By NANCY BETTER
Gilded Architecture for a Gilded Age: “Victorian Summer” Reveals the Secret Lives of Belle Haven’s Historic Homes
“At the height of the Gilded Age (1874-1900), America’s wealthiest families, flush with profits from the North’s economic expansion after the Civil War, were able to flee the oppressive heat of their urban residences to seaside resorts …”
Thus begins Victorian Summer: The Historic Houses of Belle Haven Park, Matt Bernard’s well-researched and beautifully illustrated account of the extraordinary architectural movement that flourished in Greenwich at the turn of the 20th century.
The book tells the story of Belle Haven’s evolution into an elegant residential park through individual vignettes of 36 houses, organized by the area’s seven major streets: Mayo Avenue, Otter Rock Drive, Harbor Drive, Glenwood Drive, Field Point Drive, Bush Avenue, and Meadow Wood Drive. Using hundreds of photographs, maps, news clippings, floor plans and other archival materials, Bernard richly details the circumstances of each property – when it was built, who were the architects and owners, and whether it was ultimately preserved or demolished.
“Belle Haven provides a perfect case study of Victorian summer resort architecture,” Bernard explains. “Most of the original homes are gone, but I wanted to share the essence of the community in its heyday.”
Many of Belle Haven’s “cottages” were designed by celebrity architects, including McKim, Mead & White; Carrere & Hastings; Peabody & Stearns; and Lamb & Rich. These firms were greatly in demand at the high-profile summer colonies of Newport, Southampton, and Tuxedo Park, where captains of industry were rapidly developing enormous compounds on sprawling properties.
Belle Haven Park was equally sophisticated, but smaller and less flashy. It was the brainchild of four partners – Robert Bruce, Nathaniel Witherell, A. Foster Higgins, and Thomas Mayo — who established the Belle Haven Land Company and bought 200 acres for $46,000 in 1882. These men hired Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (creators of Manhattan’s Central Park) to carve their new enclave out of pastureland, with smoothly graded roads forming lyrical curves and loops. The transformation was swift, and remarkable. As The New York Times rhapsodized in 1896:
“At Belle Haven, which is the flower of Greenwich, and, indeed, of the whole Connecticut shore, a number of rich persons congregate every summer to enjoy the fresh breezes from the Sound and to amuse themselves with yachting, golf, tennis, and dances. The park was a farm and wood 12 years ago.”
Bernard first became fascinated with Belle Haven in 7th grade, when his family moved from Los Angeles. His parents purchased a quirky Victorian house, and Bernard grew curious. “I wanted to know what it looked like originally, and one day a previous owner stopped by and shared some photos,” he recalls. “Those were the kernels of a collection that I’ve been developing ever since.”
As a student at Greenwich High School, Bernard volunteered in the archives of Greenwich Historical Society, analyzing and cataloging materials. He received an undergraduate degree in architecture from Connecticut College, and a master’s in real estate development from Columbia University. After marrying, he returned to Greenwich and raised his own family in a Belle Haven carriage house, while establishing a business – Bernard Realty Corporation – leasing and selling retail real estate in the area.
Over time, Bernard amassed a treasure trove of research on Belle Haven’s historic homes, and eventually started assembling it into portfolios on individual properties. Six years ago, he decided to turn his collection into a book – a labor of love that required a herculean effort.
“It was like architectural archeology,” Bernard says. He bought hundreds of vintage periodicals – including Country Life in America, the Brooklyn Eagle, and Scientific American – with articles and advertisements about Greenwich properties. He spent hours at Greenwich Historical Society, Greenwich Library and Greenwich Town Hall, scouring microfilm records for minute details. “What started out as a personal inquiry into the history of my parents’ house evolved into a larger question about what Belle Haven looked like and felt like as a whole.”
Along the way, Bernard discovered that the term “Victorian” encompassed a variety of styles, including Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial Revival, and Richardsonian Romanesque. Invigorated by the seaside air and inspired by the gorgeous views, daring architects experimented with a dazzling hodgepodge of details: sprouted gables, high chimneys, eyelid dormers, oriels, turrets, towers, verandas, sleeping porches, and gazebos. As renowned architectural tour guide Francis Morrone writes in the book’s forward: “The Victorian summer was the most diverse, the most picturesque, and the craziest period in American architecture.”
Although Belle Haven’s exterior designs were visually distinct, they shared one element: their foundations were built from bluestone excavated in nearby Byram’s quarries. The interiors featured basement kitchens with dumbwaiters that were raised to butler’s pantries on the main floor, as per “Downtown Abbey.” Technological innovations abounded, including steam heat, gas lighting, intercoms, and burglar alarms. “There were coal-fired furnaces that used gravity air ducts to deliver heat,” Bernard marvels.
In addition to portraying 36 properties, Victorian Summer offers a section titled “The Public Ground,” which explores how the new community attracted residents with a bathing beach, dock, and facilities for tennis, croquet and other lawn games. The centerpiece was the Casino, a large shingled structure used for social activities, including an annual fall horse show. Following its deterioration and restoration, this building became the Belle Haven Clubhouse, which was the first of the town’s private clubs to be awarded landmark status by the Greenwich Historical Society in 2013.
By the early 20th century, Belle Haven began its gradual transition to a year-round neighborhood. With the introduction of a U.S. income tax in 1913 and an estate tax in 1916, the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age began to wane. Belle Haven never lost its luster, but with the tumultuous events of the ensuing years – notably World War I and the Great Depression – the summer colony’s prominence came to an end.
Yet Belle Haven’s magic endures – and a new gilded age may be underway. Recently, Bernard believes the area has undergone a renaissance, fueled by hedge fund executives seeking homes with a sense of history, scale, and stature.
“The early 1990s were a pivotal moment for Belle Haven,” he says. “That’s when Louis Bacon, Ray Dalio, and Paul Tudor Jones bought their houses. Suddenly there was an emergence of extremely wealthy people who could afford to hire the very best architects and interior designers. The reboot began 25 years ago, and it’s been going strong.”