Thursday, February 7, 2008

Adam Patch of Tarrytown

In Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned, Anthony Patch wastes his youth waiting for his grandfather to die and leave him his millions. But old Adam "Cross" Patch is stubborn and lives a long life, spent secluded in his Tarrytown estate devising ways to promote prohibition and other unpopular moral standards. When he does die, he leaves all the money to his caretaker.

Having just finished the book, which is of course excellent, I found myself coincidentally travelling to Tarrytown to see the mansion Lyndhurst, where a robber baron such as Adam Patch really lived.

Lyndhurst was built in 1838, a fashion-forward example of what we now call Gothic Revival style. Designed to look like a medieval castle, its asymmetry, abundance of tracery, and superfluous details was refreshing, and soon embraced by a population bored with the clean lines of Federal architecture. The house is gorgeous by any standards, even on a cold February day (unlike the photograph) when it stood stark and grey against a stormy sky and framed by bare grey-branched trees, above the silvery Hudson River.

One of the most remarkable things about this house is that it was one of the first instances in America of interior design. The architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, not only designed the outer structure, but conceived of the furniture, wall decorations, windows, floors, etc. Following the gothic theme, the house has enchanting stained glass windows, buttressed ceilings, and furniture that evokes the days of King Arthur. Before horror-vacui took over and filled late-Victorian homes with boatloads of knick-knacks, houses such as this displayed a pleasing abundance of wealth, while still maintaining a tasteful reserve. It is a jewel.

And yet, it is all theater. The people who lived there were not medieval lords and ladies, but glorified farmers and merchants. Their medeival castle was the product of rosy imagination, built in the true American spirit of do-it-yourself destiny. The marble entrance hall, upon close inspection, is wood painted to look like marble; the heavy oak-beamed ceilings are plaster painted to look like wood. The whole thing built for show, on a whim, to buy a sort of chivalry, if that were even possible.

"I'm sick of all this shoddy realism," exclaims Anthony Patch, in the novel, and he can never understand his grandfather's generation or the value of the work and money that got him where he was. But in a way, if he was anything like the men who built Lyndhurst, maybe old Adam Patch had more in common with his grandson Anthony than either of them thought.

No comments: