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The Flying Dutchman Lands at Underclyffe Manor

Barons of Broadway #4

Welcome back to ‘Barons of Broadway,’ where we delve into the opulent world of Upper Nyack’s elite. From the 1880s to the 1920s, affluent barons transformed the area’s farmlands into grand riverfront estates. Drawn by the tranquility near the city, these wealthy individuals acquired properties from local farmers, creating a haven of luxury along Broadway. Today, we explore the intriguing tale of Underclyffe Manor and its most peculiar resident, Anthony Fokker, also known as the Flying Dutchman.

The Unconventional Baron

Fokker at an early age

In 1937, Anthony Herman Gerhard Fokker, the maverick aviation innovator, acquired Underclyffe Manor from the Adriance estate. He settled in, quickly making changes and bringing a household staff of ten.

“I came to Nyack because I wanted to have a property for a summer residence located directly on the water where I can have my yachts and flying boats.” 

Anthony Fokker
River side (east side) of Riverclyffe Manor.

Early Life

Born on a Dutch coffee plantation in Java in 1890, Fokker was destined for greatness from an early age. He displayed a knack for engineering. He often skipped school to tinker with steam-driven toy yachts and gasoline engines in his attic. His fascination with flight took hold in 1911 when he built his first plane in the Netherlands and taught himself to fly.

Fokker’s self built plane in 1911

Fokker’s contributions to aviation were monumental. He offered his planes to both sides of WWI, but the Allies turned him down. During World War I, his factories in Germany churned out forty different groundbreaking aircraft, including the iconic three-winged Fokker Dr.I triplane famously flown by the Red Baron. Fokker’s innovative synchronizing gear, which enabled machine-gun bullets to fire through a moving propeller arc, revolutionized aerial combat during the war.

Baron von Richtofen’s red Fokker triplane.

Aviation Triumphs & Commercial Ventures

Fokker’s impact on aviation extended far beyond the battlefield. His commercial ventures, including the establishment of the Atlantic Aircraft Company in Teterboro, NJ, solidified his legacy as a pioneer of modern air travel. Here, he built the largest commercial airplane of its time, a four-engine, thirty-two-seat passenger transport plane, showcasing his commitment to pushing the boundaries of aerial transportation.

Fokker (on the right) with one of his passenger airplanes in the 1930s.

His planes, including trimotors, made history with several groundbreaking firsts. Admiral Byrd flew a Fokker trimotor monoplane over the North Pole in 1926. Additionally, Fokker’s aircraft achieved several milestones, including the first non-stop crossing of America, the first traverse from San Francisco to Honolulu, and Amelia Earhart’s first solo transatlantic flight.

Admiral Byrd’s Fokker tri-motor used on the his flight over the North pole.

The Aviator’s Persona

Fokker’s larger-than-life personality was evident in his daily life in Upper Nyack. Though a bit of a recluse, he occasionally engaged in local affairs, including a lavish luncheon onboard his yacht for fifty members of the Nyack Rotary Club. During the same occasion, he demonstrated his prowess on an aquaplane pulled by his speedboat. His two dachshunds and loyal gardener were his only constant companions in the sprawling mansion, which he filled with European tapestries, model planes, and personal trophies, showcasing his eclectic tastes and achievements.

Newspaper photograph of Fokker and his dogs at Underclyffe Manor in 1937

Marriages and Tragedy

Despite his professional successes, Fokker’s personal life was marked by turmoil. He married Sophie Elizabeth von Morgen, a German, in 1917, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1923. In 1927, he married a Canadian, Violet Austman, who tragically jumped to her death from their New York City apartment window in early 1929.  Fokker once wrote, “I have always understood airplanes much better than women.” These personal tragedies weighed heavily on Fokker, but his passion for aviation remained undiminished.

Renovation of Underclyffe Manor

Upon acquiring Underclyffe Manor, Fokker embarked on a whirlwind renovation spree, infusing the historic estate with his unique vision. He transformed the mansion’s interior, removing Jean Adriance’s grand front hall organ and winding staircase to open breathtaking eastern views of the Hudson River. Fokker’s penchant for innovation extended to the creation of a state-of-the-art movie theater filled with easy chairs in the old billiard room, complete with a hidden screen behind a panel featuring a moose head.

Contemporary photograph showing Fokker’s sun porches on the south side of Undercliff Manor.

The south porch underwent a stunning metamorphosis, emerging as a sun parlor where Fokker could bask in the sunlight while enjoying sweeping views of the river. Meanwhile, the second floor of the porch was enclosed to create a charming sleeping porch, offering a tranquil retreat for warm summer nights.

Outside, Fokker meticulously restored the overgrown grounds, clearing seven years of neglect to reveal the estate’s former splendor. He refurbished the docks, and planned to build a flying plane (sea plane) hangar, although this ambitious project never came to fruition.

The Q.E.D. Saga

When Fokker moved to Nyack he brought with him a yacht and a speedboat that could exceed 60 mph. In June of 1937, Fokker added another eccentricity to his collection: the launch of a self-designed yacht, the Q.E.D. (meaning, ‘that which was to have been proved’). Construction costs totaled about $5M when valued in 2024 currency. The 112-foot vessel, with its sleek black hull, was a sight to behold as it made its debut on the Harlem River. Attended by locals and dignitaries including William Haring Jr, his nearby neighbor at River Hook, the launch was an event to remember, complete with Fokker’s mother ringing a bell via phone from the Netherlands to start the boat down the ways.

The unusual lines of the Q.E.D.

The Q.E.D. quickly became a focal point of Fokker’s social life in Upper Nyack, hosting lavish gatherings and delightful cruises along the Hudson River. However, tragedy struck in October 1939 while the boat was in use to bring two newlyweds from New York City to his estate. A fire broke out onboard near Yonkers, forcing the passengers and crew to jump from the flaming ship. John Wanamaker from Congers disappeared and was never found. The sunken boat worth $250,000 (about $5 million in today’s currency) and its art work was a total loss and never salvaged.

Legacy & Lament

In 1939, at the age of 49, Fokker’s life was tragically cut short by complications following surgery. He passed away at Murray Hill Hospital, never regaining consciousness after an operation to relieve sinus blockage. His death marked the end of an era, but his legacy as a pioneering aviator and eccentric visionary lives on, immortalized in the annals of aviation history. Fokker’s renovations at 549 North Broadway remain visible to this day.

Also in Barons of Broadway series:

#1 The Magnificent Saga Of Larchdell

#2 Revisiting Underclyffe–A Lost, Gilded Age Mansion

#3 The Adriance Era At Underclyffe Manor

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

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