Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Exploring the Art of Lauren Ford

Christmas is an appropriate time to explore the art of Lauren Ford, a well-known painter who lived in the Knapp House in the 1920's and 1930's, since her paintings were frequently used for Christmas cards.  The information provided below is taken from Donald Reynolds' comprehensive catalog, "The Art of Lauren Ford," that accompanied the Rye Historical Society's 1982-83 exhibit of her work.

Lauren Ford was born in NYC on January 23, 1891, the daughter of Simeon Ford and Julia Ellsworth Ford.  Simeon was co-owner of the fashionable Grand Union Hotel opposite Grand Central Station.  The family lived on West 74th Street and also owned a 48 room Victorian "cottage"on Forest Ave. near the present Forest Cove.  Lauren's mother Julia was a celebrated author of children's books and films and a patron of the arts.  At her "salon" on West 74th St., she hosted such famous and diverse figures as William Butler Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kahlil Gibran, Isadora Duncan, Madame Chiang Kaishek and the socialist Norman Thomas.

Simeon bought the Knapp House in 1906 as a wedding gift for his son Ellsworth who was also a painter specializing in marine art.  When Ellsworth lived at the Knapp House, he added an artist's studio to the back, depicted in this lovely small painting done by Lauren. 

The back of the painting contains the following description written by Lauren: "This little girl is Lauren my grand baby for whom the little book was made.  The picture of me is by Gino Mangravite.  It is in the studio because he was making it there.  The horse is named horse and belonged to all of us when we were little.  The doll's name is Rinjinia and the Bunny is dear rabbit." 

The view in the painting is from the artist's studio, now the archives of the Rye Historical Society, looking into the reading room.  The same corner cabinet is still in use today, looking just as it did when Lauren made her charming painting.

Lauren was named after an uncle who was a portrait painter and who lived in an old chateau in Brittany.  When Lauren was just 9, Julia sent her to live with her Uncle Lauren.  She subsequently studied in Paris and at the Art Students League in New York where her teachers included James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 

During the 1920's, Lauren became deeply involved in the Monastery of Solesmes, a leading center for the revival of ecclesiastical art and Gregorian chant located in the western part of France south of Brittany.  Here, Lauren converted to the Catholic faith and was accepted as an Oblate of St. Benedict.  Lauren loved living in the countryside and developed a keen observation of nature.  (As an aside, while living in Rye, she owned a flower shop on Purchase Street, and her brother Ellsworth operated the greenhouses on their Knapp House property that eventually became J.B. Rich Nursery.)  Her love of flowers and of medieval tapestries influenced her art and her unique primitive style, which can be seen in the painting above.  In 1926, Lauren (with the help of her mother) had a one-woman show at the Feragil Gallery on 57th Street.  Note that a sticker from this gallery appears on the painting above.

Following Simeon's death in 1933, Lauren bought a farm near Bethlehem, CT which she named The Sheepfold, inspired by biblical texts.  There, she raised sheep, built a studio and a chapel and enlarged the house to accommodate her adopted daughter Dora (mother of the "grand baby" Lauren shown in the painting).  In the 1930's and 1940's, Lauren's art became increasingly religious, with many paintings of the Nativity, angels, the Holy Family and saints.  Typical of her work during this period is this drawing of an "Adoring Angel."

In 1946, Lauren's life took a totally unexpected direction when two members of the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre, France were introduced to Lauren.  They were looking for a place to found an abbey in the U.S. and, through a mutual friend, found their way to The Sheepfold.  Lauren's neighbor gave Mother Benedict 50 acres in Bethlehem.  Soon, more nuns arrived and they set about building the Abbey of Regina Laudis which today is a vibrant community of nuns who keep the chant tradition alive.  The Abbey continues to print and sell Christmas cards today with images created by Lauren Ford.  When Lauren died, she left The Sheepfold to the Abbey.  The nuns still raise the sheep, tend the land and teach painting, pottery and printmaking in Lauren Ford's studio.

The story of Lauren Ford and Regina Laudis was captured by Clare Boothe Luce who wrote the book for the movie "Come to the Stable" co-starring Celeste Holm, Loretta Young and Elsa Lanchester playing the role of Lauren.  Celeste Holm received an Academy Award nomination for her role, and the movie is still available today.

In its Christmas issue of 1944, Life Magazine featured a portfolio of Lauren Ford's religious paintings and said the following of her art: "Once in every generation of painters ever since the first story of Christ was told in pictures, one artist has emerged who can tell the ancient story better than any other contemporary.  Today, in the United States, Lauren Ford is such a painter."
After a brief illness, Lauren died on August 30, 1973, at the age of 82 in Waterbury, CT.  She is buried in Waterbury under a simple headstone next to her "grand baby" Lauren Coryelle Lassauze.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Save Rye Playland?

With the possibility of major changes to Rye Playland looming, we went back to our 2009 historic walking tour of Playland and Rye Town Park to take another look at Playland's long and storied history.  Here's why the historic structures and Playland should be saved.

Playland was built by the Westchester County Parks Commission between Labor Day 1927 and May 1928!  It's amazing to think of 1,000 workers demolishing the existing amusement park, clearing marshlands and vacant land and building the new park, all in just 9 months.  Here's a picture of workers building the famous Dragon Coaster.

Playland was the first totally planned amusement park in the U.S. and the first amusement park specifically designed for automobile access.  Before Playland, patrons typically arrived at Rye's beaches and amusement parks by trolley, ferry boat or bus.  Playland's car parks could accommodate 10,000 cars, which explains how it had 300,000 visitors during its opening weekend in 1928.  Here's what the car parks might have looked like on that very busy weekend.

Playland is also famous for its music tower -- the first amusement park to have music electronically broadcast throughout the park (perhaps not such a popular feature with today's nearby Rye residents....)

Playland is particularly well-known for its Art Deco architecture, which is one of the major reasons why we are eager to save it.  It's the first amusement park to have its attractions visually integrated by a uniform colonnade and a consistent architectural style, and it still looks today basically the way it did in the late 1920s.

From the beginning, Playland was tremendously popular.  Visitors came from as far away as California, Florida and Canada.  The Parks Commission tried hard to make Playland appeal to the middle class, and it was an era of much greater formality.  Women came wearing dresses, heels and hats, and men wore jackets and ties.  The bathhouse accommodated 10,000 people since obviously visitors needed to change before heading to the beach.  In those days, it was completely unacceptable to arrive at the beach already wearing bathing suits.  In fact, the bathhouse was designed for beachgoers to exit below the boardwalk level so they couldn't be seen in their bathing suits by other park visitors.  When Playland opened, proper decorum required that bathing suits cover much of the body.  Here's a great example of the fashionable beach-goers of the 1920's.

Playland Lake is one of the gems created when Playland was built.  It was largely a swamp and salt marsh with a tidal inlet running through it.  During the construction of Playland, an 80 acre lake was created and dredged to a depth of 30 feet.  The dredged soil was used to fill the area that became amusement park and parking areas.  Today, the Lake still provides a peaceful haven for visitors to row, paddle and enjoy the many shore birds inhabiting the Edith G. Read Wildlife Sanctuary.

Today, as the County debates the future of Playland, let's pause and consider the important role that Playland has played, not only in the development of amusement parks but in the evolution of our own community.  Playland is woven into the fabric of our community and provides a vivid and lively link to our past.  It has been designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark because it possesses "exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."    Playland remains a significant part of the heritage of Rye, Westchester County and the U.S., and this heritage must be given a high priority as the County considers Playland's future.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Wainwright House

Last week, we attended a beautiful wedding at the Wainwright House.  That prompted me to share the amazing history of the house.

It was built by Col. J. Mayhew Wainwright between 1929 and 1931 and was based on a 17th c. French chateau where Col. Wainwright was stationed during World War 1.  On the eve of leading his men into battle, he promised himself that if he survived, he would build a house resembling the chateau on his family's property in Rye.

Col. and Mrs. Wainwright had only one child, a daughter named Fonrose.  Fonrose was married to Philip Condit in the library of the Wainwright House and later built the smaller house to the left of Wainwright House where she lived until her death in 1983 at age 90.  She had no children and she was widowed in the late 1940's, shortly after her parents died.  She wanted to find a charitable purpose for Wainwright House as a memorial to her parents.  When she met Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, he asked her how she intended to use the house, to which she replied, "In memory of my parents and for the greater understanding of God."  Rev. Peale wrote her words on the back of an envelope and they are now inscribed on a plaque at the entrance to the house.

In 1951, Fonrose founded Wainwright House, Inc. and donated the house to the Laymen's Movement.  The Laymen's Movement was founded in 1941 by a group of business and professional men, including J.C. Penney and E.F. Hutton, who sought to integrate spirituality and ethics into the business world.  Other prominent members included Dwight D. Eisenhower, R.W. Woodruff and Conrad Hilton.  The Laymen's Movement was also involved with world peace and the early years of the United Nations.  Secretary Dag Hammarskjold gave Wainwright House the furnishings from the U.N. meditation room, including a four foot section of a 300 year old tree, Swedish Birchwood chairs and curtains.

Fonrose wrote that "This is a sacred house.  Because it is sacred, it should be consecrated to the development of human potential, in healing, and growing forms, to serve the advancement of humankind through spiritual, philosophical and ecological paths."  What an appropriate place for one of most sacred of all ceremonies -- a wedding.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Celebrating Caroline O'Day

Primary election day in New York is a fitting time to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Caroline O'Day, long-time Rye resident (and grandmother of current resident Dan O'Day, Jr).  The information in this post is taken largely from an excellent article written by Paul DeForest Hicks, also a Rye resident, which can be accessed via the following link: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/nyh/88.3/hicks.html.  

Caroline Love Goodwin was born in 1869 on a plantation near Perry, Georgia.  Her father and other members of her family were Confederate army veterans, a remarkable fact given her strong commitment as an adult to pacifism, civil rights and social welfare causes.  After graduating from the Lucy Cobb Institute. a prominent secondary school for girls in Athens, Georgia, Caroline moved to New York City to study art at Cooper Union.  She then moved to Paris to continue her studies, including studying under Whistler.

While living in Europe, she met Daniel O'Day, an American businessman whose father was a close associate of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company.  At the time, she was over 30 (well beyond typical marriage age of the time) and enjoying her independent life in Paris.  Nevertheless, O'Day persuaded her to abandon her artistic career and move to NY where they were married in 1902.

In 1910, the O'Days with their 3 children moved to Rye, first into a rented house near Grace Church St. and then into the house they built on what is now Sunset Lane.  Daniel O'Day was an enthusiastic supporter of women's suffrage and encouraged Caroline to enter the political arena.  According to a New York Times article in 1940, "It was not until the later stages of the struggle for suffrage that Mrs. O'Day's political career might be said to have been launched.  Although sympathetic, she was not active until her husband, the late Daniel O'Day, turned to her from the curbstone where both of them were watching a parade of suffragettes and asked why she was not among them."  (New York Times, Nov. 6, 1940)

After her husband's sudden death in 1916, leaving Caroline with a large house and several young children to manage, she became active in both the suffrage and pacifist movements.  During WWI, she also became increasingly involved in a number of social welfare groups, including the National Consumers  League and the Women's Trade Union League.  Through these and other organizations, she came into contact with many of the leading female reformers of the day.  She also joined the League of Women Voters and began her political work in Westchester County, helping to establish the Women's Division of the New York Democratic Committee.  It was through that connection that she met Eleanor Roosevelt, which led to a long-lasting bond among O'Day, Roosevelt, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.  O'Day was deeply involved with the other women in the Val-Kill Partnership and edited a monthly journal that the 4 women started, the Women's Democratic News.

O'Day developed close ties to FDR as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, working on his 1930 reelection campaign for NY governor and his presidential campaigns of 1932 and 1936.  O'Day herself was elected to Congress in 1934 as a representative-at-large from New York.  She went on to serve 4 terms, advocating for progressive causes, including particularly child labor protection, employment opportunities for the disabled, immigration rights and anti-lynching legislation.  O'Day even played an important role in Marian Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  As Hicks so eloquently describes, "As the great singer made her way to the microphone that memorable Easter morning in 1939, Caroline O'Day was by her side." 

On January 4, 1943, one day after her fourth term ended, Caroline O'Day died at her home in Rye.  In a note of condolence to O'Day's family, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: "Your mother and I have been friends for a long time.... Her high ideals and integrity were an inspiration to all who knew her or felt her influence, and her generosity touched many people and many causes in which she believed.  Her passing is a loss not only to her family but to the world, especially at this time when women like your mother are needed to fight for justice."  (As quoted in Hicks's article).

Caroline O'Day's remarkable legacy will be celebrated at a dedication of the Rye Post Office in her name later in October.  Please watch for news of the date and time, and please be sure to attend the ceremony in honor of this extraordinary gentlewoman of Rye.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Welcome to the Rye History blog

We at the Rye Historical Society are trying something new -- a blog where we can share thoughts and information about the history of Rye and the surrounding area.  Rye is really a pretty amazing place.  It evolved from a small farming community settled 350 years ago into a sophisticated suburb of New York City.  Along the way, it attracted many prominent political leaders -- John Jay moved here as a small child; George Washington, John Adams and Samuel Adams enjoyed the hospitality of the Square House; Col. J. Mayhew Wainwright built Wainwright House and served in the NYS Assembly, Senate and US Congress; and Caroline O'Day worked with Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill, supported women's suffrage and served in Congress from 1935 to 1943.  Rye was also home to Amelia Earhart and to some of the most powerful figures in the motion picture industry.  Spyros Skouras, chairman of 20th Century Fox, lived in Greenhaven, as did Albert Warner of Warner Brothers and Barney Balaban of Paramount Pictures.  Ethyl Barrymore also lived adjacent to Greenhaven along with singer Paul Noel Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary), actors Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller, singer Ezio Pinza and even Reverend Ike.

Over the next few months, we'll be posting stories about Rye's history as told through its people -- from those who played a role on the national stage to those who simply lived out their lives in our town.  It is through story-telling that we become a community -- one with a diverse but shared heritage that is worth preserving.  For it is by telling those stories and reliving our heritage that we can make sense of the present and pass along our shared culture to our children.  So please join in the conversation, share your stories and your insights.  This is a community project.  We'd love to hear from you!