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Tuxedo Park: The Gilded Age community that time forgot

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Go behind the gates

Courtesy of Creative Commons; By Robert Khederian

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

From Levittown to the amenity-filled co-living apartment buildings designed for millennials today, planned communities tend to generally be associated with more modern developments.

But they are not a purely 21st—or even 20th-century—invention: Planned communities have a history stretching into America’s past, including the Gilded Age, exemplified by the village of Tuxedo Park, New York.

Located about 40 miles north of New York City, the gated community of Tuxedo Park was the brainchild of Pierre Lorillard, heir to the Lorillard Tobacco Company.

“Lorillard was a Newport man,” says Mosette Broderick, Clinical Professor of Art History at New York University. “He owned The Breakers, which he then sold to Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the 1880s. The original house burned down, and then Vanderbilt constructed the mansion we know of today.”

A vintage photo of the grand Henry W. Poor house, which is currently for sale.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

After declaring himself done with the Newport scene—which was gaining more and more fame and attracting a more status-concerned crowd in the later 19th century—he hopped on the train and got off in the Ramapo mountains just north of New York City, where his family owned thousands of acres of wooded land.

There, he decided to build himself a house—which ultimately grew into an exclusive enclave: “The idea was that there would be a gated community and a mandatory Episcopalian church,” says Broderick. “Lorillard only wanted Episcopalians in Tuxedo Park.”

A hunting and fishing refuge for Gilded Age high society, the community—which borders a lake—counted the banker J.P. Morgan, writer Mark Twain, and interior designer Dorothy Draper among its residents. Even Emily Post—famous for her writings on etiquette—called it home: Her father, architect Bruce Price, was the primary architect of the initial homes in Tuxedo Park, which were largely Shingle style.

A shingle style house by Bruce Price.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

“When the houses were first built, they were almost meant to look like they were cropping out of the rocks—a lot of stone and shingle was used,” says Michael Bruno, founder of the Tuxedo Hudson Company and current resident of Tuxedo Park. The rustic architecture complimented the rugged terrain of the community. Lorillard purposefully did away with the idea of well-manicured gardens in favor of landscaping that didn’t need much tending.

Bruce Price may have been the first architect of Tuxedo Park, but he wasn’t the only one. Only 350 homes in size, Tuxedo Park boasts work by some of the best Gilded Age architects of the day, from Delano & Aldrich to McKim, Mead, & White and John Russell Pope. Building styles also became more diversified around the turn of the 20th century as families were returning from Europe and wanted houses with more flavor and grandeur: Tuxedo Park quickly added mediterranean style homes and tudor mansions into its mix.

Tuxedo Park never amassed the same fame and international glitz as Newport, but that didn’t seem to be its aim, either. “Tuxedo was for old families who wanted to retain the old-world, ‘merchants of the port of New York’ existence, which it did for a very long time,” Says Broderick. “Right up through the mid-20th century. Then things changed.”

A view from the Tuxedo Park Club looking out to the lake.
By Robert Khederian

No longer a community intended exclusively for Episcopalians (although that church Lorillard wanted is still standing), Tuxedo Park is now in the process of breathing new life into itself.

“When I first moved here about five years ago, it felt like a forgotten place,” says Bruno. “Houses just sold from one family member to another, or one friend to another. I wanted to see an influx of new people—I wanted more people to know about this place.”

To that end, Bruno is planning a large-scale redevelopment of existing buildings in and around Tuxedo Park which will include a hotel, restaurant, coffee shop, market, and antiques store. The first phase will open this summer with hopes that a younger crowd will be attracted to the village, which directly borders 70,000 acres of state parks and offers miles of hiking trails.

The real star of Tuxedo Park, though, is its stock of turn-of-the-century mansions. Among the houses up for grabs right now is a Delano & Aldrich-designed mansion called “Top Ridge.” According to Bruno, the house was significantly larger when it was completed. It was then reduced in size sometime around the 1950s.

“What’s great is that the rooms on the first floor are the scale of a 25,000 or 30,000-square-foot house, but it’s not nearly that size,” he adds. The house, which sits at one of the highest points in Tuxedo Park, is on the market for $4.25 million.

Just a few weeks ago, a house hit the market for the first time since it was built in the late 19th century. Built in the tudor style, the 14,000-square-foot mansion has 15 fireplaces and reception rooms with grand wood paneling.

These houses are all a stone’s throw from the centrally located Tuxedo Club. Broderick says that most 19th-century planned communities featured a club. The Tuxedo Park Club is probably best known for being the location where the term “tuxedo” was coined for men’s formalwear. Over a century later, it’s still the node of social activity of the village, which hovers around 1,000 residents.

But even though it’s a small community, Bruno says it doesn’t feels too small. “People are attracted to the nature and the architecture here—and that creates a very interesting, varied mix of people,” he adds. “Five years after moving here, I’m constantly surprised—there’s always a new person to meet.”