Filming at Historic Properties

by Eric Klein

Frank Gehry, noted architect, sums it up best: “Architecture should speak of its time and its place, but yearn for timelessness.”

The stove roars to life as Mary Donegan feeds it hickory logs. When she arrived in America, she didn’t think she would tend fire in the kitchen of such a fine home as Lindenhurst, that she would be a kitchen maid in the great house of Master Jay Gould, with baked-bread deliveries and milk from his own cows, making her job easier than most. At the back door, the eggs, milk and bread for the day were waiting. Jeremy, the steward’s son, had collected the eggs and milked the cows, and Mr. Pepperidge, the baker, delivers the bread just as early. The house had just been fitted with Mr. Edison’s light balls. ’Tis true we are living in a miraculous age.

“And CUT.”

The director crosses into the basement kitchen of Lyndhurst to give her notes to the actress. Like all “Gilded Age” mansions, the kitchen was in the basement and wasn’t the most glamorous room in the building, nor the largest as it was usually only visited by the servants. Yet it gave the director the realness she wanted, an actual kitchen where thousands of meals had been prepared from 1838. While very few actual meals are prepared there these days, many productions have filmed at the hearth. This historic treasure has been used as a film location ever since Jay Gould’s youngest daughter, Anna, the Duchess of Talleyrand-Périgord, willed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation back in 1961. Along with the Gothic castle-like structure came the two-lane bowling alley, the pool, the stables, the Rose Cottage and the massive Conservatory Greenhouse, which was the first steel-framed conservatory in the United States.

Lyndhurst Mansion kitchen. Photo: Emma Gencarelli

Today’s shoot was a historical piece for cable on food from the Gilded Age of America. It joins the ranks of many other productions, starting with House of Dark Shadows in the ’70s, all the way up to Winter’s Tale, Mysteries of Laura and Project Runway filming on the premises. The house, the exterior of which is a heavy Victorian Gothic, especially lends itself to horror but is equally adept as a nuanced stand-in for opulence from any decade from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, Lyndhurst sits on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, in Tarrytown, 30 miles north of Manhattan. The estate was built by former New York City mayor William Paulding in 1838. In 1864, Davis doubled the size of the estate for the second owner, merchant George Merritt, who gave it the name Lyndenhurst, after the linden trees that filled the grounds. The unusual Gothic structure’s sharply arched windows, turrets and vaulted ceilings resemble a castle more than a mansion. After Merritt’s death, Jay Gould, a controversial and notorious robber baron, railroad magnate and stock manipulator—one of the most reviled figures of the Gilded Age—bought the mansion. Gould shortened the name to Lyndhurst and expanded the estate. He was responsible for most of the landscape design and building the conservatory. Gould passed in 1892 but Lyndhurst remained in his family till 1961 when it was deeded to the National Trust for Historic Preservation where it has remained ever since, operating as a museum.

Lyndhurst Mansion art gallery. Photo: Maura Bekelja

Most of the furnishings that decorate the house are original—more than 10,000 pieces, including artwork as well as the original cast-iron stove in the kitchen. The two-story Picture Gallery on the second floor, flooded with winter light through Tiffany windows, is where Colin Farrell first sets eyes upon Jessica Brown Findlay as she plays Brahms on the Grand Steinway. The romantic moodiness of the Gothic room becomes a supporting character in Winter’s Tale, conveying both the extravagant richness of the Gilded Age and the high-end romanticism that Gothic architecture lends itself to.   

Location manager Kip Myers had a unique take on filming Winter’s Tale at Lyndhurst Castle. “The experience was wonderful. They welcomed our crew with open arms. Lyndhurst’s history and unique look brought authenticity to the movie. It allowed the actors to inhabit their characters and to live in the age. They allowed us to use their auxiliary space for holding/catering/truck parking. We filmed there for a solid week—in/out based on weather and schedules.” The location fee for filming was instrumental in helping Lyndhurst restore the two-lane bowling pavilion/recreation center that Helen Gould added in 1894. This space also housed a sewing school started in 1895 that helped women of service (domestic help) learn the trade of sewing, advancing careers. All roads here are interconnected, illustrating how the stories of these historic properties keep rewriting themselves, creating an ever richer canvas.

Lyndhurst bowling alley. Photo: Clifford Pickett

Over the past 10 years, historical houses and properties in the New York metropolitan area have undergone a booming business in making themselves available to location scouts. The costs of maintaining these unique repositories of history and culture from our past have skyrocketed, causing historic trusts to seek new funding opportunities. Film crews, both large and small budgets, have come knocking en masse. Fueled by an increase in period filming like Downton Abbey, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Boardwalk Empire, these properties come as ready-dressed locations with much of the design work built in. In New York City alone, there are 16 properties that belong to the NYC Parks Department Historic House Trust that are available for rentals to TV shows and movies. Some of the houses have more historical accuracy than others but each is defined by the age that it was built. The properties are as varied as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a Georgian 18th-century gem perched on a bluff in northern Manhattan, which housed George Washington during the Revolutionary War, to historic Richmond Town, a living history village comprised of 28 buildings, from farmhouses to trade shops, ranging from the late 17th century to early 20th century, that once served as the seat of Staten Island government.

Frank Gehry, noted architect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, among others, sums it up best, “Architecture should speak of its time and its place, but yearn for timelessness.” In this respect, historical properties convey stories from a different era that add substance to today’s stories. Preserving the architecture, landscapes and traditions of our past connects us with our history, which is the story of our civilization.  

Octagon House music room

In addition to conserving local heritage, the preservation of historic properties is fiscally and environmentally responsible, conserving tax dollars and materials by restoring existing infrastructure. It’s a logical win-win for the film community to support the preservation of architectural history. Krystyn Hastings-Silver, the Assistant Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Lyndhurst, is a big fan of filming. “Film is an important factor in the financial sustainability of all historic sites. Revenue goes directly to our repair, restoration and maintenance. In one instance, a film company paid to restore the 1870s faux stone painting of the mansion entry doors. The result looked spectacular on film and gave our visitors a restored entryway.”

Armour-Stiner porch

The Armour–Stiner House, better known to locals of Irvington-On-Hudson and location scouts as the Octagon House, has captured our imagination ever since I can remember. I first passed it while visiting my sister 30 years ago, and stopped to admire it and knocked on the door. The homeowner explained that it wasn’t a museum but invited me to wander the grounds, which I did. Although the restoration was still in its infancy, the shape of the house and the fanciful ornamentation already lent itself to the house resembling a classical Roman temple. Paul Armour built the house in the 1860s; the architect unknown, lost to the drifts of time, but a book published in the day by Orson Squire Fowler touted the health benefits of living in an octagonal building.

Joseph Stiner, a tea merchant, purchased the house in 1872, altering it by adding the dome and the wraparound terrace. He stylized the exterior whimsically with cast-iron embellishments, dog reliefs (his dog Prince), florid scrollwork and extensively carved woodwork—colored in shades of blue, pink, red and violet. The interiors are just as vivid, decorated with painted and stenciled ceilings, gold, silver and bronze leaf, etched-glass room dividers and a rooftop, octagonal, cupola observatory with a view for miles. This is probably the only surviving example of residential pavilion architecture in the United States. This architecture was created to amuse and delight viewers—and it succeeds wonderfully.

Lord and Burnham guest house

Subsequent owners were Aleko Lilius, a Finnish writer and explorer who lived there with Lai Choi San, the Pirate Queen; and then Carl Carmer, a historian who wrote about the hauntings of the house. When Carmer died in 1976, the house was deeded to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with one huge problem—the dome was collapsing. Years of deterioration left gaping holes in the roof. The National Trust was unsure of how to proceed. Along came Joseph Pell Lombardi, a preservationist and an architect who had a solution. The National Trust sold the property to Mr. Lombardi for $75,000 with his guarantee that he would restore the structure. This was the first time the National Trust sold a property to an individual. Fortunately, they chose a perfectionist, as well as a preservationist. He jacked the roof three feet up, enchaining the entire structure with airplane cables till it settled into its original position. He next went about the painstaking process of locating original furniture, restoring the original paint scheme and even restoring original garden plantings. With restoration close to completion, he continues to reach out to various collectors to buy pieces of furniture originally in the house that were designed to complement its octagonal shape. He tracks down people who visited the house back in the ’20s and ’30s and draws from their memories, in addition to researching through old photographs.  

Mr. Lombardi has allegedly been visited by the ghost, accompanied by the smell of lilacs. He is also haunted by hundreds of location scouts interested in exploring the property. The house has a very specific look; it doesn’t get as much usage from TV and movie shoots as you would think. It is, however, used a great deal in print shoots and commercials. The house is a central character in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, representing planet Earth. The set built in a field in Montreal was based on the Armour-Stiner house. Production designer Mark Friedberg explains, “The Octagon House is one of the most unique historic residential locations available. It has been lovingly restored by its owners who are eager to show it off in film. I have worked there on commercials and I recommended it to Darren Aronofsky, which at first he raised eyebrows at and then eventually decided to use as the idea behind the main set of Mother!. We also used the house for our version of Timothy Leary’s house in Across the Universe, only we digitally set it in the middle of a lake.”

Lyndhurst holiday decor. Photo: Clifford Pickett

Perhaps historic properties, imbued with the persistence of memory, capture our hearts. I stopped by the house this past summer while hiking the adjacent Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. A wizened man in a red beret sat on a stone wall. I asked him if this was the first time he had seen this house. He measured his response slowly, “No, I been walking past this house for over 70 years. I seen it nice, I seen it bad and I seen it nice again, people caring about old things. That gives me hope that we ain’t done yet.” He excused himself and walked toward the river. I watched the red beret bobbing down the road till it disappeared. I wondered if he was talking about himself or we, as a civilization.

The story of the Bartow-Pell Mansion is the story of the beginning of New York City. In 1654, Dr. Thomas Pell, a British physician, bought 50,000 acres from the Lenape Indians. This includes what eventually became North Bronx, New Rochelle and Pelham, predating the 1664 Dutch surrender to the British. Various other mansions occupied the site before 1842, when Robert Bartow built the current Greek Revival Mansion. In 1888, the Bartow family sold it to the city of New York to become part of Pelham Bay Park. In 1914, the mansion was leased to the International Garden Club, which designed formal gardens and used it as a meeting place until the early ’40s. The Garden Club shared the house with mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who used it as the summer city hall. In 1945, it reopened as the Bartow Mansion Museum, run by the NYC Parks Department. In 1989, it became one of the first 15 buildings in the NYC Parks Department’s Historic House Trust, which has grown to include 23 different properties.

When the HBO series Divorce was looking for a historic mansion, they wound up at Bartow-Pell on short notice. Location manager Dena Ghieth recaps the experience, “We selected the mansion under extreme production stress regarding scheduling after a snowstorm; they were so accommodating and such a pleasure to work with. They also had some construction, which they managed to rearrange. It was win-win for us also, to be able to contribute to that amazing place both financially and with some cleaning up, fresh paint on the interiors—that type of thing.” 

Salon room

Filming Historic House Trusts is not without complication. There is a vetting process discussing how best to enact a scene with the least impact on the house. Most properties have a conservancy that runs a nonprofit for the upkeep, but the final decision rests with the Parks Department.
Turnaround time can be quicker if the schedule is pressing as in the case with Divorce. Some of the furniture and paintings currently displayed in the Bartow-Pell are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To use them in a scene, they have to be cleared through the Met’s licensing department. This is where the administration of the House Museum comes in very helpful, in recognizing and expediting this.  

Location manager Brendan O’Rourke dealt with the Parks Department while recently filming Time After Time at Bartow-Pell. “We shot scenes set in France during WWI. We shot the exterior in the back of the mansion. We also shot in the Carriage House and set up Army tents and such, along the roadway. The Bartow-Pell people were great, but they don’t give final approval. It all goes through the Parks Department. They were fine for our shoot, just a bit particular about the details, which is understandable.”

The historic elegance of Bartow-Pell contrasts with an ever-changing city, undergoing new development, building towering glass and steel shrines to convenience and modernity. Change and development are constant, important to a city’s growth and economic health, so I don’t disparage our changing skyline. I know even though directors abhor them, Citi Bike has a place on our streets the same as the 110-year-old gold street clock across from the Flatiron Building. A place exists in our world history for all these elements—but there is a special place for historic houses that make our hearts soar, that speak about the histories, good and bad, of people who came before us, and that like us—raised families, wrestling with simple complexities of their lives.  

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster knew that “houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.” We must maintain and support these evocative monuments to craftsmanship and tradition, remembering who we are and where we started. To that end, film and television production provides a great service, while capturing a depth of authenticity in a more than fair trade—making good sense while developing our sensibility of our collective history—a glimpse of where we came from, and just maybe, maybe with the smallest inkling of where we’re headed.

The Insider’s Perspective

by Emma Gencarelli, Special Projects Assistant, Lyndhurst Mansion

A film production has lots of moving parts, like a complex machine thundering toward a finished product. A historic site is similar in that regard, with many shifting elements working toward a common goal, although our ‘finished’ product is never truly completed. Having worked in the entertainment industry for five years before segueing into historic preservation, I walk the line between production and location, ensuring that both the film and historic site benefit from this unique relationship.  

Recently, a television series shot over the course of five days in four different buildings on the Lyndhurst estate: the mansion, the Laundry Building, the Bowling Alley Recreation Pavilion  and the Carriage House Complex. They also utilized multiple exterior locations. I was able to bridge the gap of what they visualized for their scenes and how Lyndhurst could best accommodate these requests to ensure the project’s success. I was able to build an awareness and respect among the crew for the irreplaceable architectural features of our buildings, as well as the artifacts housed within. Preservation work is continuous in historic buildings. As one of Lyndhurst’s unique architectural features is completing restoration, another reaches the point of needing renovation. The level of craftsmanship needed oftentimes takes longer and is more expensive than typical repairs. 

Lyndhurst Mansion exterior. Photo: Maura Bekelja

When Winter’s Tale filmed at Lyndhurst, the crew graciously took care of some repair/restoration projects so that the house looked its best in the film. This included using our chosen conservator to restore stairs to the state bedroom and faux painting limestone and the doors under the port cochere. When a commercial shot on the property, they accidentally damaged some 1860s ornamental plaster, which they repaired per our specifications. We ask production to provide extra protection for our architectural features before filming to make sure that large equipment can be safely maneuvered through historic rooms and hallways. This allows production to do their jobs without worry and provides assurances to the staff. 

In addition to the buildings and estate grounds, we also allow limited use of collections, furniture and décor as background set dressing for productions in need of period pieces. Production companies agree to our protective measures because filming at Lyndhurst Mansion provides such a distinctive window to the past. A large part of that is the historic décor. While it is an extra step on both sides to work with the art department and director to clarify what can stay and what needs to be safely removed, it’s an important one we insist upon. It can be difficult for set decorators to find historically appropriate pieces. Lyndhurst’s collection is not only period-appropriate but house-appropriate. This arrangement lets us showcase our collection while greatly facilitating the art department’s work.

Once filming begins, Lyndhurst stations film monitors in the different areas of production to keep a watchful eye. Accidents happen, questions arise, and our knowledgeable staff quickly and appropriately reacts as to not slow down the active shooting schedule. We are positioned to protect the house and its many unique elements but also to help the production crew understand and remember that while it is a location for their shoot, it is still a one-of-a-kind historic landmark. The crew on the most recent shoot seemed to enjoy how monitors pepper in information about Lyndhurst throughout the course of filming. As they grow to understand the inherent value of historic properties, production runs that much more smoothly. 

At the end of the day, communication is the most important part of the process of having a film production in a historic house like Lyndhurst. From the earliest interest in the site to the moment the last production truck leaves the property, clearly, communicating the changes, needs and expectations of both sides of the equation is what makes filming at a historic location work. For us, establishing that rapport early on is critical. We make extra time to listen to what production expects, but to let them know our expectations from them as a museum and historic landmark.  

Productions might shy away from the extra work required in exploring historic properties as filming locations. But places like Lyndhurst offer a richness and quality that cannot be replicated anywhere else and because of that, we always welcome your interest in filming here.