Caramoor’s Rosen House archivist, Christopher Thomas shares how Caramoor all began! Get the whole story from the very beginnings of the land itself to the evolution of the property’s main house.
Above, the farm complex circa 1930.
Dear Caramoor Family,
This is Christopher Thomas, Rosen House archivist. I’ve just about completed my first year in this role, and wanted to break from the filing (and re-filing), scanning (and re-scanning) spreadsheets and illegible post-its that are my usual labors. I began to write a brief history of the Rosen House property for the benefit of my colleagues and our docents, and now would like to pass this history on to you. With a year of change approaching, I think it is valuable to take a close look at this property throughout its long life. Let’s start all the way back in the 17th century.
There are some hand-drawn maps of Bedford in Katonah: The History of a New York Village that offer the earliest land record. Though it’s hard to say with any certainty, we appear to sit within the first purchase of Katonah land from the Mohegan tribe, circa 1680. There are several large boulders that are told to mark the grave of Chief Katonah near Rt. 22 (a road which was originally an Indian hunting trail, and therefore one of the oldest roads in the area). It would seem that the land was cut up and passed from farmer to farmer for the next 200 years, until the advent of the railroad brought wealthy estate-seekers from the city.
I also learned about pre-Rosen Caramoor from one of our wonderful docents, Mary Farley, who generously shared with me some information collected by the Bedford Farmer’s Club. The story picks up in 1893, when a certain Captain William Chandler Casey bought the property — then 185 acres — and started a prosperous chicken farm. I learned from The New Book of Poultry (yes, such a thing exists) that the place, called Aratoma Farms, was a gentleman’s hobby farm. Casey would only occupy it in the summer. Rings a familiar tune. When Casey died, his wife Flora remarried, becoming Flora Potter. She was responsible for building the Sunken Garden, and would eventually parcel and sell the land.
One plot was sold to William Fahnestock, who built the neoclassical mansion, Girdle Ridge, as another gentleman’s farm. The other was sold to Charles Bain Hoyt and his wife Caroline Moore Hoyt. Hoyt’s estate included the house below, which stood in the meadow that lies just beyond the Sunken Garden.
Before I continue, I want to extend my appreciation to Brian Percival, a local architect who delivered a lecture on Caramoor some decades ago in the Music Room. I happened upon a CD recording of his lecture, and based most of the following on his insights. Thanks, Brian!
Charles Hoyt was Walter’s business partner (who incidentally had an extensive collection of Chinese and Korean art), and the estate was indeed named “Caramoor” after Caroline. Walter and Lucie bought the estate because Walter wanted a place to display his art collection, and Lucie wanted to vacation somewhere closer to the city. They demolished the Hoyt house, but saved their beautiful garden and kept the name. They were going to build their own Venetian Palazzo, and “Caramoor” sounded Italian enough for them.
You might have a good guess as to the purpose of this building. It is indeed the original house as Mr. Rosen had planned to build it. Note the similarities and the differences to the house that they would ultimately build. It is certainly larger, but clearly in the same tradition as our Rosen House. The Sunken Garden was to be the courtyard, surrounded by a familiar cloister motif. The music room also still exists in this design, just off the spiral-straircased foyer.
Plans changed at the onset of Depression. The lowly gentleman’s farmhouse made an attractive retreat from the Rosen’s palatial ambitions. Though it seems strange to plan, say, a Burgundian-style library where once was horse dung and straw, the Rosen family was already living in the building. The east wing of the house, currently the box office and the archive room where I sit typing once acted as the family’s country cottage.
Original plans scrapped, the Rosens went to work on the farm house. What they built was something intended to act as historical metaphor, a place that would transport them to Old World Italy. It makes liberal references to Venice, with its yellow stucco walls and red terracotta tiles. The rooftop is intended to look like a northern Italian town in miniature, with unexpected angles and the sudden appearance of chimneys. The beating heart of the house is certainly the courtyard, and outdoor room with structures for walls. The courtyard design is a staple in a broad range of cultures, from Venice to Kyoto. However, it is probably named the “Spanish Courtyard” rather than the “Venetian Courtyard” only because American architects would have been quite familiar with the Spanish Mission Revival in California that was so popular in the ’20s and ’30s.
Claude Nicolas Ledoux, a French theoretical architect, wrote of “ideal” buildings as structures that reflected the personalities and occupations of the people who owned them. A house is the physical representation of a person’s place in society. I like this idea, and it certainly lends itself to the Rosen House — a place that is as much a reflection of Lucie and Walter as anything could be. And yet I would argue that this house is much more transient than that. With all the changes coming over the next year, I am compelled to look at this place as a single beat in a longer history. Their house is ours now, and we are its family.
Thanks for tuning in,