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Big Old Houses: A New Jersey Orchid

Big Old Houses: A New Jersey Orchid
by John Foreman


This is the gate to Monmouth University's north campus, located on Cedar Avenue in West Long Branch, NJ. Monmouth owns two major houses in West Long Branch — Shadow Lawn, the subject of my last 2 posts, and the beautiful Beaux Arts house we're visiting today.

Here's the same gate a hundred years ago, before architectural stretch marks (pillars pried apart for dual traffic lanes), suburban sprawl and the departure of fickle fashion. Also departed: some very good ironwork surrounding the initials "MG," which stood for Murry Guggenheim. Oddly, there was never an "a" in Murry.
Mr. Guggenheim and his brother Daniel were summer residents of the Jersey Shore. Murry (1858-1939) was in then fashionable West Long Branch; his brother Daniel (1856-1930) was in nearby Elberon.
For this house in 1905, Mr. Guggenheim's socially well connected architects, Carrere and Hastings, won a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects for the "best country home erected in the year."
The house is gorgeous, although the lake, which no longer exists, looks a little malarial. The seaside city of Long Branch, incorporated in 1867, was fashionable for a while, but it never lived up to houses like this, of which there were only two — this one and the aforementioned Shadow Lawn.
Twenty years after incorporating, the Long Branch beachfront began to get a little rowdy. In the mid-1880s, Norman L. Munro, a New York publisher with a yen for real estate speculation, developed a club-and-cottage colony located away from the beach called Norwood Park. Munro pitched Norwood to a better class of resort-goer who liked the reputation, if not the actual reality, of the so-called resort of presidents. Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, McKinley and eventually Woodrow Wilson all made celebrated visits to Long Branch. There is today in this town a public beach called Seven Presidents Park.
The anchor of Norwood Park was Munro's own bulky Victorian house, called Normahurst. The rest of the Park, interestingly, consisted of Munro-owned rental cottages, of the 2500- to 3000-square foot Victorian persuasion, plus a collection of short-lived amenities like a golf course, clubhouse and even a race track. The whole thing lasted barely 15 years before Munro's heirs began selling it off. Twelve surviving cottages coexist today with mid-century modern ranches and modern educational buildings.
And then there's the Guggenheim place, an anomaly when it was built and even more of one today. Normahurst burned in 1902 and the following year Murry Guggenheim, third of six surviving sons of metals billionaire Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905), bought the land for $50,000, hired Carrere and Hastings, and by 1905 the new house was up.
From certain angles, it looks like it's come through the years pretty well.
The last Guggenheim to spend the summer in Long Branch was Murry's widow Leonie, who died in 1959. In 1961 the Guggenheim family gave the house to Monmouth, after which it became the campus library. In 2007 the university completed a $14.4 million "restoration" and enlargement, from plans drawn by the New York firm of Einhorn Yaffe Prescott. Now, some people use the word "restoration" rather more freely than they should. I would argue that the use of the term here is a case in point.
Wide french doors from the dining room, drawing room and billiard room open onto a lawn terrace embraced on either side by matching curved arcades. I don't like those "ice cream parlor" awnings on the second floor one bit. They're inauthentic and clutter up the south facade.
The lagoon out front is a thing of the past, which is no great loss. But what's that lurking behind the building on the right? I think I hear the theme from "Jaws."
The "restoration" of 2007 was one part "restoration" and ten parts construction of an over-scaled and infelicitous wing that has ruined the proportions of Carrere and Hastings' original design. Increased space in the library was no doubt needed, but it should have been provided in a separate building. "What is proposed," said Prince Charles, apropos of a 1984 plan to enlarge the National Gallery in London, "is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend."
The original front door was on the north side of the house, under a porte cochere at the end of a planned approach. "Beaux Arts" is not a style but a label, one properly applied to artistic and functional plans as taught by the Ecole. You could say the Chrysler Building is as much a Beaux Arts design as the Paris Opera House. Both reflect dignified and readily comprehensible solutions to intended use, proper approach, coherent circulation and appropriate decoration.
There were also gardens on the north side of the house. A single headless statue remains.
What no longer remains is the original driveway, now blocked by the back side of the new wing. As a result, the front door is permanently locked and Carrere and Hastings' well planned entrance and interior circulation patterns have been destroyed.
Instead of using the front door, the Einhorn Yaffe plan directs visitors across the former kitchen courtyard, now a small parking lot, after which they must figure out where exactly the library entrance might be. It turns out to be backwards down the western arcade, then through a former french window into the dining room.
Let's enter the house as it was meant to be entered, through the front door.
The Guggenheims were second only to the Rothschilds among the world's richest and most powerful families. By 1901 the American Smelting and Refining Company, a trust run by Meyer Guggenheim's sons, controlled the world's supplies of copper, tin and bauxite, from mines in Bolivia, Congo, Alaska, Utah, Colorado and Chile. Murry went to work for his father at the age of 23 and, like his brothers, eventually became a significant philanthropist.

Murry Guggenheim.
The Guggenheims supported causes as diverse as hospital wings, French education, dentistry for the poor, public botanical gardens, and aeronautical pioneering.

After their father's death in 1905, Murry's brother Daniel (1856-1930) became the face of the family empire. A man eulogized by the New York Times as an "ardent humanitarian," he was also a hard employer.

In 1916 he locked striking Alaskan miners out of their bunkhouses in minus-30 degree weather; in 1912 a Perth Amboy strike ended when 4 strikers were shot. Gifford Pinchot repeatedly battled the Guggenheims — without much luck, it should be noted — as a result of their wanton disregard for conservation principles on U.S. owned land. During World War One, President Wilson threatened to nationalize Guggenheim mines if they didn't lower their exorbitant prices.

In 1912 Murry's brother Daniel abandoned the Jersey Shore for the north shore of Long Island, buying a Sands Point mansion and renaming it Hempstead House. Murry, however, remained loyal to West Long Branch, as did his widow, until her death in 1959.
Carrere and Hastings' 1st floor plan is elegant and simple. Kitchen and servant hall are close to the dining room; male servants' rooms are adjacent to, but separated from, the main rooms; all main rooms are easily accessible from a central hallway overlooking a sunken entrance lobby. (Maids' rooms are upstairs and on the other side of the house).
The entrance lobby was the first thing Guggenheim visitors saw when they walked inside. Besides being beautiful it provided a comprehensible point of departure from which the entire house could be understood and accessed. It's now become a cul de sac with a self-service snack bar.
On the east side of the entrance hall, stairs lead up to a circular reception room.
The image below shows the marble floored main hall looking west. It's lined with fluted Ionic column whose capitals have little Versailles pendents. The door in the distance leads to the kitchen suite and would have been kept closed, as would the door to the male servants' wing, which is behind the camera.
The billiard room is paneled in chestnut, not my favorite wood, I'll admit, since it looks a lot like ordinary wide-grained red oak. The be-palmed and be-wickered vintage view shows the east arcade looking back toward the billiard room. The wallpaper in the 2nd vintage view is about as appealing as the chestnut paneling.
The walnut paneled drawing room, or living room on the plan, is pure heaven. The best room in the house, unfortunately, is overwhelmed by an out of proportion circulation desk.
At the west end of the drawing room is a door to the dining room, and in the dining room, through a former french door next to the fireplace, is the entrance to the university's "new" library. It's hard to imagine a circulation plan more at cross purposes with the original design.
The swing door to the serving pantry is still there, but to get to the kitchen suite we're going out to the main hall and taking a sharp left.
Shadow Lawn is full of preserved non-functioning architectural fabric, but the Guggenheim house is not. Of the original pantry, not a shred remains. The former kitchen and servant hall were gutted as well. Are they really more usable now?
The original door at the east end of the main hall has been removed and the opening widened. The servants' rooms that lay beyond have been replaced by a modern lobby for the new wing.
Time to go upstairs.
The image below shows the 2nd floor hall, or "gallery" as it's labeled on the plan. Family bedrooms were on the south or right side; guest rooms were on the north or left. The owners' bedroom was through the door partially visible on the extreme right.
The owners' bedroom originally had two en suite baths. The larger was demolished together with the 2nd floor maids' rooms, and the door to it was walled over.
Whatever you might say about the library's clumsy new circulation patterns or its damaged exterior proportions, the architectural envelopes of the main rooms have received a quality restoration. The old bathrooms, not surprisingly, were deemed to have no value.
Although every bit as fine as the drawing room below, Mrs. Guggenheim's boudoir seems to have been overlooked in the "restoration." I don't know who slopped paint on the mirrored doors but, given a $14.4 million budget, you'd think somebody would have scraped it off.
Daughter Lucille's bedroom used to look like this.
Her room and its adjoining study are intact and in excellent shape.
Son Edmund's suite — bedroom, bath and study — occupied the second floor of the east wing, over the male servants' rooms. His suite has been combined into one big room. The east facing windows now overlook the floor of the new library wing below.
Let's leave Edmund's former suite, cross the storeroom hall, and peek into one of the north facing guestrooms. Its walls are glass smooth; its fireplace intact; it makes a good office.
In the image below, we're looking west down the second floor hall. The doors on the right once led to a pair of guestrooms with bath in between. They've been combined today into climate controlled stacks.
The basement is predictably perfect. Having pretended to have come in by the original front door, I will now pretend to leave by it.
According to the Business Section of Atlanticville in April, 2003, "The elegant mansion that became the Murry and Leonie Guggenheim Memorial Library ... will be restored to its original beaux-arts beauty ... under a $14.4 million project now under way." Per the construction contractor, "It will be fun. It will be a challenge." Library dean Jean Schoenthaler stressed that "the integrity of the mansion's original design will be protected in the makeover." After all, in the words of Monmouth president Rebecca Stafford, "The library should be the heart and soul of any university." The most improbable observation, however, appeared in the New York Times on March 23, 2003. "It will be like guests coming to dinner at the Guggenheims," said alteration architect Patrick Curley.
Let me end on a lighter note. Did you know Dorothy Parker was born in Long Branch? Or that Frederick Douglass lived here, until his house burned down? Or that Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born to Run" in a Long Branch rental? Neither did I.
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