A few weeks ago I visited Lyndhurst mansion, less than an hour from NYC overlooking the majestic Hudson River. That sounds corny –– “majestic Hudson” –– but it’s really true. It’s enormously wide, at once serene and powerful, and Lyndhurst stands above it like an jagged stone sentinel overlooking the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is a great day trip for those who live around NYC. I went with my friend Spence and his A Friend in NY tour Company.
Lyndhurst is a Gothic Revival masterpiece and a tour de force of the art of faux painting (making things look like what they are not) ––the height of fashion when it was remodeled in the 1860s. Virtually everything was fauxed in the house… made to look like leather, stone –– everything save the real white marble floor with blue Minton tile and the gorgeous marble fireplaces (although often the surrounds are faux). Yes, the walls and ceiling in the hall above are painted to look like marble… insanely perfect and in remarkable condition. If there ever was a time I wished I could take a thousand pictures of great faux painting, this was it –– but they don’t allow photography in the house. Drat.
The house was designed and built in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803 -1892) who also did the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and the US Custom’s House in NYC in 1842. It was originally commissioned by former NYC mayor, William Paulding, and known as Knoll when it was first built as a Gothic villa. The charming booklet I purchased at the house quoted famous architectural critic, Andrew Jackson Downing, who said in his classic book, The Architecture of Country Houses:
“The villa… should, above all things, manifest individuality. It should say something of the character of the family within –– as much as possible of their life and history, their tastes and associations, should mould and fashion themselves upon its walls.” The house was built for “men of imagination, men whose aspirations never leave them at rest –– men whose ambition and energy will give them no peace within the mere bounds of rationality. These are the men for picturesque villas –– country houses with high roofs, steep gables, unsymmetrical and capricious forms. It is for such that the architect may safely introduce the tower and the campanile, any and every feature that indicates originality, boldness, energy and variety of character.”
Individual it certainly is. For all of that, the house was considered very odd for its unusual profile, even called “Paulding’s Folly” by his neighbors used to quiet Georgians or staid Greek Revivals.
Jay Gould (1836-92)
The second owner, George Merritt (who made his fortune in springs) bought the house in 1864, doubled its size with the help of the original architect, renamed it Lyndehurst and sold it to Jay Gould––the much reviled robber baron, in 1880 for $255,000 –– still full of Paulding and Merritt possessions. It was to be a country refuge from the New York City society that rejected Gould. He was not welcome in Newport after his market rigging shenanigans (among other things, he tried to corner the gold market and was a brutal if not vicious competitor). Renamed Lyndhurst, it stayed in the Gould family till it was given to the National Trust in 1961.
The ceilings in the house are remarkable
I really love the style. There is something about it that screams American arriviste, true, but also has this amazing optimism and self-possession. It feels so American somehow–– in laying claim to the Gothic ideal, you break out of the demure clapboard houses of the earlier part of the century –– dream big, live big.
The gallery (believe it or not, this window was shuttered at the beginning!)
Let’s be clear. I have never been a white box girl. I love odd corners and 2 story parlor windows and stained glass. When my grandparents gave up their big Victorian pile for a normal house I cried for days (I was 8… but I would do the same today).
I love dark, rich, super-saturated jewel box colors. When I walked into the Lyndhurst dining room, I felt embraced by the dark-blood walls that looked like fine leather. The textures, the arches and twirls of the plasterwork play at Gothic strings but also evoke natural patterns, reminiscent of the arched avenues of great old forests –– always striving upward to the light of possibility that was so much the American spirit at that time. I know most people feel exactly the opposite about the Gothic architectural form –– they think it is suffocating and oppressive. In fact, the very word Gothic only began being used in the Renaissance and was highly pejorative –– the style was thought to be barbaric and vaguely pagan (perhaps those gargoyles!) –– hence associating it with plunderers (a word that has often been associated with Robber Barons). I guess it depends on one’s point of view… I think it soars. This new Gothic celebrated the new faith in commerce and its titans of business as much as the Catholic church had inspired the original Gothic style. The earliest skyscrapers had Gothic details (think Woolworth Building)!
The East Bedroom
We seem to live in a hope-sucking world of ‘we can’t’ and ‘not any more’ these days –– this house comes from a world where everything seemed possible and architecture seemed to strive upward with it’s builders and clients (did you know that no more sky scrapers are being planned for the United States even as they go up like mad in the Mideast and Far East –– that says it all).
Helen Gould (1868-1938)
I do not justify the dealings of ruthless men like Gould. I don’t think his daughter Helen did either. She bought the house from the estate soon after her father’s death in 1892 and spent the rest of her life paying back with her incredible fortune. She was involved in many charities, using her $10 million inheritance that she grew to $30 million even as she gave much away. She was very good at running her charities personally from a small office in the house (with a law degree from NYU) with a helper and a very organized set of file cabinets. Beginning locally with support for women and children in poverty and then extending outward to her alma mater, NYU (endowing a library and an engineering school), The Red Cross, Salvation Army and YMCA as well as the war efforts (she gave money TO the government for the Spanish American War!). She even gave a dinner for 1000 at the Bowery mission to celebrate her wedding to Finley Shepard.
She was especially involved with Naval charities, and on her wedding night, ships in the Hudson saluted the newlyweds as they came out on their nuptial balcony. This house is very much about its prospect –– a commanding view of the Hudson River.
So how did they eat?
When I visit a place, I often wonder what they ate there ––Lyndhurst is no exception.
Anna Gould (1875-1961)
I began by reading about the nuptials of Jay Gould’s daughter Anna to Marquis Boni de Castellane in 1895… there were menus for the wedding breakfast and bachelor dinner in old NYT articles. Something about the house didn’t scream fancy French food though… like les ouefs brouillies aux truffes (scrambled eggs with truffles), coquille de ris-de-veau, volaille et truffes (shells of sweetbreads, chicken and truffles) and glacé d’Abricots en Orchids (apricot ice cream in orchids or in the shape of them –– appropriate since they grew orchids in their fabulous greenhouse). The marriage was a disaster and ended in 1906 after he ran through prodigious amounts of her money with lavish parties and building the extravagant Palais Rose on the Avenue Foch (later occupied by famous aesthete, Robert de Montesquiou). She remarried a prince and when he died she moved back to the US just before WWII and was the last occupant of the house. She gave it to the National Trust in 1961.
I read that Delmonicos had catered Helen’s wedding breakfast in 1913, but found no mention of what was eaten. Her marriage was by all accounts successful and happy and blessed with the adoption of 4 children since she was in her mid-40s when she married. Her husband was a man she had known for sometime but fell in love with when they were in a train wreck together!!
As for Jay, well there was not much mentioned about his entertaining at all –– perhaps his vile reputation led to less public, and therefore unreported, parties and dinners.
Stuck at a dead end for a dish that was tied to the house, I suddenly remembered a wonderful 1904 article I had found in the NYT archive a few years back with real New York recipes for fish soups and chowders. For some reason, that just felt right to me. Reading what I have about Helen (and her astonishing best friend Mrs. Russell Sage), I felt she was, for all of her wealth, a solid citizen. I could imagine Helen in that wonderfully eccentric yet surprisingly comfortable dining room, eating a stew like this–– cooked in that kitchen …after a long day righting what wrongs she could and making things better. This soup would fortify and give pleasure as well.
Gould era kitchen (sadly, this has been made into a gift shop!)
Pantry (it’s now full of period china and glassware –– love the ribbed marble sink and cork floor to help with breakage)
When I first saw the recipe, I was filled with trepidation, yet intrigued. Who would put red wine in a New York fish stew??? This was not a combination I was used to. True, I’d had red wine with lentils and salmon but…. The recipe also called for ketchup, ketchup??? Whenever I thought of cod and potatoes I thought creamy white chowders (I know, you’re going to say what about Manhattan clam chowder, but that is a fairly recent invention ––1930s). And ketchup has been used in America for a very, very long time, at least from the beginning of the 19th century –– Heinz had been bottling it since the 1870s.
Well, I decided to try it. It was great. Although I thought this combination was a bizarre anomaly, I discovered, thanks to the research of Jasper White and his book 50 Chowders, that something like it was published nearly 150 years before in the Boston Evening Post on September 23rd, 1751 (sans ketchup).
“First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o'er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother 'em,
You'll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.”
Here is the original NYT recipe from 1904.
Both soups use the layering technique and red wine. I found that fascinating. Now I wonder where the custom to never have fish with red wine came into being???
I ended up changing the NYT’s recipe very little. The result was rich and dark and satisfying and so easy to make. I made lovely crackers to have with the soup, basing them on a Thomas Keller recipe from Bouchon Bakery… they are ridiculously easy. It was a nod to the biscuits that thickened the 18th century version of the soup… biscuits then being more like our crackers today. Back then, they needed to be soaked to make them easier to eat since they were often hard as a rock! My crackers are buttery good and perfect for the stew. I did add the shrimp to the stew and liked the contrast in texture since they were lightly cooked (and no matter how good it was, I just couldn’t take a picture of a bowl of brown… I needed to brighten it up a little).
6 slices bacon
1 onion, diced
2 T butter
3 c mashed potatoes (made with milk and butter)
4 pounds white-fleshed fish, chopped into big chunks -sea bass, halibut or fluke (I used cod)
¼ t nutmeg
¼ t mace
1/8 t ground cloves or 5 or 6 cloves
1 or 2 T mixed fresh herbs (parsley, marjoram, thyme, savory etc)
salt and pepper to taste
1or 2 small hot peppers or ½ to 1 t pepper flakes
1 ½ c claret (I used cabernet sauvignon)
¼ to ½ c ketchup
a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce
18 Shrimp, lightly cooked
Sauté the bacon until crisp and then remove. Add the butter and the onion and sauté till softened and slightly browned. Remove ½ the onion mixture and add ½ the bacon. Add ½ the cod, then ½ the mashed potatoes then the rest of the bacon and onions, the rest of the cod and the rest of the potatoes. Pour the wine and an equal amount of water. Gently mix in the ketchup and Worcestershire. Cover and cook over low heat for about ½ an hour. Place the shrimp on top and serve with crackers.
Butter Crackers from a Thomas Keller Recipe
¼ c warm water
¾ t active dry yeast
¾ c plus 1 T all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 t cornstarch
1 t kosher salt
2 T plus 2 t butter, softened
Warm oven to 350º, line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silpat.
Sift the flour and cornstarch.Combine the ingredients… breaking up the butter in the flour into small chunks and knead for 10 minutes...it will seem too wet but be patient. Let rest for 10 minutes. Divide into 2 pieces and role the 1st 1/8 thick. I also used a technique of folding the dough like an old fashiones envelope twice to give it layers, but that is up to you… I liked the effect.
Cut out circles or squares or whatever you fancy (like fish) and place on parchment. Pierce with sharp fork to keep them from puffing or don’t and let them puff. Do the same for the second part of the dough.
Bake for about 10 minutes, turning halfway. Remove and let cool on the sheets. Store in an airtight container after they cool
Thanks to Gollum for Hosting Foodie Friday