This 1833 portrait by Samuel F.B. Morse depicts Clarke with Hyde Hall in the background

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.

 

Tell us about the building in your community that you think needs saving.

 


by Mitchell Owens

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Dr Carol

Just love Hyde Hall and am so enthralled with the Clark family history. I live in the area of Canajoharie NY. Would like to see the ” what was West hill School” on the corner of Cliff Street and Otsego street noted as being restored and reserved! Do not know if someone owns it, but nothing is being done and it has so much history! No one lives init, anyway. I went to school there myself until third grade and then on the East Hill and then the High School next to library ( but it is a parking lot now) Susan B. Anthony, taught school at the West Hill School and have so many great memories, and am positive many more do too!. Lived across the street, and would spend many evenings playing with village children on swing sets etc, until 9PM ,when my mom would call my brother and I in for the night! My mom went to school there too, but the second floor was in condition yet at that time and so she went to more grades at that school than I did. Also the Stone House in Palatine Bridge is up for sale and if the price could be made right and it could be restored i know that much history could be found! It was a restaurant before the last person took it over and bought it up at auction, but never did anything with it.They do not live in this area but the real estate agent is now in charge. It could be so many things. A live in Bed and Breakfast, Rest Home for elderly, or just a historic home for tours and history to be researched and told. I am sure it is haunted though. Saw a picture of it online and near the stairs there seemed to be many, many orbs and just have been in it for dinner at Christmas when it was a restaurant and could feel it. Not saying it is bad vibes, but something is going on! Quite interesting for a lovely home and lots of land! Can see Water Fountains with statues , and guess i have an ” active imagination still at 65 yrs old! LOL Just no money! It makes me sick to see these lovely stone homes just falling down ,when we know they have so much history to offer!

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Herman

Beautiful interior and furniture, and decoration. Exquisite, really; but also very functional it seems.

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Mitchell Owens

Do buy tickets for the 6 August Hyde Hall gala and the award presentation in honor of Josh and Brent if you're in the area! Even if you're not, donations are always appreciated and go toward a good cause!

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Cathy

How awesome – congratulations on being the first recipients of the Anne Hyde Clarke Logan Cultural Preservation Award!

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Kate Pollack

I am a historic/genealogical researcher based in Syracuse working on several upstate NY families. I was so pleased to see this article shared today by the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica. Philip Hooker designed a few of the houses I am researching- Miller-Conkling-Kernan house in Utica (which I worked in for a month with an antiques company-beautiful interior with original Zuber wallpaper), Lorenzo Mansion (possibly) in Cazenovia, among others. Great photos! I would love to see Hyde Hall. An interesting style for Hooker that I haven't seen before. I recognized some details that Hooker utilizes in the other houses. The interior shots of Hyde Hall remind me of the house in Utica very much. Unfortunately, this house is not open to the public and needs much work, but I hope to see it someday be fully restored.

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Jenn D

My first job was cleaning Hyde Hall. My girl scout troop volunteered to work so many house to help clean for our GS Silver award. After we were finished, I stayed and cleaned during the summer. I fond memories of that summer and have loved to see the progress as the home has been restored over the years.

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Catherine Hayley

There is a home on Union Avenue known as the 19th Century Club. The club was the first women's philanthropic organization in Memphis. The home is one of the last remaining grand homes that once lined Union, but it now lies among strip shopping centers and fast food restaurants. Sadly, the club has not been able to maintain the home and has put it up for sale. I fear that the low asking price will attract people only interested in the land rather than a preservationist. Here is a story about the home going up for sale:
http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/jul/01/

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