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If These Walls Could Talk…

Born of the wealth and opulence of the late 1800s, Belle Haven is steeped in history. Over the years many of its grand dames have been renovated, rebuilt, restored and even moved. Here, the story of how the Belle Haven we know today came to be



Matt Bernard

photographs courtesy of matt bernard

As obsessions go, Matt Bernard’s fascination with Belle Haven, and in particular the history of the homes there, was harmless enough. It started small and fed upon itself, a sort of free-associating, freewheeling investigation that had no purpose other than to satisfy his curiosity. In a bottom-line world, Matt’s pursuit was refreshing, even endearing. But then, like the lady who takes in a kitty or two only to have tabbies pouring from her cupboards a few years later, things got a little out of hand.

It started with his own family’s home over on Byram Drive. Even in high school, Matt was intrigued by the “bizarre features” of the place. The main inner staircase, for example, ran headlong into the roof. The foundation revealed that the structure once sported a turret. And his was the only house in the neighborhood with a flat top. “People would come over,” Matt recalls, “they’d ask, ‘What happened to your house?’ It looks like it’s missing its roof.”

By the time he had finished his research, Matt knew not only what happened to that house, but the life and times of practically all the old houses in Belle Haven.

 

 

STORIES TO TELL
Over twenty years or more, in his spare time, Matt has compiled a prodigious amount of information about the homes that were built, renovated, torn down and moved somewhere else. Drawing on everything from old newspapers to long-forgotten real-estate files, he has filled several filing cabinets with a treasure trove of Belle Haven’s past, discovered mainly through its residences. “My interest originally was architectural, the design of the original individual cottages,” says Matt, who has lived in Mead Point for the past ten years and owns a Greenwich based real-estate business. “But then as I delved into the history of the houses it became evident that they were a by-product of the times when they were built, who lived there and the social and economic environment of the period.”

As any of its inhabitants will tell you, Belle Haven is captivating. From its perch overlooking Long Island Sound, its roots are that of a resort community, a summer escape for well-to-do New Yorkers. Like Tuxedo Park in New York, Belle Haven was a Victorian-era invention. First and last, it was a real-estate venture, brought forth in 1884 by Greenwich luminaries Thomas Mayo, Nathaniel Witherell and Robert Bruce; designed by Frederick Olmsted’s landscape architecture firm; and marketed as a “residence park” with shared amenities such as a casino, tennis club, bathing beach and pavilion.

“It was very much of its time,” says Rachel Carley, author of Building Greenwich; Architecture and Design, 1640 to Present. “This idea of a planned residential garden community where the streets were all laid out is reflective of the Picturesque movement. Belle Haven had a grid, but the main streets going through looped around in circles, and there were really no straight lines. That’s part of this whole idea of creating a naturalistic kind of landscape.”

Even when the place was thriving by the early 1900s, Belle Haven was far from static: Plans would be revised. Would-be parks, for example, and an existing golf course were redesignated for homes. Accomplished men and their families came and went.

What drove this perpetual renewal was economics, says Susan Richardson, former archivist for the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, who, like Matt, has conducted popular walking tours of the neighborhood: “Belle Haven has always been in flux, it seems to me, has always been changing itself, changing the individual houses, making them larger, making them smaller, depending on the economic climate, and tearing them down and building anew.”

HOW IT BEGAN
Matt was a senior at Greenwich High School, in the late seventies, when a couple of older women, sisters as it turned out, appeared at the Byram Drive house. In the 1920s this had been their home, they said, and they wondered if they could poke around. Soon after their visit, one of them sent along a photograph of the house in its original splendor. And though the picture resolved some of Matt’s questions, it raised others.

“It was so interesting because I couldn’t believe that someone would spend the time and energy to take off two floors, the turret and the sleeping porches and convert a Shingle-style house to a mock Federal with a flat roof,” he says. “You just wondered what inspired that, and why would they bother and not tear the whole thing down? And what were the reasons for these changes beyond what was stylistically in favor in the postwar period?”

So began his journey into Belle Haven’s past, and with it untold hours of gathering articles, records, plans, renderings, photos, postcards, and all else, piecing together the many changes over the years. From volunteering at the historical society to scouring old architectural periodicals at Columbia University, he made his way. “It’s sort of eccentric and weird and my own little hobby,” Matt says self-effacingly. And it provided some answers.

Indeed, the men who conceived Belle Haven chose an ideal location for their enterprise. It was close to central Greenwich, with easy access to the train and Long Island Sound. And though situated on what is known today as the Belle Haven peninsula, Belle Haven is technically just one of a number of small, private sections in that area. Of the others, the best known is Field Point Park, Belle Haven’s slightly younger neighbor to the east.

Even today, the Belle Haven Land Association, the homeowners group, shies away from attention. All the same, the neighborhood’s denizens are anything but reclusive. The Belle Haven Club, for instance, remains the centerpiece of community life. It is constantly abuzz with everything from weddings to regattas to tennis tournaments, and most especially children’s activities.

“It’s a very diverse group of people,” says real estate broker David Ogilvy, who has called Belle Haven home for thirty years. “What we share is a love of being in a neighborhood where we can walk and bicycle and such in safety. There aren’t cars whizzing around. And it has the club at the end of the street. It really is a summer resort hitched on to Greenwich. It’s got a year-round life, but it becomes very alive in the summer.”

That’s in its DNA. For much of the nineteenth century, Greenwich had a prosperous summer hotel trade. And the Kent House, which preceded Belle Haven on the former Horseneck peninsula (where the I-95 toll plaza was), was among the more exclusive places to stay. Many of its boarders would be among the first to build homes there.

Summer was Belle Haven’s time to shine. “The garden center of Greenwich, and, indeed, the whole Connecticut shore,” was how the New York Times described it, in an 1896 article. Back then, the club for residents only was known as the “Casino,” which in the lexicon of the day meant a gathering place, particularly for entertainment, not a gambling house. Sailing was popular, according to Centennial in Belle Haven, a history of the club, along with swimming, tennis, dances, music, even minstrel shows. The ultimate highlight of the season was “Carnival Hippique,” the annual horse show.

This was that golden period that Matt sought to re-create, in his mind if nowhere else. His mission, as it evolved, was to be able to envision Belle Haven in full flower as a summer community, from around the turn of the twentieth century until World War I. (To bring it into better focus, he and the late Jim Smith, who owned the Homestead Inn, would ultimately create a poster with photographs of many of the Belle Haven houses from that era.)

“Architectural archaeology” is what Matt calls his work. “What I started doing,” he explains, “was trying to recreate what the summer colony looked like at its peak, by clues that enabled me to match up the original photographs with the reality of what they look like today, through the different stages from the 1880s onward, and then moved on to see how the individual land parcels developed and subdivided and then again were resubdivided.”

With records lacking, he turned to landmarks to help identify the places that had been extensively renovated. “Matt’s phenomenal,” says Nancy Smith, Jim’s wife. “A house would be so changed that I couldn’t even recognize it from the postcards I had. Matt would say, ‘Oh, that’s the so-and-so house.’ I’d say, ‘How the heck do you know that?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, it’s still got that big rock in front.’”

THE FOUNDERS
The architects of Belle Haven’s homes were in large part some of the most prestigious in their field. They included Bruce Price who designed much of Tuxedo Park and was the father of etiquette columnist Emily Post; William A. Boring and Edward L. Tilton, who drew up the federal Immigration Station at Ellis Island; and McKim, Mead & White, designers of the former Pennsylvania Station, among other illustrious projects. (One of Matt’s prize discoveries, in fact, was a McKim, Mead & White house, long ago torn down, that no one else seems to have known about.)

Matt also learned about Belle Haven’s long-ago residents. As you might expect, they were wealthy businessmen, bankers and manufacturers and their families.

He read about banker Edmund B. Converse, for example, who left his “cottage” in Belle Haven and built palatial Conyers Manor, the first of the backcountry estates.

Then there was Mary Elsie Moore, age eighteen and apparently a great beauty, daughter of metal-wares manufacturer Charles A. Moore. In 1907, she married an Italian duke, Don Marino Torlonia, who was twenty-eight years her senior, at her father’s Belle Haven summer home.

And in 1912, William T. Graham, president of the American Can Company, was no doubt grateful to learn that his wife and daughter had been among those rescued from the ill-fated Titanic. (Coincidentally, Graham’s daughter, Margaret, later married the Duchess Torlonia’s brother, Eugene Moore, in another Belle Haven wedding.)

Matt was particularly impressed by one resident, Ivor Thord Gray, a Swedish adventurer, who seems to have worked his way into every military conflict from the Boer War to the Zulu Rebellion to the Mexican Revolution.

And he was taken with John A. Topping, onetime president of Republic Iron and Steel, who around the time of World War I expanded his Belle Haven empire by buying adjacent properties, then sold off one of the houses rather than destroy it. “It was sometimes more cost effective to move a structure to another site than rebuild it from scratch. Some builder rolled it down the hill, pushed it onto a barge and took it to Riverside,” says Matt. “Where it remained for many years.”

By the 1920s and ’30s, with improvements in electricity and heating, Belle Haven was becoming a year-round community. Residents winterized the houses and commuted to New York City. The belt-tightening of the Depression only hastened the transition.

After World War II, the big houses had become impractical. They were expensive to heat and maintain, among other considerations. “That grandeur started fading,” says Matt. “Property, income and estate taxes, lack of inexpensive household staffing, and the enormous cost of constantly maintaining the elements. A lot of the houses started being torn down or massively renovated and extra land, where the carriage houses were located, was spun off for new construction, unfortunately mostly capes and ranches.”

Construction of Interstate 95, meanwhile, in the late fifties, devoured fifty to sixty acres of Belle Haven, including the historic Kent House.

Tastes in architecture had changed. Ranches and “IBM Colonials” were all the rage. As such, owners sometimes demolished the old houses. Other times, they subdivided the lots and renovated by shearing off entire stories and verandas. Matt has a series of striking pictures that follow one abode as it morphed from a Queen Anne mansion in the 1890s to a Colonial revival in the 1920s to a ranch house in the fifties.

“In the Roaring Twenties there were a few waterfront houses that were selling for $200,000 and $300,000,” says Matt. “In the fifties and sixties many of those same houses sat on the market for years and were considered white elephants that no one wanted and could be bought for almost nothing because the houses were considered such liabilities.”

By the 1970s, when Matt and his family arrived from California, Belle Haven was no longer “Newport on the Sound.” Many of the big houses were slow to sell; some were empty, inhabited only by the ghosts of a bygone era; others were boarded up. “They became functionally obsolete and architecturally obsolete,” Matt says.

THE HAVEN WE KNOW
Make no mistake, these are better days in Belle Haven. “There’s been a remarkable transformation in the last thirty years,” says Ogilvy.

By the 1980s, the big homes started to sell again. Tony buyers, yuppies, up from New York, became enamored with the places; they thought they had character and saw their potential. (Singer Diana Ross, in fact, was won over by Belle Haven during this period.)

Oftentimes, the old houses cried out for repairs. Jim Lash, former first selectman, says the Topping house that he bought on Glenwood Drive in the early nineties desperately needed rehabilitation. “The heating and plumbing system in that house hadn’t been touched in many, many, many decades,” he says.

Some, like Lash, renovated. Others took a different tack. Paul Tudor Jones II, for one, bought the former William T. Graham estate, Otter Rock, for nearly $10.7 million in 1994. Four years later, he supplanted it with an edifice that one wag, quoted in Vanity Fair magazine, described as a cross between Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind, and a national monument. The hedge-fund magnate’s Harbor Drive home, celebrated for its crowd-pleasing Christmas displays, has been assessed at $18 million, the highest in Belle Haven.

And two years ago, the James McCutcheon house, built in 1886 and a rare local residential example of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, with its ponderous stone walls and arches, was purchased for a reported $10.2 million by venture capitalist René Kern. That house, at the gateway to Belle Haven, was also leveled. It is being replaced with a venerable Georgian Colonial.

Not everyone believes new is better. Richardson, for one, is saddened by the teardowns. But she also knows her history. “It’s right in keeping with what’s been going on in Belle Haven all these years,” she says.

And though Belle Haven as a community has shown no interest in seeking historic protections for the houses there, some residents have taken it upon themselves to return their homes to their former glory. Matt cites the house whose pictures he likes to show, which over the years underwent such striking renovations. Its current owners, he reports, have in large part restored the place to its original style.

Reuben Mark, the former CEO and chairman of Colgate-Palmolive, also kept the past in mind when he renovated his Harbor Drive mansion, assessed at $16.7 million. “He restored it and added onto it in the Victorian style,” says Matt. “He embellished it and brought it back to life.”

That’s happening more frequently. In Belle Haven, what is old is new again. “People are generally more sensitive to the historic context of where they are living today. They are trying to restore, renovate or build new in keeping with the overall integrity of the neighborhood,” says Matt. “From an architectural standpoint, we’ve come full circle.”

Anne Young, curator for the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, provided research assistance for this article.

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