Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The William Seward Webb Jr. Estate

 The William Seward Webb Jr. estate designed by Cross & Cross c. 1916 in North Hills.  Webb was the son of William Seward and Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb and the younger brother of J. Watson Webb of 'Woodbury House'.  Their sister Frederica was married to Ralph Pulitzer of 'Kiluna Farm' and Webb's house abutted their property.  He was a founder and partner in the real estate firm of Webb & Knapp and was partner in the stock brokerage firm of Greer, Crane & Webb.  The residence has since been demolished.

Photos from Architecture, 1917.


Doug Floor Plan said...

A good looking house with a really good floor plan. William Seward Webb Jr. appears to have liked fireplaces – each ground floor public room has one as does each of the four bedrooms on the second floor … using that logic I could also say he liked bathrooms – one & one-quarter baths on the ground floor (the one-quarter was for servants) & each bedroom on the second floor had it’s own bath. I wonder how many servants’ rooms were on the third floor (to run a house this size)? This could have been nice, comfortable house in which to live today & I’m sure the interiors were much nicer than modern construction.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Awfully appealing starter house---I suppose whoever tore it down either because they wanted a dryvit palace, or a developer wanted to pave the property with houses?

Webb summered near here in Bar Harbor at this cottage:!i=326445584&k=kKonv

The Ancient said...

A few links --

(Webb and his bride elope, sort of. Their first child is born eight months later.)

(His parents' farm in Vermont.)

(See chapter on Nehasane, his parents' camp in the Adirondacks.)

(In 1910, a year before Webb married Miss Gaynor, her father, newly elected Mayor of New York, was shot in the throat in 1913 by a disgruntled ex-city employee. This photograph shows the moment of the bullet's impact. The mayor survived; his assailant died in prison. Gaynor died three years later, the bullet still in his throat.)

(Webb's obit. Notice how he kept his membership in the St Nicholas Society while dropping his other clubs.) and

(Webb's former house in Palm Beach.)

Bonus link:

(Mrs Webb makes a friend of Harry Payne Whitney.)

The Ancient said...

DFP --

Don't you think it looks like the kind of house that would have a detached garage with servant quarters above?

(If there were servant rooms in the attic, they would have been murderous in the summer heat. And who would want to hear footsteps overhead in the night?)

P.S. A toilet but no sink? How very Vanderbilt!

archibuff said...

Excessively ordinary. Looks like a house found in countless suburbs in any old town in any old state. I think a number of superintendents homes featured here were larger and more interesting architecturally, Farnsworth's comes to mind. Surprised it didnt survive considering its small size, but if it was located in North Hills it had no chance since they have adapted Old Westbury's preservation ordinance guidelines, clear the land, bulldoze, develop and repeat.

Zach L. said...


I know we've gone over this before but it is next to impossible to legally impose preservation ordinances on private property that is not seen by or accessible to the public.

And for what it's worth (and this is no defense of the Village of Old Westbury)...there is more open space in Old Westbury than almost every other village on the North Shore...even with the development that has taken place in the last ten years.

Zach L. said...

Here's a link to the 1927 map showing the Webb property sandwiched between the Pulitzer place and the FW Allen property...

Looks like it was maybe 5-10 acres.

archibuff said...

No one wants to impose anything, but you encourage and educate your population otherwise most towns wouldnt have the support for landmarking residential properties that they do in areas like Roslyn or even Oyster Bay. You make the home owner house proud and wanting to list his/her home because it is an honor not a curse to live in a landmark home. Today preservation is seen as a hinderance to selling a home thanks to the real estate community.

Some villages on LI are light years ahead of others in regard to preserving their own history. OW and North Hills are pathetically behind the times

I have sat in a number of OW architectural review meetings for properties (yes unbelievably the town had or still has an architectural review board?) no kidding, and the majority of the meetings were usually taken up by the most idiotic and self-serving questions like "will the skylights on the roof shoot beams of reflected light onto the road and the neighbors homes", later to find out the person lived next door and didnt like that the new roof was in their opinion too high OR "we dont need any landmarks ordinance in OW since everybody keeps their homes so nice and their properties so well maintained and they all like living here so no preservation is required" Hello? I wondered if that person ever looked around and saw the neglected and abandoned properties just waiting to be bulldozed or was this person just so close minded. The quotes are just a few of the gems I heard. They cared more about the color of a window mullion facing the rear yard than what the architect was ripping out of the home and the severe facade changes made that covered the home in synthetic stucco.

North Hills over the past 30 years has decimated their towm to increase their tax base with no logical plan or development guidelines which has resulted in the poor land usage seen today. They even tore down their town hall with sections dating to the 17th century for a condo development at the old Links CC.

I know you live in OW and do wonders to educate threw this blog but when town boards are occupied by self-serving incompetent residents, most with their own agendas, somneone needs to educate the town so they can in turn educate their residents. A tutorial of all the enlightened development/zoning/land usage options that exist in other parts of the country would be a start. Maybe its not to late.

Kellsboro Jack said...

Nothing wrong with the house for being clapboard simple although I think we've all seen simple/quaint done a bit better.

I would've pegged the architect for this house as being Royal Barry Wills. It certainly was a staple of his practice for many years.

Zach L. said...

I was speaking to the legality of landmarking private property not seen or used by the general public...not aesthetics.

There is no legal justification for landmarking private property that fits in to the above description...which is why there is so much destruction on the Island.

Preservation is seen as a hinderance because most people don't want to have to deal with review boards or commissions in order to change their shutters. It is also more costly, because now you have to replace those shutters with specific ones... not the cheapest ones you can find. This is why there is so much push back over expanded historic districts in NYC. I'm not defending this mind you...just acknowledging reality.

But to your point about the absurd review board in OW...what landmarks ordinance are you referring to when you say someone says they don't need one because people keep their properties well maintained?

Even if there were a way to legally landmark property in Old Westbury, a landmark ordinance would not force people to maintain said property because there is no enforcement power. There are two buildings on MacDougal Street in the Village that fall within the Greenwich Village Historic District. They are falling apart from top to bottom. The LPC constantly sends notes to the owners reminding them of their obligation to care for the property. Yet nothing changes because the owner just doesn't care. And while the LPC can prevent them from altering the facades...they cannot do anything to force him to maintain the property (until it literally begins to fall apart at which point the DOB gets involved...but that's for safety reasons).

Unfortunately for most people who live in OW...they just don't care. They want to make sure their neighbors house doesn't become an eyesore when they look out their window but if the house on the other side of town is an eyesore...well that's someone else's problem.

We agree on the absurdity that is the review board in OW...but education only goes so far. If people don't care, and you can't legally impose restrictions...there isn't much else you can do.

Zach L. said...

And we need to differentiate between two things here...

A local one in Roslyn, where the Village has deemed it to be historically relevant..

and a legally enforced those in NYC...that cannot be altered because of codified law.

And thank the Gerry family in Roslyn for all that preservation.

Doug Floor Plan said...

Ancient, first -- thanks for the links.

I see your point about the location of the servants' quarters. I assumed they were in the attic because:
a) The small windows on both sides of the roof; I feel like the roof would have been unbroken if windows had not been needed there for a purpose &
b) The back stairs start in the pantry & continue up to the third floor taking only a short break on the second floor to allow for a bedroom door, but still allowing for servants to pass unseen (although maybe not unheard).
I guess it doesn't much matter now.

Zach L. said...

And one more thing...we ultimately agree on the biggest point in this all..

There should be a way to legally landmark some of these estates...owner be damned.

The Ancient said...

In practice, it often seems difficult to hit the right balance between the rights of property owners and the broader community.

Here's a NYT article from December 2011 on preservation problems in San Francisco.

This bit stuck in my mind:

“I consider myself a preservationist, and I encourage preservation,” said Robin Levitt, an architect who lives in an 1890s false-front Victorian house in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Mr. Levitt said he abandoned plans to replace rotted staircases on the front of his house because historic preservation requirements were too expensive and time-consuming.

“When regulations make it prohibitive economically to make improvements on your property,” Mr. Levitt said, “it’s over the top for me."

Read the whole thing.

Here's something else of interest:

The Ancient said...

I should add that preservation in urban areas is a very different issue than it is in the country. In cities, such as my own, it has added substantial value to properties in historic districts -- even when compliance with codes sometimes means extra expenses during renovations and repairs. In the country, things are different. Preservation usually means restrictions on development rights for the land. Even if a house and its outbuildings have found their way onto some register of historic sites, its survival is not always guaranteed.*

On Long Island the destruction of so many great estates was probably baked in the cake. Family money would run out, air travel would allow the rich to maintain houses in more distant places, and the millions of the city would spill outwards in search of more space and better schools. The only thing that could have protected the old estates was development restrictions. I can't remember a specific *public* discussion of this in the twenties or thirties. I suspect many owners might have gone along with this in exchange for tax considerations as late as 1940. But after the War -- when their money had run thin and they couldn't give these houses away -- it was just not going to happen.

(The other part of this, as we've discussed in the past, is the dynamic where those in charge of development decisions are often motivated by the desire to increase their own wages and benefits through higher taxes, which are most easily obtained through more intensive development. Put 400 middle-class houses on an old estate and suddenly there's money for raises, new hires, better health benefits, and plusher pensions. Put commercial property on old residential land and it's even better.)
*Even in Britain, a much more preservation-minded country, this can be a problem. See, for example, the Duke of Westminster's country seat, Eaton Hall:,_Cheshire

The Down East Dilettante said...


Servant's quarters in a hot attic? You really think that never happened? hahahahaha. Just today I've been reviewing the floor plans of a couple dozen Mt. Desert summer cottages. One, in Northeast Harbor, a smallish place of immense charm, nevertheless put the servants in a fourth floor attic where someone my height (6'2") could barely stand, with tiny windows in the gables. The grand 'Turrets' at Bar Harbor contained five of its dozen servant's rooms high in the steep slate roof, at fourth floor level. And as I type, I'm looking at the plans for a cottage across the street built for Richard Morris Hunt's sister-in-law, later owned by the McCormicks, occupied by the Wideners, and last owned by the Morgenthau's. Four maid's rooms in a fifth floor level attic, none with anything resembling cross ventilation, and one with an inhumanely teeny window. There are wonderful and considerately designed servant's quarters, but at least as many that would make Charles Dickens cringe.

archibuff said...

In Roslyn's case they have encouraged, inspired and educated their residents. Period. That's all thats needed. You dont have to shake a stick & stir the pot. The task becomes much easier when the town puts forth the effort to get its citizens involved. Roslyn's preservation efforts have been successful and the residents are a large part of that success.

Also Park Slope just became the largest historic district in NYC and Im sure there are a few property owners who didnt want to become part of the expanded district, but they are now included. There are always exceptions, exclusions and inevitable lawsuits when properties are neglected, but NYC has resources to battle a disgruntled owner, LI villages dont which is why OW can write their own guidelines so make it as stringent or welcoming as you want. Landmarking is not meant to be painful and an imposition it is meant to be a source of pride. An owner who neglects their property would feel shamed that they let it deteriorate. Even a developer should boast how they restored a property in OW and are now offering it for sale to a lucky buyer.

Landmarks can be demolished for many reasons so preservation is not an iron clad solution, but you have to start somewhere. Its all about education. That a village like OW with its wealth of architecture, wealth of landscaping features and general wealth period doesnt give a crap about its history, from 17th century farmhouses to 20th century beaux arts mansions is very very sad.

Also local landmarking, state register listing, national register listing, doesnt matter. What matters is the village needs to become the leader in educating its residents. The rest follows on its own. People actually go out of their way to fill out the lengthy paperwork to designate their own homes because it is an honor and notable achievement to display your plaque in Roslyn.

What I am saying (quite lengthy I maight add sorry) is that unlike Roslyn, villages like OW dont seem to care. You are correct. There are local examples of residences that by association with notable figures or architectural firms or design quality could easily make their way onto local. state and national registers. It takes a village that encourages that desire to retain its heritage to put forth that idea. Easements are also less severe and protect landscape features and dont impose color restrictions on ones shutters. That is an extreme case. Even NYC allows window changes, modifications to existing structures, etc. its not as rigid as naysayers would have you believe.

To legally landmark a property you want the homeowner to demand it. to run down to the village hall and pound on the door and demand an application for their home. That happens in Roslyn. That scenario is at the moment a fantasy in OW. Maybe a cetain blogger turned activist could start the ball rolling in his hometown? Bottom line it starts with the residents andd their pride of place.

archibuff said...

Ancient interesting articles but as was seen with The Orchard a few days past, preservation can be dynamic and vibrant with interesting planning and design solutions instead of demolition. Some review boards and cities get out of hand with regulations, but for the most part preservation has proven itself to be a saviour of neighborhoods and an economic tool for improvement and increased tax roles. Plus preservation is the ultimate "green" building scenario, a fact not recognized by most developers.

Okay I ahve monopolized this post way to omuch today

The Down East Dilettante said...

PS DFP & Ancient:

The biggest clue that the attic was just an attic is that back stairs from the first floor don't directly connect with the stairs to attic, but are separated by a passage to a master bedroom

Archibuff, Education and ACTIVISM are both equally important. And much as I would see everything preserved, the issues are far more complex.

Zach L. said...

My last comment on the issue as I feel I'm going in a circle...

Comparing Old Westbury and Roslyn is comparing apples and oranges. Roslyn's historic homes sit on .1 or .2 of an acre. No one buys a historic home on that small a piece of property to tear it down (meaning those houses are already more or less safe). The historic homes in Roslyn operate under completely difference circumstances. In Old Westbury, I might want the historic home but don't want to or cannot afford to maintain the 40 acres that go along with it. Or maybe I want the 40 acres but not the 100 year old house. And as we see...not many people who move to Old Westbury are interested in owning historic homes (practically zero). Old Westbury could tell someone that they can't make changes to a home no one but the owner can see and use because the Village says so. But that's simply not good enough. The homeowner would likely take the Village to court and would win.

Demanding a "landmark" at a village hall won't accomplish anything (unless getting a plaque tacked on your wall is what you're after). Things like the National Register afford no protection. I am talking about legal landmarking...legitimate protection...meaning if an owner wanted to make changes they simply would not be legally permitted to (unless a thorough review by a designated board deemed the changes appropriate).

In my perfect world there would the will, the laws and the funds to landmark and thus protect everything we all found worthy of protection. But that's simply not reality.

Zach L. said...

And NYC might have the power to "battle a disgruntled owner" but I'm not sure what they are going to do... with no enforcement power...what is there to battle?

The LPC says "fix your building!". The owner says "no". Then nothing happens. Until the LPC starts assessing fines that they are able to collect...what are they to do?

The Ancient said...

Dilettante --

I was only speaking to this particular house -- where there is no picture of the garage. God knows I've seen people put servants in terrible spaces -- even today. Perhaps there was space for a couple rooms between the chimneys -- space which wouldn't be above the bed chambers below.

archibuff --

I don't mean to sound "anti-preservation." I just think it's more difficult to pull off than most people suspect. And in the country, it's even harder than in the city.

The Ancient said...

Dilettante --

Your point about the upper floor stairs to the attic is a good one -- unless that was a room for the Webb's small children and the nanny slept above. With her door open and the outer door to the hallway closed, she could hear the children in the night and go up and down the stairs without disturbing the rest of the household.

I am now turning all such discussions over to DFP, forever.

Zach L. said...

I do want to add that in regards to the educational component...I couldn't be more supportive.

The Ancient said...

One more thing about the house itself. One of the Pratts built a Long Island house very much like it after WWII. He sold it ten years later and built something larger not far away. The new owners built large additions to both sides, plus a covered terrace and a screened porch for summer dining. And several outbuildings, including garages, stables, a pool house, etc. And extensive gardens. And this house, still on 20 acres, stuffed with good furniture and serious art, is one of the most elegant houses I've ever seen.

So "starter house" can mean many things.

Doug Floor Plan said...

Ancient, you've been around long enough to know to never say "never" ... or "forever" in this case. Who knows what can of worms Zach's future postings will open up for discussion? I'm sure you never want to limit your ability to opine :)

I'm glad Ancient referenced DED's use of "starter house" for this house because Archibuff referenced it being "small in size." A sprawling mansion it ain't but this house has three floors plus basement, four bedrooms not including servants', five bathrooms not including servants', and what appears to be nice sized (at a minimum) public rooms. It was also substantial enough to have been designed by Cross & Cross, designers of 'Woodbury House' and 'Bayberry Land' among others. Perception can be a tricky thing.

Anonymous said...

Looks very much like my parents modest home in Rockville Centre, the only difference is the size of the property, not the house itself. When I think estate, I think Westbury House, Harbor Hill, Killenworth, Spring Hill, Peacock Point and Pembroke. This was I'm sure a very comfortable home...but not an estate.