Big Old Houses: We'd Call It Old Money
by John Foreman
In America today, "Old Money" is a lot older than it used to be. Back in 1900, being three generations out and still loaded was an anomaly. Putting culture and education aside — oft and happily done in our world — America's pre-industrial elite wasn't all that rich. American fortunes, which could properly be described as such, didn't really gain traction until after the Civil War. At the beginning of the 20th century, William Sloane (1873-1922), whose grandfather in 1843 founded the cash cow rug and furniture emporium called W. & J. Sloane, was about as legitimately "Old Money" as it got.
In 1906 Sloane became president of the family firm. In that same year, possibly by way of celebration, he and his wife Frances, both 33 years of age, bought 130 acres in the rural Westchester town of Bedford for the purpose of building a country place. The entrance to the estate was (and still is) low profile. A welcome (to me, anyway) formality asserts itself as one approaches the house.
The name of this place is Merestead, "farmland" in Scots, a sort of "petit hameau" homage to the probably cold and rocky Scottish village from which the future furniture magnates fled. The plans for the house were drawn by the famous firm of Delano and Aldrich, described by contemporary architect Peter Pennoyer as moving "beyond the grandeur of the Beaux Arts" to a "particularly modern and American architecture informed by history" — specifically, English Georgian history. Before going inside this noble old mansion, I detoured to the kitchen courtyard, then continued around the perimeter.
Let's see, at $3.48 a gallon, which is what I paid at the end of the last heating season, that would be $17,400 to fill this tank.
Merestead's view is to the west, with open porches on its north and south ends. Here's the north porch, accessed from the dining room and doubtless used in good weather for al fresco meals.
The western elevation gazes between stately trees to distant views of wooded Westchester. In 1916 Delano and Aldrich also drew plans for the Sloanes' city house, now the Italian Cultural Institute, a serene Georgian Revival opus located at 686 Park Avenue (68th-69th) in the middle of the so-called Park Avenue Block. By the 'Twenties, they had supplanted McKim Mead and White as the choice of much of New York's upper crust. Almost every day in my own East 60s neighborhood, I am gladdened by their Knickerbocker, Colony and Christian Science church.
The last family member to live in the house was the Sloanes' daughter Margaret, married in 1937 to Dr. Robert Lee Patterson. The Patterson family moved here after the widowed Mrs. Sloane died in 1962. Between 1963 and 1972 Dr. Patterson was surgeon-in-chief at New York's Hospital for Special Surgeries. He passed away in 1994, his wife in 2002. Since then, Merestead has been maintained, in a manner of speaking, by Westchester County, which took title subject to the Pattersons' life residency in 1982.
The view below is of the south porch, seen from the foot of an enclosed garden, rather the worse for wear after a decade of public stewardship. Without the (admittedly unsightly) chain link fence on its outer perimeter, the evergreen hedge would long ago have been destroyed by deer. French doors on the porch open into the drawing room and retain the shutters that once ornamented all the windows. A delicious tea house adjoining a fountain pool anchors the garden's south end.
The place is in much better shape inside than out. It's also a literal time capsule.
A long hall, with grand staircase on the north and library on the south, runs the length of the house. Beyond a columned screen facing the entrance foyer is a sort of lobby separating the drawing room on the left (south) and the dining room on the right (north). Let's look first at the drawing room, filled with chairs for an upcoming piano recital. In 2009, Merestead became a part of Copland House Inc., a non-profit educational, performance and Yaddo-style artists' retreat named after the celebrated composer and Westchester resident Aaron Copland. The french doors behind the piano open onto the south porch.
The beautiful mahogany door in the image below connects the drawing room to the southern end of the main hall. Copland's Artistic and Executive Director, Michael Boriskin, is doing extra duty today as my host. Behind him is the entry foyer, flanked by portieres. On the wall to the left of it is a storage closet and flower room; to the right, a powder room. Michael is looking across the hall at the columned screen to the lobby we just visited.
Let's turn around now and, with our backs to the stairs, continue into the library. I have an English friend who once described her London house as the definition of "shabby chic." She then leaned forward and added, "However, there is a line between shabby and sordid." I have flirted with that line throughout my life, which my readers should keep in mind when I describe the library at Merestead as purest perfection. The old rug, the battered sofa, the pleated lampshades, the mismatched jardiniere lamps, the baronial partners' desk and how about those valances? To die.
Let's return to the hall, continue to the columned lobby, and have a look at the dining room on its north side.
About forty years ago, when my former wife and I moved to Tuxedo Park, big old houses and pretty much everything in them were considered worthless. Thrift shops brimmed with weighty sofas for $20 and bespoke curtain panels for a dollar apiece. We had a blast furnishing our 46-room house with stuff that looked perfectly good from a distance and/or under dim wattage at night. After Mrs. Patterson's death in 2002, her family removed some things, notably the dining table and chairs. However, the majority of the stuff is still here, including mansion length curtain panels and abundant "plop furniture," which is what we used to call furniture good enough to "plop" down without reupholstering.
Even more fun is the pantry, which doesn't look like it's changed — except for the "modern" telephone — since 1906. Why is the phone in the pantry? Because that's where the butler answered it, after which he would announce the caller's name to whomever, and whomever would return to a chair in the hall and take the call. If you reconnected the line, this phone would still work. Let's hope it and the pantry in which it has sat for the better part of a century continue to survive.
Past the safe, out the door, across a narrow service hall, and I arrived in the kitchen, which is very much the same breed of cat as my own in Millbrook. The big antique hood over the dinky new stove (this one's black; mine is almond), the prep table in the middle of the room (a zinc top here; mine is stainless), wooden counter tops, brass bin pulls, glass cabinet doors (well, someone made off with my glass doors), are all vintage "big old house." A Sixties "upgrade" has replaced Merestead's original kitchen sink.
Besides the kitchen, this wing also contains a servant hall and laundry.
A narrow corridor overlooking the kitchen courtyard connects the laundry at the far end of the wing to a back stair outside the kitchen. We, however, are returning to the main stair.
Six bedrooms and five inter-connecting baths run in an approximate circle around a broad corridor that runs down the middle of the second floor. Two of these bedrooms, larger than the others and located respectively at the north and south ends of the building, look to me like masters.
When William Sloane died in 1922 at the age of 49, he left an estate in excess of $6 million, charitable bequests (to the Red Cross, the YMCA, Presbyterian Hospital, etc.) of some $600,000, and a widow who would spend the next 40 years without him. Sloane was a selfless guy whose tireless war work is what probably led to the early grave. I'm not sure why I think the first room at the top of the stairs (through the door on the left in the image below) belonged to Mrs. Sloane, but I do.
The stylistically restrained bedrooms and absolutely fabulous (to me, anyway) bathrooms all interconnect, forming a sort of architectural conga line — bedroom, bathroom, bedroom, bathroom, bedroom bathroom — until ...