Tuxedo Park : Everyday Look Is In at Ex-Exclusive Community
The men who once went house-to-house to wind the clocks or feed the goldfish don’t make the rounds anymore. Nannies have given way to baby sitters, and the last real butler left town a decade ago.
The talk at the club runs to high property taxes and low water pressure. The Autumn Ball, at which the tail-less dinner jacket was introduced to America, has not been held in 15 years. The oval horse track is a swampy meadow, and the stables have been converted to homes.
“Nobody lives here anymore who amounts to a row of beans,” growls Pierre Lorillard Barbey, 78, the last Lorillard in Tuxedo Park.
A century ago, his ancestor, Pierre Lorillard, built this community with a stone-and-iron front gate to keep out the unwashed, unwanted and uninvited--in other words, most of the era’s 56 million Americans.
The gate and its 24-hour guard are still in place. But as Tuxedo Park celebrates its 100th anniversary, they have proved scant protection against the forces that changed American society: world wars, immigration, income taxes and the Great Depression.
The exclusive enclave that lent the tuxedo its name has evolved from a late spring and early fall resort--a place to go before Newport or after Saratoga--to a suburb where split-levels sprout next to mansions and The Season runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.
The story of Tuxedo’s century, though, is not one of riches to rags. Thanks largely to newcomers who renovated the park’s great houses and converted its carriage houses into homes, Tuxedo today is a pleasant community, a museum of American architecture and a monument to its founder.
Lorillard was head of a tobacco dynasty. In 1885, having sold his Newport mansion, he began planning a hunting preserve for himself and friends in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, about 50 miles northwest of New York City.
The rocky, craggy, densely wooded area was known as Tuxedo, the corruption of an Indian expression for “Home of the Bear.”
Working without motorized machinery through the worst winter in years, 1,800 workers brought from Europe built the gatehouse, the club, 22 homes, a sewer and water system, a dam, a fish hatchery and 18 miles of roads.
To keep animals in and people out, 24 miles of barbed wire--enough to stretch halfway to Wall Street--was stretched around the perimeter of the 5,000-acre park.
When Tuxedo Park opened on May 30, 1886, eight months and $1.5 million after work began, it looked as if it had been there forever.
Tuxedo provided the rich with an instant past, but it was not the past of ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy. Price’s wood-and-stone buildings seemed to have grown up from the American soil itself. Nestled in wooded enclosures off the park’s winding roads, houses had a view of Lake Tuxedo, but not of their neighbors.
On Oct. 28, Lorillard’s son, Griswold, arrived at the first Autumn Ball wearing a tail-less dinner jacket. With his scarlet satin waistcoat, he looked, reported one magazine, “like a royal footman.”
Although the tuxedo was to become the essence of formality, at the time the garment reflected Tuxedo Park’s relative informality.
As an exhibition this year at the Tuxedo Historical Society makes clear, the park was designed as a place to do things. It boasted as having one of the nation’s first golf courses, tennis courts and a mile-long, lighted toboggan run. It had skating, sailing, curling, fishing and hunting.
By the time the founder died in 1901, Tuxedo had become one of America’s most prestigious resorts, with Astors, Juilliards and Pells as residents. “If you live in Tuxedo one year,” said Mrs. Lorillard, “you will meet everybody you’ve ever heard of.”
Tuxedo’s games became primarily social--and very formal. The rich increasingly preferred more elaborate European styles of clothing, manners and architecture, and the original rustic cottages, with their arched stone doorways, massive chimneys and overhanging eaves, were joined and sometimes replaced by chateaux, manor houses and villas.
“Tuxedo was the most formal place in the world,” recalled the late Emily Post, who once lived there. “Nobody ever waved or hello-ed or hi-ed. You bowed when you shook hands.” Only five men ever called her by her first name in Tuxedo, she said, and never in public.
But the new century provided Tuxedo with a series of shocks, the worst of which was the Depression.
Many great houses were closed or sold for practically nothing. Some burned, some slid into disrepair and some were demolished. The result, in so insular a community, was a palpable sense of isolation and decay.
In 1940, a 108-acre estate with a mansion, two cottages and a boathouse sold for $15,000. A year later, the founder’s grandson urged the admission of non-residents to the club, asking: “What is blueblood, anyway?” Post defected to Martha’s Vineyard.
Finally, in 1952, the enclave incorporated as the village of Tuxedo Park in the town of Tuxedo. Undeveloped land was put up for sale by the Tuxedo Park Assn., and the gates were opened to anyone with the money to buy. No one came.
By the early 1960s, about one-third of Tuxedo’s 250 houses were unoccupied, but there was little or no market for them. Old money thought Tuxedo was passe; new money thought it was closed to outsiders.
But in an era of crime, pollution and suburban sprawl, a home in a planned, walled community with clean air and water an hour from Manhattan persuaded more and more commuters to overlook the cracked plaster and chipped paint.
Typically, this new breed of Tuxedan would wolf down dinner after work and spend the night scraping, painting and hammering the big old house back into shape.
“Then we’d go to parties on weekends and talk about it,” said Mayor Frank S. Bell Jr., who bought his 10-bedroom, nine-fireplace mansion for $40,000 in 1969.
Five years after the last empty one was filled, houses still are discussed in Tuxedo with an intensity reserved elsewhere for the pennant race or the stock market. “How’s your furnace running?” is a standard greeting.
Little irritates these Tuxedans more than being described as snobs hiding behind their wall; they see themselves as blistered pioneers on the frontiers of do-it-yourself home restoration.
“When you read about Tuxedo you always read about Mercedes and limousines, but that car of mine outside is eight years old, and it has 160,000 miles on it!” complained Bell, pointing at his Plymouth.
“We have the standard run of people here,” including the descendants of workers who built the place, the 49-year-old engineer said. “I know people who are bankrupt and people who are worth $10 million.”
The park’s median family income is about $50,000, almost twice as much as that of any other community in Orange County.
Most residents describe Tuxedo Park reverentially. Emily Davie Kornfeld, who made her debut at the Autumn Ball more than 50 years ago, describes Tuxedo as “our own Shangri-La,” where “children run free. Dogs run free. You can leave your keys in your car.”
Elgin Ciampi, who moved into the park in 1967, loves the space afforded by his hilltop mansion. “We have a room on the third floor just for storing Christmas decorations, and a room just for lamps,” he says, laughing. If he tried to heat all 50 rooms, however, his yearly fuel bill would be a sobering $18,000.
Another Tuxedo trade-off: White-tailed deer, whose ancestors were brought in for sport, gather in the Kornfeld yard each afternoon. Charming, but “they’re murder on the garden,” complained Kornfeld, who grew up on an estate with nine gardeners but now personally protects her plants with a .22-caliber pistol.
In recent years, Tuxedo’s rustic old homes have been joined by glass, solar and split-level houses. There are houses with aluminum siding and one with a pool in the yard and a basketball hoop in the drive.
Many new houses are not popular with the old guard. “We’re not against new houses, but we’re certainly against horrid Levittown houses,” Kornfeld said.
Tuxedo Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a long way from Levittown. Houses must accommodate no more than one family and the minimum lot size is two acres. All stores are in town, outside the gate.
A five-bedroom lakefront house is being offered for $875,000, and the least expensive home for sale is a converted barn at $270,000.
Such prices do nothing to curb the human tendency to close the gate behind oneself.
An estimated 850 people now live in about 280 houses in the park, whose area has been cut almost in half since 1886. After 15 to 20 more houses are built, the mayor said: “All we’ll have left are ravines, cliffs and stream beds.” But the privately held Tuxedo Park Assn., which owns and pays taxes on much of the vacant land, believes that the park can accommodate more than twice as many.
Recently a court overruled the architectural review board’s veto of a proposed house that the mayor said “looked very much like something that might arrive in sections on a truck.”
So the village imposed a moratorium on building this year and rewrote its zoning law. “When everyone was friendly, the old law was OK,” Bell said. “But we didn’t expect the attitude of, ‘I spent $80,000 for this land, and I’ll do what I want with it.’ We’ll have to join the rest of the world.”
That prospect warms the heart of Pierre Lorillard Barbey even less than the publicity generated by the park’s centennial.
“There’s been too much of this all year long,” he complained before ending a telephone interview by hanging up. “If it keeps up, this place will go downhill even more than it has.”