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Boscobel: A House Museum of the Federal Period

 

The Hudson River Valley Review; Regional History Forum Vol 24.2

Boscobel: A House Museum of the Federal Period
Maria Zandri

“Let us step back in time to 1822.” These are the first words I heard upon entering Boscobel with my tour guide, Marie. Located in Garrison, Putnam County, this Federal-period gem is celebrating its bicentennial this year. But as fascinating as the architecture and collection of antiques in this house museum is the story of its original owners, States and Elizabeth Dyckman.

Born in the mid-1700s in Manhattan, States Dyckman had a difficult childhood filled with financial hardships; by the age of twenty-two, he had left home. While in Albany in 1776, he was seen toasting King George III and arrested for being a Loyalist. Dyckman escaped from prison and fled to New York City, where he established a lucrative job working for the Quartermaster’s Department of the British army.

Dyckman’s business with the department, which involved covering up the corrupt activities of his superiors, eventually took him to England at the end of the American Revolution. While there, he amassed a respectable amount of wealth from individual quartermasters—payment for his discretion about their wartime business practices. With this money, he planned to make himself a comfortable life if he was allowed to return to the newly independent United States. Over the years, States’ Loyalist activities had kept him separated from his family, with whom he was very close. After a prolonged exile, he longed to return to New York and settle down. In 1789, Dyckman was able to do that, with the help of his brother Samson, who also assisted him in finding a new home, King’s Grange, located on Verplank’s Point.

Dyckman lived at King’s Grange with his ailing mother; his sister Catalina (who was facing marital problems and a laudanum addiction); a housekeeper, Sil; and several slaves. He transformed his house into a 240-acre farm with a saw mill and cider mill. Another wealthy former Loyalist, Peter Corne, had a home nearby. A master mariner, Corne had known Dyckman in London. Now he lived with his granddaughter, Elizabeth. Soon after meeting, Elizabeth and States began a relationship. In 1794, forty-one-year-old States and eighteen-year-old Elizabeth were wed. After a large-scale redecorating effort, Elizabeth moved into King’s Grange. By 1799, the Dyckmans had expanded their family with the birth of children Peter Corne Dyckman and Catalina Letitia Dyckman.

Soon after their marriage, the Dyckmans began to have financial difficulties, brought on by States’ extravagant spending, which he believed helped him gain social prestige. He was forced to sell King’s Grange and relocate to a smaller farm. Making matters worse, the lifetime annuity promised to Dyckman from quartermaster Sir William Erskine came to a stop when Erskine passed away and his family froze the payments. At the same time, a faulty payment from the new owners of King’s Grange forced Dyckman to resell the home and move into an even smaller dwelling. States’ occupation was now listed officially as dirt farmer.

After borrowing large amounts of money from Elizabeth’s family, Dyckman was able to return to England to reclaim the Erskine annuity. After four years, most of which was spent working on the quartermasters’ accounts, he returned home not only with the Erskine funds, but with payments from other former quartermasters—in total, a sum approaching the modern-day equivalent of 2.85 million dollars.

Dyckman settled back into a relaxed lifestyle and took advantage of his new wealth by buying gifts for Elizabeth, Peter, and Sil (Catalina had passed away from scarlet fever while Dyckman was in Britain) and recreating the library he’d sold to redecorate King’s Grange. However, much of Dyckman’s new fortune was set aside to build his dream house, Boscobel. Named after the hunting lodge in Ireland where King Charles II was exiled, it served as a beacon of Dyckman’s Loyalist feelings toward England and his desire to create a haven from the hostile world. Montrose Point in Westchester County was chosen as the site of the home due to its proximity to the Hudson River. Construction began in 1806.

That August 11, States Dyckman passed away at the age of fifty-one. Only the foundation of Boscobel was complete. Thirty-year-old Elizabeth now was left to raise her son and complete and decorate the home. Two years later, she moved into Boscobel with Peter and his wife, Susan Matilda Whetten, and the couple’s young daughter, Eliza Letitia.

On June 20, 1823, Elizabeth passed away. A year later, Peter also died. For some time, his widow remained at Boscobel with her daughter. In 1888, the house finally fell out of the family’s ownership.

In 1924, Westchester County purchased the home and surrounding land to create Crugers Park. Boscobel was not part of park plans; its administrators did not think people would want to visit the home of a Loyalist, no matter how beautiful it was. In 1941, the house was threatened with demolition; local citizens hastily formed Boscobel Restoration, Inc., to save it. The organization leased Boscobel from the county for five years, making repairs to the house. In 1945, the land at Montrose Point was purchased by the U.S. Veterans Administration; by 1950, thirty-two buildings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Veterans Hospital surrounded Boscobel. Despite assurances to Boscobel Restoration, Inc., that the house would be taken care of, the government declared the building an “excess” the following year. It was sold for thirty-five dollars and slated for destruction.

Led by Benjamin West Frazier, the members of Boscobel Restoration, Inc., once again stepped up to rescue the house. It was taken apart, stored in sheds and garages across the area, and eventually reconstructed after a $50,000 donation was given anonymously by Lila Acheson Wallace, the co-founder of Reader’s Digest. The donation was used to purchase a plot of land in Garrison, fifteen miles north of the home’s original location. Today, Boscobel sits across from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Its grounds offer sweeping views of the Hudson River, Constitution Island, and the Hudson Highlands. Following Mrs. Wallace’s instructions, a landscaping firm was hired to design Boscobel’s grounds and interior decorators to furnish its rooms. When Boscobel opened to the public in 1961, it was more a “decorator’s showcase” than a house museum.

In 1975, extensive research was undertaken to determine what Boscobel would have looked like when Elizabeth and Peter made it their home in the early 1800s. With the help of the curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was restored to a historically accurate representation by 1977. European furnishings were replaced with American furniture. Reproduction paint, carpets, wallpaper, fabrics, and window treatments were brought in as well.

Every item in Boscobel today, except for the lemonade and gingerbread cookies offered at the end of each tour, reflect the period from 1780 to 1825. The furnishings include many pieces crafted by Duncan Phyfe, a prestigious New York furniture maker. States Dyckman had purchased several of Phyfe’s pieces, and many others were added after his death. Original pieces throughout the house include export, hand-painted china depicting places States had visited in Europe and a chair that belonged to Elizabeth’s grandfather. Boscobel’s library contains many of States’ books, each featuring his bookplate.

Upon entering Boscobel, one steps directly into the entryway, roomy enough for guests to dance after dinner. In the dining room to its left, the Duncan Phyfe table is set for a dinner party; they were held often at Boscobel. The room, which offers a gorgeous view of the Hudson River, is furnished with many original Dyckman pieces. Adjacent to it is a small butler’s pantry, where food was prepared once it was brought upstairs from the kitchen. To the right of the entryway are two adjoining drawing rooms. In the rear one is an authentic 200-year-old barrel organ that still works.

The bedrooms are located up the grand staircase on the second floor. The first room to the left is a guest room. It is furnished rather plainly. Connected to it is Elizabeth Dyckman’s dressing room, which is filled with wardrobes for her clothing, since dressers were not yet common. On its opposite side is Elizabeth’s bedroom. Known as the “best bedroom,” it affords superb views of the river, and was always warm due to the large windows and constantly burning fireplace. There is a bed and desk, a chamber pot (under the cushion of a chair), and a small table where Elizabeth could receive her meals.

Front and center on the second floor is the spacious library, which also served as a parlor during summer months. Beyond it is Peter and Susan’s room, which also offered fine views. Much like Elizabeth’s room, it was furnished so the couple had little need to leave it. Off this bedroom is a small room with a bathtub, although baths were a rarity in the early 1800s. The next room, located to the rear of the house, was another guest room or the room of a white servant. There were five servants in the Dyckman household—two white and five black, although none were slaves. One often was in charge of taking care of Peter and Susan’s daughter, Eliza. Today, this room is known as the “nanny’s room,” where the white servant in charge of the baby would sleep so she could be close enough to take Eliza if she disturbed her parents at night.

A particularly interesting part of the home is the basement, where Boscobel’s kitchen was located. The pine planks on the floor today came from Boscobel’s attic. There is a large fireplace with many warming plates and pots. Another basement room showcases some of the small, original items that belonged to Elizabeth and States Dyckman. Displayed here are pieces of Elizabeth’s monogrammed silver, the bill of sale from the candelabra States purchased (which is on display in the dining room), and a list handwritten by States describing the different locations that were hand-painted on the imported china. A brief display describing the history of the name Boscobel also is found here.

A trip to Garrison is well worth the drive to enter the life of Elizabeth Dyckman and enjoy breathtaking views from Boscobel’s well-maintained grounds.

Boscobel is located on Route 9D in Garrison. It is open every day except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April to October and 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in November and December. It also opens specifically for artists to explore the grounds on the second Tuesday of each month. Entrance fees are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $7 for children ages 6-14. Boscobel holds various educational, musical, and other programs throughout the year. For more information about Boscobel, call 845-265-3638 or visit www.boscobel.org.

 

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