Real Estate

Their House is a Museum

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In 1933, at the Hobart Zoo in Australia, Harold, a Tasmanian tiger, died. He was the last of his kind on earth. Although Tasmanian tiger sightings have recently been reported in Western Australia, they are unsubstantiated and it is believed the species is forever extinct.

On a bright spring day, I entered the habitat of another extinct species, the last original Tuxedo Park WASP. At 94, Henry Alexander “Alex” Salm died in November. He was the owner of the last home remaining in its original family’s hands in the Ramapo Mountain village an hour northwest of Manhattan.

Tuxedo Park was founded as an exclusive society enclave, and for 128 years successive generations of the Coster/Salm family had occupied 25 Tower Hill Loop. Its vast public rooms, fifteen fireplaces, guest cottage and garage on 3.1 acres were on view because the property is on the market for $4.475 million. It was a rare privilege to view this impermanent time capsule of a lost world.

Since Salm’s house was completed in 1899, all of the other 290 homes in the 3.2-square-mile gated community have passed into new hands. Death, divorce, foundering fortunes and changing needs drove out the great American families—Vanderbilt, Morgan, Harriman, Pell, Mortimer, Lorillard, Price, Juilliard, Pell, Astor, Frelinghuysen—and accomplished individuals like Alfred Lee Loomis, Dorothy Draper and Emily Post. They all defined this spot, where robber barons’ homes dotted the hills around three lakes and the first tuxedo jacket was worn. But that’s ancient history, and Alex Salm was its last living, breathing embodiment.

The world changed in 132 years, but all around him, in near stillness, Salm lived a life now lost. By all accounts a lovely man, he was educated at Le Rosey, Kent School and Dartmouth, and served with honor in World War II. Then, he worked in real estate and spent weekends in the family home with its views of the mountains and Tuxedo Lake.

Salm, who had rowed crew at Kent and Dartmouth, enjoyed sculling quietly on Tuxedo Lake and generously underwrote the construction of a new boathouse at the Tuxedo Club to house the boats he so enjoyed. An active member of the club, which the vintage photographs lining its walls attest, he lived a sporting life, vigorously playing court and lawn tennis into his eighties, and cut a dapper figure (in his tuxedo, of course) at club events.

When those evenings ended, he returned home to a rambling home filled with a trove of treasures of a forgotten age, like his Herter Brothers Art Nouveau dining set. Herter was the furniture maker to New York’s 400 in the Gilded Age, and Salm’s family bought their set new. Though baroque and out of sync with current tastes, it, like the other baronial Tuxedo homes furnished in the styles of Europe—English castle, Eighth Arrondissement, Florentine palazzo—are reminders of a vanished New York. Even as it passed away, the family pictures that still line the Salm house walls—with their fine-featured faces enjoying merry times into the 1940s and ’50s—attest to the quiet persistence of a fine style of life.

The house was designed by William Bates for Salm’s grandfather, Charles H. Coster, a J. P. Morgan partner with a talent for organizing railroads. In modern terms, we might find in his recipe a touch of Schwarzman, a cup of Santo Domingo and a pinch of Ross for spice.

Seventeen bedrooms are spread over 14,000 square feet, spotted with empty Champagne jeroboams, elegant safari trophies, and a line of straw boater hats waiting to head off on electric-powered mahogany boats cruising Tuxedo Lake. Strolling down long halls, there is a hush created by the jumble of oriental rugs, finely woven and richly colored, which silences the mellowed wood floors.

What will happen to the home and its contents now? There is talk of scattering the contents among relatives in far off places. Much will likely end up sold. Few of the pieces will seem important, absent the story of the lives they decorated. Unlikely to end up at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, they will probably be sent to some upstate auction house or local antique center.

Like Deerfield Village, the stately mansions of Newport, or the Henry Ford Museum, the objects of this lost way of life could be preserved forever. People could come and walk into Salm’s study through curtains hung over doorways to seal in warmth in the days before central heating. Upstairs are bedrooms with chamber pots that, before central plumbing, were carried downstairs and cleaned by a staff that occupied eleven bedrooms in a neat warren on the attic floor. They moved through the house on a servant’s stairway, itself a bygone relic of earlier times.

Do we kill the things we love by neglect, by negligence, or is their fate simply a product of changing times? Now, only through stories and photos, can we remember the days when the Tasmanian tiger and the last WASP in Tuxedo Park still walked among us.


Will A Charles Gwathmey Be Razed?

It's historical cachet vs. cold-hard cash

At Home

From Vanderbilts to Communists

854 Fifth Avenue's many lives

At Home
At Home

The Revered Art of Just Showing Up

You might want to stay off our columnist's little list