Upstairs Downstairs: Restoring Lyndhurst's Observation Tower

By Special Contributor posted 07-28-2016 12:00


By Krystyn Hastings-Silver

This summer visitors to Lyndhurst can see the newly restored Merritt Observation Tower by taking the Upstairs Downstairs tour. While the tower has long contributed to the National Historic Landmark status of Lyndhurst, only now is it open to the public for the first time. 

Built circa 1864 as an astronomical observatory for Lyndhurst’s second owner, George Merritt, the tower was not interpreted or seen as important when Lyndhurst first opened to the public in June 1964. According to subsequent owner Jay Gould’s 1892 death inventory, the floor of the tower was used as a spare bedroom during the spring and summer months, and the top floor was simply storage. After his death, Jay Gould’s daughter, Helen Gould, preferred to hang flags from the lower tower, so she added a flag box; she also used the lower tower floor as a sewing room. The last private owner, Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand, used the tower rooms primarily as storage spaces, which remained the case during the early years of National Trust ownership. Though the tower was featured in the 1971 movie cult classic, Night of Dark Shadows, it was largely forgotten in subsequent decades and eventually became an HVAC equipment room in early 2000. The cooling units mounted to the floor with an extensive network of exposed pipes and surface-mounted electrical wires made it impossible to show the tower, despite the fact that it was one of the most requested spaces among visitors. 

The cedar flag box that Helen Gould added sometime after 1900 during restoration—note the paint samples on the wall—and after. The restored space features period gas sconces and chandelier in their original locations.| Credit: Krystyn Hastings-Silver

During winter 2015–16, Lyndhurst staff decided that it was time to reclaim and restore this space for the public benefit and to tell a broader story of life at Lyndhurst. The HVAC equipment was removed, and the sleuthing began. Since the tower had been largely overlooked, all of the original paint evidence was present just below the surface. This information, supplemented by Jay Gould’s death inventory, allowed us to recreate the 1880s appearance of the fourth floor—during that time, it served as a family bedroom. 

Our goal has been to resurrect these spaces and present them to the public as quickly as possible, even while interpretive research is still on going. As Lyndhurst was continuously occupied from 1842 to 1961 by a total of three families and five owners, it is a true time capsule. Every time the mansion changed hands, the contents went with the sale. Visitors who tour the first and second floors of the mansion see Lyndhurst almost exactly as it was during each owner’s period of occupancy—as though the family has just stepped out. We wanted to bring this same authenticity to the tower, so it was important to repair long-forgotten windows that had been boarded up and recreate the period look and feel. 

This 1860s stair window had been boarded up due to broken glass and water infiltration. The window was restored and grained, painted finishes were recreated. The section of the stair tread that remains unpainted will be covered with an 1880s linoleum stair runner once a period pattern has been selected and reproduced.| Credit: Krystyn Hastings-Silver

In addition to death inventories, our discoveries of original paint finishes and locations of light and gas fixtures have shaped the restoration project. While the lower level of the tower has an oak floor and colored glass windows, the top of the tower appears to have been more utilitarian, with plain windows and a wide plank floor that was intended to be covered with carpet. (We decided to interpret this space to the period after Helen Gould added electricity to the house because we retain the original wall sconces.) 

The wood grained treatment on the fifth floor had been obliterated with common brown paint, the plaster walls had been repaired and never painted, and holes had been cut into the ceiling to accommodate sprinklers. The top floor has now been restored. | Credit: Krystyn Hastings-Silver

During the 2016 season, visitors can tour the tower rooms and see them as they were when the Goulds lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sweeping views of the Hudson River from the tower are unparalleled—on a clear day, guests can look to the south and see the George Washington Bridge or to the west and see the Palisades. The final phase of restoration, taking place next winter, will include restoration of the windows on the fourth floor, installation of all missing window hardware, reproduction of green cotton duck roller shades, and recreation of the linoleum stair runner and oil cloth that decorated and protected the lower tower flooring. The final component of the upper tower restoration will be the selection of carpet for the floor and stairs. 

We are grateful that this old castle has held onto its secrets, and we are so excited to share them with our audience. 

Krystyn Hastings-Silver is the associate director of Lyndhurst and is in charge of capital projects and the collections.

#HistoricSites #Lyndhurst #NationalTreasure

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