After a couple of avid collectors amassed a trove of Victoriana, they set out to find the right setting to house it all.
A couple with an extensive collection of ornate antiques finds the perfect setting to house them
By Mary Forsell • Photographs by Michael Polito
It must have been an interesting sight. Imagine a sprawling, glass-walled, late 1950s contemporary house in the woods furnished not in the expected mid-century modern style, but instead, with anything and everything Victorian. Statuary, jardinieres, paintings, tapestries, pedestals, tassels, crystals, outsize mirrors, carved furniture — the lot.
“We would always joke about how the house and furnishings were so alien to each other,” says Manhattan-based interior designer Daniel De Siena, who was with the homeowners as both friend and advisor at an auction in Nyack about 20 years ago when they bought their first Victorian-style pieces: a gilded lion’s-head settee and chairs. “I remember they commented, ‘That’s a unique grouping. We’ll never see anything like that again,’” recalls De Siena. “And they were right — in all our years out buying, we never did see anything quite like it. They bought the set. That was the cornerstone of their interest in Victorian furniture, and from there they continued in that vein.”
As the trove grew, De Siena encouraged the couple to look for a house that was more in keeping with their collection, which included some 18th-century pieces that they had been quietly amassing before they took the Victorian plunge. The search was on throughout the Hudson Valley. Finally, they made a direct hit in very Victorian Goshen: An 1861 rose brick behemoth that had never been painted or added on to, so all its original woodwork, side porches, gables, and bay windows were intact. “It was as if we’d bought the ultimate antique,” say the owners (who requested anonymity). “Yet it lives like a 21st-century house, since all the air conditioning, plumbing, and climate controls are updated.”
Though the house is a roomy 5,000 square feet, the couple still had to divest themselves of some of their collection to make it all fit (their 1950s house was even larger). “We had to cull the collection,” says De Siena. Majolica jardinieres by the dozen, lesser sculptures, oversize pieces of stained glass, and anything blatantly contemporary had to go.
When the couple finally moved, they relied on De Siena to help them organize their new home. “Daniel knew every piece of furniture,” they recall. “As the moving trucks pulled in, he faxed us the layout of where everything should go, down to the smallest detail.”
It certainly seems that the furnishings and the space were made for each other. You enter into an unusual T-shaped front hallway with a staircase off to the side, rather than the usual front and center. Look up and you’ll be treated to a three-story view through the attic to the peak of the house. A piece of leaded glass from the owners’ former house serves as a transparent decoration between floors.
To the right is the parlor, where the typical Victorian family would have done its formal entertaining. Here you’ll find that gilded lion’s-head seating that sparked much of the collection — not to mention some of the finest pieces in the house, including an early English satinwood cabinet with Wedgwood plaques. But perhaps the pride of the room is an Eastlake bookcase that matches the Renaissance Revival mantels in both this room and the dining room beyond.
“The bookcase is quite spectacular and suits the room perfectly,” says De Siena, who notes that the massive cabinet comes apart in sections, mortise-and-tenon style.
“We wanted a vivid background of strong color to organize the pieces here,” says De Siena, who selected a warm yellow for the walls. “The Empire settee is striped gold, and the chairs are upholstered in large-scale gold damask. For additional oomph we added the red carpet and draperies.”
Just across the hall is the Asian room, probably once the music room. Painted a very deep coral with pink undertones, it’s a bold choice that unites the hodgepodge of Orientalia so popular in the Victorian period.
Similar to the coral of the Asian room, but more terra-cotta in tone, the media room just down the hall is all about comfort. Though not actually Victorian, wing chairs left over from the previous house work just fine here and add coziness. With antiques aplenty — such as an inlaid rococo music cabinet and a Chinese chest — you barely even notice the wall projector and other techie home theater equipment.
The kitchen, updated by former owners, has all the bells and whistles of a modern house, but retains its 19th-century feel. Timeless cabinetry and brass drawer pulls, china plates hung on the wall, and a grandfather clock in the corner add to the aura.
Near the back staircase is a tiny powder room that the owners managed to squeeze into a one-time closet. “It’s no bigger than an airplane bathroom,” they admit. But the charm it packs is amazing, with its double-door entry, Empire mirror embedded in the wall (the only way to fit it in), and copper-and-gold paint treatment offset by deep brown woodwork.
The second floor landing — a room unto itself with an unexpected splash of contemporary art by Josef Levi — leads to the master bedroom, where Farnsworth, the owners’ Doberman, may be reclining. “It’s a reproduction,” admit the owners of the bed.
“They didn’t have king-sized mattresses in Victorian times.” A monumentally scaled dresser with brass detailing shows off jewelry and mementoes (it sat in a bathroom in the previous house, where it got lost in the mix). Interior shutters, original to the house and still functional, seal out drafts and sunlight, just as they were intended to when the house was built almost a century and a half ago.
Next door is the French bedroom, with its six-piece suite of delicate hand-painted furniture and an ethereal blue ceiling. “The daintiness of the painted furniture seems to allude to the sky,” says De Siena. “Some of the pieces in the house are very heavy, so this room makes for a pleasant change.”
The same freshness carries over in the Georgian bedroom, painted a robin’s-egg blue. De Siena claims this spot on his frequent visits. Here a four-poster Wallace Nutting bed presides among 18th-century antiques, including an old horsehair settee rescued from a relative’s basement.
Outside, the grounds are just as Victorian as the interior, with a formal circular garden punctuated by 19th-century statues and urns, a classic slate terrace, and old-fashioned plantings.
“We changed the grounds dramatically,” says De Siena. “No less than 50 trees were brought in. We added the terrace, and I designed the garden.” (It was installed by Hillsborough, North Carolina, landscape designer Dana Howard.) Hydrangeas, hostas, and a Japanese maple are transplants from the former house. “We were amazed by how they took off here,” say the owners. “In fact, everything seems to look better here and is so much more appreciated.”
The 1861 house seemed designed to shelter the owners' Victorian treasures. Among them are the fine English satinwood cabinet with Wedgwood plaques (opposite), circa 1830 Chinese urns, and a French ormolu clock. The tapestry is Aubusson
Although the gilded settee and chairs are actually from the earlier Federal period, their elaborate style ignited the owners’ interest in Victoriana. The wide Eastlake bookcase goes beautifully with the home’s carved mantelpieces. The marble-topped table is American Renaissance Revival
The up-to-date kitchen gets period charm from a stately grandfather clock and vintage plates. In the terra-cotta media room, the owners prop a white screen over the large painting to view movies. A back staircase (top) and moldings on each side of pocket doors (center) demonstrate the fine detailing in the house. Demonstrating the comfort of the master bed (a good repro) is Farnsworth, the couples’ rescued Doberman
De Siena chose a rich coral color for the Asian room, which was carefully painted by the lady of the house (as were all the rooms). The French bedroom (far left) and the blue Georgian bedroom are simple oases in an otherwise sumptuously decorated home. The carved mantelpiece in the living room (top) matches another in the adjacent dining room. Statuary in the front hall gives visitors a hint of things to come