Rebirthing a storied, old treasure
Photos by Peter Loppacher
When Ed and Shawne Mastronardi bought a 7,800-square-foot nursing home on the Waccabuc five years ago, it was the beginning of a personal journey. Known as Holly House, it was actually a private residence rumored to have been designed and built by the celebrated architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White in 1895 for state politician George Bliss Agnew.* Agnew, 26 at the time, wanted a country home where he could entertain and eventually move to full-time and raise a family. After changing hands, the house did stints as a nursery school, a high-end retirement home, and eventually a more traditional assisted-living facility. The Mastronardis had no idea what they might find when they started tearing down the false walls, exit signs, and handrails that had been installed in the mid-20th century to make it a commercial building.
With the help of a talented carpenter and restorer named John Kalin, and armed with books and Googled research on the houses of McKim, Mead, and White, the Mastronardis moved into the third floor, and Shawne’s dual role of homeowner and general contractor began. The challenge the couple had set for themselves was to preserve the architectural integrity and purity of McKim, Mead and White’s original design while upgrading the infrastructure to meet the needs of a 21st-century family. The Mastronardis were not new to this kind of project—they had already renovated a 1777 home in Mount Kisco and an 1859 house in Pound Ridge.
As a young man in the late-19th century, Senator Agnew was a forward thinker. He insisted on having electricity, plumbing, and steel beams installed in his weekend house. A hundred years later, these features where in pretty dismal condition. How to reroute, remove, or repurpose old systems while hiding new ones kept Shawne and her problem-solver, Mr. Kalin, on their toes. Privately owned McKim, Mead, and White houses are not easy to find in the Hudson Valley. While the firm made an indelible stamp on American architecture by designing such magnificent large-scale public buildings as the Boston Public Library and New York City’s Pennsylvania Station and Tiffany & Company, they created more than 300 private residences in the tri-state area, Newport, Rhode Island, and Buffalo, New York.
Many of these homes have since been demolished. Some have been converted into clubs, such as the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, or into museums, like the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park. Still others have found new lives as office buildings, like the Purchase, NY, mansion designed for Mr. and Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, now known as Reid Hall, the administration building for Manhattanville College.
After looking at more than 150 potential home-restoration projects for two years, the Mastronardis felt as though they had stumbled, quite accidentally, on a treasure. “It’s been a privilege to renovate and bring this home back to life,” said Shawne. “McKim, Mead, and White had beautiful vision and taste. Our ability to salvage local history has been a gift to us. The process has been as valuable as the final result. It’s gratifying. We feel like we saved this house from being further institutionalized or torn down for development.”
Now renamed The Arches because of the 10 architectural arches found throughout the house, the nine-acre property is just a fraction of its original 300 acres that once included waterfront on the Waccabuc River. The original stonework remains, including an impressive, sweeping exterior double staircase, where guests once alighted from carriages. Matching grape arbors greet today’s visitors.
A fountain, lawn tennis court, and intricately carved gates leading to a secret garden all bear witness to a lifestyle that is gone but not forgotten. The estate was broken up and sold off during the mid-1900s. The original swimming pool is now on another property, as is the caretaker’s house. The stone dairy barns are visible on Route 35.
Re-creating a formal dining room was a treat in itself. Removing false walls and floors revealed an arch and French doors leading to a brick terrace—the entrance had been hidden for decades. Once the structural corrections were made, it was time to re-create the elegance of 1895. Ed had a childhood friend whose parents, Count and Countess Brobrinskoy, émigrés from Russia, owned Zino Studios, a restoration wallpaper studio in New Rochelle. The count and countess offered a room of hand-screened wallpaper as a wedding gift at the time of the Mastronardis’ marriage.
Shawne had been carrying around a sample of her chosen wallpaper for years, waiting for just the right opportunity. The fragile paper had 18 colors and was so precious that they brought in a wallpaper restoration specialist from Rhode Island to hang it.
The room needed a centerpiece, something eye-catching to pull it all together in the grand style the house was designed to reflect. So for his wife’s fortieth birthday, Ed took her to Murano, Italy, to design a hand-blown-glass-and-14-karat-gold chandelier and matching sconces to fit proportions of the room and match the wallpaper. “Whenever we entertain in there, I sense the energy of the house,” says Shawne. “You can almost feel that it’s back to its old glory. It comes alive during parties.”
In many ways, the kitchen was the most challenging room. The goal was for it to look like an old “Upstairs/Downstairs” servants’ kitchen but, at the same time, be a functional kitchen for a modern family of five. Shawne spent years speaking with and visiting caretakers and restorers of Newport estates and Rockefeller homes from the same era.
Eventually, she found some turn-of-the-century drawers that she liked and had kitchen cabinets designed around them. Cabinets had to have the feel of freestanding pieces of furniture that would have been appropriate for the assembly-line fashion of food preparation in 1895. She found antique subway-style tiles that were being removed from a late-19th-century town house in Manhattan and had them reinstalled in her “new” kitchen, along with antique sinks. The tin ceiling is not original but is a re-creation of a period style by a company in Missouri.
All this sticking to authenticity doesn’t mean there are not flashes of creativity at The Arches. The safe in the butler’s pantry used to hold weekend visitors’ valuables; it now serves as the liquor cabinet. A wooden washboard in the butler’s pantry was salvaged from a Whitney garden room in the city. An ancient beer tap came from their old Pound Ridge house, and the “rain shower” in the master suite mimics the home’s architectural arches with a charming tiled version of its own.
In all, the final result has been as gratifying to the Mastronardis as it has been shocking to all the nay-sayers and doom-and-gloomers who thought they were crazy to buy the place in the first place.
“There is something about restoring an old home—it’s almost a rebirthing,” says Shawne. “I’m sure the home is grateful to us. It’s got to feel good that someone cared for it, loved it, and brought it back.
“But I also feel grateful to the house. We’ve learned so much about our society and community with this restoration, and it’s so personal—my hands have literally felt almost every square inch of this house. I feel like it’s ready for the next chapter in its life.”
Note: soon after publication in 2005, the Mastronardis received a letter from the son of the late George Bliss Agnew, the original owner of their home. They learned that The Arches, formerly known as Oakbrook Farm, was not designed by McKim, Mead & White.