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Nyack People & Places: Baroness of Broadway—Shadowcliff

Shadowcliff is the fifth of Nyack People & Places’ Barons of Broadway series, tracing how Upper Nyack farmland was converted to large estates by the nouveau riche of the Gilded Age. The series looks at the estates along the Hudson River and the people who built them.

by Mike Hays

Shadowcliff in 1925 before the brick wall was put in along N. Broadway. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The 100-year-old estate named Shadowcliff at 521 N. Broadway in Upper Nyack was built in a time of great wealth in America–the Great Gatsby era of the 1920s. Having survived a full century, the riverside estate is again for sale in our current era of immense wealth and estate-building. Once a center for Nyack social events hosted by multi-talented Eleanor Manville Ford, the 22-room, 16,000 sq. ft, 3-story neo-Georgian mansion was also a buzzing center of international peace as the home of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for 60 years.

Many people think Shadowcliff was being built by Eleanor Manville Ford’s husband, Harry Ford, but it was not. Eleanor Manville Ford built the house in 1921, 5 years after her husband’s passing. She was a magnetic social force, her wealth overshadowing her talents as a pianist and artist. She was a frequent host of the Nyack Garden Club and mother to 2 sons. The story of Shadowcliff begins with 2 people hailing from Bath, NY and Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Eleanor Manville Ford

Eleanor Manville Ford watercolor of Anthony Fokker’s customers speedboat named QED. Fokker was a neighbor of Ford in the 1930s at Rivercliff, 629 N Broadway.

Eleanor Baron was the daughter of Charles and Julia Welles Baron, descendants of New York State colonial families. She was born in 1858 in Bath, NY near the Finger Lakes and attended private school in Montour, NY and college in Towanda, PA. At an early age, she gave many piano and organ recitals in eastern cities. Later, she took up painting and exhibited all over. In 1935, her paintings were on exhibition for a year at Rockefeller Center.

Eleanor was active in WWI social services. After the war she worked in helping disabled veterans. She was also a member of the Rockland Historical Society, and helped establish the Tappan Zee Memorial Park–now just “Memorial Park”–in Nyack.

Ford married twice, first to Captain Charles M. Manville ,a wealthy real estate developer in Bradford County, PA some 43 years her senior. She must have met him while at college for they settled in Towanda. She gave birth at age 25 to Charles Manville, in 1880. Manville died 6 years later at the age of 71. Eleanor was a widow with a son by age 31. A decade later, in New York City, she married another wealthy man, Harry Smith Ford.

Harry Smith Ford 

Harry Smith Ford.

Harry Smith Ford, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the son of Smith Ford, a wealthy tobacco manufacturer. Harry Ford went into the business himself and later founded the New York Steam Company, which became the most important power source for New York City. In 1882, the company became Consolidated Edison, the largest commercial steam system in the world. Ford was also an early developer of the Standard Oil Company.

Postcard of Grand View circa 1908. The Tappan Zee Yacht Club is on the left. Courtesy the Nyack Library.

He retired from business shortly after marrying Eleanor Manville in 1896. They lived first at 3 E. 66th St. in NYC and later in Scarsdale where their son, Richard Franklin Ford, was born in 1899. In 1906, Ford’s immense wealth allowed the couple to purchase a summer home on a 10-acre estate in Grand View named “Topnotch,” complete with boat houses and docks. Ford devoted his spare time to yachting and racing power boats. He was commodore of the Tappan Zee Yacht Club and had 2 powerful boats, Right Bower, which burned in 1915, and Little Joker. He was also a member of several yacht clubs in NYC. He died of pernicious anemia in 1915 at the age of 61 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Eleanor was widowed a second time at the age of 50 with 2 sons.


The rear of Shadowcliff faces the river. Photo is from the early days where Eleanor Manville Ford had a large garden. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

In 1919, Eleanor Manville Ford made the decision to build a full-year estate in Upper Nyack. She purchased 2 large tracts, the first of which was a portion of the R. Dickinson Jewett estate consisting of land west of Broadway to Midland. The second tract, a riverside tract owned by Everett Sage Cooper became the site of Shadowcliff after removal of existing houses on the property. Topnotch was sold to George Dunlop, a Rockland businessman and President of the Spring Valley National Bank. Around the end of 1921 or early 1922, the mother and her 2 sons, along with 6 servants, moved into Shadowcliff.

Shadowcliff is mostly hidden behind a brick wall, so it is difficult to picture the extent of this large house. The house was built on a 1.7-acre tract that slopes down to the Hudson River. A central gate leads to a semi-circular front driveway with a portico. A huge grand staircase spirals up to the third floor. An arresting bay window at a mid-floor landing overlooks the Hudson River. The house contains some 20 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, several family rooms, a library, dining room, and innumerable fireplaces.

A carriage house with living space was accessible to the north. Frank Kepler, Ford’s long-time chauffer starting in 1916 in Grand View, continued to work for Ford until her death and later for Charles Manville and Mrs. Pierre Bernard.

The carriage house has gone through several expansions and renovations and is now itself a large and memorable riverside estate named Riverstrip, home to the Hudson River Designer Showcase 2000 and many other events.

Extended Family

Third-floor window at Shadowcliff overlooking the Hudson River.

Ford’s sisters also moved to the area. Mary Welles Baron married Frederick Joel Swift of Nyack and lived at a house named “Overledge” at 159 River Road in Grand View for many years. Swift earned a law degree at age 50 from NYU in her pursuit to be of service to women’s rights. Her other sister, Bertha Berthold, lived at 32 LaVeta Place in Nyack.

Eleanor’s oldest son, Charles Manville, was an electrical engineer but his occupation is unknown. He remained at Shadowcliff until Eleanor passed, along with a footman, butler, maid, chef, and server. He served as Chairman of the Board of Nyack Hospital. By 1952, he is listed as living in Nyack and being married. Charles died in 1963 in NYC and for some reason was not buried in the family plot.

The second son, Richard Franklin Ford, was clearly the more outgoing of her two sons. Richard appeared in musical performances in the US and Europe. At the age of 30, he performed as a singer and actor in professional musical comedies such as The Student Prince, Peg O’ My Heart, and My Princess, then signed a contract with the Schubert Brothers under which he performed in Three Little Girls in 1931. By WWII, Richard was an executive at Standard Oil of New Jersey. 

The Social Whirl at Shadowcliff

Entrance hall at Shadowcliff.

The September 21, 1927 Nyack Evening Journal reported at length on the Flower Show of the Nyack Garden Club held at Shadowcliff.  The show was held in a beautifully decorated marquee and tea was served in “Shadowcliff’s sunroom by picturesquely garbed young ladies.” Ford encouraged guests to enjoy her lovely gardens overlooking the Hudson. A few years later, Eleanor Manville Ford herself won the highest award for her display of waterlilies of various colors in an ivy wreathed pool as the outstanding exhibit of any class.

In April, 1930, Ford held a meeting of the Morning Music Club. Of special note for the social performance of the day was that of her son Richard who sang “Ave Maria,” “When You’re Away,” and then played “Because It’s You” on the pipe organ.

Richard Ford’s Tabloid Annulment

Richard Ford and Lele during his “tabloid” days.

The family’s interests in Standard Oil Company of New Jersey perhaps led to Richard Franklin Ford’s position as an executive at Standard Oil. He also seems to have retained some of his father’s devil-may-care boat racing mentality for his name appeared in numerous tabloids in 1944 over his marriage and annulment to a serial fortune hunter from Austria named Lele von Herrenreich-Young-Daly-Djamgaroff-Wells-Ford.

Unable to get a divorce from husband Wells, the head of the Doughnut Corporation in New York City, Lele headed to Chicago where one could quickly obtain a non-resident divorce. It was granted in July 1943. A couple weeks later she married Richard Ford in New York. In September, the Chicago courts vacated her divorce after someone reported that she was not even a temporary resident. By the next February, she filed for an annulment of her marriage to Richard claiming she had not been free to marry Ford. By October, she won her refiled case for divorce of Wells. Thus, she eliminated 2 husbands at once, including Ford who languished at the Leroy Sanitarium, a private hospital for the wealthy in NYC.

Richard did not marry again. He died at his summer home in Laguna Beach, CA in 1967. He was buried in the family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. 

Shadowcliff Changes Hands

Charles Manville didn’t wait long to unload his mother’s furnishings.

Eleanor Manville Ford died in 1949, leaving her estate to her 2 sons equally. Charles received the house furnishings and Eleanor’s pet Boston terrier. Richard received a commensurate sum in cash and her property in Miami Beach, FL. She left trust funds for her 2 sisters and 2 sons $600,000. She left $5,000 to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to maintain the family plot.

Charles sold much of the furnishings in a public auction in November 1949. Included were paintings by Ford and others, plus rugs, marble and iron yard furniture, tableware, linens, and Wedgewood, Dresden, Capodimonte, and Limoges dishware.

Colonel Charles Meyer purchased Shadowcliff in 1949 to house a translation business with live-in employees. His application for a zoning variance from a single-family residence to business was granted by the village. It was the first in a long line of tax and variance disputes with the village. 

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)

The entrance gate to Shadowcliff in 2020.

In 1957, Shadowcliff was acquired by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for the bargain price of $35,000. The Executive Director at the time said, “Nyack was a sleepy little village, and nobody wanted these big old mansions.” Founded in the US in 1915 by Jane Addams and others opposed to WWI, FOR claims to be the largest interfaith organization in the US devoted to peace and justice, advocating non-violent resolution to conflicts. The ACLU grew out of FOR’s conscientious objector program.

Shortly after the purchase, FOR’s application for a religious organization tax exemption was denied by the Village of Upper Nyack. Trustee and Shadowcliff neighbor, Richard Jewett, argued that this was just the beginning of an epidemic of non-tax paying institutions in the village, the Nyack Boys School (now Summit School) having just recently been removed from tax roles as an educational group.

FOR sued for relief and the village countered with the argument that since the group was promoting pacificism, they were probably atheists and, therefore, undeserving of a religious exemption. The case dragged but was finally decided in FOR’s favor by the New York State Supreme Court. 5 years later, the village was still appealing the decision.

Rear of Shadowcliff in 2020. Ford’s garden has disappeared.

In 1965, perhaps as payback for FOR’s nonviolent resistance to the Vietnam War, the IRS revoked the organization’s tax -exempt status even though out of 15,000 members, 1,300 were clergy.

At their 85th anniversary in 2000 at Shadowcliff, Executive Director Richard Deats stated that: “Ironically, the twentieth century was not only the utmost century for violence, war, and weapons of mass destruction but also was a time when nonviolence came into its own as societies sought to overcome injustice and oppression.”

During the Cold War, Shadowcliff was designated as an emergency bomb shelter. Some 30-40 people worked and lived at Shadowcliff but by 2017 only 3 full-time and f4 our part-time workers were still employed. So the decision was made to sell.

In 2014, Shadowcliff was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

New Owners & Back on the Market

The faded elegance in 2020 of a fountain in the front yard looking toward the front gate.

Snedens Landing artists Sean Scully and Lilane Tomasko purchased Shadowcliff in 2018 with the intention to turn the estate back into a single-family home. By 2020, the artists put Shadowcliff back onto the market.

Shadowcliff briefly returned to its 1920s elegance when, thanks to the owners’ generosity, the empty mansion was used as a setting for a movie of The Nutcracker by the Rockland’s Coupe Dance Studio, as a virtual replacement during the pandemic for its annual holiday show. The spiral stairway, the mahogany-lined library, and the large drawing room were populated by elegantly costumed dancers.

After 100 years, fashionable Shadowcliff buzzed again with music and excitement. The next act in the drama of Shadowcliff is unknown, waiting in the wings for a new owner.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health, and Weld Realty.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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