The Van Sinderen Legacy
Building Rossiters, preserving land
Tucked on a sloping hillside of Devereux Glenholme School in Washington is an unprepossessing house designed by Ehrick Rossiter—the 19th-century architect responsible for the assemblage of 40 colonial revival summer cottages and civic buildings in Washington. Compared to many of Rossiter more impressive residences, the two-story, stucco cottage barely raises an eyebrow among the cognoscenti.
It has wonderful lead-glass and mosaic windows, a curiously curved porch, and the sort of filmy, left-alone look that comes with old houses. Close your eyes and imagine the crunch of a four-horse carriage pulling up over the gravel drive. But few know the “hidden” Rossiter exists, or how the family who built it would shape the town.
The story begins in the late 1890s when New York City industrialist William Leslie Van Sinderen purchased 110 acres along Sabbaday Lane, overlooking the Shepaug River Valley. “He and his wife had just returned from a honeymoon in Scotland and the rolling hills reminded them of the glens,” says Maryann Campbell, executive director at Devereux Glenholme for the past 39 years. In 1898, Van Sinderen commissioned Ehrick Rossiter, a graduate of the The Gunnery School who had designed grand summer cottages for a sophisticated circle of friends in Washington, to build a cottage for him.
Eventually, the Rossiter cottage would prove too small for Van Sinderen’s growing family. In 1919, William’s son Adrian Van Sinderen, a banker, philan-thropist, and avid horse showman, who had inherited the property upon his father’s death, would build more impressive Colonial Revival house on the summit of the property.
The new 11,000-square-foot house had 13 bedrooms, two sleeping porches, and ten bathrooms, a nursing station, three dining rooms, two living rooms, a library, and a full organ and chamber. The cottage became servant housing. Another architect designed the larger home, but the bond the family formed with the Rossiter was significant.
Adrian and his wife Jean became immersed in the Washington social life. In his expansive wood-paneled library, Adrian penned 30 books, largely about his travels around that world.
In 1966, after Adrian Van Sinderen died, Jean, gifted all their property and buildings to the Devereux School of Devon, Pennsylvania, to be used as a boarding school for children with special needs. The Rossiter cottage was eventually renovated into a girl’s dormitory, and the structure remained intact: the arched, recessed porch, the two-level round porches, the stucco exterior, and the gambrel roof. The stable was renovated into the school’s dining area, and an adjoining trophy room was converted into a freezer room. The grand house was reconfigured into administrative offices and housing.
The story of Van Sinderen’s influence could easily end there, but they would have a more far-reaching impact on the town of Washington, fostered, in part, by Rossiter.
Today, hikers scrambling up the densely wooded hillsides of Hidden Valley, a section of Steep Rock Preserve that partially borders Devereux Glenholme, often find themselves following Van Sinderen’s Loop. The trail leads to a rocky high point and offers a panoramic view of the unfurling valley below. At the top, the summit is crowned by a plaque honoring Adrian Van Sinderen, who in 1963 donated the 650 acres to Steep Rock Association, the single largest donation in the preserve’s history.
The association between Van Sinderen and the Steep Rock Association began in 1925. Rossiter had donated land he had purchased along the Shepaug River to a carefully chosen group of trustees who would act as financial stewards, Adrian Van Sinderen among them. Four years later the trustees purchased the area known as the Clam Shell, and so preserved one of the most panoramic views in the area.
As president of Steep Rock, Adrian Van Sinderen helped it become a public land trust. Since then, many landowners have deeded land to the Steep Rock Association.
While Adrian preserved land, his brother, Henry (“Harry”) focused on building. In 1919, he renovated the former Ridge School—also designed by Rossiter—into The Mayflower Inn. In 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was among the dignitaries who visited. Harry willed the Mayflower Inn and its 33 acres to The Gunnery School, which sold it 1976—the existing building, now the Mayflower Grace Inn and Spa, re-opened in 1992.
Then, following the great flood of 1955, which wiped many historic buildings in the Depot, Harry Van Sinderen established a non-profit foundation, making it possible for the town to apply for federal funding to rebuild the commercial center. Today, only a handful of gravestones bare the Van Sinderen name. But on a clear day at the top of Van Sinderen’s Loop, with its sweeping view of the town and countryside below, you get a broader sense of their legacy.