By Orin Z. Finkle
While I was looking through my vast collection of early 1900s society publications recently, a 1914 Town & Country magazine society blurb caught my eye. So I figured, let me write an article concerning this long gone affair and include some important history that occurred right here in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the more time that passes, generations of younger people will still be taught the world’s history in school but they will cease to ever become familiar with great long forgotten events which took place just miles from where we reside. My private archives of the Gold Coast provides such an abundant array of material, that I intend to fully share bygone times with readers.
“On a beautiful spring Saturday morning a few weeks ago, the informal marriage of Miss Cornelia Bryce and Mr. Gifford Pinchot took place on the piazza extension at stately Bryce House at Roslyn, Long Island, overlooking scenic Hempstead Harbor. The bride wore a white gown with some pink trimmings, a hat to match and carried a gathering of white flowers. She had no attendants but was given in marriage by her father, Lloyd Stevens Bryce. The groom, Mr. Pinchot was attended only by his brother, Amos. There were no ushers. The small group of wedding guests included some of the most prominent citizens in the country including Colonel and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Mr. Peter Cooper, who is the brides’ great grandfather.”
You may ask yourself, where is Bryce House located? To lots of people the name does not sound familiar. However, while driving along busy Northern Boulevard in Roslyn, I’m sure that you have passed by the entrance to this beautiful former estate or most likely have even visited its 145 acres of grounds at times. The attractive property is currently known as the Nassau County Museum of Art. The county purchased this estate in 1969 for 3.5 million dollars and over the past forty plus years has turned the former Lloyd Bryce/Childs Frick mansion into a world class art museum to be enjoyed by the public. This beautiful parcel of land, most of which was once owned by William Cullen Bryant, was thankfully saved from becoming just another local housing development. It currently forms an integral part of the Roslyn area’s cultural heritage.
Here is a brief bit of historical facts. Lloyd S. Bryce (1851-1917), a descendant of one of the first families of America, was an attorney, postmaster general of New York State and had served in the U.S. Congress from 1887-1889. He was also editor of the prestigious North American Review and in his spare time, served as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Bryce and his wife Edith, who was a descendant of Peter Cooper, purchased a parcel of land which ran along Hempstead Harbor, from the Bryant estate known as Upland Farm.
I’ll bet that now you all are aware of the derivation for the popular nearby restaurant named Bryant & Cooper. Of course, neither of those gentlemen actually ever dined there but I’m sure would have loved a good steak dinner.
Anyway, in 1893, Bryce commissioned high society architect Ogden Codman Jr. to design his huge country residence. The 1890s time frame saw the commencement of the mansion fashion boom along the North Shore, which continued through the late 1930s. This unique era that would witness the construction of hundreds of manor houses, in various styles, with each owner attempting to outdo their friends with attraction and grandeur. The talented Codman was educated in France and at the School of Architecture at MIT. The Bryce residence was going to be based, utilizing a combination of English Renaissance and Palladian styles. The brick colonial with broad cemented quoins at the angles, was designed with a copper roof, which has since oxidized to an attractive shade of turquoise. Two brick outer pavilions connected at either end of the house, add an interesting symmetrical and well proportioned touch. The grand large rooms were decorated elegantly by Codman who at the time was working closely with Edith Wharton on a book titled The Decoration of Houses.
The beauty of Bryce House was its pure simplicity of overall design set upon a pristine natural landscape of ponds, rolling hills and woodlands overlooking the harbor. The family spent considerable quality time together at their Roslyn country home until the death of Mr. Bryce in April of 1917. Shortly thereafter, the entire estate was sold to Henry Clay Frick, the industrialist partner of Andrew Carnegie. Frick purchased the property to present as a gift to his son Childs and daughter-in–law Frances.
For the next fifty two years the private compound would undergo various modifications while continuing to be loved and cared for by the Frick family.
Looking back, during the early 1900s the Roslyn area, as well as most of Long Island, was still considered a rural expanse of farms, wilderness and small country villages. Many of its inhabitants had never even traveled to nearby New York City. There were very few autos at the time, most narrow roadways were unpaved and the LIRR was just coming into its own. There was probably not much desire for folks to leave their comfortable country hamlets. Times in the area were so very different only a hundred years ago.
As soon as those in high society, residing in townhouses and apartments in New York City, began to realize the beauty of the Long Island topography along with the convenience of commuting, huge summer residences began to spring up along the entire North Shore. By the time Childs Frick settled into his mansion in 1917, which he renamed Clayton in honor of his father, the surrounding area farm acreage was developing at a rapid pace. Prestigious country clubs were being formed so that wealthy new estate owners had a central place to meet, socialize and participate in various sporting events. Roadways and railroad services were being greatly improved and multi auto garages, in addition to barns and huge stables, were becoming standard structures on most estate properties.
English architect, Sir Charles Carrick Allom was commissioned to make physical changes to the mansion, in order to better suit the needs of the Frick family. A new mansion entrance façade and a south wing addition were produced in 1919. The main entrance hall was changed from circular to rectangular as was size of other key rooms. Through it all, the home still retained a dignified aura of simplicity and directness of design.
Childs Frick was a paleontologist and constantly studied thousands of mammal fossils related to various geological periods. He was an important contributor to the Museum of Natural History in New York City and helped to plan and finance the museum’s Hall of Mammals.
In 1936, a large laboratory building was constructed at Clayton in order for Childs to conduct experiments and to store his fossil collection. The natural, unspoiled terrain of the estate landscape proved very useful in his research. Utilizing wild animals such as monkeys, otters and even a bear (who once escaped from the compound), Frick tested their ability to survive through Long Island’s seasonal climate variations. I don’t think the bear got as far as the Clock Tower, but you never know. Frick also planted a Pinetum of over four hundred species of conifers, in order to study their adaptation to the local Roslyn area. The pine trees that survived the decades, still remain part of the attractive green rolling landscape.
Frances Frick was quite interested in horticulture and worked closely with noted landscape architect Marian Coffin. Coffin was amongst the few talented women in her profession and was commissioned to design unique gardens on many Long Island estates. Together they designed the formal gardens at Clayton where Frances devoted much of her time during the spring and summer months. Clayton’s beautiful gardens eventually became, per her wishes, the place of her burial in 1953. Childs continued on with his dedicated research, utilizing the laboratory fully, until he passed away in 1965, at 81 years old.
Although the estate will probably never revert to being a private family sanctuary again, visitors to the popular art museum and surroundings are able enter this beautiful oasis of tranquility and truly feel in harmony with nature. Fortunately, the former Clayton is now enjoyed by thousands each year who come to explore and view wonderful master works of art and take in the charm of a fascinating bygone era. It is easy to spend hours strolling the pathways, photographing the majestic mansion, gardens and sculptures while escaping from the hectic outside world that awaits just as you return to the Northern Boulevard entrance. There are always new and very interesting programs on display at the museum which certainly contributes to making the once rural town of Roslyn such a unique, integral part of Long Island’s Gold Coast.