Perfection On the Hudson

Historic Boscobel: a treasure trove of early American design



Photography by Charles T. Lyle

Photos Courtesy of Boscobel House & Gardens

Boscobel Restoration

1601 Route 9D
Garrison, NY
845.265.3638
boscobel.org

Boscobel is open every day except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The museum and grounds are closed to the public January through March.

Hours:
April through October: 9:30 am – 5 pm (last tour begins at 4 pm).
November and December: 9:30 am – 4 pm (last tour begins at 3 pm).

Admission House & Grounds/
All-Day Pass:

Adults: $16
Seniors (62 and older): $13
Children (ages 6-14): $8
Family of four: $40
Children under age 6: Free

The neoclassical mansion Boscobel was opened to the public in 1961 after being moved 15 miles upriver in pieces and reconstructed on its current site in Garrison, New York.

Driving up sun dappled Maple Lane towards the ocher neoclassical mansion Boscobel, it would be reasonable to assume that this early 1800s Hudson River-front home of States and Elizabeth Dyckman had been here forever—or at least since its construction in 1806. But Boscobel, in its current form, has been at this Garrison, New York, location only since 1961—a prime example of the tenacity of local historic preservationists in 1955, when the home, fallen to ruins some 15 miles downriver in Montrose, faced the wrecking ball.

    Much has been written about the 11th-hour rescue; of the thousands of disassembled pieces stored away in neighboring barns, garages, and attics (to be reassembled sometime, somewhere, when the Fates allowed); and of the millions donated by Reader’s Digest co-founder Lila Acheson Wallace to purchase land in Garrison and pay for the complete restoration project. Suffice it to say that Boscobel was, and continues to be, a labor of love, capturing the hearts and attention of thousands of visitors a year.

Boscobel's views and grounds make a perfect site for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which takes place on the grounds each summer.

    When first opened to the public in 1961, Boscobel’s interior was stocked with the finest English antiques, based on the notion that States Dyckman, a Loyalist who spent four years in England chasing down hush money owed to him while Boscobel was being built, had shipped the swankiest furniture home to his wife across the pond. States died before Boscobel was completed and there were no photographs or renderings of how the home looked while the widow Dyckman and her son, Peter, lived there (until her death in 1823).

    But in the early 1970s, a trunkful of letters sent to and from England and written between Elizabeth and States Dyckman came to light, upending prevailing thought. Except for smaller items, like English silver, porcelain, and hundreds of books, Dyckman considered furniture too fragile to ship. Instead, these letters revealed that Elizabeth commissioned the best New York cabinet-makers—Duncan Phyfe, primarily—to beautify her home.

  

Duncan Phyfe furniture and saturated colors prevail in Boscobel´s front parlor.

  Aiming to get it right this time, the board of Boscobel Restoration tapped no less than Berry Tracey, the Early American design maven who had supervised and curated the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing, to re-decorate the mansion. “Berry was a collector, and dealer of Early American furniture,” says Boscobel’s collections manager, Judith Pavelock. “So he knew where to find everything—from the largest antiques stores to the smallest nooks and crannies.”

    Interior design in the early 1800s was anything but musty and muted. Tracey used the palettes and motifs then in vogue —vibrant, saturated color and repeating Greek and Roman patterns. The mid-1700s discovery of an almost-intact ancient Pompeii led to a preponderance of interest in all things Greek and Roman. “Federal style” incorporated these neoclassical elements, which Tracey, the quintessential Early American interior decorator, painstakingly recreated at Boscobel.

 The bedroom is a riot of intense color; needle-worked carpet in salmon, sea-foam green, and teal, and an intricately carved four-poster canopy bed capped with green swags and dark pink tassels.

    Walk through the river-facing front door, and you enter a great hall featuring a sweeping double staircase. Two columns, supporting an airy triple arch, frame the stairs. Wealthy homeowners of the time made extensive use of trompe l’oeil, so Tracey followed suit. The walls are covered with ashlar, a wallpaper painted to look like quarried stone. Base moldings that run around the room and up the stairway resemble dark marble. The dark floor cloth, simulating green-veined marble, is bordered by a Greek key motif that picks up patterns in the fabrics, mantles, and decorative pieces in the surrounding rooms.

    In the early 1800s, guests who came calling would gather in the front parlor, which, as a rule, showcased the best furniture in the house. Tracey filled this bright room with Duncan Phyfe pieces, upholstered in canary yellow with contrasting blue flower and ribbon piping—colors and patterns that are replicated in the draperies and carpet. Phyfe was famous for his delicate craftsmanship—his signature curved, X-shaped supports and “paw” feet were sturdy yet elegant. Pavelock pointed to a round wooden cabinet fluted like an Ionic column—another Phyfe piece. “Visitors always ask about this dumbwaiter. I just think it is so well designed and timeless. It’s got a lazy Susan interior where household staff could stow dirty dishes, then rotate the shelves to a clean set of cups and saucers!”

   

The front hall features a sweeping double staircase. Two columns, supporting an airy triple-arch, frame the stairs.

More columns are carved into the fireplace, and other neoclassical motifs repeat throughout the room. One could spend hours looking for the Dyckman monogram—integrating bowknots and tassels—on silver pieces and carvings throughout the house.

    Though nearly 200 years old, vivid yellow furniture—a pair of Grecian “tub” chairs and matching settee—in the back parlor could tickle the fancy of modern designers. A picture of Elizabeth hangs across from the “looking glass” above the fireplace—proper placement for a woman or man of importance.

    Even today, historians continue to comb through the Dyckmans’ 2,500 or so documents and letters, attempting to pinpoint exactly how the home was decorated from 1810 through 1820. One letter in particular indicated that Elizabeth had purchased two sets of “painted chairs.”

The second bedroom features a carpet that is still being hand-loomed by Family Heirloom Weavers.

    And so, around a substantial mahogany table in the formal dining room, Tracey placed green-cushioned, off-white painted chairs, turned to look like bamboo, which would not look out of place in a Florida sunroom. Cut-crystal candelabras and custom-painted Coalport porcelain, which States sent to Elizabeth from England, glitz up the table and sideboards. To underscore the fascination with all things ancient, a carved wine cooler in the shape of a sarcophagus sits at the foot of the table. The whole glittery yet elegant effect comes together with salmon-colored silk taffeta window treatments, offset by rich avocado-green walls.

    The upstairs hallway features a massive Duncan Phyfe wardrobe, designed like the house itself—with a larger center section and two smaller “wings.” It’s covered with enough thunderbolts, bowknots, tassels, and swags to please the Greek gods, though they might not be too pleased by the portrait of Narcissus by Benjamin West that hangs above the cabinet.

    The term “master bedroom” is relatively new—in the Dyckmans’ day, the most opulent of sleeping quarters was called the “best bedroom.” There are two on the riverview side of the house. The first one is a riot of intense color: needle-worked carpet in salmon, sea-foam green, and teal; an intricately carved four-poster canopy bed capped with ornate green swags and dark pink tassels; and wallpaper in alternating strips of blue and green flowers and ribbons. This room, according to Pavelock, was Martha Stewart’s favorite. (see the November ’09 feature in Martha Stewart Living). And no, the wallpaper is no longer available for purchase.

   

Boscobel´s front entrance looks over the grounds to the Hudson River.

The formal yet clubby room between two “best bedrooms” gives a glimpse of how rich folk passed the time in the early 1800s. A hand-woven checkerboard straw carpet, terracotta-brown walls, and a round, green-felt-topped reading table create a studious ambience. In fact, States Dyckman was a consummate book collector and sent thousands back to New York to stock his new library (which, alas, he never saw). Roughly 500 of these books remain—some with original Dyckman bookplates—a few behind the glass doors of a bookcase-cum-writing-desk inlaid with wood slats in a pattern suggesting a Gothic cathedral.

    Of all the rooms in Boscobel, the second “best bedroom” has the most astounding view; visitors tend to audibly gasp at the unobstructed Hudson River landscape right outside. Perhaps for this reason, Tracey placed a Pembroke table for two by the large window, betting on the high probability that Elizabeth or her guests would take tea here, mesmerized by the vista. This bedroom sports a carpet most commented upon by those who take the tour—a reversible weave melding diamond patterns and stripes in browns, blues, and whites—still being hand-loomed by Family Heirloom Weavers (family
heirloomweavers.com/ingraincarpetpatterns.html called simply “Boscobel”) for $145 per yard.

    In contrast, the two “back of the house” bedrooms are relatively austere, with bare wood floors and pine beds. In one, though, visitors get a sense of how even the lesser-quality rooms could be dressed up. A bed that the “help” might have slept in sports a crisp, homespun blue-and-white plaid canopy, and the fireplace is concealed with a colorfully painted, warm-weather fireboard.

Frequent Westchester Magazine contributor Malerie Yolen-Cohen lives in Stamford, Connecticut, but will use any excuse to peek inside grand Hudson River mansions.

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