The grand mansion which inspired an entire generation of Manhattan socialites, lies forgotten and decaying in the Hudson River Valley.
The first glimpse you get is of the steeple, just a fraction higher than the tree line of the surrounding forest. As we walk further along the overgrown path, you can begin to see that underneath the steeple, is the hulking, red brick ruin of what was once, a grand mansion, lying forgotten in the woods. We walk past the remnants of a tennis court, the net sagging and entwined with weeds — once this house was so luxurious, there were underground pipes that would deliver to the players on the court, glasses of cold beer.
We’ve come to the woods alongside the banks of the Hudson River, about forty minutes walk along the old Mill Road, south of the sleepy hamlet of Rhinecliff, to search for a relic from a bygone age. An age when the grand families of New York high society started to built vast mansions along the Hudson River Valley; families such as the Rockefellers, Goulds, Astors and Vanderbilts. The ruined house we’re looking for is special however, because it was the first.
Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones was by all accounts, a formidable woman, the archetypal Victorian matriarch, dressed neck to toe in formal black. A cousin to the Astors, Aunt to Edith Wharton, she occupied a large space in the upper echelons of Manhattan high society. Edith Wharton described her father’s unmarried sister as, “A ramrod-backed old lady compounded of steel and granite.”
In 1853, Elizabeth built for herself a grandiose, twenty-four room, Gothic mansion. But rather than set up her lavish residence near her peers — alongside the other mansions and townhouses that thronged Fifth Avenue – she decided to do the unthinkable; she left Manhattan.
Schermerhorn Jones bought up eighty acres of land overlooking the Hudson River, about a hundred miles north of the city. She called her imposing Victorian castle ‘Wyndcliffe’, and it soon inspired a fashion among her wealthy contemporaries to build their own palatial mansions along the river. But Elizabeth’s was the first and the grandest, and is thought to be the inspiration for the phrase ‘to keep up with the Joneses’.
But Elizabeth’s mansion was far from an idyllic, country stately home; it was a harsh, Gothic looking edifice. As we walk up to the remnants of the house — the slate roof caved in and the brick walls steadily tumbling down — we step into a haunting ruin, that wouldn’t look out of place in a novel by Daphne du Maurier.
No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn…….Nature had come into her own again, and little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace in the past, had triumphed in the end…….There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it always had been……As I stood there, hushed and still, I could swear that the house was not an empty shell, but lived and breathed as it had lived before.
– Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, 1938.
The house certainly terrified the young Edith Wharton, who dreaded visiting her aunt in the woods; “the effect of terror produced by the house……was no doubt due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness. I can still remember hating everything….…I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granite exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff.”
– Edith Wharton A Backward Glance, 1933.
Today, the mansion is a precarious ruin. Whole brick walls have fallen down, swallowed up by the dense undergrowth. The ornate wrap around porch is half hidden by ivy. Stepping inside, the first floor has disappeared, leaving lavish carved wooden staircases suspended in mid air, the upper rooms still lined with rotted dark wooden paneling. Turrets and fallen Greek columns lie alongside doors torn off their hinges, giving a glimpse of the old library room behind.
It’s hard to think there were ever lavish cocktail parties here, this was more the formal manse of a dour Victorian dowager. Edith Wharton wrote of an episode in her aunt’s childhood, which gives us some idea of who once walked these halls;
“Elizabeth had been threatened in her youth with the consumption which had already carried off a brother and sister……when Elizabeth in her turn began to pine, her parents…..shut her up on October in her bedroom in the New York house on Mercer Street, lit the fire, sealed up the windows, and did not let her out again until the following June.”
Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones never married, after her death, the subsequent owners fell foul of the Great Depression and the mansion was abandoned for good nearly seventy years ago. In 2016 it was sold at auction for just $120,000, but the once grand mansion that inspired a generation of property tycoons lies in such ruin, that it is likely to be demolished. Until then, it lies empty like a latter day Manderley, its views of the Hudson River forever obscured by the overgrown forest.