‘The best-kept secret in New York’

Its name might be the first clue that Tuxedo Park had, at one time, rather elevated, Old World aspirations. A cluster of 330 houses on 2,300 acres of rolling forestland 40 miles north-west of New York City, it is an oasis of history and notable architecture that manages to be at once sophisticated and rustic.

“As soon as I rounded that turn on Tuxedo Road and saw the lake and the terrain and the houses, that was it,” says oil and property entrepreneur Steve Hellman, who, with his wife and three children, bought a 16,000 sq ft home for weekend use in 2003. “It’s probably the best-kept secret in New York.”

Tuxedo Park was created as a planned community, initiated in 1885, when such schemes were much in vogue. However, the “village”, as residents call it, might be the only one envisioned expressly as a playground for New York elite and developed from a gentlemen’s sporting club. It is fronted by grand, solid stone gates built by Italian and Slovak masons to distinguish it from the neighbouring hamlet of Tuxedo, populated by the working classes.

With about 730 residents now, the village had only 13 homes at the time of its founding by Pierre Lorillard, a sportsman and scion of a wealthy tobacco family. By 1916 the village had grown to 116 residences, with 136 supporting structures, such as stables, servants’ quarters and community buildings. Notables such as arbiter of manners Emily Post had taken up residence, Mark Twain visited and read to village children, while Edith Wharton sketched a posh Tuxedo Park in The House of Mirth.

Lorillard hired society architect Bruce Price to design the Park’s first “cottages” in the Victorian shingle style. Popular in the north-eastern US from 1874 to 1910, these rough-hewn structures blended into their wooded grounds. One such “cottage” currently listed with estate agency Towne & Country Properties Sotheby’s International Realty is the Price Collier home. At 10,000 sq ft with nine bedrooms on 11.3 acres, it might more accurately be denominated an “estate” and is priced as such at $6.85m.

These Price-designed cross-gabled houses with squat half-towers and inviting porches covered in earth-toned shingles soon stood next to mansions designed by some of the most renowned architects of the period, such as Warren & Wetmore, creators of New York’s Grand Central Station, and Carrère and Hastings, who did the city’s public library. The stunning range of well-executed historical styles landed the community on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. There are Tudor revival, Queen Anne and Jacobean-style homes, Dutch colonials and Japanese-accented mansions, the odd Mediterranean or Italianate villa, even a majestic French château and an arts and crafts-style cottage with a faux thatched roof.

Peter Regna, who has been restoring a home in Tuxedo Park for three decades, says the local gardens were obviously European-influenced. “Many of the houses had very elaborate gardens: some were French with parterres and fountains; others were Italian with a lot of water and marble statuary; and there were English gardens that were very roaming and green,” Regna says.

Katherine Norris, an agent with Tuxedo Park Estates, says Europeans are attracted to the Park, perhaps the only gated community with its own private school, the Tuxedo Park School, which accepts students from outside the village. Norris says about four British families live in the area, along with a handful of families from Germany, Bosnia, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

As in Europe, the Great Depression and the second world war took their toll, with some mansions destroyed by mysterious fires or abandoned. There were about 65 mansions of more than 10,000 sq ft at the Park’s height; now there are about 50.

“The standards did slowly slip and the Park lost its sense of being fashionable,” says Tobias Guggenheimer, an architect who has completed about 50 projects on village homes in the past decade. “Particularly from the post-second world war period into the 1970s, the Park saw a definite slippage of interest and investment, and some developers came in and actually put up typical suburban homes.”

Guggenheimer has vigorously pursued the clean-up of this architectural mess, even designing shingle-style homes from scratch, and the community has formed an architectural review board to attempt to uphold design standards.

Hellman’s stone and shingle home was created by architect James Brown Lord for Lorillard in 1887. Like the Park itself, it has evolved over the decades – namely, its high gables were sliced off.

With the help of Guggenheimer, Hellman has spent a small fortune restoring the home’s exterior to its former grandeur and restoring or redesigning the interior. Both men are part of Tuxedo’s Park’s renaissance of the past three decades. There is only one crumbling mansion now, compared with five or six 20 years ago.

That revival has been damped during the current downturn but even in the boom prior to it the community’s home prices never hit the extravagant highs of places such as Greenwich, Connecticut and Westchester County, New York. A mansion of distinguished architectural provenance on extensive grounds listed for $10m in Tuxedo Park might go for $20m or even $30m elsewhere, Guggenheimer says.

“Tuxedo Park is really an enclave with no shopping or businesses,” he says. “It’s really just a destination useful for getting away from it all whereas Greenwich is where you live, where you socialise, where you educate your kids.”

As many as 35 per cent of Tuxedo Park’s homes are used as weekend getaways and almost one-third were stables or servants’ quarters that have been renovated into diminutive dwellings of less than 2,500 sq ft. One good example is a 2,300 sq ft carriage cottage with four bedrooms listed at $599,000 with Towne & Country. Another, for $785,000, is a 2,314-sq-ft carriage house with four bedrooms built in 1890 called the “English Cottage”.

There remains enough undeveloped land to create as many as 70 new lots should landowners decide to subdivide, says Christian R Sonne, an agent with Tuxedo Park Associates. However, this can be a lengthy process. Those impatient to buy and build have more often purchased one of the many “teardowns” in the area, or lots with unattractive or deteriorating homes.

In 2004 John Markley and his partner at a private equity firm purchased a lot with a neglected, crumbling Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home built in the 1970s on one of Tuxedo Park’s lakes. The project spent two years in front of Tuxedo Park’s rigorous architectural review board before Markley obtained approval to build a 7,000 sq ft shingle-style home. By this time the housing market was showing signs of weakness and Markley put the plans on hold. Last year he tore down the existing home and now the lot is on the market with Towne & Country for $1.75m. Any buyer would receive the plans for the approved home.

Markley says the development process in Tuxedo Park can be slow and frustrating but it has its benefits. “Any architectural review board worth its weight is going to put you through your paces,” he says.

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