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Nyack People & Places: Revisiting Undercliff–A Lost, Gilded Age Mansion

by Mike Hays

Undercliff as seen from North Broadway. The Hudson River is behind the house.

Undercliff, or Underclyffe as it was styled in 1885, was an estate house named for its presence near or ‘under’ Hook Mountain. Built for the young, but wealthy Arthur C. Tucker family at the height of the Gilded age when many Upper Nyack farms became estates, Undercliff was one of the most ornate Victorian houses designed for summer entertaining and leisure.

Located at 649 N. Broadway, the 22-room home was equipped with a 65-foot octagonal tower, a kitchen with a stove capable of cooking for 200 people, and modern utilities like steam heat and gas lights with electric starters. The farm, purchased from the Snedeker family, was cultivated with crops and fruit trees, and included barns and large greenhouses on Midland Ave. at the corner with Larchdale Ave. Tucker grew roses for export to NYC. Undercliff became the center of a social whirl that lasted for just one generation, making way for a new house at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.

Arthur Currie Tucker (1859-1917)

Map showing Undercliff, driveways, stables, and dock. Note the greenhouses at the corner of Larchdale and Midland Aves.

Arthur C. Tucker was the son of George Washington Tucker, a commodities trader with an office on Pearl Street in New York City. The family home was once at 841 Fifth Avenue in NYC, later the site of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor’s house. The family also had a residence in Pelham. Tucker moved to Nyack as a young man, perhaps due to an attraction for his first cousin, once removed, Estelle Chappell (1859-1903) who lived in Nyack.  Estelle was the daughter of a master stone mason who was raised by her aunt and uncle Susan and Charles Tucker after her parents died. Susan Tucker was the adoptive mother-in-law later living at Undercliff as enumerated in the 1900 and 1910 census. Confusing? Estelle’s and Arthur’s grandfathers were brothers.

Arthur and Estelle married in Nyack on July 8, 1884, at a “flower-bedecked mansion” at the corner of Broadway and Voorhis Ave. A special morning train was hired to bring 150 wedding guests to Nyack from NYC. Over 200 potted palms and roses graced a bay window. Calla and Easter lilies and lilies of the valley were in profusion. The Rockland County Journal noted that the honeymoon was to last up to five weeks in the “West”, probably as far as St. Louis.

They had six children; their first child died at age five months. The oldest child was Gertrude born 1885, followed by Edith in 1888, Katie in 1890, Arthur Currie Jr. in 1893 and George in 1894. Undercliff was staffed by 3 to 4 resident servants at a time, indicating the wealth they enjoyed. The upkeep of the farm, the greenhouse, and the stables surely required many more employees who may have lived in a barn on Midland Ave. or in the carriage house.

Undercliff

Undercliff as seen from the southeast with Hook Mt. in the background. The property was terraced on the river side.

Ironically, mansions seem to have been built faster in the Gilded Age than now. Undercliff, designed by William H. Smith, was built, and landscaped in less than a year. The house itself was built for $25,000, an amount whose relative value in today’s currency would be nearly $8 million. Annual wages of most Americans during the Gilded Age were about $200-$400.

Undercliff interior showing the library and a sitting room behind it.

On the first floor, a dining room faced east with a view of the river. On the south side of the dining room was a billiard room with an adjoining private office. The parlor included a cherry-wood mantel and a French beveled plate mirror.  The library filled with hard-cover books completed the first floor.

The bedrooms, some finished in mahogany, and the butler’s pantry, were on the second floor. Servants’ quarters and storage were on the top floor. The house was lit with gas using electric starters. Water came from artisanal wells on the farmland that could provide 16,000 gallons a day at a pressure of 47 pounds per square inch.

A large piazza overlooked a terraced lawn descending to a dock on the Hudson River. A large stable and carriage house were built with a similar design as the house. A crushed white stone driveway ran throughout the property. Granite columns on Broadway flanked the entrance to a semi-circular driveway that ran through a porte cochere on the southwest corner. An ornate fence fronted Broadway, which was lined with rows of larch trees that turned a brilliant shade of gold in the fall.

Social Life at Undercliff

Undercliff’s dining room. Every inch of the walls and ceiling are decorated.

The Tuckers were quite the Nyack socialites during their summer visits to Undercliff. Like many barons of Upper Nyack’s North Broadway, they wintered in the city. They made the rounds of frequent parties as members of the Nyack Country Club, Nyack Rowing Association, and other clubs. They often hosted the Nyack Married Club at Undercliff. About twenty couples would gather for an evening of cards (usually euchre) and refreshments.

Arthur Tucker is the second longest serving mayor of Upper Nyack. From 1894-1911, he served as Upper Nyack’s fourth “president” (a term used instead of mayor until 1937). His term was mostly without major conflicts, except for decisions made about a trolley line.

Nyack villagers were keen on joining the list of towns with electric trolley lines. South Nyack and Nyack had already granted licenses to a trolley line when the matter came up before a crowded Upper Nyack village board meeting chaired by Tucker in 1897. NIMBYists argued against it. Some opposed placing the trolley on N. Broadway, suggesting that a trolley running north/south between Broadway and Midland Ave. would be a better choice.

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After much debate, Tucker called a private executive board meeting. Behind closed doors, a license was approved with the Nyack Traction Company. For a variety of reasons, the trolley line was never built in the Nyacks.

Visit the Historical Society Museum for more Gilded Age Photographs!

See over 50 photographs from the Gilded Age by Frank Brush, photographer of Undercliff, and Isaac Van Wagner. Nyack Through the Lens, the current exhibit at the Historical Society of the Nyacks museum has an antique stereoscope viewer that guests may use to look at ten of Van Wagner’s Old Nyack stereoscope slides.

The exhibit runs through the end of April. The Museum is open Saturdays from 1-4p or by appointment at info@nyackhistory.org.

Arthur Tucker & Larchdale Avenue

A view from near Undercliff’s dock showing the terraced yard. Hook Mountain before it was quarried is in the background.

In 1886, Tucker and his next-door neighbor, Colonel Alexander Pollock whose home was named Larchdell, built a street between Midland Avenue and Broadway bordering their two properties. The only other connection at the time between the two avenues between Old Mountain Road and Hook Mountain was Lexow Avenue. Tucker and Pollock agreed to give the street to the village but only if Midland was properly graded because water from Midland flowed down the new lane gullying it.

Pollock and Tucker put in 700 feet of piping to prevent a recurrence and threatened to fence off the lane if further work on Midland was not completed by the town. Eventually the lane was opened for horse and carriage traffic. Over time, the name of the street was changed to what it is today, Larchdale Avenue, further altering the memory of the two elegant homes fronting the lane.

Lightning Fire at Undercliff & A Lawsuit

The stable/carriage house of Undercliff was as ornate st the home.

In July 1895, during Tucker’s first term as President of Upper Nyack, a barn near Tucker’s greenhouses on Midland Ave. was struck by lightning. The barn, including four tons of hay and oats, a sleigh, and garden implements was destroyed. Martin Grady, an employee, and his wife, who were downtown when lighting struck, lived in the barn. They lost their furniture. A small house just west of the barn occupied by Garret Brady and his wife was charred. Their furniture was removed but damaged by rain.

The alarm was sounded, and fire trucks showed up, however, Upper Nyack’s Empire Hook & Ladder’s water pumper never made it. Apparently, as Fire Chief Haines stated afterwards, his men couldn’t pull the engine up the steep road. Besides, he said, the barn couldn’t be saved anyway.

Tucker brought charges of incompetency against Haines at a Village Board meeting with R. Dickinson Jewett, a neighbor and the town attorney, present. Tucker claimed that there was a large reservoir nearby on Pollock’s property that could have been used to fight the fire if a pumper had been there. In fact, Tucker sent a team of horses down Broadway to get the engine but was told the engine had already turned back. Haines defended his response. The Town Board found that Haines violated fire company laws but should not be fired.

Tucker and McQuaide Sue the Upper Nyack Quarry 

Dining room of Undercliff looking into a sitting room.

The quiet countryside of North Broadway was suddenly interrupted at the turn of the century by daily dynamite blasts for a new trap rock quarry operating where Nyack Beach State Park is now located. The blasts could be heard up and down and across the Tappan Zee as the company slowly blasted away the face of Hook Mountain. The blasts were particularly loud for the abutting neighbors enjoying their summer leisure.

In 1900, Tucker and his new neighbor at Larchdell, James P. McQuaide, sued the Mack Paving Company (later named the Manhattan Trap Rock Co.) claiming physical discomfort and property damage from the dynamiting of the cliffs. Judge Dickey ruled on the case, saying it could not be decided on physical discomfort alone, but rather based on physical injury to person or property. The judge allowed operations to continue with some constraints. Dynamite blasts would last for another 11 years until the land was acquired by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, influenced by Upper Nyack resident J. DuPratt White.

Photographing Undercliff

This horse and carriages appears to be a photo on one of Undercliff’s white stone driveways. The Hudson River and Tarrytown hills are in the background. This may be Arthur Tucker and one of the Tucker children in the carriage.

Arthur Tucker had connections with two Nyack photographers, Isaac Van Wagner and Frank Brush. The local newspaper reported that Tucker owned the latest photographic equipment and, with the help of local commercial photographer I.M. van Wagner, made photographs of the building site just east of Broadway before the house was built.  The house was photographed by Frank Brush, an Upper Nyack resident. The photos that have been preserved as a part of the Win Perry Jr Collection are shown in this article. It is curious to note that Frank Brush worked as a greenhouse manager in 1895. Did he work for Arthur Tucker and then was asked to take photographs of the house? Perhaps. His photographs judging by the plantings near the house might have been made some ten years after the house was built.

The end of Undercliff

Undercliff looks different from every vantage point. This photo is taken from the northeast, exactly opposite from the home’s tower.

Arthur Tucker became seriously ill and resigned as president of Upper Nyack in 1911. He died after a long and painful illness in 1917 at a home he owned in Pelham. Colonel Benjamin Adriance purchased Undercliff but soon died. His young second wife had more modern sensibilities. She replaced Tucker’s Gilded Age confection with a more sober, Neo-Georgian mansion named Rivercliff that still stands.

The story of Adriance and his young second wife, and later Rivercliff owners like airplane designer Anthony Fokker in the 1930s is itself a lengthy and involved history. Today the estate has undergone major renovation and expansion including the addition of a guest house, indoor pool, movie theater, and a proposed cliffside walkway and reflecting pool.

Without the stunning photos by Frank Brush made in the 1890s, themselves fortuitously preserved, we would have no record of the stunning Gilded Age estate known as Undercliff.

Photo Credits:

Photographs were taken by Frank Brush and are reproduced here courtesy of the Win Perry Jr. Collection. Many of these photographs were digitally restored by Lee Hoffman, Trustee of the Historical Society of the Nyacks.

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Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays 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. Hays 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.

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, Nyack Fan Card, 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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