NYSD House

Big Old Houses: The Thing Done Handsomely

Big Old Houses: The Thing Done Handsomely
by John Foreman


She was the beau ideal of an American debutante of the 1870s — pretty, amused by the world, and confident of her position in it. Olivia Peyton Murray's (1855-1949) landowning ancestors were in the Doomsday Book. Besides swaths of Surrey, later descendants owned tracts in Manhattan, notably Murray Hill. To characterize Miss Murray's life as predictable isn't really fair, but it is true.

Olivia Peyton Murray (1855-1949) and William Bayard Cutting (1850-1912).
In 1877 she married the eminently appropriate William Bayard Cutting (1850-1912), known as Bayard. Like the Murrays, the Cuttings had been in America since the 18th century. Bayard's grandfather married a Livingston and was steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton's partner in a Brooklyn-Manhattan ferry. When Bayard Cutting's mother died in 1852, 2-year-old Bayard and his infant brother, Robert Fulton, were parked with maternal grandparents in bucolic Edgewater, NJ. Grandpa Robert Bayard was a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant's sister. Alexander Hamilton died in a Bayard family house. As my late mother would have put it, these were people with background.

In 1886, Bayard and Olivia Cutting, now married 9 years and accompanied by two (of an eventual four) children and a (very) large staff moved into a sprawling Tudor Revival mansion named Westbrook. Designed for them by Charles C. Haight (1841-1917) it was located in the South Shore Long Island village of Oakdale. If you are at all familiar with New York Society's florid romance with Long Island's north shore, you may well be asking yourself what in the world they were doing in Oakdale? I quote from my own book, "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age," published in 1991 by St. Martin's Press.

"In the 1870s, Oakdale was a famous watering spot for the elite ... (and its famous) ... South Side Club was a hunting and fishing association whose membership, according to social historian Mary Cable, had 'more wealth per member than any such club in the United States.' Belmonts, Bennetts, Goelets, Tiffanys, Whitneys, Lorillards, Cuttings, and Vanderbilts shot, fished and socialized there .... The antecedent of this club was a humble tavern in the wilderness, operated by one Eliphet (Liff) Snedecor ... As early as 1828 the Smithtown Star was singing the praises of Snedecor's, where 'we find the hunting and fishing ... something to marvel about.' ... The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine urged readers in 1839 to 'get in at Liff's if possible. The way you live there is none of your common doings.' ... In 1867, the railroad arrived ... (and by) ... the 1870s, South Side's reputation had changed from that of a hinterland gem known only to the cognoscenti to a favorite retreat of the nation's movers and shakers."
George Lorillard, brother of Tuxedo Park founder Pierre Lorillard, was a South Side member, and his famous racing stable, called Westbrook Farm, was located just a mile from the club. In 1884, Bayard Cutting and his brother Fulton bought Lorillard's 931-acre property and divided it between them. Fulton moved into the former Lorillard house; Bayard built his own. The West gatehouse, seen in the image below, was originally thatched with imported Scottish heather — quite fetchingly too, according to old and unfortunately unreproducible images. The heather's gone, but the ghost of a vanished rural world lingers by virtue of the estate's present status as a state park.
Bayard Cutting's new house at Westbrook was a long, irregularly L-shaped building that gazed down a broad lawn at the little Connetquot River, on whose opposite shore lay William Kissam (Willie) Vanderbilt's 900-acre Idle Hour. Cutting enlarged the house twice, most notably with an early 1890s "Annex" whose picturesque arch spans the final approach to the front door.
Unlike most institutional owners, who can't wait to uproot anything leafy that might actually touch an exterior wall, the Long Island State Park Commission has preserved Westbrook's shrubs, vines and foundation plantings.
Here's a good view of the Annex seen from the north. The front door is under the Dutchman's Pipe vine on the left. Today's guests no longer arrive in coaches or limos.
The service court is at the north end of the house.
Could Westbrook have been any more charming when the Cuttings lived here than it is today? Certainly not from the outside. The estate is now called the Bayard Cutting Arboretum, and its aesthetic strength lies not in formal gardens, but specimen trees and artistically contrived greenswards.
Thanks to Grandfather Bayard's railroad investments, Bayard Cutting became president of the St. Louis, Alton and Terre Haute RR at the age of 28. In the years that followed he also became a successful South Brooklyn real estate speculator, a trustee of Columbia College and the New York Botanical Garden, and a director of City and Suburban Homes, the latter a pioneer in decent housing for working people. Cutting was notably active in Episcopal foreign mission projects as well, which may explain where he met Westbrook's architect, Charles Haight. Haight designed the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in Chelsea and Westbrook out on the Island at approximately the same time. Interestingly, he doesn't seem to have had any other big house projects, or if he did I couldn't find them.

Here's the first floor of Westbrook, minus additions.
An appealing democracy lives at Westbrook today, one which both respects the house and uses it for purposes not unlike those for which it was built. The paneling and fireplace in the main hall are said to be salvage from some demolished English house. This looks likely, even though no one I spoke with knew which house or where it had been.
At the south end of the main hall is the drawing room, now part of a luncheon restaurant.
I'm guessing this modern catering kitchen, connected to the drawing room and to the main hall, was originally a small reception room. This size house would have had one, and I couldn't find it anywhere else.
The restaurant includes the former library, with another grand English fireplace and a porch outside.
Let's return to the drawing room ...
... then to the main hall ...
... retrace our steps northwards across the main hall and have a look at the dining room.
Finally, some furniture. Prior to donating the house to the Long Island State Park and Recreation Commission in 1951, Bayard Cutting's daughter Mrs. Bayard James stripped Westbrook of practically every stick of original furniture. She even told the butler to burn any old photo or document that was accidentally left behind. Historians cringe at stories like this, but the culprit wasn't so much Mrs. James as the old-fashioned belief that letting strangers see or use your family's personal property would somehow be unseemly.
Beyond the dining room is a breakfast room, and beyond that a service corridor with the entrance to the kitchen.
A door on the kitchen's north wall leads to Westbrook's first addition, a warren of pantries and storage rooms with an exit to the kitchen courtyard.
Sandwiched between the kitchen and the service corridor is the servant hall, now a lunch room for park personnel. There's an unassuming 1880s charm to the kitchen suite at Westbrook, even though the plan isn't really top flight.
The hall in the image below passes the dining room, behind the door on the left, en route to the main hall in the distance. At the south end of the main hall is the main stair.
If I didn't know for a fact that Mrs. James ordered all the furniture removed, I'd assume the second floor was much the way she left it. The furniture you see in these images was actually accumulated by a resourceful former site administrator named Lillian Wykert. The first 2 bedrooms, located at the southernmost end of the hall, were occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Cutting. I suspect they formerly slept together in the larger of the two, before Mr Cutting moved to the smaller. Grand and appealing as Westbrook is, the bedroom/bathroom arrangements are a little awkward. The construction date is early, however, and the architect didn't have a lot of residential experience.
Those are Cutting's gun and clubs on the bed. Westbrook had the first private golf course in America.
Mr. Cutting's bathroom adjoins his wife's dressing room. This curious arrangement must stem from a later decision to have separate rooms.
Mrs. Cutting's room is the best in the house, with long views down to the river.
When the Cuttings move here in 1886, they had an 8-year-old boy name William Bayard Jr. and a 7-year-old girl named Justine. Son Bronson and daughter Olivia (the future Mrs. James) followed in quick succession. A small boudoir adjoins Mrs. Cutting's room, after which comes a succession of connecting bedrooms and baths. The second floor in the original house appears to have been occupied solely by family and, at its far end, by servants. Guest rooms were in the Annex.
On the other side of the hall, facing away from the river, was Mr. Cutting's study (the door on the right in the image below). In 1910, Cutting's son Bayard Jr. died in Egypt at the age of 32. Two years later, his second son Bronson fell gravely ill in New Mexico. The worried father boarded a train to be with him. The son recovered but on the way home the father had a heart attack and died. Bayard Cutting was 62 years old. Eventually Mrs. James joined her widowed mother at Westbrook, where the two ladies lived a quiet orderly life in an overstaffed house filled with flowers from 4 greenhouses, surrounded by raked drives, shaped bushes, specimen trees and hundreds of acres of manicured lawns.
The north end of the second floor contains one more family bedroom before entering maids' quarters.
Let's retrace our steps south from the maids' rooms ...
... continue past the family's rooms ...
... until we arrive at the main stair, which is also the indoor entrance to the Annex.
The Annex is literally a separate building. Entertaining rooms are on the first floor, guestrooms on the second, and visiting servants' are up on 3. After her husband's death in 1912, Mrs. Cutting closed the Annex and never used it again. Once a year, a team of 4 house cleaners was dispatched to mop, dust and vacuum, after which the rooms were closed again for another year.
The Annex stair leads down to, among other things, a billiard room and what I'm guessing was a smoking room.
The same stair leads up to a third floor with rooms for visiting servants.
The attic over the main part of the house is partly finished with a few more servants' rooms.
Time to head down for my obligatory look at the boiler room. And, OK, I saw it.
In the decade-or-so before 1900, three great estates, the equal of any in the nation, were developed in the orbit of the South Side Club. They set a high bar at Oakdale and shed considerable glamor on every property nearby. Then World War I, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, changing tastes, urban sprawl and the income tax came along. When 94-year-old Mrs. Cutting died at Westbrook in 1949, Willie Vanderbilt's Idle Hour was already into its second wave of subdivision and Fredrick Bourne's Indian Neck Hall had been operating as a military academy since 1926.

In 1952, when Mrs. James handed Robert Moses the keys to Westbrook, the South Side Club was still limping along and the neighborhood hadn't yet been completely covered with split levels, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. The club went under in 1973, and its thousands of open acres became the Connetquot State Park. Combined with the Cutting estate, a great swath of open land has been preserved in an area otherwise as intensely developed as suburban Queens.
Edith Wharton once observed, apropos of New York's often dull Knickerbocracy, that they at least knew how to "do the thing handsomely." Bayard Cutting's country place is the thing done handsomely. Today's Bayard Cutting Arboretum, as Mrs. James put it, exists "to provide an oasis of beauty and quiet for the pleasure, rest and refreshment of those who delight in outdoor beauty." The link is www.bayardcuttingarboretum.com
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