloped by saplings, its 80-acre grounds reduced to approximately two-and-a-half acres, the house has lost its river access and is surrounded by discreet privately-owned cottages built in the 1970s. After 40 years of vacancy, entire floors have collapsed, and the elements have almost destroyed its semi-circular dining room wing.
Harry Hill, of H. H. Realty in Rhinebeck, currently represents Wyndcliffe for the current owner, Temac Ono; the property is offered for $250,000. Despite Hill's admiration for the mansion, and the fact that he has received numerous calls from those curious about the place, he feels that the chances of a buyer committing to a structure in such disrepair are "slim to none. The bricks are worth something, and so is the bluestone. But I don't think that anyone's going to be interested in the place as a house," Hill says.
The house stands in the Hudson River National Historic District, a 32-square mile region that contains more than 40 large river estates, two villages, and four hamlets, and is surrounded by elegant, largely intact survivors of the early colonial through late Victorian periods. Many of these estates have passed through a period of near-total decay, only to be resuscitated as museums, institutions, and private residences. What helped keep these buildings attractive to later tenants, however, was the fact that their grounds remained partially intact.
"Wyndcliffe itself could still be partially restored or rebuilt," says Alan Neumann, a former president of Hudson River Heritage and restoration architect based in the area. "What may deter potential buyers is the lack of land currently surrounding the house—which isn't to say that I believe no one will take on the challenge."
One of Wyndcliffe's grandest neighbors is within walking distance: Wilderstein, a Queen Anne Victorian that is open to the public as a house museum under the care of Wilderstein Preservation, a private nonprofit. "Wilderstein might have been demolished," current executive director Gregory J. Sokaris points out. "But instead, a coalition of people managed to look past the condition of the house to see its real architectural value." The mansion is still undergoing restoration and conservation.
Neumann believes that the potential for something similar exists for Wyndcliffe. "It would be a mistake to think that there aren't a lot of people in the area who care a great deal about the house. The great thing about this region is the sense of pride in place that locals and newcomers alike share." Both he and Sokaris want to see the house stabilized and opened to the public in some way. "Even as a ruin, Wyndcliff provides valuable insight into the history of the region," Sokaris says. "Its loss would be a tragedy."
Edith Wharton, Jones's niece, often stayed at Wyndcliff as a child. Later famous as an expert on Classical architectural design, Wharton was no friend to the Victorian period. Her later remembrances of Wyndcliff, which she called Rhinecliff in her posthumously published memoir A Backwards Glance (1933), were hardly flattering. "I can still remember hating everything I saw at Rhinecliff … from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granite exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home." Yet "The Willows," the old mansion featured in Wharton's last novel, Hudson River Bracketed (1923), shows the estate in a much fonder light. "This is what an old house looks like!" the novel's Midwestern hero thinks to himself upon seeing the place.
After Jones' death in 1876, the house passed on to a nephew, and then was sold to Andrew Finck, a gregarious businessman who installed custom-made pipes that allowed guests on the estate's tennis courts to pour a cold beer. Finck's descendants stayed on at the house until 1927, when the house was again sold. With the Great Depression, Wyndcliffe began a long period of decline, punctuated by various attempts to rehabilitate the property. Left vacant from this period, the house was passed to a series of owners who were unable to maintain the costly building.
Finally, in the 1970s, the property was purchased and subdivided. The new owner built a contemporary house nearer to the river, and Wyndcliffe itself was sold to the current owner's father, an elderly enthusiast who loved the house but was also unable to block the foothold the elements had gained on the building by that time.
In 1976, the New York architectural firm of Zuberry & Associates created a plan to reconfigure the house as a six-unit apartment building. The architects would have preserved the exterior and many interior details, but a local zoning law against multi-family buildings blocked the project.
Despite the possibility that a new owner may destroy the house outright, Neumann says he's glad that Wyndcliffe is finally for sale. "The real tragedy, in a sense, is that this didn't happen sooner. When a historic property is in private hands, there's not much that preservationists can do without local legislation behind them—and the town of Rhinebeck, unfortunately, has no preservation ordinances per se."
Although Rhinebeck's laws could change, as the town has instituted a two-year master review to address this situation, the shift may come too late for Wyndcliffe. Yet Neumann believes the house could still inspire the affection of a die-hard architectural enthusiast. "It's simply one of the most unique buildings of its time and place," he says. "It's been around for a while, and I don't feel that its time has come yet."
David V. Griffin is a freelance writer living in New York, N.Y.
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