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John Thorn
John Thorn
John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, thinks and writes about other subjects, too. Sometimes he writes about football, sometimes about New York history, and sometimes about arts and letters, especially of the nineteenth century. He resides in Catskill, New York.


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Hudson River Bracketed

Feb. 20, 2012 4:23 pm
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Public Domain

Hudson River Bracketed, Edith Wharton, 1929

Several years back, I received an email from Tom Rinaldi, one of the proprietors of the wonderful website, to which I direct you as soon as you have finished reading this. He had read and enjoyed some of my architectural essays, such as those on Downing, Davis, and Vaux.

“I have a quick question and you seemed like just the person to ask,” Tom wrote. “Where did Edith Wharton get that Downing quote that she used as the front piece for Hudson River Bracketed? The one that goes something like ‘AJ Downing identified four types of architecture—gothic...and the Hudson River Bracketed.’ I imagine it was in the Horticulturist or in one his books but I wondered if you might have a specific citation.”

I did not have a ready answer, but I thought I ought to find one. I regarded myself as something of an expert on Downing, or at least a first-class buff (see “Try a Little Wilderness”). Anyway, this kind of bibliographic sleuthing is fun, and it called upon all the bloodhound traits I had honed in hunting oldtime baseball players to their lairs.

After some digging I was able to reply to Tom: “Checked out your site and it is great. As to Ms. Wharton, she identified five styles in her epigraph”:

A. J. Downing, the American landscape architect, in his book on Landscape Gardening (published in 1842) divides the architectural styles into the Grecian, Chinese, Gothic, the Tuscan, or Italian villa, style, and the Hudson River Bracketed.

Wharton got the publication date wrong, I noted. It was 1841, and Downing’s book was properly titled:

A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. Adapted to North America; with a View to the Improvement of Country Residences.

But to my knowledge the phrase "Hudson River Bracketed" appeared nowhere in Downing’s writing.

What Downing actually wrote in this book [with my highlighting in bold] was:


Public Domain

The Swiss style, From Down's Landscape Gardening, 1841.

There is still an intermediate kind of architecture, originally a variation of the classical style, but which, in becoming adapted to different and more picturesque situations, has lost much of its graceful character, and has become quite picturesque in its outlines and effects. Of this kind are the Swiss and the bracketed cottage, and the different highly irregular forms of the Italian villa. The more simple and regular variations of these modes of building, may be introduced with good effect in any plain country; while the more irregular and artistical forms have the happiest effect only in more highly varied and suitable localities.

The Egyptian, one of the oldest architectural styles, characterized by its heavy colossal forms, and almost sublime expression, is supposed to have had its origin in caverns hewn in the rocks. The Chinese style, easily known by its waving lines, probably had its type in the eastern tent. The Saracenic, or Moorish style, rich in fanciful decoration,is striking and picturesque in its details, and is worthy of the attention of the wealthy amateur. [Frederick Church's Olana, designed with Calvert Vaux, must be considered the prize example.]

Neither of these styles, however, is, or can well be, thoroughly adapted to our domestic purposes, as they are wanting in fitness, and have comparatively few charms of association for residents of this country.

The Robinson Mausoleum, Egyptianate style, Old Town Cemetery, Newburgh, NY.

The only styles at present in common use for domestic architecture, throughout the enlightened portions of Europe and America, are the Grecian and Gothic styles, or some modifications of these two distinct kinds of building. These modifications, which of themselves are now considered styles by most authors, are, the Roman and modern Italian styles, which have grown out of Greek architecture; the Castellated, the Tudor, the Elizabethan, and the rural Gothic or old English cottage styles, all of which are variations of Gothic architecture.... A modification, partaking somewhat of the Italian and Swiss features, is what we have described more fully in our “Cottage Residences” as the Bracketed mode.


Public Domain

A. J. Downing, Cottage Residences, Design 6.

Here was the clue! What Edith Wharton had got wrong was not her publication date but her book. Landscape Gardening contained a valuable chapter on “Rural Architecture” that discussed the Bracketed style among the Tuscan, Castellated, Tudor, Elizabethan, and more, but it was basically a book about gardening. Cottage Residences was the book published in 1842, and its chapters were indeed titled as designs. Design VI, for example, is for “An Irregular Villa in the Italian Style, Bracketed.”

So there, dear readers, is the true derivation of an architect’s term devised by a novelist. "Hudson River Bracketed" today refers to a cottage style still prevalent in our region in which overhanging roofs and verandas receive plain rustic supports, whether required structurally or not, to declare their frankly rural character. This patent structuralism pointed the way to Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even the designs of the concrete-and-steel ballparks of the turn of the last century. No Grecian temples for Mr. Downing, though he did endorse the clean lines of the Tuscan villa and the romanticism of the Gothic or pointed style, made famous by his friend and delineator, architect Alexander Jackson Davis.

Only one building from a Downing plan survives today in the Hudson Valley: Culbert House (most recently known as the City Club) on Grand Street in Newburgh, but as an urban site it bears none of the rural features Downing (and Wharton) favored. But we do have a few such houses in Kingston; on the east bank of the Hudson River there is a notable Swiss Bracketed example tucked away on the Annandale Road to Bard College; and some splendid examples embellish Rhinebeck. Of the styles Wharton referenced in her epigraph, the Castellated or Tudor may be see at Sunnyside and Lyndurst in Tarrytown; the Tuscan may be seen at Martin Van Buren’s home in Kinderhook; and Egyptianate pylons are on display at the splendid mausoleum of Henry Robinson in Newburgh’s Old Town Cemetery on Grand Street, just a stone’s throw from Culbert House. If not Chinese, then perhaps Saracen or Moorish might be words to apply to Wilderstein, another architectural treasure just south of Rhinebeck, or to Olana, directly across the river from my home in Catskill. Grecian is everywhere, but one of my favorite residential constructions in this style is the the ca. 1840 Reverend Hoes house on Pearl Street in Kingston, maintained in fine style by its current occupant, a medical group.


Library of Congress, HABS.Public Domain

Wilderstein, outside Rhinebeck, NY.

However, if there is one building you must see now—today, before it is taken by the wind and the vandals, it is Hoyt House in Staatsburg. Commissioned by Lydig Munson Hoyt and his wife Blanche in 1853, it was designed in the year after Downing’s death by his surviving assistants, Calvert Vaux and F. C. Withers. A gingerbread cottage tucked into the woods but not far from a promontory overlooking the Hudson, the house remained in the Hoyt family for over a century until New York State, looking to establish a wide buffer around its newly acquired Ogden Mills Mansion, seized the Hoyt House by eminent domain in 1961, booting out the superannuated occupant but vowing to maintain the house for the public’s benefit. Why wouldn’t they? The cottage was an early Vaux masterpiece in the Italian Villa style that sprouted up like dandelions in the American landscape of the 1850s and ’60s.

Francis R. Kowsky wrote, in Country, Park, and City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux:

Hoyt House, Staatsburg, NY.

This magnificent dwelling now stands boarded up and silently communing with the river in a setting uncommonly lovely and remote. Fortunately, the State of New York (the present owner) is committed to restoring this masterpiece of High Victorian discourse between architecture and nature.

It is now fifty-one years since the building was seized. After no maintenance by the State in all that time except to board up windows after thieves stripped the house bare—even the copper plumbing pipes disappeared—Hoyt House was opened to bidding. Any private citizens who could demonstrate an ability to pay some $2 million in restoration expenses might have it. The rub was that the State was not selling the property, but only offering a 40-year lease, at the end of which title to the improved property would revert to the State. Some deal.

Hoyt House portico, Staatsburg, NY

Go to the Mills Mansion along Route 9 in Staatsburg, between Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, and stroll down the sloping back lawn, keeping to the left. Walk along the Hudson’s edge, into the woods and there it is—its skin stripped like that of an old buffalo, standing erect in its indictment.

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