BY ROD LIETH
|This composite of three images of the central reception staircase of Iviswold in Rutherford, N.J., built in 1887-1888 by William H. Perry and his corps of carpenters from Ithaca, N.Y., according the design by William Henry Miller. The frame in the upper left shows the staircase in use by students of Fairleigh Dickinson College; the lower left reveals the interior renovations period when FDU chose to "modernize" the interior; and the lower right illustrates the recent restoration period under Felician College. The text from The Rutherford Republican reports the modernization measures in the late 1940's.
The recent reconstruction of a fire-damaged historic house in the East Hill section of Ithaca, N.Y., holds a special meaning to the history of Rutherford’s venerated Ivison Mansion, commonly known as Iviswold Castle, and the nearby stable and groom’s quarters, presently headquarters for the Woman’s Club of Rutherford.
Heretofore, the only Ithaca name historically associated with the design and development of the famed Ivison Estate is the well-regarded architect, William Henry Miller (1848-1921). Miller’s eclectic Victorian style, reflected throughout the three-story house, received acclaim from a Scientific American magazine piece in 1891. But little known – and certainly not sufficiently credited – is the man who was Miller’s master carpenter for the woodworks installed at Iviswold and the carriage house.
Iviswold staircase with finished oak flooring. The open-string oak staircase is a centerpiece of the recently completed restoration of Iviswold by Felician College, directed by Historic Building Architects, LLC, with funds provided by Bergen County and New Jersey Historic Trust.
The carriage house at Iviswold now houses the Woman’s Club. Although the original woodwork there has been covered up, it is still there.
The fire-damaged 1870 house, rebuilt in 2014, was the residence of William H. Perry (1839-1910). A former New England whaler turned carpenter, Perry was responsible for planning and preparing the oak, mahogany and walnut pieces that formed Iviswold’s decorative patterns. His carpenters handcrafted the wainscoting, found in rooms and the covering of interior walls, and they meticulously performed inlaying of metal, marble and wood in fireplaces, hearths and hall benches. Their work created the charm of an occasional oaken window seat. One critique of the mansion that would credit Perry’s thoroughness was stated in a "Who Was Who in America" account. "The floors of random width quartered oak, are practically as good today as when first laid, true to line, without sag," stated the 1972 account.
In her assessment of the historic building in 2004, architectural historian Constance M. Greiff commented on features on the first floor that intrinsically reflect on the design demands of Miller, matched by the responding performance of seasoned carpenters. "There was a fireplace against the south wall on the first floor, with an adjacent ‘nook’ covered by a shallow, curved ceiling," Greiff observed. "This was a U-shaped feature, combining a storage bench and seating, tucked against the south side of the first run of the stair." Architect Miller visualized his client’s wishes, but it was the mechanics’ artistry that delivered on his designs.
Miller began his studies at Cornell in 1868, according to Miller biographer Mary Raddant Tomlan. He came under the tutorage of Andrew D. White (1832-1918), the first president of Cornell University. Perry is believed to have settled in Ithaca in about 1870. His small cottage was erected on Eddy Street that year, according to the records of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). That same year William and Matilda (Barnes) Perry had their first child, George W. Perry. While Miller studied and practiced architecture at Cornell, Perry found work with John Snaith, an English architect who opened a practice in Ithaca in 1869.
Exactly how Perry and Miller first met is undocumented, but Perry is reported to have built a house for Miller on a lot that became 122 Eddy Street. Miller’s residence was next door to or certainly nearby the Perry home, making them neighbors as far back as the 1870s. They both raised families. Miller, who married Emma Halsey in 1876, had four children. The Perrys raised a daughter and three sons, including George, who became a builder, and Chapin C. Perry, who studied law at Cornell.
One other Miller-Perry commonalty was their church. Miller had designed Ithaca's first Unitarian Church, and after it burned in 1893, Miller was commissioned to design the new Unitarian Church. Perry was hired by Miller to do the church's woodwork.
Another mansion that turned into a collaborative effort of the two men came with Miller’s commission to design a mansion for Jennie McGraw Fiske, who became a millionaire in 1877 with the death of her father, millionaire philanthropist John McGraw. The Fiske Mansion, which burned in 1906 after it had become headquarters for the Chi Phi Fraternity, was built on the shore of Lake Cayuga. It stood there like a French chateau, with castle-like turrets and a porte cochere facing a circular carriage pathway. Considered a "Miller Masterpiece," Tomlan in a talk in 2011, remarked that Miller’s buildings "look good from many angles." She could have been speaking of Rutherford’s Iviswold.
It was late in August of 1887, when Perry received the award of a contract for the "remodeling of a large mansion in Rutherford, N.J." Parcels for the Ivison Estate had been acquired in 1886, following the closing of the Hill Home School in 1882, by Floyd W. Tomkins and his daughters. Perry was quoted in an Ithaca newspaper saying he had decided to cancel his engagement as superintendent of construction for a Buffalo architect, Green & Wicks.
Perry’s Rutherford assignment to build a country manor for publishing magnate David B. Ivison (1835-1903) was a great challenge for many reasons. At the time, there was a serious shortage of capable artisans in the Bergen County area. An item in a Hackensack newspaper in July 1887 warned that a "scarcity of mechanics [carpenters and masons] is retarding further building operations." It would require a corps of carpenters to complete the exterior and interior building of this mansion, measured to cover an area of 100 by 120 feet, plus a spacious veranda, porte cochere at the main entrance, and a carriage house with living space for groomsmen.
Over the course of the next six months, Perry’s Planning Mill on South Cayuga Street in Ithaca produced the woodwork for the Ivison mansion. It was shipped by rail. At that time, the DL&W Railway had leased the rail line of the New York Lackawanna, upgrading DL&W from a regional railroad to a New York to Buffalo trunk line. Perry could haul materials a short distance to a rail depot on Buffalo Street in Ithaca for the trip to Rutherford, a distance of about 220 miles. According to Ithaca newspapers, Perry prominently advertised for carpenters. Possibly his son George, then 18, was one of them.
By mid-February of 1888, Ivison’s mansion was being wired for electricity. The encapsulation of Tomkins’ "Hill House," built in 1869, was complete. The mansion, resembling a 16th century French chateau, attracted some of the country’s leading innovators. A motor, designed by Frank J. Sprague of the Edison United Manufacturing Company – aka Edison Light – was installed to distribute power throughout the three floors. Henry S.C. Sweeting of Auburn, N.Y., completed the stone and masonry on the main house and stable. Ivison hired famed New York landscape architect, Clarence Tynan Barrett, to design the sprawling lawn and gardens. An ornamental iron fence was installed stretching the full length of Ivison’s 54 lots from West Passaic, to Montross, around to the stables on Fairview Avenue. Ivison committed to street improvements and installation of patent stone sidewalks around the estate’s perimeter.
According to Greiff’s 2004 assessment to support the national registration of Iviswold as a historic place, portions of the grand woodwork of the Miller-Perry remodeling period was either ripped out or covered over, starting with the ownership by the Union Club in 1925 and later Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1942.
More recently, much of the interior decoration was carefully restored under the supervision of Historic Building Architects, which was hired by Felician College after the school was awarded restorations grants by Bergen County and New Jersey Historic Trust.
Miller and the carpenter corps supervised by Perry turned attention to the carriage house in 1888. The stable property on the Fairview Avenue end of the estate was acquired by Ivison July 21, 1888. The groom’s quarters "clearly was designed by Miller," Greiff asserted, dispelling any question of its architectural pedigree. The carriage house "harmonizes in style with his [Miller’s] design for the alterations of the house," she stated.
The stable exterior structure consists of brownstone, clapboard, a double wood paneled door, covered by a slate roof. In Greiff’s opinion the carriage house "lost its integrity, having been gutted and fitted with a new interior for its function as a clubhouse." When the Woman’s Club purchased the property in 1924, it was a "neglected, deserted stable, which the club remodeled," according to Margaret R. Smith’s 1964 history of the club. When he died in 1903, Ivison, left his horses and carriages to his widow, Emiline Matilda (nee Crane) Ivison, who died June 8, 1924.
The painting and demolition during the 1924 "remodeling" notwithstanding, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, the architectural historian currently helping the Woman’s Club with its landmark registration and restoration effort, believes there is hope of restoring the charm of the original building’s interior. Portions of the original woodwork were painted over, she said. "It [original wood decorations] still exists," she said.
In Ithaca, meanwhile, the one-time home of William Perry, destroyed by a fire in March 2014, has been rebuilt on its original footprint.