5122 Post Road
Dwight James Baum, architect
Stone house, mid-18th century
Frame addition, 1815
The short list of acknowledged oldest surviving buildings in the Bronx consists of the 1749 Van Cortlandt house and the Valentine house of 1758. But there has long been speculation that another undated structure in the same northwest part of the borough is equally old, or older. A humble, rough stone saltbox house, it never earned a municipal park setting like its larger contemporaries. Instead, its chance to shine arrived in 1915, when it was remodeled by a talented architect into a private suburban residence. But over time the borders of affluence, and the street plan, shifted, and today Dwight Baum’s colonial revival house is to be found wedged-in among brick fronts on its street, a block west of Broadway near 251 St.
The house sits on land which belonged, from 1693 until the Revolutionary War, to one of Westchester’s largest estates, the 86,000 acre Manor of Philipsburgh. With headquarters in Yonkers and Tarrytown, the domain of the Philipse family grew and milled wheat, raised cattle, preserved food, and sawed lumber for New York City and the Atlantic colonies. It sent its products down to the docks and markets of the city in its own ships, or drove and carted them along the Albany Post Road over the only dry land crossing to Manhattan, King’s Bridge—which it owned. The Philipses’ were merchants and landlords, not farmers; their manor was settled and worked by tenants. It seems likely that the original stone building, conveniently sited alongside the Albany Road and less than a mile from the bridge (at today’s 230th Street), was built to house one of these tenant farmers.
Only twenty-five feet on a side, it took the shape of a “saltbox”—two stories in the front, under a peaked roof which steeply dropped in the rear to the level of a single story. (Another expressive New England name for this kind of roof is “cat slide.”) The fieldstone walls, still intact, are nearly two feet thick, and widen to over five feet on the south end, where they enclose a broad hearth and chimney. The first floor had a parlor with two windows to the east and a back kitchen, separated by a thin stone partition. Hewn joists supported the second floor, with one or two windowed chambers above the parlor. A narrow attic in the rear, reached by a ladder from the kitchen, served as sleeping quarters for slaves. The irregular stonework mortared with lime and mud, blacksmith-forged nails and hinges, and broad floorboards worn thin with use, all suggested to the renovators a mid-eighteenth-century date.
The land it stands on changed hands after the Revolution, passing to one of Philipsburgh’s more troublesome neighbors, William Hadley, who owned 150 acres just to the south. In 1758, Hadley had been among the men who put up money to construct a Free Bridge (at today’s 225th Street), allowing independent farmers to bypass King’s Bridge and the exorbitant tolls charged by the Manor, forcing Frederick Philipse to abandon his franchise. As war approached, Hadley distinguished himself as a zealous patriot and organizer of the militia. Philipse, a staunch Loyalist who depended on the Crown for his manorial privileges, shortly was obliged to deliver his property into the hands of a manager and sail for England. Seized by the victors, the Manor was sold off after the war in parcels. In 1786, Hadley eagerly snatched up a 92 acre section, on which, if estimates of its age are correct, the saltbox would have been standing. Tradition reports it was shortly occupied by the new owner and his wife.
The Hadleys and their heirs prospered, to judge by the attachment of a second building to the north side of the saltbox in 1815. With approximately the same footprint, this wood frame house was half a story higher than its neighbor, and crowned with a wide-eaved peaked roof. Such contrasts of shape and material were common on the farms of the period, as owners proudly added a sequence of larger wings in progressively fashionable styles, converting older buildings to kitchens or storehouses. The Hadley expansion nevertheless made some effort to present an organized front to the Albany Road. On the east side, the wood facade was built flush with the stone one, the new windows kept level with the old, and the ensemble provided with an approximately central doorway. But on the west, facing an uphill farmyard, the shedlike saltbox and high-shouldered clapboard frankly displayed themselves as an odd couple.
The house remained essentially unaltered for a century. The Hadley property passed on in 1829 to Major Joseph Delafield, who built a house for himself and sold land to others nearer the Hudson, but reserved the old farm on the Albany Road (soon paralleled by Broadway) for leasing to tenants. By the early twentieth century, still tenanted, the house had become a romantic curiosity, an “ancient dwelling” covered with heavy vines which had forced themselves through the stone walls and up under the rafters. Even a reporter for the sharply commercial Real Estate Record was emotionally stirred: “The house, with its crude construction which has resisted the wear and tear of the winters of two centuries and its picturesque surroundings, exemplifies the charm and mystery which every old landmark holds for the imaginative observer.” But the Delafield family had plans for developing their unspoiled tract of Bronx hillside, now named “Fieldston” after an ancestral home, into an upscale commuter’s suburb. By 1914, it had been mapped into curving streets and widely separated plots of various sizes, anticipating a “private park” for “country homes” where "flat uninteresting rows of suburban houses” would be impossible. The venerable but dilapidated Hadley house was included in this mapping, although it was obvious that its days in the exclusive community were numbered.
Luckily, in 1915 it was brought to the attention of Dwight Baum, a fledgling architect who had just opened an office a few blocks away. He was willing to attempt “extensive alterations which amount[ed] practically to reconstruction” in order to provide Willett R. Skillman, a Bronx contractor, with a small “country home” which would pass muster with the vigilant Fieldston developers (who vetted all prospective residents and their architecture). It was the old farmhouse’s good fortune to be available at a moment when American domestic design was fixated on the “period house,” a generalized version of some historical style of architecture wrapped around a comfortable, up-to-date, family-centered interior. On the streets of a middle-class suburb were to be encountered compact Tudor guildhalls, Norman castles, Mediterranean villas and revenants from our own national past, including simulated Colonial and Dutch Colonial farmhouses. Offered the Skillman commission, Baum, who eventually built no fewer than 62 period homes in Fieldston alone, seems to have jumped at the opportunity to work with authentic historical materials, and not just stockbrokers’ daydreams.
His main challenge lay in the mismatched buildings, which had to be reshaped into a single two-floor volume with a central hall. Simply lowering the frame house’s roof to the level of the saltbox’s produced a very satisfactory profile on the Old Albany Road side. It can be seen today, with great difficulty, from the block-long alley which runs behind the house—a remnant of the actual Albany Road. From a ridge between the chimneys at either end, a long shingle roof descends to a wide eave above a two-story wall—half stone, half clapboard—with five bays of windows and a porticoed central doorway. Baum has placed an addition at either end of the joined buildings, a small wing (for kitchen and maid’s room) on the south side and an enclosed “dining porch” on the north. Their balance, and their details—neoclassic columns which match the central portico’s-- increase the impression of symmetry. It’s all quite familiar-- a vernacular version of the ubiquitous colonial Georgian facade, not very different from the Valentine House’s. Even if not exactly what the Hadleys made, its formality is what the public face of their house aspired to.
Today’s street view looks at the rear of the Skillman house. On this side, Baum has created an amazing informal composition. It is in three sections, with doorways at the divisions: the clapboard building to the north, the lower stone wall of the saltbox, and the still shorter kitchen wing (again in clapboard) added by Baum. These are covered by a peaked roof which appears to have been scissored into three flaps, each segment sloping at a different angle, with gable ends exposed in the gashes between, while the disconnected eaves describe a descending zigzag. If this sounds faintly Gehry-like, it is nevertheless true to the past of the Hadley house. Taking his cue from the way the old frame building was added to the saltbox, Baum has tacked on one more unmatched wing, smaller than the stone house, to exaggerate the effect of disjointed but organic structural growth. The center section of the undulating roof which results, although less steep than the original catslide, is surely an allusion to it.
Baum’s Janus-faced Skillman house, at once picturesque and formal, was perfectly tailored to the “country home” ideal. But Fieldston by the ‘twenties had withdrawn toward the crest of its hill, abandoning the old Delafield land near Broadway to later, very unsuburban development. As a result, today’s Fieldston Historic District excludes this early example of the work of its premier architect. But there is a happy ending: landmark designation in 2000 for what is by now, if not the oldest, then the oldest continuously occupied house in the borough.