Friday, February 05, 2010

A Lonely Chapel by the River

“And I believe there is a time for meditation in cathedrals of our own…”

-Summer, Highland Falls -

3 years ago I wrote a post here at Intravenus De Milo about mine and my family’s lone year spent as official residents of Highland Falls, New York in the comfort (or was it discomfort?) of the mysterious yet grand Greystone Mansion nestled on the banks of the mighty Hudson River. Excerpts updated and edited:

“Greystone was an old hotel nestled against the west side of the Hudson River. it's entrance was off of old route 9W in Highland Falls, NY, between the Veteran's Cemetery and a Church. It had stone pillar markers which flanked the entrance to it's long switchback driveway. We shared this enormous place with an older retired couple (Mr. and Mrs. Pierson [sp?]). To the best of my fading recollection, the old hotel was essentially divided in half with the two occupants sharing the main winding staircase in the majestic foyer to access the upstairs bed rooms. The place had a huge yard with a patio area that butted up to the cliff that looked out over the river where I can imagine guests once dined al fresco in the warmer Hudson Valley seasons. There were so many rooms that all five of us could have had our own…

At first it was cool living there. There were the cheap rooms in the basement that still had the old timey metal headboards in them. It was a perfect set for a scary movie. The big yard was cool too, but it didn’t take long for all of us to get sick of each other and realize we were isolated from the rest of the world.

Years later as teenager though (1980), I decided to take the turn off old 9W and see what the place looked like. It had security cameras at the top of the drive and a chain across the road. I, of course, ignored these and let myself down the road. As I parked and got out my car, I was immediately met by two young women screaming at me, “get the hell of here!” before I could even make my nostalgic appeal. I think the year was 1985 when I made that trek down the hill and even though my inspection time was brief, Greystone looked exactly as I remembered it in my youth.While back at West Point on the occasion of my wedding in 1996, I again mustered some bravery and took the ride down the hill in the hopes that the buzzards that lived there would allow me a few moments on the grounds to perhaps photograph the place. Much to my dismay and sadness I discovered the place had been torn down. Not a brick or foundation remained. How could someone have torn down such a beautiful place? They better have had a damn good reason”

I wrote about Greystone that year because a dear friend who understands my love of the Hudson Highlands had given the book cited in the post. I was hoping to contact the author and the Highland Falls historical society and see if any other information could be mined about the place. I was working on a lengthy draft when I ended up sidetracked with life. It was never sent. A recent conversation with a colleague at work renewed my effort to revisit the case of this long forgotten mansion.

I decided to go back and read the original blog post in order to borrow from what I had written for the draft to Ms. Coffey and decided to check the comments section while I was there. What a surprise I found there waiting for me! THREE!!! Yes, THREE former residents of Greystone had left messages for me through the years! I was so angry at myself for not going back to check the comments I could scream, but one commenter left his name and state of residence. On a lark, I decided to look him up and chance a telephone call (guts huh?!). Turns out he is a brat of 57, and his name is Mark Hill. He is cousin to Eric Wagner from Highland Falls whom many of us were acquainted with during High School days. I almost fell out of my chair when I read that Mark’s grandmother had been a waitress at the hotel when it was open! He actually has some furniture his family took from the place when they moved out in late 1968. Mark’s family were prior residents before our family moved in in the summer of 1969. We are now in contact and hopefully Mark will follow up with promised photos that I can share with all.

Another commenter “MJ” left a treasure trove of historical information that really fills in some big gaps. I took some time to research and verify what she had written and based on what I could confirm here’s what we now know about “The Greystone”:

The property many (few?) of us know as Greystone Mansion was build by William Cruger Pell. His family was amongst the wealthy industrialist baron’s who “resettled” the Hudson Highlands after the civil war. They were from New York City and once owed most of what is now referred to as Pelham area of the Bronx. His family built a few estates in the Highlands including one in Bear Mountain and another Williams brother Alfred built on a large swath of property adjacent to JP Morgan’s land stretching from the banks of the Hudson all the way West to the base of Strom King Mountain. Alfred called his estate Pellwood. For which a lake and housing area are still named.

Found in “The Hudson River Highlands” by Frances F. Dunwell is this brief mention:

“Beginning after the Civil War, Highland Falls came to be considered fashionable, if you can believe it, and little by little summer houses were built near it – or existing farm houses bought and adapted by people who came for the summer. In the 1840’s country houses were built by three members of the Pell family. They were the first to put up what then considered ‘handsome’ houses with docks fronting on the river…”

A most exquisite land map from late 1890’s provides a terrific overhead view of what was referred to as “Millionaire’s Row” (See map below).

You can just make out A. Pell’s name on the plot of land below J.P. Morgan’s on the little riverside plot. The switchback driveway is noted as well.

William decided to build his summer home on a smaller piece of land off the river banks just South of the veterans cemetery. He called his estate “Pelham”. As my wonderful commenter noted, the Pell’s were a more private family than their counterparts and the fact that I could find little other than the few articles “MJ”notes bare this out. Other than a few things regarding society get togethers and financial news of the day, not much can be found in the annals of The New York Times archives and other resources.

I was however excited to read The NY Times wedding announcement of William’s only daughter Margarita whose reception is said to have taken place at Pelham. I can just imagine what the place must have looked like on that day. “MJ” also mentions a New York Times article from the early 1900s that reports some NYPD detectives digging up the lower level of William Cruger Pell's country home. It seems they'd been tipped off by some ex-con that a missing New York heiress was buried beneath the cellar floor. That convicts story turned out to be false though, and evidently the missing girl was never found. Nothing like a murdered heiress to steep the place in mystery, huh? I had no luck finding this article on my own, but perhaps it will turn up in one of my future searches.

Flash forward to shortly after WWII. Pelham is opened as a fine dining and hotel establishment by Chef Angelo Culot and his wife to shining reviews (review kindly forwarded to me by Mark Hill below the fold). This is the first time the name Greystone appears. The Establishment is referred to as both “The Greystone” or as the familiar “Greystone Mansion”. There is no record of how long the restaurant/hotel was in operation or when it closed for good. Having lived in this house, it must have been one swank place to dine and stay overnight.

The next thing we’re aware of is the Hill family moving in sometime in 1967. Our family arrived as the Hills were leaving 1969, and after us was another regretfully anonymous commenter to my earlier blog post who lived there in the 70’s. She writes:

"I lived at Greystone Mansion with my Mom, brother and sister in the mid 70's. I also was horrified to drive down that winding driveway to see an empty lot. We had the best times of our lives there. Times I will NEVER forget. We were always looking for new hiding places. We did find that hidden wine cellar. I can remember the basement was like a maze. Never ending. It was so peaceful. I believe we were sent to the mansion for a reason. My Mom passed away a year after we moved from Greystone. We loved waking up to the view of the Hudson River and in the winter watching the deer run all over the property."

My conversation with Mr. Hill was really something to remember. We both had strong recollections of the distinct floral smell the property had in the spring and summer, no doubt due the over grown and long forgotten gardens that must have been glorious in there day. He recalled for me how terribly cold the place was in the winter with its dying barely functioning boiler. We reflected on the beautiful ancient oak trees that framed the view of the river from the back deck. He also recalled that it could be a lonely place as well so far off the road and considerable distance from other kids. Hell, driving by on route old 9W you’d hardly know the place was down there even as large as it was.

I find myself giddy with all this new information, like a detective who’s uncovered a big lead in a case. Yet, still much remains a mystery about the place once called Pelham and the people who lived there through the years. Given the fancy security system that was in place when I boldly made my way down the drive in 1980, I’m wondering if younger members of the Pell family were living there. Perhaps it was Williams great grand daughters who were the ones who screamed at me to, “Get the hell out of here before I call the police!!!” If so, I owe them an apology. We know that the Pell family still owns the property and more than likely had to reluctantly tear it down due to it’s dilapidated state. From what is said about them, they are staunch conservationists and must have turned away many sizable offers to develop the land commercially.

Where do I go from here? What’s my goal? Well, I’ve sent everything that I’ve with you here to Ms. Bailey who is the president of the Highland Falls Historical Society with the hopes that it fires up enough curiosity that she might do some digging in the public archives up there. I’d love to dig more into the NYT and other local papers for any word of my beloved Greystone. The ultimate would be to ask the surviving Pell family what they remember about the place and perhaps share some photographs of the estate when it was an impressive “handsome” country home of their forbearer.

How about my Highland Falls friends? Do any of you have any memories of Greystone? Drop me a line if so. I’ll update this post as anything new trickles in from any and all sources.


A Dining Review of Greystone Mansion...

From the Westchester NY News County Fare Section by Alec Burgess describing theGreystone Restaurant entitled “Greystone Mansion, Orange County Gift To All Lovers Of Good Food” (date of the article is unknown)

Greystone Mansion

Greystone Mansion is located on Old 9W between Fort Montgomery and Highland Falls (HI6-8197) . This time it’s Orange County Fare and the place is up near West Point. You can go across either the Tappan Zee or Bear Mountain Bridges. Driving toward the point, turn off to the right about a mile above Bear Mountain Bridge onto old Rout 9W and proceed to the sign.

In an enormous brick mansion right on the bank of the Hudson, Angelo and Norma Culot are delighting their customers with delicious French-Italian cooking. From the many-windowed dining room your eyes are treated to one of the finest views of the great river to be had anywhere along its length.

The building is set in nine acres of land running down to the water where they plan to build their own dock next year so their boat-minded guests can sail right up to the restaurant. Although it is a little late to enjoy it this season, the spacious terrace, shaded by great oak trees, with its superb river view, is perfect for the leisurely enjoyment of cocktails during the warmer months.

Extensive Menu

It’s a family affair with Angelo doing the cooking and Norma taking care of the bar. Everything is prepared to order. Meals are served anytime after 12 noon. Lunch is a la carte. On the regular dinner, both appetizer and soup are included. Among the appetizers are herring in cream, pimento and anchovy, eggs a la Russe, hearts of artichoke. Others such as melon and prosciutto, clams, shrimps, and antipasto are available at extra charges. Celery, olives and carrot sticks are standard relishes with all the meals.

For soups there is a choice of onion soup au gratin, patinea consommé, vichyssoise froid and jellied madrilène. Among the house specialties are beef Stroganoff, venison steak, jumbo shrimp remoulade, and of course chicken, chops and steaks. Of course the a la carte menu is even more extensive.

Fine Wine Cellar

The cellar provides fine wines from many countries and we suggest that you ask Mrs. Culot to bring some to your table and explain about them so you can order the one that best suits your taste and purse.

As Greystone Mansion is only about a mile from West Point, you’ll often see officers there…and cadets too, when they are on leave. Many Hollywood stars like to stop in here when they are in the East, and have left their pictures as mementos of their visits. Of course the Inn is handy to Bear Mountain Park with its swimming, boating and skiing; and to Wayne swimming pool and recreation area. Rooms are available for overnight guests.

Food and drinks are served all day from noon to 10 pm . Lunch is a la carte with entrees from $1.50 and the complete dinner ranges from $2.75 to $5.25. Ample off-street parking . Member of Diner’s club. Closed Wednesdays.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

And So the Wireless World Turns, or A Night at the Opera…

Warning: Drafted in haste! Please excuse the poor grammer, spelling, editting, etc...

Attended my first city planning function since moving to Peachtree City GA last night and it's easy to see how quickly things can get so far off the rails. With government and it’s citizens the micro definately reflects the macro and visa versa. The funny thing is: I believe all in attendance were acting ethically and with the best of intentions. Here’s my dispatch…

My city is actually a planned community established in the late 50’s, but it really came to life in the 70’s. It is a shinning example of how well this type of cooperative planned approach can and does work. The elected and appointed officials that make up our city government are NOT career politicians. They are mostly older city residents (cranky at times), but I believe that they have the city’s and it citizens best interest at heart. I also know one of the boards newly elected councilwomen personally and she is a long time friend of the family’s.

Given the contemptuous nature of cell tower siting within any community, and the technical complexity that overlays most of discussions, our City Council decided to host a “wireless workshop” for the publics benefit and education hosted by an industry lobbying group. Granted, I was hugely skeptical myself which made my attendance all the more compelling. I was bracing for dog and pony show put on by shills from the big four wireless telco’s, prepared to grit my teeth for the subsequent disappointment of discovering that they had already sowed the seeds of whatever their desires, and being introduced to a city council who had already been hoodwinked and bent to their whims.

I was wrong on all accounts. As the Mayor opened the meeting and I flipped through the slick professional PowerPoint deck the lobbying group had prepared, I was humbled to discover that my city is actually attempting to do this THE RIGHT WAY. The sole purpose of this meeting was to educate both government officials and any citizen who cared to turn up on the basics of wireless technology and the science of selecting tower transmission sites. The hosting group were well represented by a cross section of expertise in a wide range of disciplines within the industry. I was amazed at how honest the presentation was prepared and delivered. I was chomping at the bit to find flaw or spin and none came plain and simply.

The impetus for this workshop is the pending submission of permits and zoning variance requests associated with tower sites needed to improve service by all carriers in our fair city. Here are the facts of the current state:

- A year ago, T-Mobile approached our City Planning folks about the need for up to four new tower sites. This was wisely done in an informal fashion to avoid federally mandated approval timelines from being evoked. T Mobile is well aware of the planned nature of our community and acted in a manner of cooperation being all too familiar with the acrimony tower siting kicks up in any community especially one with many parks, a multitude of golf courses, miles of golf cart paths, etc... It would be easy for an outsider to think this was an end around play, but if you’re familiar with the Telecom Acts, you know that this would hurt more than help T Mobiles chances at getting a leg up. The City was transparent about the discussions anyway and they were duly reported.

- The city’s current ordinances that govern tower siting are actually in good shape. They are in need of a freshen up to incorporate changes in the wireless industry since the mid nineties when they were originally adopted, but pretty solid nonetheless.

- Unfortunately, the local paper with the best intentions has inadvertently printed several articles inferring that permits had been submitted and were currently under official review by the city. I’ve read every one of these articles and while they don’t use the words exactly, I can EASILY see how the everyday citizen could get the idea that the clock was ticking. I don’t think the reporter (who I met last night) intentionally did this, I think he is young and has a very limited knowledge of the cities filing and review process, the scrutiny under which all applications are given, and how volatile of an issue it is.

- Along with a local church’s recent application for a special use permit for a cell tower which is tied up in a complete review of the city’s zoning rules, the newspaper’s articles have done what they do best: Get people pissed off and yelling into microphones at city meetings. An absolute crying shame. These folks made up more than half of those in attendance. Forget the fact that the meeting was an educational workshop that actually could have empowered most of them with the knowledge to build a more informed and fact based opposition position. Nope, screaming into microphones is simply too irresistible I guess. I can’t tell you how many times the Mayor had to stop someone mid screed and reiterate that the city had NOT accepted ANY applications as of yet and that this was simply a seminar to educate anybody who wanted to be involved.

- As an industry guy well versed in the subject matter I can say this for certain, based on what was reviewed during the presentation, I could draft a pretty solid opposition position with the material which was reviewed. Did I see anybody taking notes? Nope. Just couldn’t wait to get up to that microphone and unleash the hounds. It was exhausting.

- The thing is, these folks are right to be concerned. The wireless telco’s are an imposing bunch and if your municipal leadership is not up to par on the subject matter at hand they can easily be sold a bill of goods. We are lucky, this just simply isn’t the case with our city’s representatives.

- Every once in a while, an actual appropriate technical question was asked and the hosting group answered all openly and honestly. Again, I was really hoping to catch these guys in spin mode, but not once did they indulge me.

Alas, it was my turn at the microphone and I offered the following:

“My name is Tony Alva [alias used here] of [address redacted], I have worked in the wireless telecom sector for more than 15 years in various positions from procurement and contract support for cell site development to network deployment, asset management, and logistics. I currently do sourcing work for [company name redacted] a small internet service provider. While [company name redacted] was once a player in the municipal WiFi space it has long since exited these businesses. I have nothing to sell, nor do I represent anybody but myself and my family as fairly new citizens of Peachtree City.

My most concerning feeling on this topic is that we must strike a balance with our citizens and the wireless service providers regarding tower siting. As more people dump traditional local wired telephone services in lieu of strictly carrying a wireless phone, the demand for better coverage, more capacity, and better quality of signal will only increase. We are entering an era of reliance on these sophisticated devices and are NOT going back contrary to how some parents of teenagers might feel. (actually got a small smatter of a laugh) The trick is balancing the need for improved wireless service with the “Not in My Backyard” nature of tower siting applications here at the local level. After spending much of my professional career working for wireless service providers, I’m amazed at how poorly these discussions and subsequent negotiations go when there is so much potential for an “everybody wins” outcome. I’ve helped build and/or otherwise played a role in constructing cell sites in the most hallowed and historic of towns, on pristine PGA tour stops, and in neighborhoods where the initial proposals were met with pitch forks and lighted torch. If you drive by some of these sites now you’d be hard pressed to know that they are even there. Here are some random thoughts and questions requiring no answers/response at this moment but are offered for consideration:

- What is the nature of PTC’s existing agreements with wireless providers or consolidators such and American Tower and Pinnacle? Are we earning anything on sublet of the tower space or is it a flat rate for the ground space they are leasing?

- Total transparency of potential costs to build, potential revenue, and the entire process overall are paramount.

- What is the current state of our city’s first responder communications systems? Could these systems benefit from any of these proposed new sites? Where are these antenna and radio equipment located and who is maintaining it?

- The city MUST thoroughly investigate EVERY opportunity to maximize a potential revenue stream generated by managing and or building these sites out ourselves. (I went into length about Highland Falls’ inability to grasp the upside of their similar situation and the stalemate the village has been in needlessly for years)

- Citizens will respond more favorably if they here that a tower site will generate income to the city. This income could be earmarked according to the citizen’s desires.

- The City should drive the process and work with the carriers to create a “win/win” situation. Again, citizens will respond better to tower site issues if they know their representatives are DRIVING the process, NOT being lead around by big telecom behemoths.

- Use mandatory minimum collocation occupancy to green light permits to build a cell site. This will force the carriers to work with each others RF engineering departments on co-location.

- Don’t automatically dismiss the idea of easing a restriction until all options for stealth structures are explored. They may be harder sells to our citizens, but the upside and use of creative solutions may work for us all."

While I was sure some of the microphone fiends were scowling at my back, I think my input was warmly received by the city council, the industry representatives, and some of the citizens in attendance given the number who approached me once the meeting had adjourned. I wonder why they kept asking “Where do you live again?” I jest, I jest, Wait a minute…

We’ll see what happens from here. I’d like to see the city force the carriers to work together to identify sites that work for all of them. Determine what city land lays over this map or land that is close to the most desirable sites from the carrier perspective. From those identified locations, have the city itself build these sites and collect rent from all the carriers. Put no site into construction until a minimum occupancy rate has been signed on. This will guarantee a payback period and dictate all other basic terms to issue bonds with. If these city owed sites are close to neighborhoods, work with representatives of these neighborhoods to include them in potential stealth tower options. It would help if someone from the city worked with the local newspaper to get a permanent beat reporter assigned to this story line and help get him educated on the technology and the city permit revue process so the reporting going forward is less ambiguous.

All in all, I’m very happy with the approach my city has taken with this issue. Certainly restores my faith in government a bit. I may be a pragmatist, but if all these things happen I’m pretty sure most, not everybody, but most will be happy with the final outcome. I’ll keep you posted and bored to death as things develop…