Houses and Estates in Ulster County New York: The Architectural History and Guide Book

An exhaustive guide to Ulster County architecture turns up a few surprises

In the introduction to his 300-plus page tome Ulster County New York: The Architectural History & Guide (Black Dome Press, $24.95), author William B. Rhoads writes, “Some of Ulster’s landmarks, like the early stone houses of Kingston, Hurley, and New Paltz, are relatively well known, but many others — ranging from brick houses in the Federal style to Gothic Revival churches, Arts and Crafts summer colonies, Colonial Revival libraries, and Bauhaus-influenced modern houses — have not received the attention they deserve.” In lively and entertaining prose, Rhoads, a professor of art history at SUNY New Paltz, expertly remedies our lack of knowledge.

Below, we excerpt Rhoads’s description of the little-known Payne Estate on Route 9W in Esopus. Built by the same architects responsible for the New York Public Library, it is Ulster County’s answer to the grand mansions of Long Island and Westchester. But whether it’s the section on the Gothic-style Wallkill State Prison or the school buses transformed into cottages, you’ll want to read more; the quirky charm of Ulster County shines through page after page.

Seekers of Great Estates should travel across the Hudson to Dutchess County or journey to Newport, Rhode Island. Ulster County was not favored by the plutocrats of 1900. Still, Ulster retains one showplace built for a robber baron of the period, Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne (1839-1917), and designed by a leading New York architectural firm, Carrere & Hastings… Colonel Payne, a Civil War veteran and self-described capitalist, made a fortune in iron, oil, and tobacco in Cleveland and New York. He was best known for his association with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, but in 1913, late in his life, he was described as enjoying “the seclusion afforded by a carefully sheltered bachelor life.”

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saugerties librarySaugerties Library: Built between 1914 and 1916 with funds from Andrew Carnegie, the Saugerties Public Library was constructed in a classical style. “The south wall of what was the Children’s Room is still enhanced by an important work of art, a fireplace faced with tiles illustrating Washington Irving’s tale of Rip Van Winkle, designed by Henry Chapman Mercer and made at his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania,” writes Rhoads

The gatehouse on Rte. 9W alerts the visitor to the refined good taste of Colonel Payne and his architects. The early Italian Renaissance is suggested in the semicircular arches resting on unfluted columns. The red tile roof and classical door and window frames also refer to Italy and its Renaissance of classical antiquity. Passing through the gate, two outbuildings appear that were once joined by a greenhouse, all designed by Carrere & Hastings. (Colonel Payne also had a formal flower garden and rock garden.) The larger of the two buildings was the gardener’s cottage, with living quarters on the upper two floors and white-tiled halls for garden and floral work on the ground floor. While the two structures resemble the gatehouse in their smooth, light-toned limestone walls and tile roofs, they are picturesque, not classical, in their steep roofs, asymmetry (notably of the turret and dormers of the gardener’s cottage), and lack of classical ornament. The cottage is reminiscent of a miniature French chateau of the late Middle Ages. Just beyond the farther and smaller of these two outbuildings are gates and a drive leading to the entrance façade of Colonel Payne’s mansion.

The gatehouse on Rte. 9W alerts the visitor to the refined good taste of Colonel Payne and his architects

The Payne mansion replaced Waldorf, John Jacob Astor III’s somewhat less grand Renaissance-style residence that was razed in 1910. Colonel Payne’s façade is a stately and restrained interpretation of 16th-century Italian Renaissance palaces. Architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt relates the Payne mansion to “the most exalted Italian Renaissance masters — Bramante, Vignola, Sansovino, and Palladio.” The low tile roof accords with the gatehouse, but the overall massing is comparable to the firm’s greatest work, the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue (1897–1911), although on a smaller scale. While finely detailed and crafted, Colonel Payne’s residence lacks the grandeur of the earlier F. W. Vanderbilt mansion with its four giant, two-story porticos across the river in Hyde Park. Payne’s richest portico — six single-story Ionic columns set between rugged arched pavilions — faces east and is fronted by a balustraded terrace overlooking the river. Steamboat travelers were presumably impressed by this terrace and portico. They had no glimpse, however, of the enclosed courtyard at the center of the mansion fitted with a fountain and recessed loggias adorned with frescoes. And few would see the opulent interior, or Payne’s collection of fine paintings including works by Rubens, Turner, and Courbet (the colonel’s Venus and Adonis by Rubens is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Raymond A. Rich, an industrialist and business leader, purchased the mansion in 1986; in 2009 it was announced that Rich had bequeathed the mansion and 60 acres to Marist College, which will operate it as the Raymond A. Rich Institute, focusing “on developing the communication, interpersonal and social skills necessary to lead complex organizations in a global setting.”


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payne boathouseFree sailing: The Payne boathouse is a rare survivor of its type on the river

A little north of the former gardener’s cottage and greenhouse appear other outbuildings grouped around a rectangular court. Colonel Payne’s stable, carriage house, and garage were located here, as well as housing for employees. Some of the structures were built to serve the earlier Pratt estate, notably the house at the southeast corner of the court, which was the home of Mrs. Pratt’s superintendent. The residence of Anna Pratt, widow of historian and Civil War hero Colonel George W. Pratt, stands just to the east of these outbuildings. The Pratt house — with porte cochère and lower story of stone, and upper story of shingles curving out over the first story — is characteristic of the late 19th-century Queen Anne style. In 1913 it became the residence of Payne’s superintendent, John Burroughs’s son Julian and his family. Julian had grown up at Riverby and in 1902 had built his own house there, a little south of the colonel’s place. Julian and his family were accustomed to Spartan quarters at Riverby (daughter Elizabeth recalled its outhouse and hand pump in the kitchen). On moving into the Pratt house, Julian wrote his father that they were “enjoying the advantages of electricity, bath rooms & toilets on every floor, three on the second floor alone, oceans of room & all that.”

Julian Burroughs, without professional architectural training, was able to convince his employer to allow him to function as architect and contractor for several building projects including a poultry plant with manager’s cottage built of native stone, and an elegant boathouse. Payne was an ardent yachtsman; the staterooms of his steam-powered ocean-going yacht, the Aphrodite, were designed by renowned architect Stanford White, and in 1913 Carrere & Hastings designed a boathouse and garden pavilion for the colonel. 

It was Julian Burroughs, however, who actually designed and oversaw construction of the stone boathouse (1914-1915) for the Aphrodite’s launch. Her master, Captain Charles W. Scott, made a sketch of the proposed dock and boathouse as a basis for Julian’s design. Julian wrote his parents excitedly in 1914 about his grand plans for the boathouse: “I think about the boat house a good deal and if they let me build it my way it will be some boat house, I will make a steel and concrete roof covered with imperial red Spanish tile, the doors and windows and cornice will be of bronze, there will be a balcony on south end and east side with a bronze railing which I will design, inside I will have a faience wainscot with motifs of the Hudson done in colors by the Rookwood Pottery Company, the floors will be stone, there will be an inside balcony with a hand wrought iron railing, etc, etc. The concrete ceiling I will panel in oak. I am not estimating the cost but the picture wainscot of tile will alone cost $2000. My old head buzzes like a bee — I can shut my eyes any time and see patterns for railings, ceilings, designs for doors, etc., etc.” 

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wallkill state prisonWallkill State Prison: “The prison at Wallkill was meant to resemble multigabled Gothic college dormitories, and the wooden doors to the cells, each occupied by just one inmate, were unlocked,” writes Rhoads about the Norman-style building on Route 208, which was erected in the early 1930s. “Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt took an active interest in shepherding the construction of the prison through the state bureaucracy, and he attended its opening in 1932. When president in 1934, he and Eleanor Roosevelt went by auto from Hyde Park to inspect the completed institution whose slogan, ‘rehabilitation through education,’ would have appealed to both Roosevelts”

Burroughs became accustomed to spending freely on the colonel’s projects, and on most design issues he also had a free hand. Payne’s trusted assistant, Emma Larson, wrote Burroughs about the boathouse: “do… as you think best. We can not help you because we do not know anything about architecture.” However, there were limits to the client’s tolerance for useless expense, and he did veto balconies on the east side and on the interior.

The boathouse, a rare survivor of its type on the river, is neither Italian Renaissance nor rustic, but somewhere between the two. A four-column classical portico with ornamental frieze graces the south façade, and the red tile roof also ties the building to earlier Carrere & Hastings buildings on the estate. But the textured stone walls and broadly projecting roof supported by brackets connect to the qualities of craftsmanship and solidity associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Inside, tile wainscoting was interrupted by a fireplace of dubious practical value. Tiles painted with a seascape and historic sailing vessels, perhaps by the renowned Arts and Crafts tile maker, Rookwood Pottery, face the wall over the fireplace. An iron grill with a delicately worked peacock standing on a post functioned as a gate at the boat entrance; the peacock is repeated on a smaller scale in the railing over the south portico. Near the boathouse is an octagonal stone summerhouse with red tile roof, also built under Julian’s supervision in 1915. 

Colonel Payne’s nephew, Harry Payne Bingham, inherited the estate in 1917. During the Depression, in 1933, he gave the deteriorating 484-acre property to the New York Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society for a “convalescent and work-training centre for men and boys.” The center, named Wiltwyck, was transformed from “the glorification of past elegance and vast expenditure upon luxury” to “an equally vast service to unemployed men and boys and convalescent boys.” The mansion’s “great salon” became the institution’s chapel. In 1937 the mission formed a school for neglected and delinquent black Protestant boys. In 1942 the school became more inclusive and was incorporated as the Wiltwyck School for Boys; its leaders included Eleanor Roosevelt, and its alumni included boxing champion Floyd Patterson. In 1942 Marist Brothers purchased the part of the estate between Rte. 9W and the Hudson for a preparatory school and later a retreat center. They carried out a number of alterations and additions, some designed by John Allan Ahlers about 1950.

William Rhoads speaks about his book at the following locations:

July 8, 4 p.m. The Beacon Institute for Rivers & Estuaries, Beacon
July 13, 7:30 p.m. Mountain Top Historical Society (in the train station), Haines Falls
July 18, 7 p.m. Hudson River Maritime Museum, Kingston 
July 29, 3 p.m. Maple Grove Historic Estate, Poughkeepsie

» See the sights of Ulster County’s towns


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