My Favorite Place In Westchester
Four renowned Westchester writers on their favorite local spots
By Roxana Robinson
My favorite place in Westchester is the place I used to live—a white farmhouse, outside Katonah. The house was set on the side of a hill, and across the lawn was a capacious red barn, where for years we kept our horses. Below the barn was a paddock, sloping down to the road. On winter mornings, I’d turn the horses out there. I’d open the window in the loft and throw some hay down to them. They’d stand peacefully over the scattered mounds of hay, their heads lowered, their breath making clouds of steam in the cold air.
The house was a 19th-century clapboard, with wide-plank floors and eccentric windows. A friend from New York complained about it: he said that all our floors slanted, and he was right. We didn’t mind. The house was old, and we liked that. We didn’t change the floors, or the walls, or the windows. In our bedroom, a bay window looked over the lawn toward the barn. Around the house were ancient sugar maples, and on summer mornings, bluebirds flew down from the branches into the grass. We didn’t use any chemicals so we had lots of birds. There were bluebirds on the lawns, cardinals in the rhododendrons, house wrens by the summer house. We had goldfinches, mockingbirds, mourning doves, house finches, woodpeckers, and swallows, nesting and singing all over the place.
It was at that house that I started gardening. At the back door, I planted a tiny kitchen garden: herbs, lettuce, parsley, a single gangly tomato plant. In the same bed were fragrant flowering plants: the climbing rose New Dawn, showy regale lilies, low sprawling heliotrope, white phlox, catmint. In the little brick-walked courtyard, backed by old stonewalls, were shrub roses and silver lambs’ ears, chartreuse-leaved lady’s mantle, purple-blue geranium, electric blue brunnera, and tall purple spires of campanula. Clematis jackmanii twined gracefully over the curved white gate. Tucked into the crevices of the stonewall, and blooming all season long, was a little cream-colored corydalis.
Once I’d started making gardens, I couldn’t stop. Along the old stonewall at the edge of the lawn, by the barn, under the white ash, I made a white garden. It was filled with the low flickering foliage of white lamium; the fragile arches of white bleeding heart; an exuberant white rose, Schneekopf; the huge, elegant glaucous blue-leaved hosta sieboldiana; the dreamy leaning spires of white digitalis; and the stately cream plumes of rodgersia aesculifolia.
When we first moved there, presiding over the stonewall and the white border was an ancient tree, said to be the largest white ash in Westchester. It was enormous, as tall as the barn, with long, graceful, looping limbs stretching over the lawn. Slowly, over the years, ash dieback sapped the life from it, and, when it stood gaunt and leafless against the sky, we finally took it down. In its place, I planted a white oak, which is a noble tree—huge, massive, and long-lived. I planted it four years before we left, and I saw it thrive, growing tall and handsome against the barn. Someday I hope it will be the largest white oak in Westchester.
On top of the hill that rose up behind the house and barn was the summer house, and the summer border. The summer border was on the edge of the meadow, and it was full of hot-color plants: tall red phlox and towering Joe-Pye weed, yellow oenothera, golden yarrow, blue Russian sage, and rose filipendula.
When we still had the horses, they’d graze all summer in the meadows. In the evenings, the horses would come down and waited at the gate, to be brought in for the night. In the mornings, when I’d turn them out, they’d canter up to the crest of the hill and then stop suddenly, dropping their heads into the long grass to graze. Beyond that meadow, on the other side of the crest, was another meadow that sloped down on the far side, to the woods. In that meadow, before we left, as a farewell, I planted two American beech trees, airy and graceful, with smooth silver bark.
In the woods beyond our field were deer and coyotes, and sometimes foxes. On our own land, we had wild turkeys, possums, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. We had box turtles and snapping turtles, chipmunks and squirrels. I liked having all of them around, all but the snappers. One spring, a family of skunks lived behind the garage. They were sociable, fearless, and greedy, and once I opened the door of the mudroom, carrying two bags of groceries, to find a skunk backed up against the kitchen door. He watched me, bemused, his mouth full of dog kibble from the bag he’d just been raiding. I found myself jumping backwards, through the screen door, down the step and back outside, still holding the groceries. The skunk went on chewing.
I miss them all.
I miss the animals, the skunks and raccoons and possums, the turtles and bats and bluebirds and swallows. I miss the huge old trees, and the gardens. I miss the bright border up by the summer house, and I miss the shady, quiet woodland garden, the ferns and columbine. I miss the horses, and I miss the dogs. I miss sitting in the kitchen, in the summer, with the windows open, the scent of lilies on the evening air.
A former longtime resident of Katonah, Roxana Robinson is the author of three novels (Sweetwater, This Is My Daughter, and Summer Light), three collections of short stories, and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were New York Times Notable Books and one an Editors’ Choice. Robinson has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, and her works have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue and other publications.
Village on a Hill
By Lisa Belkin
We found our house accidentally. Fifteen years ago, my husband, Bruce, and I were new parents, new to the area, renting while we looked to buy, scanning the Sunday classifieds for open houses.
“I found our house,” Bruce announced with a certainty that I ignored because this was house number 92, or maybe 93, in our three-month-long search.
There were directions in the ad, and when I took out a map to trace the route I saw that the roads, as listed, simply didn’t connect. Street A did not lead to Street B. Feeling lucky, or maybe desperate, I guessed at what I thought the ad meant, and that afternoon, with our son, Evan, sleeping in his car seat, we climbed a very steep winding hill, past a very unwelcoming “No Outlet” sign, and found home.
Notice I am not telling you where it is. That’s part of the unwritten rule up here on The Hill. We like the fact that no one can find us. The route between the main road and our homes is peppered with paper roads that exist on maps but not in reality, so unless we give you directions, our secret is safe. There are 20 houses on this hidden hilltop street, and the geography is a bond. We have block parties, dragging a ping pong table from one garage, a stereo from another basement, and barbeque grills from every yard. We go out to dinner together—upwards of 20 people at long laden tables, where everyone laughs a lot. We keep an eye on each other’s kids, take in each other’s newspapers, shovel each other’s front walks. We know that Herb’s sciatica has been tormenting him for months, and that Lizzie just started college, and that Quinn just started kindergarten. When Bruce (the other Bruce; there are two) was so sick, we brought Carol food.
Snowstorms are an event on our Hill because, until we are plowed, cars can’t come in or out. We have been known to leave our cars at the bottom and walk, feet perpendicular to the grade, like a skier going up a slope, through side yards to get home. I’m telling you, it is a very impressive hill. It sticks upward at a sharp angle, and then hairpins at its steepest point. It breaks all current village codes, but because it predates them, it was grandfathered in. And it is surrounded by woods, so when the snow falls and the cars stop, and it is just us, each bundled in our own home but knowing the others are out there in the whiteness, it feels as it must have 70 years ago.
Back then, the land was all owned by one eccentric professor who’d planned to build an intellectual community of other scholars. I know this because a graduate student from Columbia, who was studying the man and his plan, rang my doorbell and told me all about it a year or so ago. Things like that happen on The Hill. There’s a feeling of being part of something that was here before and will remain long after. Out in the woods, there are even skeletal foundations of homes that were planned but never built. The Depression got in the way, the graduate student told us. Or maybe the professor just couldn’t find enough intellectuals to fill the bill.
Our house was one of the four that were actually completed before his dream went sour. I like to think the old man wouldn’t be too disappointed in us. We don’t sit and discuss Proust with our neighbors, but we do have impromptu barbeques, and our dogs have play dates, and Klaus, Suzanne, and their three boys create an elaborate witches tent in their carport each Halloween. When our piano needed a new home, we wheeled it down the block so Hallie could take lessons, and when Cathy’s niece needed a ride to the train station, every morning Bill offered to stop on his way and take her along, and Evan (the three-month-old in the car seat during our first glimpse) now babysits for Jack, who will probably one day babysit for Hazel, who was born a few weeks ago.
As I write this, the family on the corner just put their house on the market. The rest of us are holding our collective breath, hoping that the new owners are looking not just for a home, but for a community. And that the directions in the ad for their open house will be accidentally scrambled.
Lisa Belkin lives near the River in Westchester, but because she has been sworn to secrecy by her neighbors, she can not tell you exactly where. A New York Times reporter and columnist (“Life’s Work”), as well as author of such books as Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom and First, Do No Harm, she shares her “favorite spot” with her husband, Bruce, her two sons, Evan and Alex, and Riley, their Wheaten terrier.
Reaching the Apex of Golf Pleasure
By John Coyne
Most golf architects know God designs the greatest courses; the planners’ job is to uncover the divine handiwork, not interfere with it.
That’s what happened when the Pelham Country Club was designed. Its architect, Devereux Emmet, looked at Mount Tom, the highest spot in Pelham Manor, and recognized that he could not improve on God’s work. He created two holes where Mount Tom comes into play, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that playing them is pretty close to a religious experience.
But before I talk about Mount Tom, let me give you some golf-course background. There are local courses more famous than Pelham—Winged Foot, Westchester, and Wykagyl, for instance. These private country clubs host PGA and LPGA events, and members can dine out on the big names that have played their courses. Meanwhile, Pelham claims only that their club is “family oriented” with a “congenial atmosphere,” though Pelham did host the 1923 PGA Championship won by Gene Sarazen in a match against Walter Hagen—a match that many experts consider to be the greatest in golf history.
I don’t belong to any private club, including Pelham, but I do appreciate old courses and their history. And while Pelham may be small and unpretentious, there are many who love it. And for good reason.
Golf in Pelham goes back to a Dr. Charles R. Gillett and his brother, Will, who, in 1900, started to play the game in a makeshift way on Prospect Hill in Pelham Manor. In 1908, a Pelham Country Club (PCC) was formed with a few tennis courts and five golf holes carved out of a cow pasture. Then, in the summer of 1921, influential members, Mont Rogers and Edmund E. Sinclair, formed a company—200 members paying $2,000 each—to buy a stretch of virgin woodland in the rolling, low-lying hills below the village of Pelham Manor.
Searching for a designer, Rogers and Sinclair discovered a genius of golf architecture, Devereux Emmet of Long Island, and asked the man to create a championship course. A descendant of a founder of Tammany Hall, Devereux Emmet was listed in Ward McAllister’s First Forty Families in America. He was a golfer and a hunter, but, most of all, he loved nature, and envisioned a course of tall oak trees and groves of beeches, much like an ancient English woodland he’d visited, Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, west of London.
Emmet’s vision of the Pelham course endured until 1955, when the government, in its wisdom, cut through the front nine with I-95. Today, only six of the original 18 holes are still in play, including the two on Mount Tom.
The Pelham course covers only 119 acres and, even from the more difficult back tees, plays to just 6,358 yards. Too short for touring pros, but to those who play for fun, it’s a lovely course that demands strategic golf if one wants to score.
Golf design has taken a different architectural approach since its beginning in 1414 on the dune-links of Scotland. Those were the days of what came to be called the Natural School, where existing sand dunes determined the location of the holes, and little was done to change the natural wild topography.
By the mid 17th century, this first “school” of golf-course design evolved into the Penal School, which moved bunkers and other hazards off the fairways and good players were rewarded for driving straight down the fairways and avoiding trouble.
Then, in the 1920s came the architects of the Strategic School. These men linked together the “natural” course with one that discarded the “straight down the middle” Penal approach in favor of a design that created interesting challenges. Devereux Emmet was such an architect. The net result was the kind of course we are familiar with today—one that calls upon the player to consider his or her options, based on ability and courage, to match par in a rural setting that usually resembles a pleasant English countryside.
Among Strategic School architects, Emmet is noted for building courses with severe side hill lies, blind shots, plenty of water, and craftily-designed bunkers. He gave Pelham narrow, tree-lined fairways, small greens, and water hazards on 11 of the holes.
Emmet’s original Strategic School design is most evident in two holes on Mount Tom, a famous glacier rock at the epicenter of the Pelham Country Club. The holes are the 402-yard No. 9 and its companion, the 400-yard, par-4 No. 15. Both holes are stamped into the terrain much like the index and middle finger of God’s own right hand. They are perfect examples of how a Strategic School architect would use the natural setting to create a challenging course.
Standing on the tee boxes of either hole, a golfer can’t see over the high ridge of Mount Tom 200 yards away, nor the landing area in the fairway, the green, or pin placement.
Of these two historic holes, No. 9 is the most demanding, for beyond the high, protruding outcropping of Mount Tom is a narrow fairway that falls precipitously to the left. No. 15 (God’s middle finger) has a level landing area, and is more forgiving of a badly-hit drive, since its fairway stretches smoothly to an inviting green.
No. 9, however, is another story: a blind tee shot into its sloping fairway funnels dramatically to the left side rough and into trouble. As the great Ben Hogan once said, in golf it is the tee shot that matters most. And Hogan would play the Mount Tom hole by moving his ball left-to-right so it landed on the high right side of the fairway, leaving himself only a short iron to a large green nestled in a grove of shading oak trees.
These two holes, plus Nos. 10 and 14, are clustered around Mount Tom and, on any given round, a player is spending 25 percent of the game near this ancient outcropping that Devereux Emmet was smart enough to leave alone. Mount Tom and Devereux Emmet gave Pelham Manor one more benefit. After a heavy winter snowfall, No. 9 is full of kids sledding downhill. One player’s summer headache becomes a child’s winter joy. In all these ways, the fairway of the Mount Tom No. 9 is a scene for all seasons.
John Coyne lives in Pelham Manor and is the author of the novel, The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press.
Eating Good in The Hood
by Dan Greenburg
This magazine recently asked me to write a short piece about my favorite places in Westchester. After giving it a great deal of thought, I realized that my favorite places in Westchester all happen to be restaurants.
My wife, Judith, who, like me, is an author of children’s book series, is also a gourmet cook, so for me to drive to a restaurant and lay out the price of a good scuba watch for a piece of wild salmon and a glass of shiraz requires that I get more for my money than the spectacular dishes Judith cooks for me nearly every night of the week. In a restaurant, I demand atmosphere, which, to me, means soft romantic lighting and, ideally, a view of some body of water larger than an above-the-ground pool (in Westchester, I’m talking unobstructed views of the Hudson, preferably with the twinkling lights of a bridge somewhere in the frame).
Thus, my overall preference is Harvest on Hudson in Hastings. Harvest has scrumptious food, low lighting, candles on tables, and a great view of the Hudson and the Palisades. Although it gets pretty noisy on weekends, we usually go there late, maybe 10 minutes before closing, and by then it’s pretty quiet. We generally ask to be seated in The Side Room, on the other side of the freestanding fireplace, a much smaller room, and this is often more satisfying, except when a party of 17 has blown in for a boozy office dinner. (Why must groups larger than four scream at each other instead of talk?)
A place with an even better view of the Hudson is The Chart House in Dobbs Ferry. Although I find the food not nearly as impressive as the cuisine at Harvest, it’s never bad, small tugs are constantly towing barges past my field of vision while I eat, and the view in either direction is a knockout. To the north is the Tappan Zee, best viewed with strung lights against the blurred blaze of a Palisades sunset. To the south is the GWB, with the miniature-amusement-park lights of Manhattan in the background.
The feeling I get from being at the Striped Bass in Tarrytown, at the edge of a marina bristling with tall-masted sailboats, is of being at an outdoor restaurant on a Caribbean vacation. The mostly fishy food is fresh and good, and even though it sometimes takes an hour after I order before they bring it, I don’t get too annoyed because it’s not like I’m in New York or anything; it’s St. Lucia, for God’s sake, and they just take things slower down here.
One misty summer night a few years ago at the Striped Bass, we saw a boat that looked like a giant swan tied up at the dock. The name on its stern was Wildest Dream. We chatted up its owner, an artist who told us he’d lovingly designed and built it with money that he and his small daughter had earned from many summers of running a lemonade stand in front of their house. It was a surreal, Fellini-like night, but I know it happened.
I can’t recall seeing the river from Equus at the Castle on the Hudson in Tarrytown, even though the restaurant is atop the highest hill in the area. But it doesn’t matter. The old Medieval-style castle, built at the turn of the last century, is so stony and turrety, I half-expect to be served by knights in clanky armor. The food, although quite expensive, is usually exceptional. Equus also has a picturesque European-style bar, to which we sometimes go to for drinks. We took our son, Zack, to Equus on his 21st birthday and made the grand gesture of having him order our drinks. Unfortunately, nobody asked to see his I.D.
Renato’s on the Hudson isn’t, but it’s fairly close to it, and although you can’t see the river at all from the miniscule two-room Irvington restaurant, nobody cares because the food is so good and owner Renato is so charming. Years ago this restaurant was called Fufi’s, although nobody was ever able to tell me why.
The Red Hat in Irvington has no view of the water, either, but it has lovely food, soft lighting, and, if the main room sometimes gets too noisy for me to hear what I’m saying, there is always the more private back room where I can.
I had not been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantino Hills until just a few weeks ago because you have to make reservations about 12 years in advance and I never know what I’m going to feel like eating that far in the future, but friends took us there for brunch and we were astounded at what a classy and delicious place it is. The restaurant itself was renovated from one of several old stone barns owned by the Rockefellers, and the entire place is full of multicolored flowers and exquisite taste. The male and female waiters, in their three-piece, pinstriped suits, are young, look like runway models (but are infinitely smarter and friendlier), and, if there are seven diners in your party, then seven plates of food will be brought out at once so that nobody is served before anyone else.
A vital part of Blue Hill is the 23,000-square-foot greenhouse and surrounding 80-acre super-organic farm where a majority of the menu items have been grown, including—gulp!—the dear little pastured and organically-raised chickens, cute little baby lambs, and piglets whose names, I hope, I can always be spared.
Known for his 1965 hit How To Be A Jewish Mother, Dan Greenburg is now a successful children’s author whose current series for kids are Secrets of Dripping Fang and Weird Planet. His new novel, Claws, about a boy who goes to work on a Texas tiger ranch, is based on experiences he had at a similar ranch, where he learned to discipline tigers by yelling NO! and smacking them on the nose. Greenburg lives in Hastings-on-Hudson.