Since childhood I’ve been obsessed with historic houses, whether modest or magnificent. Much of this passion has to do with the intriguing stories old houses have to tell—after all, one can swoon over a building’s architectural style but the narrative behind its creation is what gives it life. Which explains why I fell madly in love with Hyde Hall in Springfield, New York, ten years ago, not long after I moved to nearby Sharon Springs, and why I’m a passionate member of its board of trustees. The story of the house—located about eight miles from Cooperstown—is as varied. (It was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s by a group of determined local preservationists.)
Constructed in stages between 1817 and 1834, Hyde Hall is one of the three or four greatest buildings in America of its time. But don’t take my word for it. That was the opinion of Brendan Gill, architecture critic and longtime columnist for The New Yorker, and he made that observation with good reason. Hyde Hall sits on a wooded promontory overlooking Otsego Lake—an indescribably lovely body of water that James Fenimore Cooper lyrically called Glimmerglass—like an ancient Greek temple wrought in pale gray limestone, with broad, shallow steps leading to a portico supported by towering fluted columns. It is rugged, powerful, even imperious, characteristics that also could be applied to its builder, George Clarke (1768-1835), heir to a British colonial governor who amassed 120,000 American acres to complement the family’s extensive estates in England and Jamaica.
That international network of landholdings required an appropriate centerpiece, so Clarke commissioned Albany’s most fashionable architect, Philip Hooker (1766-1836), to design a residence that would be named for his family seat in England. What began as a somewhat modest country cottage with a welcoming veranda, however, grew into a 50-room mansion outfitted with the finest furnishings money could buy. Clarke hired Albany’s leading upholsterer, Peter Morange, to dress its grand rooms in ruby-red damask and lemon-yellow silk and bought scores of Grecian-style mahogany chairs, tables, and beds from cabinetmaker John Meads. He ordered services of handpainted Old Paris porcelain for dining and purchased one of the most important paintings of the day, Samuel F.B. Morse’s enormous “Gallery of the Louvre.” Clarke, who was born in France and counted leading Bordeaux merchants among his cousins, also stocked his wine cellar with impressive French vintages and ordered choice ingredients from Europe and the Caribbean for the kitchen.
These costly acquisitions, and many more, bolstered George Clarke’s reputation as a man of the world. They also established Hyde Hall as central New York State’s most glamorous residence, a paradise of style in what was then a virtual wilderness. But in addition to its contents, the mansion was home to five generations of fascinating Clarkes, among them George the Builder (who also happened to be a bigamist), George the Landowner (his lust for acreage bankrupted the family fortune), and George the Gentleman Farmer (whose rich mother-in-law saved the house and much of its original contents). Four Titanic survivors and a co-founder of the Girl Scouts perch on branches of the family tree too. Though the Clarkes gave up their spectacular estate in the 1960s—few fortunes last forever—the house their ancestor built endures. While the restoration of its interiors is still in a work in progress, Hyde Hall represents today what it did for much of the 19th century: an unexpected embodiment of British country living in the heart of the Empire State.
During its annual fundraising dinner-dance on Saturday, 6 August 2011, Hyde Hall and its board of trustees will present the first Anne Hyde Clarke Logan Cultural Preservation Award to Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge for their efforts in preserving, promoting, and supporting the traditions of country life. For information about the French-theme gala and to order tickets ($175 each), click here for details
Mitchell Owens is the special projects editor of Architectural Digest, author of “In House” (Rizzoli, 2009), and co-author of “Charlotte Moss Decorates” (Rizzoli, 2011) . He and his husband, Matthew Zwissler, and their daughter, Catherine, divide their time between an apartment in Cooperstown and an 1801 Federal farmhouse in Sharon Springs, where they have four cats, two dogs, 20 chickens, two turkeys, three guinea hens, and a pair of skunks who have taken up residence beneath the hen house. He also leads the historic village tours of Sharon Springs during the Garden Party Festival in the Spring and the Harvest Festival in September.
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