by Mike Hays
Belle Crest is the sixth edition 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.
The largest dwelling in Nyack at the beginning of the 20th century was Belle Crest at 609 N. Broadway in Upper Nyack built for the Walter Davies family in 1906. Davies was one of the many Barons of Broadway who descended upon Upper Nyack farms to build large estates on riverfront property. Davies was quite wealthy; he ran the largest clock manufacturer in the world, the Ansonia Clock Company in Brooklyn. Belle Crest was later owned by the Chapman family, which included a local bank president and tennis stars.
The Davies Family & the Ansonia Clock Company
Walter Davies was the son of Henry J. Davies of Brooklyn, who was a clockmaker, inventor, and clock case designer. In 1877, Henry Davies became a founder and then president of the Ansonia Clock Company when the company moved its manufacturing from Bristol, CT to Brooklyn. He is thought to be responsible for the figurine clocks, swing clocks, and other unusual novelty clocks for which the Ansonia Company was known. Thomas Edison showed up at the plant in 1878 to see if his phonograph could be integrated with Ansonia clocks but the experiment was unsuccessful.
In 1880, the factory burned down. Walter, working there at the time, was one of the witnesses of the start of the fire. The building was a total loss and only partly insured. Losses notwithstanding, the company erected a new multi-story brick building on the same site. Soon, the company had sales offices in London, Chicago, and New York, and it was selling over 225 different models of clocks.
One of the clock company cofounders, Anson Greene Phelps, built a large hotel at 2109 N. Broadway on the Upper West Side in NYC that included a residential farm on its rooftop with cattle and chickens. The hotel is now co-op apartments.
Walter Davies made his fortune when he took over as company president after his father retired during its most successful period.
Belle Crest was built on the northern river section of George Green’s large Upper Nyack farm, which Davies acquired in 1906. Site work was completed by a Rockland County engineer and building was done by the DeBaun company, which built many dwellings in the Nyacks. The building was 62’ x 50’ with the first story built of mountain stone with a wood frame second floor. On the Broadway side was (and is) a porte-cochere. A long veranda ran along the east side facing the river. A large conservatory was built on the south side. The Davies family moved there in 1907.
Mary Davies, a Lawsuit, and a Cuban Connection
Walter Davies died in 1913 having lived in Nyack only a few years. His wife, Mary Davies died in 1925, leaving an estate worth $700,000. After Walter’s death, Restituto and Charlotte Rodriquez served as Mary’s live-in accountant/financial advisor and secretary/companion, respectively, for nearly 5 years without recompense. According to later testimony, Mary promised she would leave her estate to them. The Nyack Evening Journal reported that the Rodriquez family was well-known and liked in Nyack. The couple left Mary’s employ before her death and returned to Cuba.
Once the will was announced with no mention of them, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriquez filed suit for pay of $17,000 and $10,000, respectively, from the estate. The case was first adjudicated in favor of the Rodriquez. The NYC Appellate court concurred with the initial decision. Upon appeal and review by the NYC Supreme Court, the judgment was dismissed in favor of the estate. The case is often cited in NYS contract law.
The Chapmans at Belle Crest
In 1926, George Lewis Chapman and Augusta Bradley Chapman, both from well-known Nyack families, purchased Belle Crest. George was the son of Charles A. Chapman of Nyack who was one of the founders of Nyack National Bank, starting as cashier, then President and Chairman of the Board. He was also active in the Nyack Rowing Association, serving for years as Coxswain when Nyack artist Julian O. Davidson was captain of the club. George grew up in South Nyack at 169 S. Broadway. George also worked at the bank, starting as a teller when his father was president and continuing on with the bank through his business career and after his father died in 1918. Like his father, George was a sportsman. He played in golf tournaments at the Nyack Country Club. George died at Belle Crest in 1935.
Augusta Bradley Chapman was equally well-known in Nyack. She was the daughter of Stephen R. Bradley, III, an important figure in Nyack history from 1875-1910. He was the founding figure behind Nyack Hospital, giving to the hospital the building erected for President Cleveland’s occupancy, which was used as an annex. He was president of Rockland Light and Power Co, having acquired the old Nyack electric light plant. He founded the Orangeburg Fiber Conduit Company. And along with Charles Chapman, he was a founder of Nyack National Bank, serving as its first vice president. He also became president of the Nyack Library when it was founded in 1879.
Augusta was a stand-out lawn tennis player at the Nyack Country Club, which was located where the Upper Nyack Elementary School is now. Augusta won many state and regional tennis championships and became the national women’s doubles champion in 1915. Augusta died in 1949.
Upper Nyack Tennis Club
Augusta was responsible for creating the Upper Nyack Tennis Club, allowing the club use of courts across Broadway from Belle Crest. The club, still located at the same spot, was deeded the property in 1956 by Augusta’s daughter Marion, who at the time was married to Chapman family neighbor Richard W. D. Jewett. Marion, born in 1899, was herself a local tennis star in the 1920s, winning state championships. She was the first president of the Upper Nyack Tennis Club as well as being a member of the Nyack Field Club and the Nyack Garden Club. She died in Nyack in 1978. Marion’s older sister Augusta lived to the age of 94, dying in Duxbury, MA.
Hudson House Conference Center
As executor for the estate, Marion Jewett sold Belle Crest to the Keenen family in 1950. They in turn sold it to the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship headquartered in New York City. Known then as Hudson House, the house was used as a conference center until 1985. Nyack College once tried to purchase the building for its graduate students. The house is now privately owned.
Belle Crest Today
A number of changes have occurred over time to Belle Crest. The original southern conservatory became a two-level glassed-in porch. A wing was added on the north side the building. Homes were built along the Hudson River below Belle Crest accessed by a driveway that heads downhill along a brook at the foot of Lexow Ave.
A stone wall, now in need of repair, has long fronted the estate, and is now mostly hidden by trees. Still, the large scale of the home and a glimpse of the eastern veranda still stand from the time when a clock magnate from Brooklyn built Nyack’s largest house on a ridge with Hudson River views from Ossining to Yonkers.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.