I found my thrill on Wave Hill

First, forgive me Fats Domino for parodying your great tune’s title, but I found my thrill on Wave Hill in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, during a period of extended unemployment. I returned to it over and over again to escape from my Upper West Side residence. My initial impression was that I had found heaven on earth—sweeping acres of impeccably landscaped grass and flowers, that rolled down to, believe it or not, a train rail. Discovered the mansion on it had been provided for people like Arturo Toscanini.

In 1960, the Perkins-Freeman family deeded Wave Hill to the City of New York; Wave Hill, Inc., was formed in 1965 as a non-profit corporation. Today, as one of 33 city-owned cultural institutions, Wave Hill provides an oasis of serenity and offers programs in Horticulture, Environmental Education, Woodland Management and the Visual and Performing Arts. Through the arts and sciences, Wave Hill’s reason d’être has been to foster connections between people and nature; people generally who have been shakers and movers. In fact, it may have been an early instance of the 2%-99% paradigm.

Wave Hill House

Wave Hill’s House has been the home of not just one prominent family but of many. Though unrelated, each successive resident shared a love of Wave Hill’s relationship to the gorgeous Palisades, the Hudson River, and the estate’s role in the preservation of Riverdale as a distinctive community.

The original house was built in a Greek revival style in 1843-44 by William Lewis Morris, a New York City attorney. The Morris family lived here until the death of Mrs. Morris in 1852. Then, William Henry Appleton, a world renowned publisher, bought Wave Hill in 1866 from the Morris heirs. The Appletons, believe it or not, used the place as a summer residence. More impressive is that it was leased in 1870-71 to New York banker Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., whose adolescent son developed a love of nature that endured through a lifetime as military hero, conservationist, Governor, and President. Another celebrated tenant was no less than Mark Twain, who made Wave Hill the meeting place of literary greats from 1901-03.

Financier George W. Perkins lived in Glyndor House. He bought Wave Hill House in 1903, and from 1909-1928 leased it to Dr. Bashford Dean, first curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dean gained Perkins’ approval to build the Armor Hall wing to house his collections. The wing was designed by Fieldston resident, architect Dwight James Baum. At the death of Dean’s wife (Mary Alice Dyckman) in the 1950′s, the choice pieces of the collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they are still on view today.

The Perkins’ daughter and son-in-law, the Edward W. Freemans, remodeled the house in 1933. They leased the house to the great maestro Arturo Toscanini from 1942-45; and to the chief British delegates to the UN, Sir Gladwyn Jebb and Sir Pierson Dixon, from 1950-56. In 1960, the Perkins and Freeman families gave the Wave Hill estate to the City of New York.

Glyndor House

This house, in Georgian Revival style, is the third to stand on this magnificent site overlooking the Palisades. The first was a Victorian style villa built in the 1860′s by the New York financier, Oliver Harriman, called Nonesuch. It was purchased in 1895 by George Walbridge Perkins (1862 -1920). Perkins and his wife, Evelina Ball, remodeled and enlarged the house to include guest rooms and a ballroom with the professional assistance of C. Grant La Farge, architect and son of the famous stained glass artist and designer. Perkins named the transformed house Glyndor (a combination of letters from the names of his family).

Perkins, with the help of architect Robert M. Byers, created greenhouses, an outdoor swimming pool and a two-story recreation building. The roof of this structure was covered with sod to provide a viewing platform, or terrace, to enjoy the Hudson River and the Palisades. An underground tunnel, lined with precious Guastavino tiles, connected Glyndor with the recreation building which contained a billiard room, bowling alley and squash court. The location of the recreation building may have been selected by Perkins to help prevent a future grid system of streets in the area.

It is directly in the path of a projected street. The recreation building, now known as the Ecology Building and its rooftop terrace still exist today. The design of the gardens and terraces was conceived, in part, to unify the three estates acquired over time by Perkins. The grey stone building, Wave Hill House, was on one of the parcels acquired by Perkins. Albert Millard, trained as a gardener in Vienna, worked with Perkins on the original layout of the grounds.

George W. Perkins died at the age of 58 in 1920. In 1926, the house was struck by lightning and severely damaged. Mrs. Perkins had it demolished. The present building, designed by New York architects Butler and Corse, rose on the site in a year’s time. In 1960, the Perkins and Freeman families gave the Wave Hill estate to the City of New York. It is still an amazing piece of architecture and landscaping, with a sheer beauty of the views of the Hudson River and Palisades. Yet ironically, it serves more or less as a haute event space, especially for weddings and their romantic overtones. It’s gone public. And that’s a good thing.

Last week, I had reason to return to visit old friends of ours, who were having a very pricey wedding bought and paid for by the family’s rich doyen, to perform what was in essence an upscale Jewish wedding, chuppah, etc. Since it was the fantastic landscape of all my earlier visits, it captured me. It was the last thing I expected. A chuppah is a faux ceiling made of branches to shield the bride and groom and, in this case, please the financial forces behind this magnificent wedding, asking for black-tie attire.

The second surprise came as I opened the entrance door to the grounds in my dark blue Brooks Brothers suit, with striped b/w tie,. To my surprise, it was my downstairs, Russian-American neighbor, Jann, his two helacious boys, princess wife, and father-in-law who looked at me, my wife Anne, and my son Michael, dressed to the nines, while Jann’s clan looked perfectly pedestrian—though he explained to his family in Russian who we were: their neighbors. Go know. In New York City you’re never alone.

The slated 6 p.m. ceremony began on the upper lawn. A trio of harp, flute and violin began playing after refreshments were served and the sun began its decent. An amplified female rabbi began her service in English and Hebrew, asking only that after each line, we all, regardless of faith, say with all of our hearts and souls, AMEN. She went on and on and on, till dusk finally brought the bride and groom in, AMEN, and the taking of vows went on for a while longer, AMEN.

Then Oliver Merrill, grandson to Merrill Lynch, went on, while his birth father Paul Merrill looked on. At ceremony’s end, AMEN, Ollie as we call him and bride Mia, both crushed an empty wine glass with one foot each, the meaning of which I never quite got, especially seeing gentle Ollie doing it. I remember him as a tot. I used to take him over to my baby grand piano, sit him on my lap, and have him pick out notes. Then I’d returned him to his parents with a smile on his face.

But his birth father Paul Merrill, who had philandered his way out of the marriage to his wife Jacqueline (Jacky for short) walked past me. Paul looked curiously like a Kennedy. I told him that, smiling, and asked if he’d consider running for office. Then I noticed he’d shown up at the wedding with two of his girlfriends, one ex-and one present. But his ex-wife, Jacky, a tough-willed woman, Ph.D, etc., had divorced him for a hefty sum, and the Merrills being rich as Croesus paid generously for the lovely boy’s schooling and expenses.

The joy of the occasion continued unabated until nightfall. I was impressed when one guest was asked to put out a cigarette on the metal rail of a golf cart. It was a small gesture, like so many at Wave Hill, to help preserve this loveliness.

Not far away, in the two-story stone/wood house, a four course, delicious dinner was being served by a large wait staff. The dining room was a mixture of today and yesterday’s architecture. The chandeliers were given up for a contemporary lighting system that fronted a big swinging band, a line of singers, and crowds of dancers that flooded in. Jacky’s second husband, Dr. Fred Matzner, Ollie’s stepfather, a kind and intelligent man who had two grown daughters of his own were there. He’s a witty and wise conversationalist, and seemed to be the captain of this ship but wasn’t. He’d offered to split the expenses with the bride Mia’s family but it was not to be.

It seemed that it was Mia’s grandmother and lawyer father who picked up the whole tab, Fred said. My son Michael, dressed in a dark blue suit, and silver tie, with his broad shoulders, stayed close to my wife and me. He looked like he could be secret service for the house. Michael and Ollie, in fact, have been friends since childhood. He cautiously drove us there in the family Volvo. As the valet parking attendants swirled it around, my hand went to my pocket. They wouldn’t take gratuities. It was all paid for. Somehow as we left the revelry, kissing a happy Jacky goodbye and said goodnight to Fred, this was the night of a lifetime for all there—and it would continue long into the night, perhaps not a first for Wave Hill where generations had found their thrill.

Somehow, Billy Holiday’s “God bless the child” came into my head. “God bless the child that’s got his own.” All that’s left now, I guess, is to show the photo from the New York Times of Mia Zuccaro and Oliver Merrill. They’re a beautiful couple. Mazel Tov, (AMEN). And I wish them a happy Fourth of July weekend as they start their life together on a honeymoon in Italy.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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