July 20, 2023
Among the many fascinating estates that populate our historic landmark district is the Wyndclyffe estate in Rhinebeck. Sadly, the house has lain in ruins for quite some time and, despite a number of enterprising owners over the past several decades, it has fallen into further decline with each passing year. Recent photos of the ruin still attest to its reputed grandeur.
Built in 1853 for New York City socialite Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones as a summer residence, the Romanesque-style design is attributed to local architect George Veitch. A master mason, John Byrd, executed its highly varied brickwork. There was purportedly an interior glass ceiling by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The mansion was three stories high, had twenty-four rooms and was topped with a steeple that towered over eighty acres of spectacular Hudson River views.
Elizabeth Jones was part of the New York City social scene and a cousin to William Backhouse Astor, Jr. Built before the Gilded Age, Wyndclyffe was host to a number of parties in the style that high society relished. Wealthy contemporaries of Ms. Jones were so impressed with the estate, that many were inspired to build their own palatial mansions in the Hudson Valley. As a symbol of wealth and power, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is attributed to her influence.
Not everyone was a fan of Wyndclyffe. Anecdotally, Elizabeth Jones was the aunt of the noted writer Edith Wharton who often visited the property as a child. Wharton said her aunt’s home was “intolerably ugly” and, in her 1933 autobiography, A Backward Glance, Wharton wrote of a childhood visit in which she compared its imposing exterior to her aunt’s imperious disposition!
Elizabeth Jones never married and upon her death in 1876 at age sixty-six, the house and lands were left to her nephew who sold the property in 1886. Its history since then has been one of decline, exacerbated by the Great Depression. In 1950 the house was abandoned for good. Since then, various acres have been sold off from the once large estate leaving a 2.5 acre plot on which the edifice resides. Several optimistic buyers have purchased the property with hopes of facilitating remedial restoration, but their efforts have produced no improvement and the challenge continues to become more daunting with the ravages of time. The Town of Rhinebeck has declared the ruin a safety hazard, and a chain link fence now surrounds the house. Wyndclyffe is on private property on a private road and sightseeing is prohibited. Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones is buried in the Rhinebeck Cemetery, and her once magnificent home on the Hudson River remains in deterioration. —LINDA SCHERR
Above photo credits—top: HABS; bottom: Jess Mann
For a haunting aerial look at Wyndclyffe (from GothamToGo.com), click below: