Cloister Farm—history, hounds, and horses
Photos by Steve Freihon
Perched on a hill overlooking the Beaver Dam River valley, Albert Berol’s 43-acre estate stands as a proud testament to an era when horses and hounds were the raison d’être. Before purchasing the farm in 1949, Berol’s mother, Myra, had been living in Tarrytown in a castle known as The Cloister, which she and her husband Edwin had built alongside similarly grand homes with names like Edgemont and Carrollcliffe.
For several years, Edwin, an heir to the family’s Eagle Pencil Company (later Berol Corporation), and Myra had been looking for a country home where they could breed dogs and keep horses; but as Edwin’s health deteriorated, they put their search on hold.
After his death in 1949, Myra was shown the Bedford Hills estate of the Whelpleys, an English couple, who 12 years earlier had commissioned the noted architect, Phelps Barnum, to design and build a manor house and stable of imported English fieldstone. Embellished with European limestone mantels and a formal English garden, it was sold to the widow Berol.
Still young and energetic, Myra envisioned a wonderful future for her family on the estate, and she invited her son, Albert, his wife, Suzanne Wilding, and their infant daughter, Wendy, to join her. Not long after, Wendy’s younger sister, Robin, was born; and Myra named the property Cloister Farm, after the former family home on the banks of the Hudson River.
Like her friend and neighbor, Lucie Rosen, then mistress of Caramoor, Myra filled her home with centuries-old European art and furnishings that she and Edwin had inherited or collected during their marriage. She added levity to the décor with her own paintings as well as photographs of the Irish Setters that she bred on the farm. An accomplished artist, Myra had an art studio built adjacent to the main house and kennels for her champions installed in the valley below the tennis court where Andre Agassi is said to have played a few matches.
In the wake of Albert’s 1966 divorce, Cloister Farm began another chapter. His second wife, Mary, brought new energy to the farm and joined him in his love for Bedford and service to the community.
At the age of 90, Mary Berol is now the family matriarch and a cherished member of the Bedford community. Having survived Myra’s death in 1980 and Albert’s in 1993, she’s as active as ever—still playing tennis on her late husband’s beloved court, which he resurfaced in the 1980s to coddle aging knees; still driving herself to social engagements and meetings for the John Jay Homestead, one of the several community organizations she supports.
“The main house is exactly as it was when the family bought it almost sixty years ago. We haven’t even changed a doorknob,” Mary explains, as she gazes across the expansive drawing room where her in-laws’ acquisitions from Italy, Spain, and France still hold pride of place below an exquisitely detailed bas-relief plaster ceiling.
“As a family, we always enjoyed gathering in the library, usually saving the drawing room and dining room for more formal entertaining,” Mary recalls. “We did do a lot of entertaining, though, and not just for friends. Often, we invited community organizations to host special events here, as well. In fact, the Beaver Dam Association’s annual dinner has been held here for the last 49 years.”
An understated sign announces the entrance to Cloister Farm, and a gravel drive leads first to the fieldstone stable. “Horses have always been an important part of our life,” says Robin Berol Bliss, who lives in a five-bedroom carriage house attached to the stable. “My parents kept horses for fox hunting, and my sister and I learned to ride competitively here. Now my daughter, Sophie, who keeps her pony, Blossom, here, continues the equestrian tradition.”
Over the intervening years, the family’s equine interests led them to add a second six-stall barn, a professional riding ring, and an outdoor jumping course. “I can remember birthday parties on horseback, when my girlfriends and I would put on mock horse shows in the ring,” says Wendy Berol Gifford, who also recalls the current chef d’équipe of the United States Olympic jumping team, George Morris, apprenticing at Cloister Farm under the tutelage of the influential horseman, Gordon Wright.
Beyond the stable, a gentle turn in the drive leads under a canopy of age-old trees to a formal courtyard, originally designed by Mr. Whelpley. Entering the reception hall past a herald’s trumpet and an ancient prie-dieu, a passageway on the right leads to the library, where mounted fox heads and champion field dog trophies are souvenirs of the family’s competitive spirit.
Wendy fondly remembers having afternoon tea in the library after her grandmother had finished painting in the studio, “It was such fun—the dogs were invited to tea as well. The grandchildren preferred the dog biscuits, and the dogs preferred the cookies. One year my grandmother named a litter of puppies after her grandchildren, and the ensuing confusion over the names was really a riot.”
Horse and hound portraits by the late North Salem artist and illustrator, Sam Savitt, line the walls of the passageway that leads to the opposite end of the house where the dining room, kitchen, and butler’s pantry are located. The dining room feels particularly medieval despite the abundant sunlight that streams in through the leaded-glass French doors.
The well-preserved tapestry panels, ancient European furniture, and Gothic chandelier recall a time when knights in shining armor might have dined in such a room. Robin remembers her grandmother, Myra, setting the formal yet festive tone for the household. “We would dress for formal dinners in the evening when we were young, and my grandmother often entertained artists, so there were frequently interesting guests at the dinner table.”
Nearby, a circular staircase descends past portraits of champion canines named Clodaugh, Eamon, and Mac to Albert’s subterranean pub room, presided over by a suit of armor. Photos of family members on horseback and certificates of appreciation from organizations like the Bedford Historical Society compete for space in this cozy room.
Above, a similarly winding trip upstairs leads to a wide, terraced gallery lined with bedrooms that feature vistas of rolling lawns where croquet matches have delighted four generations.
Belying its name, Cloister Farm has ironically emerged as quite the opposite over the past half-century. Family and friends have always been welcome on this land that was once part of the 1680 Hopp Ground purchase from Indian Sachem Katonah.
The Berol family’s contributions to Bedford and their preservation of the glorious land and river under their domain have earned them the affection and respect of the community. Set apart? Indeed. Cloistered? Not at all.
Update: Mary Berol passed away in 2014, and Cloister Farm has been sold.