In his landmark 1939 publication The Hudson, Carl Carmer wrote “The lands on the Hudson in the last fifty years have been absorbed to an amazing degree by institutions… The Roman Catholic Church owns more land on the shores of the Hudson than any other religious organization and houses tens of thousands of its votaries upon the old estates. Other denominations, however, have also taken advantage of the opportunities the valley offers… Further inroads on the old estates have been made by secular institutions.” Carmer claimed this to be a victory for the people, who had previously been unable to obtain riverfront land that a few wealthy aristocratic families held for centuries as their estates.
At the beginning of the 21st century, many of these institutions have shut their doors too, as religious congregations have dwindled and massive state and local facilities, including hospitals, have closed down. One institution that still owns several large estates along the Hudson River is the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, or the Unification Church, whose founder and leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed savior of humanity, died this week.
The Unification Church once owned hundreds of acres in Irvington and Tarrytown, in Westchester County, comprising all or parts of at least four estates. In Irvington, there is East Garden. In Tarrytown, there is Belvedere and Gracemere, and parts of the former Graystone estate. At Barrytown in Dutchess County the Church owns the former Massena estate, which was already made a religious institution and school earlier in the 20th century. Rev. Moon himself lived in at least one or two of houses at one time or another, but mostly the mansions and estate buildings just seem to be used as apartments for his followers.
There seems to be no evidence that the Unification Church will disappear in the wake of its leader’s death and vacate its large landholdings. But as Moon aged and his public appearances diminished in the last two decades, the Association’s ambitions also waned. The church sold about 200 acres to the Town of Greenburgh which opened the land as Taxter Ridge Park. Another 37 acres were sold to Westchester County for the formation of a park that will eventually link Lyndhurst, Sunnyside, and the Old Croton Aqueduct. More land at 548 South Broadway in Tarrytown was sold to a housing developer who erected homes much too big for their lots. Plans to build a church adjacent to Belvedere seem to have dissipated.
High on a hill east of Broadway is the stone mansion of the East Garden estate. Large chateaux and castle-like mansions have stood on this ridge in south Tarrytown and Irvington since the 1850s. Many of the homes were altered as tastes changed; some burned and were rebuilt in part or wholly. It seems that the East Garden mansion is more of a 20th-century construction that incorporates the walls of an earlier home. Hudson River travel guides of the late 19th-century referred to the “high-pointed tower” of the Cunningham Castle, which occupied this spot and burned in 1901 when it was owned by John S. Huyler. The architect of the original Cunningham house was given as (James Jr.) Renwick and Sands. I have not thoroughly researched this house’s history, but it seems to have been the center of the Unification Church activities in Westchester in recent years.
West front of the mansion. February 2007.
Here is an aerial photograph from bing.com that shows a better view of the east side of the mansion.
A cottage on the East Garden estate.
Belvedere may have been built about 1920 by Caspar and Florence Whitney. Adjacent to the south boundary line of the Lyndhurst estate, Belvedere comprised two former estates including that of Henry Worthington. The two older mansions were demolished when the new estate was developed (Worthington’s burial chapel still stands in the Town of Greenburgh). Caspar Whitney was an author and outdoorsman (caricatured here). A year before Caspar died, the Whitneys sold the estate to Dr. Philip Cole in 1928. My friend Paul Barrett, an expert on these mansions in Tarrytown, believes that Cole (or the Whitneys) actually remodeled the existing 19th-century brick mansion that once was the home of Roswell Skeel. That scenario is quite likely, as we have seen that numerous other nearby homes underwent major alterations rather than complete tear-downs and rebuilds.
Cole, a collector of western art, named the estate Zeeview (it is not known what the Whitneys called the estate). An aerial view from the time that Cole owned the property can be found at the Robert Yarnall Richie collection. Here is the modern-day aerial view from bing.com.
Cole’s collection of western art resides in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK. Their website has several excellent historic photographs of Zeeview/Belvedere. Samuel Bronfman acquired the Zeeview estate in 1960 and re-christened it Belvedere. In 1972, a year after Bronfman died, the Unification Church purchased Belvedere, and it seems that Rev. Moon made it home for some time. The mansion and outbuildings today are likely converted into apartments; the grounds are occasionally used for large-scale church events.
North front of the mansion, September 2012. Unlike most Hudson River homes that parallel the shoreline, this house was built on an axis that makes the main facades face north and south, perpendicular to the river. September 2012.
East Garden and Belvedere are both closed to the public, so these are all through-the-fence photos.
A brick tower and shingled addition of a service building at the northwest corner of the estate. The brick tower may be a remnant from one of the 19th-century estates that predate Zeeview/Belvedere.
A cowboy-and-horse weather vane, perhaps installed by Dr. Cole.
This brick barn was built in the 1890s for Louis Stern who owned the Graystone estate. Architect Robert Henderson Robertson designed this barn which is now an apartment building for the Unification Church. Robertson also designed at least two notable mansions in Tarrytown and Irvington, Richmond Hill and Shadowbrook.
The Graystone estate originally included about 100 acres when developed in the 1850s. The main (south) half of the estate is currently undergoing redevelopment as more massive homes are planned on what even the developer calls “spectacular…wooded wonderland.” How spectacular and wooded this wonderland will be once 20 huge homes are built here is doubtful. By the way, the developer used a few of my photos (uncredited and without asking me, of course) in their promotional slide show that I just linked to.
This perfectly-good farmhouse on Sheldon Avenue in Tarrytown, another remnant of the old Graystone estate, was demolished after the Unification Church sold it to a developer of oversize houses. In this time of economic uncertainty, it is quite foolish to destroy right-sized houses and build homes that are economically unsustainable. Those McMansions may be also apartment buildings in the not-too-distant future. Who is building individual homes for people with regular budgets?
Nestled among still-spectacular woodlands is the 80+ acre estate Gracemere. The mansion, Gracemere Hall, was built in the 1860s or possibly even in the 1850s. It was occupied by Charles Graef in the late 1800s before it became the domain of Henry King and Mary Browning in the early 1900s. Henry Browning owned a men’s clothing company and store in New York City that reportedly produced uniforms for the United States armed forces in World War I. When each of the Brownings’s four daughters married, they built homes for them too.
Gracemere Hall as viewed from the west. Its mansard roof and dormer windows are typical of Civil-War era houses. Photographs from September 2012.
Gracemere Hall about 1918, from a very rare and awesome book entitled In Irving’s Country.
A view from the south shows a crenelated tower.
Gracemere has been described as a “magic kingdom” by former residents of the estate and as a “land of enchantment” in local newspaper articles.
The gate pillars and gatehouse, now owned by the Unification Church.
The home of Katherine Browning and Alfred Thurber, now owned by the Unification Church.
The home of Marjorie Browning and George Dickinson, now privately owned.
The home of Adelaide Browning and H. Stuart Green. Abandoned for a decade or two (or more?), the house was demolished about 2006. More photographs of this house can be seen here.
The home of Natalie Browning and Grant Small. I am certain that I have a better photographic survey of the Gracemere estate including winter-time images that show the homes much better. But I cannot find those files at present.
An abandoned estate building that may have been a powerhouse.
On the estate there are two small ranch houses, in addition to several homes of at least two generations of construction. The one-story houses are abandoned. In the mid-1940s, Walter Kocher bought the estate (Henry Browning died in 1936) and converted the mansion and other buildings into apartments. Many of the old estates of Tarrytown and Irvington ceased to be private estates around World War II and were divided up for housing tracts or converted to offices.
Interior view of one of the ranch houses.
Pennybridge, as the general area of the estate is known today, is still a land of enchantment, with castles and old mansions and large pieces of (as yet) undeveloped woodlands. In the winter I ice skate on a pond in the deep of the woods, and in the spring I go at night and listen to the peepers in the swamp.
(Some information cited in this part comes from an unpublished family memoir by Linda Hoeschler, who grew up at Gracemere.)
Located north of Rhinebeck at Barrytown is the Unification Theological Seminary, housed on the grounds of what was once an estate known as Massena. The current brick mansion dates to 1886 and replaced John LLoyd Aspinwall’s country house, which was enlarged from the original 1797 John R. Livingston wood-frame house. William Appleton Potter designed the new brick house for Mrs. Aspinwall after a fire in 1885 destroyed the earlier house. Massena is the only one of the Unification Church houses to be featured in John Zukowsky and Robbe Pierce Stimson’s great book Hudson River Villas.
The Christian Brothers became owners of the estate in 1928 and they built the seminary that stands opposite the front (east) entrance to the mansion. The Unification Church has been here since 1974. The grounds of the seminary are open to the public. There is a labyrinth on the property too, if you are into such things.
Photographs of Massena August 2010.
Inside the front door.
A first floor room.
Christian Brothers Seminary.
The Reverend Moon was not the only landowner along the shores of this river to believe himself to be God among us. Heck, not even the first guy in his neighborhood. A couple of houses away was the home of Father Divine, founder of the Peace Mission movement, “a savior to some, a hustler to many more.” Quoting again from Robert Marchant of the Journal News, Father Divine “claimed to have God-like powers and the ability to bring salvation to the faithful, but critics said his gift was the power to defraud the gullible through a strange mix of Christianity, cultism and self-help ideology” (July 29, 2000).
Real estate advertisement for the Father Divine house.
Father Divine’s mansion stood, and still stands, at the top of the hill behind the Graystone estate and just west of the Gracemere property. Some photographs of the house from the 1940s can be found here. Father Divine occupied the house personally along with a staff of 30 to 40 “angels” (he called his estates Heaven). The Robert Yarnall Richie collection also has an aerial photograph of this house with the information that the house was built about 1930. I thought I had a photo or two myself, but likewise I cannot find any in my collections. The house is privately owned today. Additionally, an adjacent mansion is owned by the ambassador to Nigeria, though I understand that the ambassador rarely occupies this house.
The McEwen Residence about 1918. Now the property of the Ambassador of Nigeria.
Father Divine also owned a Heaven in Ulster County. The house shown below may have been his mansion, formerly the Captain Sherbourn Sears House at Milton. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) October 17, 2003.