In the early fall of 1818, having just completed his studies at the University of North Carolina, Robert Donaldson penned the following impressions of his voyage by Hudson River steamboat from Albany to New York City:
The Banks are lined with elegant villas — thought it the consummation of Earthly Bliss to live in one of those Palaces, on such a Noble River, under such a Government.
Little could the young North Carolinian have imagined at the time that within ten years he would be living in New York at 15 State Street in the former mansion of the wealthy Scots merchant Archibald Gracie, with commanding views of New York harbor and the mouth of the Hudson River. Nor that his inchoate dream to live one day in an elegant villa along the Hudson would be fulfilled in 1835 with the purchase of Annandale, a 95-acre estate just a few miles north of Edgewater. It was at Annandale that Robert Donaldson and his wife Susan built their idyllic country estate, Blithewood, now sadly demolished, which they transformed over the course of a decade or more into a picturesque villa and landscaped gardens that existed in near-perfect harmony with their natural surroundings (fig. 3).
Susan Donaldson seemed especially pleased with the prospect of developing an upriver estate. Writing to her beloved father, Judge William Gaston, in the summer of 1835 she related the exciting news that “Mr. D. has bought a beautiful country seat on the river & our present plan is to pass our summers there & to have a house for the winter in Carolina.” She continued, “I shall certainly see you every winter & my husband’s long indulged wish for the country will be gratified.” It is said that Susan bestowed the name Blithewood on the Donaldson estate, suggesting that it was a place of rare beauty and a constant source of joy and contentment for her and her husband. The transformation of Annandale into Blithewood brought boundless opportunities for Robert Donaldson, Esq., to exercise his well-known reputation as arbiter elegantiarum, or an ultimate arbiter in matters of taste, in the creation of a country retreat that was in itself a complete work of art.
Building Blithewood took energy, enthusiasm, and artistic sensibility — not to mention prodigious amounts of capital. Writing to her father again the following summer Susan reveals how deeply immersed she and her husband were in their work:
I have literally not had an hour to give to answering letters etc indeed to any thing more intellectual than flowerbeds and borders deciding where this vine & that shrub should be planted. Mr. D seems perfectly in his element & wonders how he existed so long in a City — We find a great deal requiring our attention — things having been left in miserable order or disorder.
The general disrepair referred to in the letter was the residue of several previous occupants on the Annandale estate. The property was purchased by General John Armstrong in 1795, who converted an existing sturdy barn into a two-story Federal style dwelling with twelve rooms, a building that must have held little charm for the artistically adventurous Robert Donaldson, who immediately turned his attention to making plans for a total transformation of the house and grounds. To aid him in this ambitious endeavor Donaldson enlisted the noted architect, A. J. Davis, and horticulturalist and landscape designer, Alexander Jackson Downing. In fact, it was Donaldson who brought these two talented designers together for the first time at Blithewood, a meeting that resulted in a creative collaboration that would determine, through their numerous publications, the direction of American architecture and landscape design in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1836, Davis produced his first design for Blithewood, a gatehouse in the “Rustic Cottage Style” that was later illustrated in Davis’ Rural Residences (1838) and is considered today to be one of the first picturesque American Gothic cottages. Other designs provided by Davis for Blithewood included a grapery, a toolhouse, a rustic temple, and a second gatehouse in 1841 (fig. 4). Also begun in 1836 were a series of alterations and additions to the main house that ultimately would take Donaldson nine years to complete. One of the first additions was a large veranda that wrapped around three sides of the house that afforded the Donaldsons the pleasure of comfortable living both indoors and out from the late spring through the glories of a Hudson River Valley autumn (fig. 5). Another architectural innovation of their villa at Blithewood was its broad gable roof supported by ornamental brackets in the eaves, a design that marked the beginning of the so-called American bracketed style of architecture.
After six years of perfecting Blithewood, the Donaldsons decided in 1841 to sell their townhouse in lower Manhattan and make Blithewood their permanent home. They brought upriver at this time all of their family possessions, including the richly ornamented Grecian style furniture that Robert Donaldson had purchased from Duncan Phyfe, New York’s premier cabinetmaker, on at least two occasions—once in 1822 for his family home in Fayetteville, North Carolina (fig. 6) and then again around 1827 when he purchased the State Street house. Today, much of this Phyfe furniture is at Edgewater, where it is the pride of the collection. But what of the additional new furniture purchases Robert and Susan Donaldson made prior to moving their New York City furniture there in 1841? Some undoubtedly has been lost to time, but at Edgewater there are at least two pieces of furniture, one particularly evocative, that offer a sense of the direction the Donaldsons’ taste was taking at the time.
The first of these two is a rosewood veneered center table with satinwood inlay (fig. 7) that is tucked away in the cozy library on the third floor at Edgewater. Its Donaldson provenance is impeccable, having come there as part of a bequest by Mary Cromwell Allison, Robert and Susan Donaldson’s great grand-daughter, of paintings, furniture, porcelains and works on paper that survived from the Donaldson family’s tenure at Edgewater between 1852 and 1902. (The lively story of the circumstances surrounding this bequest is related in Dick’s book, More Adventures with Old Houses: The Edgewater Experience.)
The center table was made in France during the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) and is in a late classical style with delicate s-curved legs recalling earlier Louis XV designs. Though made in France, it almost certainly was purchased in New York City from one of several French-born cabinetmakers, or ébénistes, who operated there with great success in the 1830s and 1840s and provided significant challenges to established cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe. These French ébénistes established furniture manufactories and showrooms where they sold locally made
and imported French furniture, and filled custom orders from France for their elite New York clientele. Included among these French artisans was the well-known nineteenth-century New York City cabinetmaker, Alexander Roux, who immigrated to New York in 1835, and Auguste-Émile Ringuet-Leprince, who came there from Paris in 1843. Another lesser-known figure was George Ponsot, who was active in New York from 1830-1854. A recently discovered French secrétaire à abattant signed, “G. Ponsot,” and inlaid with satinwood in rosewood veneer in a manner similar to the Donaldson center table is at Frederic Church’s home, Olana, in Hudson, New York. Given that Ponsot was a known importer of French Louis-Philippe inlaid furniture, it may be that the Donaldson center table was either purchased at his furniture emporium ready-made or specially ordered from France.
The beautiful inlaid decoration on the top of the Donaldson’s center table — two lovebirds encircled by a wreath of meandering grapevines (fig. 8) — is a delicate combination of naturalism and romanticism, and particularly well suited, it would seem, for use in a picturesque country villa such as Blithewood. Relatively lightweight and equipped with casters, it’s nice to imagine it being brought outdoors onto the veranda in good weather, where the couple could enjoy tea or a light meal with a view of their landscaped grounds, the Hudson River, and the distant Catskill Mountains. The two lovebirds depicted in the top take on additional meaning in this context, symbolizing, perhaps, the happiness Robert and Susan Donalsdon found working together creatively in the late 1830s on their idyllic country retreat.
A second piece of Donaldson furniture that almost certainly was purchased for Blithewood is a delightful little Gothic style armchair (fig. 9) with a caned seat, also the gift of Mary Cromwell Allison, that currently is tucked away in the dressing room for the master bedroom at Edgewater. Made of highly figured curly maple, a wood much prized by furniture-makers that occurs randomly in lumber sawn from the American sugar maple tree, the armchair is now a burnished rich amber color due to the effects of age. Its original function was as a slipper chair, in which one sat to remove his or her shoes, a function expressed in its squat proportions and low seat height — about 14 inches as opposed to around 17 inches on a standard chair — as well as its curiously embowed arm supports made to accommodate the outwardly thrust elbows of a person bent over tying or untying his or her shoes. To appreciate the slipper chair’s height differential, simply look at how high up the arms enter the rear stiles or, conversely, how low its handsomely pierced Gothic back appears in relation to the arms. Light, compact and elegant, this slipper armchair is a perfect example of form following function in furniture design. It is also a highly personal article used in the Donaldson’s dressing room or bedroom that serves to humanize them and to bridge the historical gap between their time and ours.
The Donaldsons sold Blithewood in 1852 when they purchased Edgewater, which would become their final home. Once again, all their possessions were moved to their new home, including, among other things, the Duncan Phyfe furniture from the Fayetteville and New York City houses as well as the later furniture they purchased for Blithewood. After Robert Donaldson’s death, Edgewater remained in the family for another 30 years until it was eventually sold in 1902 and the furniture taken by his daughter, Isabel Donaldson Bronson, to her new home in Summit, New Jersey. Apparently for financial reasons during the depression years both she and her daughter, Mrs. James W. Cromwell, were forced to sell a fair amount of the Phyfe furniture, with some it eventually being acquired by the prominent American furniture collectors, Mrs. J. Amory Haskell and Henry Francis du Pont. Luckily, she also gave some of the furniture to her granddaughter, Mary Cromwell Stuart (later Mary Cromwell Allison), who eventually returned it to Edgewater where she felt it belonged. The acquisition of original Donaldson furniture for Edgewater continues. In late 2013 a pair of card tables (fig. 6) listed on the original 1822 bill of sale from Duncan Phyfe to Robert Donaldson, probably sold earlier by Isabel Bronson, was acquired for Edgewater with funds donated by the late Bill Thompson. More Donaldson furniture remains out there in public and private hands and we at Classical American Homes Preservation Trust continue to pursue opportunities to bring as much of it as possible back home.
The houses associated with Classical American Homes Preservation Trust are full of rare and wonderful treasures that serve to illuminate the lives and times of their occupants. When you next find yourself at Edgewater, please be sure to ask to see the center table and slipper armchair from Blithewood, unsung yet poignant reminders of the picturesque country villa that once stood on the banks of that noblest of rivers, the Hudson.
[Biographical information for this article was derived from Jean Bradley Anderson’s Carolinian on the Hudson: The Life of Robert Donaldson (1996), which is available for purchase at classicalamericanhomes.org.]