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The painterly vista of the Hudson river and Catskill Mountains framed by Joan Davidson’s porch in Germantown, New York, would not be out of place 100 miles south in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among the works of Frederic Edwin Church. In fact, the Hudson River School’s best-known artist made his home – and some of his most famous landscapes – just a few miles up the road at Olana, now a historic site.
Davidson’s own 85-acre estate, Midwood, centred around a pale yellow Federal-inspired clapboard mansion, is private but, she says, “I feel about this place that it’s a little bit of a public trust”. This sense of responsibility seems only natural for someone who has spent much of her life in philanthropy and public service.
Born into a wealthy family, Davidson grew up in Manhattan and spent her childhood summers in the Hamptons. Her father, Jacob Kaplan, made his fortune running the Welch Grape Juice Company and became a pillar of New York’s charitable community when he founded the JM Kaplan Fund in 1945.
When Kaplan retired in 1977, Davidson left her post as chair of the state arts council and took over leadership of the foundation, supporting an array of cultural institutions and quality of life initiatives in New York, from green markets and the Public Library to a campaign for public toilets.
In 1993 she stepped down to become New York’s parks and preservation commissioner and in 1995 she founded Furthermore, a publishing programme under Kaplan’s umbrella that supports the publishing of illustrated non-fiction books. Now, at 86, Davidson remains active: as well as sitting on the boards of the National Resources Defense Council, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the New York Public Theater, she is president emeritus of the Kaplan Fund.
In keeping with Davidson’s busy lifestyle, Midwood plays host to a year-round schedule of weekend events. (Davidson is divorced and spends most of the week in Manhattan; a caretaker lives at Midwood year-round, along with a few tenants who rent other buildings on the estate.) A party each May brings together local politicians and environmentalists to eat shad, a fish native to the Hudson. Davidson also hosts benefits for the Hudson River Foundation and the Columbia Land Conservancy. Holidays are spent here with her extended family, which includes her niece, the writer Isabel Fonseca – who is married to novelist Martin Amis – and sister-in-law, the artist Edwina Sandys.
The house was built in 1888 as a summer retreat for a daughter of the Livingston family, who settled this stretch of Hudson river valley bluff in 1686 and played leading roles in the early years of the American republic.
Most of the flooring, mouldings and fireplaces are original, although Davidson has expanded the house to accommodate her family, including building a tower on one corner with a playroom, complete with stage, for her grandchildren. Standing in the old-fashioned kitchen, which is dominated by an enormous hearth and a pantry with original wooden cabinets filled with the Livingston china, Davidson describes the decor as “a complete mishmash” but loves the effect. “It’s a tribute to the house – it all fits.”
Throughout the rambling ground floor rooms, Davidson points out family artefacts and striking works of art. Over a fireplace in the parlour, a framed note from her granddaughter Eliza lays out the schedule from a long-ago visit, including “pick apples” and “do Poet’s Walk” (a nearby park). The room is trimmed with painted wall motifs inspired by Pompeian frescoes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the addition of local birds such as cardinals and pheasants.
In the dining room, a table Davidson bought for $150 years ago at an antique shop in Hudson is surrounded by chairs designed by Harry Van Dyke, the local architect who helped her restore the house. Her mother’s Chinese sideboard and a green-painted table from Mexico sit below large abstract paintings by her late brother-in-law Gonzalo Fonseca, a Uruguayan artist whose art is scattered around the house.
As she climbs the stairs to the upper floors, Davidson points out several bathrooms where claw-foot tubs have recently been replaced by tiled showers. “This is a new invention,” she says – a refrain she repeats about many changes she’s made over the years.
She isn’t sure exactly how many rooms there are but says her record is 38 overnight guests. I count 10 bedrooms on three storeys, each with a nameplate on the door. They range from the Washburn Room, with its four-poster canopy bed, to the Bamboo Suite, named for the 1888 faux-bamboo furniture set bought years ago at a local auction. Family members request their favourite rooms at holidays, and a roster of bunking assignments from last Thanksgiving hangs in the kitchen.
Davidson bought the property in 1985 at the suggestion of a friend who owned a neighbouring estate that was part of the Livingston land.
“It was terra incognita, it seemed so far away,” she says, recalling the cold and rainy March day when she first visited. “I kept saying, ‘Relax, it’s the setting that matters.’ And lo and behold, the house was great too!”
Since then, Davidson has become as much an institution upstate as she is in the city. Even so, she says, “I’ll never give up Manhattan,” where she owns an art-filled apartment on the Upper East Side. “I’m not a puller up of roots.”
Furthermore remains one of Davidson’s most important New York commitments. Recipients of the grants, which average $5,000, range from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 to a Metropolitan Museum of Art book on tapestries. It has funded about 1,000 books, many of which are stacked on a long table in Midwood’s study, and it has recently launched a $25,000 prize for an outstanding book in the visual arts. The inaugural award will be presented to the Brooklyn Museum for the book that accompanied its Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties show.
“It’s really important that serious publishing can take place in a world when everybody can produce their own book,” Davidson says. “And I think it builds on the fund’s history of getting things started. We’ve always been the go-to place for a new idea.”
The Kaplan Fund is now in the hands of the third generation, with Davidson’s son Peter serving as chairman, and while her children’s interests have broadened beyond New York, Davidson is pleased with their stewardship. “I think it’s very hard for family foundations to pass on to the next generation,” she says. “They can’t agree. They piss away the money or they take on so many different things that they lose the focus. And I’m proud of our family because I think we did pretty well.”
Davidson is less optimistic about the broader state of philanthropy in New York. “There also used to be a tight little clutch of local foundations that cared about New York, and they’re mostly gone,” she says, citing the Vincent Astor Foundation, which supported city institutions until its liquidation in 1997.
Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a driving force behind charitable giving, particularly to the arts, but Davidson says her friends worry what will happen when he leaves office at the end of the year. “He has national ambitions, so whether he’ll bother with little old New York . . .”
So can Wall Street wealth replace the old family-run model of giving? “All these hedge funders and so on, they buy yachts. They don’t do funding as far as I can see,” Davidson says, but she expresses hope that the latest Furthermore award will help to inspire a new generation of philanthropists. “We started this ball rolling. Wouldn’t it be nice for other people to join in?”
Among the many artworks at Midwood, four portraits of Davidson’s children stand out. Matt, Betsy and Brad were painted by Horacio Torres; her youngest, Peter, was painted at the age of 16 by her late nephew, Bruno Fonseca. “Portraits are magical, I think. They tell of personality and character in a special way and, when the subjects are young, they tell with extra poignancy,” says Davidson. “A good idea, I have always thought, would be for a museum to create a data bank of portrait painters, from which families could choose a qualified artist and get a portrait of their child at a moderate rate, and which would also provide fine jobs for new generations of painters.”