Mount Saint Vincent
College of Mount Saint Vincent Campus
Cottage and Stable before 1856
College of Mount Saint Vincent Campus
Fonthill, a compact Romantic vision of a medieval fortification, makes almost no outward concessions to the fact that it is intended to be a couple’s suburban villa. It was build from 1848 to 1852 for Edwin Forrest, the actor most in favor with New York’s popular audience. A declaimer of bombastic “tragedies” and Noble Savage melodramas (“till with a single arm you can move the mighty rock that mocks the lightning and the storm, seek not to stir Metamora”), Forrest chose a dramatic hillside location overlooking the Hudson for his country home. The irregular cluster of six octagonal towers is built entirely of hammered grey stone, the crenellations and machicolations of its “castellated” style providing a bristling silhouette. Viewed from any angle, but especially from the approach road to the east, the massing of the buildings is tensely asymmetrical. Only the four bay windows and veranda compromise Fonthill’s theatrically militant air.
Inside the heavy double doors, the structure is equally striking. Six large dark oak doorways stand in the facets of an octagonal central hall paved in geometrical encaustic tile. The walls rise to an overhanging gallery supported b y eight massive corbels, and then continue upward into a dome with an octagonal central light. In the three rooms which radiate from the hall—each an octagon—the visitor encounters molded plaster ornament characteristic of the English Perpendicular style: pendentives hanging from the centers of the ceilings, fan vaulting spreading upward along the corners. Instead of a broad staircase in the central hall, a winding stair in a side tower leads to the chambers of the second story and beyond. Some of this detail seems to be derived from the original “Fonthill,” a huge neo-Gothic estate constructed for the wealthy English eccentric William Beckford. Forrest and his wife had pored over illustrations of the late eighteenth century interiors before undertaking their own (much smaller) villa.
Finding each room on the main floor to have exactly the same shape and dimensions, the visitor to Riverdale’s Fonthill may be led to mentally reconstruct the plan. She will discover that the exterior’s picturesque irregularity is based on a strict geometry. The architect has evidently begun with a perfectly radial scheme, four octagons posed on the corners of a central fifth, and then deliberately disturbed the static balance by shifting one of the units to the far side and adding a smaller octagon, the stair tower, next to it. As a result, the radial plan develops an axis to the north, and symmetry emphasized in profile by increasing heights in the towers.
The romantic personality of Forrest obviously lies behind the stagy medievalism of Fonthill. But he is unlikely to have thought up the nice logic of its plan. And only the builder, Thomas C. Smith, is otherwise credited with the building. But we know that Forrest was acquainted with Alexander Jackson Davis, architect of Lyndhurst and other important Gothic Revival residences along the Hudson. Davis had studied the books of the French theorist Durand, who proposed that simple design modules be repeated and varied to produce an integrated plan. A sketch of Fonthill’s octagons among Davis’ papers strengthens the inference that he had some part in its design.
In addition to Fonthill, Edwin Forrest commissioned two small outbuildings on the crest of the hill, near today’s Riverdale Avenue. A stable and a small “villa” (really a gardener’s cottage) built of randomly-coursed ashlar, these are outstanding examples of the mid-nineteenth-century “bracketed” style. On the villa the brackets themselves are very much in evidence, eccentric timber braces which support the deep eaves, as are the typical “verge boards,” facings along the gable which have been carved here into drooping ovals. The stable, although it has undergone some modification, is still rich in details such as a long segmented arch (with hood molding) over the broad entrance, and a number of unusual diamond-shaped windows. (There is a related triangular stone lintel over the villa’s door.) The architect is unknown, although the designs are like some published by A.J. Downing, and therefore quite distinct from the style of Fonthill itself (Downing having declared his contempt for the fashionable “castellated” homes of the Hudson valley).
Fonthill’s mistress never took up residence, and after an acrimonious divorce Forrest, threatened with an expensive settlement, was forced to sell his long-meditated country retreat. Its new residents were the nuns of the Order of the Sisters of Charity, whose convent and school was, in 1856, being displaced from its Manhattan site by the creation of Central Park. The existing buildings proved inadequate, and architect Henry Engelbert, who had just finished neo-Romanesque churches in Manhattan and Newark, was engaged to design a new home for the mother house and Academy of Mount Saint Vincent. Completed in 1859, the building’s 180-foot square tower, flanked by five-story gables, rises above a cliff facing the river to the north of Fonthill. The Romanesque Revival brickwork is vigorous and intricate, as for example on the corbel tables beneath the gable cornices. At the base of the tower, through which the building is entered, a double stairway in dazzling white rises from a porte cochere to the level of the veranda. Later additions (beginning in 1865) extended the building to the southeast and north, and added a cruciform chapel on the axis of the tower and entrance hall.
Lehman College Art Gallery, Kareema Hussein and David Bady