Elda Castle

My training for this year’s NYC marathon officially starts this week.

It’s not my first marathon, nor even my first NYC marathon, so this year I’m going to try and finish in a particular time, not just hope to finish without soiling myself. Now, I’m not at all fast, but to hit the time I want, I know I need to incorporate more than just a lot of running into my training. I’ll need to do horrible things like Yasso 800s, tempo runs and hill repeats. Sounds like great fun in the heat of summer, right?

Blah blah blah, I know this is all boring to you non-runners, but I promise there’s a point to all this, because it’s those hill repeats that inspire today’s post . . .

The hill of choice for me is Allapartus Road, which is a narrow, windy road that connects Spring Valley Road up to Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road. As you run up it, you pass the Lutheran retreat on your left (once owned by Major Edward Bowes) and on your right, if you know exactly where to peek through the trees, an abandoned castle once known as Elda.

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Wait, what? A castle? There’s an abandoned castle right in our midst? (Maybe abandoned is the wrong word because apparently someone owns this castle. And if you try to get close enough to see it, you’ll probably be trespassing. So don’t do that, okay?)

Just know that at the crest of Allapartus, there’s a stone castle that was built by David Abercrombie, of Abercrombie & Fitch fame.

According to the NYC Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, the castle “was built in 1927 as the Elda Estate. The 60-acre estate included the large main house, a house barn, three small residences, a bathhouse and a large pond. The estate was carved from a W.W. Law property between 1911 and 1927. [The main house is] a massive, multi-level building based on the English Cottage style constructed of both cut granite and live rock (also granite.) The house is reminiscent of a Medieval Castle and designed to look in part like a ruin. The house features a number of intersecting gables as well as a section with a hipped roof and some areas that are not covered at all. The house features a number of arched doorways, arched windows, curved staircases, exposed stone chimneys, and vaulted spaced and covered masonry. Other features include an open patio with a fireplace, a covered patio with a hipped roof and other medieval inspired elements.”

Here’s the open patio:

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And here’s another open patio/courtyard (opinions differ on whether the castle was built like this, or whether a post-Abercrombie owner removed the roof on this part. The outline of a roof in the stone work makes me think this area was meant to be enclosed.)

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And here’s a photo that really gives the Medieval flavor of the place:249croton1

According to David Abercrombie’s obituary, the castle also “affords a view of the Hudson Valley and Long Island Sound.”  I guess that’s possible, if you stand on the very top of that tower.

Anyway, why was it called Elda, and who was David Abercrombie?

Well, Elda was an acronym for Elizabeth, Lucy, David, and Abbott, Abercrombie’s four children.

And David Abercrombie himself was a surveyor, civil engineer, and general all-around outdoorsman. Born in Baltimore in 1867, he began working for railroad and mining companies surveying land across America, living the outdoor life in rough camps and mining towns.

In 1892 he opened up Abercrombie Co., a top-drawer camping, fishing and hunting gear boutique at 36 South Street in downtown Manhattan. Financier Ezra Fitch was one of his best customers and, in 1900, Fitch bought a share of the store, renaming it — you guessed it —  “Abercrombie & Fitch.”Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 3.18.05 PM

(I’d love to know what the well-dressed prospector wore circa 1905! And what are outing garments?  Oh my!)

In those early days, Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted some of the most famous explorers of the day – like Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and Amelia Earhardt.  A far cry from today’s Abercrombie & Fitch that outfits teenagers with bikinis, perfumes and polo shirts.

During World War I, Abercrombie was commissioned as a Major in the Quartermaster corps and was in charge of packing and shipping all sorts of supplies to our boys overseas.  It seems that he basically invented compression packing, and figured out how to squeeze 20 cubic feet of material into 4 cubic feet.  (See this 1942 letter from wife Lucy Abercrombie to the New York Times extolling her husband’s skill in packing.)

At some point in the 1920s, the Abercrombies bought the estate’s land from Briarcliff Manor founder Walter Law.  Abercrombie’s wife Lucy supposedly designed the castle, and it was built using stone from the area.  No doubt the Abercrombies invited neighbors like Major Bowes, Margaret Illington, and maybe even Jeanne Eagels to their housewarming party!

According to an article written by Miguel Hernandez, Abercrombie was very active in local society.  He founded the Dirt Trails Association, which created a public bridle path through many of the adjoining estates in the area, all marked with “DTA.” (Funny that the initials for the Dirt Trail Association are the same as for David T. Abercrombie.  Coincidence?  I wonder.)

He had a firing range built on the property and allowed local police officers to use it freely for target practice (he was Police Commissioner of New Castle at one time.)  His estate was designated as a Reserve Officers Contact Camp and was used by groups like the Veteran Corps of Artillery and the Military Society of the War of 1812.  (Did they do re-enactments back then??)  He also encouraged the priests and brothers of Maryknoll to use his pond.  (I suppose it’s not that long a trek from Maryknoll to Elda, if you take the trails.)

Today, you can pretend to be a Maryknoll missionary and hike along part of the old estate grounds to the pond:

Park in the lot for New Castle’s Sunny Ridge Preserve (on Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road near Grace Lane.)

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Follow the white-blazed trail for about 5 minutes

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until you see a little trail lead off into the brush to your right.  Bushwhack along that trail a little bit until it opens up and you come to a pond down the hill to your left:

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There’s a small stone building on the edge of the pond (you have to look really hard at this picture to see it):

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Walk around the edge of the pond to go inside and take dramatic, shadowy photos:

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(I’ve no idea what the stone house was used for — perhaps a pump house of some kind?)

Walk past the stone house up a scrabbly hill – wait, first look back and see again how delightful this site is, and imagine the Abercrombie family enjoying this cool, shady spot on a blazing summer day.

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At the top of the hill, you’ll come across the ruins of an old stone toilet building,

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On top of the toilet, you find the ruins of an old stone fireplace:

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I imagine these are the ruins of the bathhouse mentioned earlier, in which one could enjoy hot cocoa in front of a roaring fire after a brisk morning swim.  Or perhaps to toast marshmallows in after a sunset dip?

Walk a little further past the toilet, the fireplace and the pond, along the path strewn with branches and fallen trees . . .

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and you’ll come across the driveway to the castle. Whatever you do, don’t take a left and walk up the driveway to the castle. Like I said earlier, it’s private property.

Here’s a photo of the great room in the castle, in its heyday:

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And here are some random photos of the castle today that I’ve lifted off the Internet:

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Check out these built-in bookshelves with hand-carved figurines:

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Close-up of bookshelf holding figurine:

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I’ve read somewhere that parts of the castle were shipped over from Scotland, and if you look closely at the beams, you can see the numbers carved into them for easy reassembly.  Not sure if that’s true, but it makes for an interesting story.

However, it does seem like the castle has been rather cursed.

In 1929, Abercrombie’s 30-year old daughter Lucy died horribly from burns she received while “engaged in a task on a preparation for waterproofing canvas compounded from a secret formula developed by her father many years ago.” A formula that involved powdered paraffin and gasoline.  And a formula that, as far as I can tell, blew up in her face and enveloped her in flames.  The New York Times article on this unhappy accident is opaque on whether the accident occurred at Elda or at some other Ossining location.  But still.

Soon after, in August 1931, David Abercrombie passed away from rheumatic fever at the relatively young age of 64. At the time, the castle had still not quite been completed.

In 1937, the Abercrombie’s oldest son David died from a horse kick on his Wyoming dude ranch.

Soon after (I’m guessing,) Mrs. Lucy Abercrombie moved out of the castle and in with her oldest daughter Elizabeth in Millbrook, NY.  Apparently, the castle sat empty until 1947 when the Centro Research Laboratories bought Elda from the Abercrombie estate. After a two-year zoning fight between the neighbors and Centro, “a new by-pass entrance was constructed into the estate, away from the privately-owned houses, built on the estate frontage on Croton Dam Road.”  I guess that’s when they built that driveway you shouldn’t walk on that leads from the castle to Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road.  The Centro laboratory was involved in working on “industrial applications of resins and plastics.”  No wonder the neighbors were fighting it!  Would you want that stuff in your neighborhood?  Hmm, I wonder how that parcel is zoned now . . .

It might have been during this time that the roof was blown off the now-open courtyard section of the castle.  Or it might not.  No one really seems to know.  (I’ve also heard the rumor that part of the Manhattan Project was housed there during WWII.  I don’t really believe it though.)

In the 1960s, Dr. N.J. Harrick of Harrick Scientific lived in the castle and apparently tried to rescue it from complete ruin.  There are some really interesting comments here from people who knew of/owned this property in the 1960s – 70s.  Apparently it’s been beset by vandals since the 1930s, and has been damaged and repaired many times over the years.

In the 1990s, the Half Moon Foundation of the Humanist Society purchased it to use for events and weddings.  (The Humanist Society was founded by Corliss Lamont, another local resident and subject of a future blog post.)  By then, it seems that the 60-acre estate had shrunk down to about 14-acres.

After they sold it, though, it seems the castle really fell into disrepair. Now, so I’ve heard, all the windows have been shattered by rocks, and all the rooms have been graffiti’d and are knee deep in garbage and broken glass. Apparently, the property was sold in 2011 for $3.75 million but the state of the buildings continue to deteriorate.

Isn’t it a shame to know that something so cool is just disintegrating in our midst?

Barnard College Camp on Journey’s End Road

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Did you know that Barnard College maintained a camp on Journey’s End Road from 1933 until 1991?  Not I, even though I graduated from Barnard in 1987!

So, follow me back through time to learn more about this well-kept secret . . .

On February 19, 1933, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran this tiny story:

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According to the Barnard College archive,  the College was able to pay the Depression-era price of $9,000 for the above 10 acres of land thanks to a gift from the Alumnae Association:

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(Snort! I love the boilerplate language above: “Know all men by these present . . .”  Ha!  It’s a women’s college, with money all coming from alumnae, presented at an alumnae luncheon!  Oh English language, why so binary?)

A simple log cabin was built by the Adirondack Log Cabin Company, and the camp officially opened on October 15, 1933.

Check out these cool photos of the cabin being built:

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Able to sleep 10 – 15 students in two bunkrooms, everything about the camp was rustic in the extreme.  The only heat came from wood stoves and a stone fireplace, with all firewood chopped by the students:

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I did not expect this when I applied to Barnard!

and carried to the cabin:

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Hey, winter is FUN!

All food was cooked by students over fire pits:

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 Mmm, Yum! I love squirrel

or on a stove that was probably old-fashioned even then:

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Ooh, lovely, this kettle should be boiling in just under an hour!

Every drop of water was hauled by students from an outdoor pump:

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                        Why am I always the one elected to do this?

And with no running water in the cabin, bathing took place in a nearby lake (when it wasn’t frozen, I assume,) and outhouses were the only waste facilities.

Sounds kind of delightful in the Spring and Fall, doesn’t it?  However, these hardy Barnard women enjoyed the cabin year round!

Later on, three campsites with shelters were added for the truly stalwart who found the whole cabin experience too soft:

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The Administration was thrilled with their new camp, the fruition of a ten-year quest.

(I could go on to document the previous incarnations of the Barnard Camp, which dated back to 1917 and World War I.  With able-bodied men being sent overseas to fight, the shortage of male farm workers affected food production.   So Dr. Ida Ogilvie, a Barnard geology professor, formed a chapter of the “Women’s Land Army” on her Bedford Hills farm.  Barnard students, dubbed “Farmerettes,” spent weekends in the fresh country air tilling the soil and harvesting crops.  Later, other outdoorsy weekend retreats were held at a farmhouse in Ossining, and at the Bear Mountain Inn.  But I’ll stop here before your eyes completely glaze over.)

On Oct. 6, 1933, a special “Camp Supplement” issue of the school newspaper, the Barnard Bulletin, was published, which sang the praises of the new retreat: “Strangely and fittingly enough,” wrote Professor Agnes Wayman in the lead article, “The road that passes the property and ends at a private lake is called ‘Journey’s End,’ and so, the trail has led us to our journey’s end.”

How poetic!

Professor Wayman went on to say that “Camp now deliberately reaches out for the book-worm, the bridge fiend, the indoor girl, the weak sister…each may find friends and activities and peace and quiet and ‘unlax’ in her own way. Camp is the place for the student who wants a change from city life, for the student who wants to get away from It.”

The “bridge fiend?” In college? Goodness gracious me! Times have changed, no?  And I’d hate to be a “weak sister” in that wood-chopping, water-carrying, outhouse-using milieu. But, still, doesn’t it look rather idyllic in the pictures?  (Despite the possible squirrel-grilling.)  In fact, I wouldn’t at all mind  “unlaxing” there for only $5 a weekend!

Sadly, interest for the healthy outdoor life began to dwindle after World War II, and by 1961 a Barnard Camp Report noted that “Past reports have attempted to analyze the limited use of the camp. School pressures; absence of cohesive groups who socialize together; travel time, cost, and difficulty; lack of inside plumbing and adequate heating are valid explanations. The changing nature of the student, as several students have pointed out, accounts in part for their not participating in the experiences that the camp offers. Apparently few are interested in spending a weekend of group living with girls, especially when there are chores and some discomfort.”

Harumpf.  Those soft baby boomers.

Because look how cozy it seemed:

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And see what fun they had!

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Can you believe it only cost $1.30 to take the train up to Ossining from NYC?

In December 1968, an editorial in the Barnard Bulletin bemoaned the fact that “People have lost their taste for the shared pleasures of fire-building and massive pancake breakfasts. Nowadays the cabin is less often visited than it was in the past, and large groups seldom get together there for a weekend. The times have changed, but, thank God, Holly House remains the same.” (The camp was renamed Holly House in 1963 at the retirement of Margaret Holland, the long-time Physical Education Department Chair and first camp counselor.)

The College kept the camp going for decades, mostly using it for retreats and alumnae events, although students were still supposedly allowed to go there.  If they knew about it.

By 1991, student trips were no longer listed in the student handbook. (I swear, I never saw anything about the camp in my student handbook! Well, truthfully, I probably never read my student handbook.  But still.)

The land was reportedly sold by the college in 1992 — so much for the “in perpetuity” of the existence of a Barnard College Camp. It kills me to think I could have visited the camp in its waning days! But, I confess, I’m not sure how much my well-coddled, 18-year old self would have appreciated bathing in a lake or using an outhouse.

So, file the above under history I’ve run by for years but never knew about until now.

You’re welcome.

 

All photos from the Barnard Archives and Special Collections