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Scotland on the Hudson

A 22-room 1856 Gothic Revival mansion undergoes a meticulous restoration.

Project: Lovat residence, suburban New York, NY

Architects: Stephen Tilly, Architect, Dobbs Ferry, NY; Robert A. Gabalski, project architect; Anna Carlson Gannett, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

Sometimes house restoration projects improve with age – that is, when they extend to phase after phase, and the owners and architects have years to delve into research and devise ever smarter strategies. Such has been the good fortune of Lovat, a Gothic Revival 1856 mansion in suburban New York City owned by Bill Gannett and Anna Carlson Gannett – he's a lawyer and she's an urban designer and architect. With the Dobbs Ferry, NY-based firm Stephen Tilly, Architect, Carlson Gannett has masterminded an overhaul of Lovat's marble-and-gingerbread skin and a slate roofline complicated with turned finials, steep dormers and a dozen chimneypots.

The 22-room house (including eight bedrooms) has belonged to Anna Carlson Gannett's family since 1959 – her parents paid $29,000 for the white elephant, on a 3/4-acre hilltop plot – and she grew up there. Carlson Gannett began researching and gearing up for a restoration when she finished architecture school in the 1980s. She has interviewed dozens of people who know pieces of the mansion's history, including an architect who worked there in the 1930s, a former caretaker, and a contractor who electrified the house. Carlson Gannett has also contacted descendants of the original owner, an Edinburgh-born tannery tycoon named Thomas Fraser. (His family owned the house into the 1950s.) Like a number of wealthy Scottish Manhattanites in the mid-1800s, Fraser built a hilltop country house along the Hudson River – the landscape reminded him of his homeland. He and his friends followed architectural trends set in 1838 by William Paulding, a former New York City mayor who hired A.J. Davis to design a Gothic Revival mansion named Lyndhurst on a Hudson cliff. Fraser's crowd socialized and intermarried for decades: "They even built America's first golf course near here, and named it St. Andrews," says Carlson Gannett.

Though she has never been able to identify the architect of Lovat, which was named after the Fraser clan's ancestral seat, Carlson Gannett has amassed vintage maps, drawings, clippings and photographs, including some hi-res prints made from century-old glass slides at the local historical society. The Gannetts began the restoration in earnest in 2002, soon after taking title to the property from Anna's mother. Her parents, Carlson Gannett explains diplomatically, "had been challenged by the scale of restoration and maintenance needed." But they did honor the house's integrity, preserving marble flooring and fireplaces, a mahogany stair rail, 1940s floral-swag wallpaper, and even a call-bell system (one bedroom bell is still labeled "Mrs. Fraser").

There were lingering condition problems, however. Phase one for the Gannetts and Tilly's office entailed curing some ancient roof leaks. "We put in 200 linear feet of lead-coated-copper valley, ridge, parapet wall and rake flashing," reports Robert A. Gabalski, the project architect. The team replaced the roof's 20th-century asphalt planes with Vermont slate hexagons, custom cut by Evergreen Slate Co. of Granville, NY. The original roof had been higher maintenance wood hexagons; "There were itinerant roof repairers in the 19th century who would go around the region, and owners would have their shingles restored every ten years or so with arsenic treatments," says Carlson Gannett. She and Tilly's office further updated the roof with replicated wooden finials, new wire-glass panes for a 1940s octagonal-cone skylight, lead-coated copper lightning rods from Baker Lightning Rod Co. of Asbury, NJ, and snowguard railings and whales'-tail-shaped snowguards engineered by roofing consultant Russel Watsky of Ossining, NY. Just about the only roof components that did not require major rethinking were the dozen 1850s terra-cotta chimney pots. "We redid their cement washes," says Gabalski, "but aside from some spider-cracks, they're sound."

Lovat's marble walls likewise posed relatively minor challenges. "We water-cleaned the masonry and only had to re-point about 20 percent," says Gabalski; the new lime mortar recipes, of the soft types N and O, were based on analyses of the vintage formulas by Jablonski Berkowitz Conservation of Manhattan. The crews tore off Lovat's charming but invasive coating of English ivy, which was damaging the woodwork. Along every gable underside, cedar bargeboards resembling icicles have been repaired, and lost battlements shown in the historical society's glass slides have been replicated atop faceted window bays and a rear wing. Restoration carpenter Charles Branch of CSB Woodworking in Hastings, NY, and contractor Mark Butkovich of Ossining, NY, also restored rail-and-stile panels at the base of the bays (long concealed by plywood), an original verandah section, and a 1940s sun porch. "We had time to research the original paint colors, too," says Carlson Gannett. The buff and slate-blue palette comes from analyses by the Darla Olson Studio of Hudson, NY, which has also worked on Lyndhurst a few miles upriver.

As work progressed, the Gannetts and their two children never had to move out. "The windows alone took a year, one by one," says Carlson Gannett. Charles Branch, another Lyndhurst veteran, overhauled sash ranging from nearly floor-to-ceiling 4-over-4s at ground level to pointed arches with quatrefoil tracery in the gables. "We needed new sash chains, but the shutters, wavy glass, and most of the original hardware could be saved, including some white porcelain knobs," says Carlson Gannett. Storm windows cover the tracery sections, but she is still deciding how best to protect the lower openings without spoiling the shimmering effect of old glass and razor-thin Gothic muntins.

This summer she'll oversee completion of another major exterior undertaking: Butkovich is restoring an 1895 Lord & Burnham greenhouse, based on advice from Ward Greenhouses of Concord, MA (a specialist in recreating lost Lord & Burnhams). Carlson Gannett has meanwhile begun re-plumbing the original bathrooms, while preserving 1940s pedestal sinks. She's also put in new hot-water boilers and air handlers to replace failing furnaces, albeit reluctantly – "I hated to see the old converted coal boiler go" – and she nostalgically kept the walk-in wooden coal bin. She'll eventually tackle the public rooms and bedrooms, with upholstery from W.T. Barnes of Dobbs Ferry, NY (yet another Lyndhurst veteran).

"Everything we've done here so far has been a research project, with careful decisions about what works for us and for the integrity of the house," says Carlson Gannett. "I know we won't ever change the floor plan much; it has a wonderful original logic, with angled views and sightlines across the hilltop, and some of the stone walls are two feet thick anyway." She keeps meeting Frasers who are eager for news of her work: "They'll ask, ‘So, how's that leak I remember in that corner bedroom?'" she says. "And now I can say, ‘Ah, we finally got that one!'" 

 

 

 
 

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