Furniture at Boscobel

Philip D. Zimmerman

Philip D. Zimmerman Furniture & Decorative Arts

  • Fig. 1. Boscobel, built in Montrose, New York, 1804–1808, and moved and reerected in Garrison, New York, 1957–1961. All photographs are by courtesy of Boscobel, Garrison, New York.
  • Fig. 2. Sofa probably by Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854), New York, c. 1815–1820. Mahogany and cherry; height 32 ½, length 85 ¼, depth 24 ½ inches. The brass feet are replacements; the modern “seat cap” frame is of tulip poplar.
  • Figs. 3, 3a, 3b. Side chair (one of a set of twelve, originally probably twenty-four) probably by Phyfe, c. 1815–1820. Mahogany and tulip poplar; height 32 ⅝, width 18, depth 22 ¾ inches. The brass feet are replacements.
  • Fig. 4. Secretary bookcase probably by Phyfe, 1810–1820. Mahogany, mahogany and satinwood veneer, white pine, tulip poplar; height 94 ½, width 78 ½, depth 16 ⅝ inches.
  • Fig. 4a. Detail of a 1949 photograph of the secretary bookcase, showing one of the original feet. The photograph appeared in American Furniture, Paintings and Silver,Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, January 13–15, 1949.
  • Fig. 4b. Detail of one of the front feet of the secretary bookcase as restored.
  • Figs. 5, 5a. Worktable labeled by Joel Curtis (active 1817–1819), New York, 1817–1819. Mahogany, tulip poplar, white pine; height 33, width 22 ¼, depth 16 inches. The left front foot is a replacement.
  • Figs. 6, 6a. Easy chair, New York, 1800–1815. Mahogany, cherry (or possibly maple), white pine; height 49, width 34 ½, depth 34 inches.
  • Fig. 7. Worktable probably by Phyfe, New York, 1815–1820. Mahogany; height 30 ⅝, width 24 ¾, depth 12 ⅞ inches. A detail appears on the frontispiece. The brasses are replacements.

Since reopening to the public in 1977, Boscobel has been synonymous with the display of the finest Federal furniture made in New York before 1820. This ambitious and elegant country mansion was built along the Hudson River in Montrose, New York, between 1804 and 1808. After decades of neglect, it was dramatically purchased from a demolisher in 1955 and moved to a bluff in Garrison, New York, overlooking the Hudson with a view of West Point in the distance (Fig. 1). Redecorated and furnished with “Adamesque” English antiques, it opened to the public to great acclaim in 1961.1 But unfavorable criticism of the furnishings led the trustees to hire Berry B. Tracy, then curator-in-charge of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to review the historical accuracy of the interiors. He recommended “that substantially all the materials in the house that are not of New York manufacture be sold at public auction and new furniture and furnishings be purchased as replacements.”2 His report argued that New York products made between the 1790s and about 1815 should replace the English antiques and that “these proposed changes [should be] fully realized while it is still relatively easy to acquire the proper additional furniture.”

Tracy’s vision was based in part on manuscript evidence not consulted earlier. His detailed refurnishing plan incorporated information from letters between the original owner, a loyalist, States Morris Dyckman (1755–1806), and his wife, Elizabeth Corne (1776–1823), written while Dyckman was in England, and on a few surviving bills of Dyckman family purchases. Tracy went on to create what is arguably one of the most important collections of New York Federal furniture in what is generally called the “Phyfe style.”3 The range and depth of furniture forms, punctuated by acknowledged masterpieces, invites comparison with only two other collections of Phyfe-type furniture: those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Tracy’s harmonious interiors at Boscobel are richly conceived, inspired by the best design principles available to New Yorkers of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Yet the house’s historical record is actually woefully lacking, which led to substantial conjecture and assumptions in the furnishing. The estate inventories of 1806 and 1824 for States and his son Peter, for instance, are too general to offer specific guidance, as are the scant references to furniture in the letters between States and Elizabeth. The only furniture invoices to survive list bamboo and fancy chair sets purchased in 1807 and 1808. Even so, Boscobel’s extraordinary collections deserve ongoing study and evaluation. This article presents some recent findings and improvements.

One of the great treasures at the house is a set of twelve curule side chairs and a sofa (see Figs. 2, 3).4 The Roman numeral XXIIII chiseled into one inside rear seat rail indicates that the set originally numbered at least twenty-four chairs.5 The unusual leg design signaled the “antique” taste in early nineteenth-century New York. Called “Grecian cross fronts” (the cross being shifted to the sides in this and most other sets of American curule chairs) or simply X-seats in two 1808 London publications, this seating drew inspiration directly from ancient folding stools.6 The strong semicircular elements that form the base also more delicately compose the back of this and at least five other New York–made sets.7 The overall effect is elegant and very stylish, although construction of the lapped S-shaped legs created structural weaknesses that resulted in a high incidence of repairs.

Rather than loose cushions the side chairs and the sofa have unusual upholstered wood caps that fit atop their caned seats (see Fig. 3a). Notched corners for the rear stiles and a single peg in front for a conforming hole in the front rail secure the caps in place. The caps are commonly understood to have been used in winter and the cooler, open caning in summer. In fact, the questionable age of these caps suggests otherwise.8 The sofa cap is modern, probably made in 1976 when the sofa was acquired by Boscobel, and shows no oxidation or other signs of age, and the peg holes in the front rail also look recent. The undersides of the side chair caps are well-oxidized and the pegs and holes are worn with use, but other evidence suggests they too were added sometime after the chairs were made. The caps raise the seat height more than two inches to an excessively high 18 ½ inches, and the resulting awkward seasonal change in seat height has no period precedent. In addition, the rear legs on all the chairs have been extended by about two inches, suggesting that at some point the chairs had original front feet that were removed, which required shortening the rear legs to level the chair seats. But this lowered the original seat heights from about 16 ½ inches to 15, which is too low. The upholstered seat caps, therefore, restored the chair seats to a normal height.9 Recent scrutiny has revealed that several of the Boscobel chairs bear pencil inscriptions of the name “Benjamin,” the date “Nov. 1925,” and notations such as “new rosette on back” or “repaired by E F Hagen 2/3 E 26.”10 Benjamin likely refers to William Massena Benjamin (1874–1928), who married Charlotte Hoffman Prime (1881–1969). Two of their several children sold portions of the set to Boscobel in 1970 and 1976, along with a reproduction curule sofa and pair of stools, and another single curule stool, not mentioned by Tracy, that is period, but somewhat later in style than the chair and sofa set.11 Charlotte Prime was a great-granddaughter of the New York merchant Nathaniel Prime (1768–1840) of 1 Broadway in Manhattan, who is believed to have ordered the set. Interestingly, he also owned an important gueridon, a French form of center table, made and labeled by Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) between 1815 and 1819.12 Furniture historian Frances Bretter has noted two other wealthy New Yorkers who bought seating from Phyfe and other furniture from Lannuier.13

Judging by the various inscriptions and dates, some of the curule chairs were repaired in 1925 by Frederick E. (1868–1948) and Henry A. Hagen of New York, who, about 1905, had taken over the business started by their father, Ernest F. Hagen (1830–1913). Born in Germany, the elder Hagen had immigrated to New York in 1844 and trained as a furniture maker. In the late nineteenth century he developed a reputation for restoring, reproducing, and selling authentic Phyfe furniture, including some to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.14 In addition to restoring the chairs, his sons probably made the reproduction sofa and stools now at Boscobel.

While Phyfe’s name has long been associated with New York curule seating, the only direct evidence linking him to this furniture form is an undated, unsigned pencil sketch believed to have accompanied his 1816 furniture bill to Charles N. Bancker of Philadelphia.15 The small drawing is the earliest evidence of the curule form in the United States and suggests an approximate earliest date for the Boscobel chairs and sofa. The drawing also shows a lyre-back side chair that displays the same cornucopia motif as flanks the central seaweed and ribbon composition in the crest of the Boscobel sofa.

Phyfe’s name is also associated with a large secretary bookcase at Boscobel, although its features do not eliminate other accomplished artisans as possible makers (Fig. 4). Refinements include the successful overall proportions, beautiful veneers that not only ornament surfaces but define exacting design details, and small drawers inside the writing drawer that have satinwood veneer on mahogany with turned ivory or bone pulls. The stylized imbricated water leaves carved around the front legs are a so-called Phyfe feature also employed by other better New York makers. In keeping with contemporary furniture-making instructions, the bookcase was made in three sections screwed together and held in place by the one-piece lift-off pediment.16 A rare—perhaps unique—carved tablet in the pediment features the coat-of-arms of the Chrystie family of New York, in whose hands the secretary remained until 1949. Tracy reported that the tablet was taken from a bookplate of Thomas Witter Chrystie (1808–1888), but given his birth date and the probable date of the secretary this seems unlikely. His father, the Reverend James Chrystie (1786–1863), or possibly one of his three uncles, may have been the original owner.

When sold at auction in 1949, the secretary had four large carved paw feet across the front (see Fig. 4a). When acquired for Boscobel in 1976, it had brass ferrules instead that matched the turned profile of the rear feet. Recently, conservator Ridgely Kelly restored the front feet (see Fig. 4b) to match the scale and details evident in the 1949 black-and-white photograph. In addition, faint paint evidence remained on the rear feet suggesting that the front feet were also originally painted, as they are on other contemporary New York furniture forms. Kelly used this information and his study of three contemporary New York pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to determine the overall coloring of the feet and the modeling of their sides and back, which were not visible in the early photograph.17

Not all the Phyfe style furniture at Boscobel was made by Phyfe. One example is a worktable with the label of Joel Curtis pasted into the well beneath the hinged top (Fig. 5). Curtis is listed as a cabinetmaker at the printed address, 153 Chamber Street, in the New York directories for 1817–1818, 1818–1819, and 1819–1820.18 The table case stands on a base with four “swept” legs with reeding overlaid by acanthus leaves where they join the urn-shaped pillar. More acanthus leaves decorate the urn—and create a mystery: a photograph of the table published in 1939 shows it with an uncarved urn, but a 1976 photograph, taken when it was acquired for Boscobel, clearly shows the carving around the urn.19 However, detailed examinations of the carving and all physical aspects of the base reveal no inconsistencies or other evidence that the urn was carved after 1939.

Recently, Boscobel acquired the early nineteenth-century easy chair in Figure 6, owned in the Poughkeepsie area, midway between New York and Albany, to replace one from Pennsylvania.20 Front leg turnings relate it to fine furniture made in New York, although the chair may also have been made north of the city.21 In addition to original brass casters, it retains original foundation upholstery of coarse woven burlap and horsehair and tow (flax fibers) stuffing. Tack hole evidence indicates that it was originally upholstered with a slipcover. Old linen patches in places subject to abrasion and wear suggest that slipcovers remained in use until sometime in the mid-twentieth century when a teal green mate-lassé (now removed) was tacked in place.

The easy chair was made for night use (see Fig. 6a). Removal of the upholstered slip seat exposed the wood lid in the seat deck that once covered a chamber pot (probably of pewter). An entry in the 1811 Journeymen Cabinet and Chair-Makers’ Pennsylvania Book of Prices specified a “slider under the frame, to draw out behind, with the pan,”22 which appears to describe the now missing element in this chair, which is also documented by clear nail and oxidation evidence. A deep flounce along the bottom border of the slipcover would have hidden the chamber pot and rails from view. Study is underway to determine an appropriate fabric for replacement slipcovers.

An astragal-end tambour worktable acquired in 2005 adds further representation of Phyfe’s work to the Boscobel collection (Fig. 7). This familiar form of worktable, having hinged-lid access to a writing surface and fitted side trays with wells below, becomes special in light of the design of the base, the choice of materials, and the quality of execution. The flared shaft above a reeded drum in the pillar recalls similar table pillars in a suite of furniture made by Phyfe for James Lefferts Brinckerhoff (1791–1846) in 1816.23 The four “sweep” legs are similar to those on the labeled Phyfe marble-top worktable of about 1815 at Winterthur.24 The mahogany selection is elegant. In addition to the highly figured veneer on the false drawer, the rectangular panels on each side and the larger veneers wrapping each end are vibrantly striped. Moreover, all the secondary woods are mahogany, amore costly practice that minimized warpage and splitting of veneers due to uneven rates of expansion.

Boscobel remains materially as Tracy re-created it. His report said, “Properly redone, where necessary, it would become a Mecca for students of the Federal era and a special joy not only for the public but for those few professionals and critics who thoroughly understand every detail of its making.”25 And, indeed, it has become so. Nonetheless, information about the collections, the Dyckmans, and the house is ongoing and will continue to refine Tracy’s vision.

Thanks to Richard Kelly, Judith Pavelock, and Jeanne Solensky for their help in preparing this article.

 PHILIP D. ZIMMERMAN, a museum and decorative arts consultant, serves as consulting curator to Boscobel.

1 As an indication of the importance of the house, New York Governor Nelson A. Rocke-feller spoke at the May 21, 1961, dedication ceremony. Interior and exterior views of the house from this era appear in Joseph T. Butler, Boscobel Restoration: The Story of Boscobel and Its Builder, States Morris Dyckman (Boscobel Restorations, Garrison-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1974). 

2 Berry B. Tracy, “Critique and Proposals for the Historic Furnishings of the Boscobel Restoration,” c. 1976, p. 5, Boscobel Archives. 

3 See Berry B. Tracy, Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel (Boscobel Restoration and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1981). 

4 See another large and similar set in David L. Barquist and Ethan W. Lasser, Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2003), pp. 36–38. 

5 Two more chairs from this set were sold at Fine Americana, Sotheby’s, New York, January 28-31, 1994, lot 1178.

6 Supplement to the London Chair-Makers’ and Carvers’ Book of Prices for Workmanship (London, 1808), pl. 6, pp. 22–23; George Smith, A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808; reprint Praeger, New York, 1970), pl. 53. The form also appears in Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary (1803; reprint Praeger, New York, 1970), vol. 2, pls. 45, 47, 62. 

7 A sixth set has a lyre set in the back. See Barquist and Lasser, Curule, no. 8, pp. 34–39. 

8 Thanks to Peter M. Kenny and Richard Kelly for their observations. 

9 The upholstered seat caps are an integral part of the Tracy color scheme, which needs to be considered as Boscobel studies these chairs further. 

10 Similar pencil inscriptions occur on an early nineteenth-century lyre-back side chair now at the Brooklyn Museum and a sofa at the Museum of the City of New York. See Elizabeth Stillinger, “Ernest Hagen—Furniture Maker,” Maine Antiques Digest (November 1988), pp. 8D–16D, 9D; and Deborah D. Waters, “Is It Phyfe?” American Furniture 1996, p. 72, fig. 13. 

11 Mrs. Benjamin (Julia) Haskell sold four chairs, the two sofas, and the two stools in 1970. Her sister Mrs. Alan N. (Sarah B.) Anderson sold eight chairs and the 1830s curule stool in 1976. 

12 Peter M. Kenny, “Honoré Lannuier’s furniture and patrons: recent discoveries,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 153, no. 5 (May 1998), pp. 718–719, pl. VII. 

13 William Bayard (1761–1826) bought a bedstead from Lannuier in 1805 and chairs from Phyfe in 1807. James Brinckerhoff bought a bedroom suite from Lannuier and chairs, a sofa, tables, and wardrobes from Phyfe in 1816. See Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), pp. 104–124. 

14 For information on the Hagens, see Waters, “Is It Phyfe?” pp. 64–68. 

15 Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (Viking Press, New York, 1966), no. 72a, pp. 126–127. 

16 Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793; reprint Dover Publications, New York, 1972), p. 152. 

17 Kenny et al., Honoré Lannuier, fig. 33; Nineteenth-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970), figs. 20, 21. 

18 Tracy, Federal Furniture, p. 102, gives Curtis’s working dates as 1817 to 1820, but in the caption to the worktable (no. 73) he mistakenly dates it 1821–1823. 

19 Nancy McClelland, Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency, 1795–1830 (William R. Scott, New York, 1939), pp. 199–200, pls. 183–184; Israel Sack, Opportunities in American Antiques, brochure 29, October 1, 1976, p. 71, P4398. 

20 Tracy, Federal Furniture, no. 2. Antiques dealer Sanford Levy of New Paltz, New York, acquired the New York chair without provenance, but paper labels record the names of early owners E. Emily Hart and Mary A. Hart. 

21 Kenny et al., Honoré Lannuier, pl. 62; Edward V. Jones, “Charles-Honoré Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe, Two Creative Geniuses of Federal New York,” American Art Journal, vol. 9, no. 1 (May 1977), fig. 10; Tracy, Federal Furniture, no. 69. 

22 Journeymen Cabinet and Chair-Makers’ Pennsylvania Book of Prices (Philadelphia, 1811), p. 80. The two L-shaped tracks supporting the sliding frame were likely removed when the chair was reupholstered. 

23 Jeanne Vi-bert Sloane, “A Duncan Phyfe bill and the furniture it documents,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 131, no. 5 (May 1987), pp. 1106–1113, figs. 4, 6. An unreeded drum with flared element above occurs on a card table with the August 1820 Phyfe label (Kenny et al., Honoré Lannuier, fig. 104); and New York furniture maker Michael Allison used a reeded drum with different turnings on a pembroke table at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ibid., fig. 26). 

24 Montgomery, American Furniture, no. 409. For a tambour worktable with another earlier Phyfe label, see McClelland, Duncan Phyfe, pls. 121–122. 

25 Tracy, “Critique and Proposals,” p. 27.