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 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.
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.