By Victoria Hess and Joan Meijer — Added January 10, 2011
For the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Isaac Hirschland line, the house that Franz and Gula Hirschland built on Kenilworth Road in Harrison, NY, was the center of a universe. The 22-room mansion in this tony part of Westchester County had rolling green lawns, an apple orchard, a tennis court, a lily pond, and stately old-world charm. It was where our grandparents lived out their lives, and many family members who fled Germany came to start theirs again in the United States. The family stayed close, with many settling nearby, and even those who left returning to visit until both Gonnie and Papa were gone.
Victoria’s & Joan’s Lineage
Gonnie and Papa started their married life in a large apartment on the upper west side on Riverside Dr. in New York overlooking the Palisades. Both our father (Richard) and our uncle (Herbert) were born in that apartment. They lived there for some years, but in the late 1920’s built their home, which Gonnie affectionately named Tarantara, after a song in the Pirates of Penzance. When Victoria was a child in the early 1960’s there 14 acres associated with it: the apple orchard has been sold.
Victoria visited Harrison a number of times as a child, but then her family moved out west, and she was a teenager before she saw the house again. Joan was lucky enough to have spent a lot of her formative years with our grandparents at this house.
The house was made of stone, with a lot of dark wood paneling inside. There was a huge formal entry hall, with Gonnie’s desk at one end toward the passage to the kitchen. To the right was a large very formal living room, with a grand piano, which the great Beethoven pianist Richard Schnabel who would come over and play for our grandparents and their guests. A covered terrace and the most formal gardens of the estate were off the living room.
Joan recalls that Papa’s birthday was June 18th and they would throw a huge birthday party for him. Mr. Fox who was Gonnie’s singing teacher – she sang Wagner – would play, and our father, Richard Hirschland, and others would make up words to familiar tunes and then we would put on a skit. The piano was near the door to the terrace so Mr. Fox would accompany the singers. Fifty persons or more were nothing at a one of these parties. At the back of the ground floor was a large library where we remember curling up with Papa while he read fairy tales to us. There was art throughout the house. The entire Hirschland family was known for its love of art. The whole wall behind Papa’s chair opened to a safe. It was the only really secret thing in the house.
Later, after Papa had his stroke, we would visit with Gonnie in there: always in the library. The interior wall was lined with books. There was a fireplace at one end of the room, and two very tall French doors that were opened to let the breeze in. The house did not have AC. This library overlooked a hillside (great for winter sledding) that swept down to a man-made pond filled with lily pads, goldfish, and frogs. On the right end of the pond was a man-made waterfall that could be turned on and off with a switch in the kitchen. There was also a small oriental-like curved bridge. The goldfish were huge and the bull frogs were magnificent. They sang Joan to sleep.
The house’s dining room sat at the opposite end of the house from the formal living room. It could easily have seated 30, and it opened, with more French doors, onto another large covered terrace. In this room hung works by Renoir, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.
Victoria remembers taking only one meal in this dining room (though she is certain there were more). Gonnie sat at the head of the table, and Victoria’s mother across from her. Even though it was a casual lunch, it was served, with Gonnie ringing a bell at her right foot to tell the kitchen when she needed something. To Joan, the bell was one of those childhood mysteries that marked her life with wonder.
The kitchen was a marvel. A half a dozen cooks could have worked in there at a time, without getting in anyone’s way. The kitchen was divided into a pantry where they made the salads and little miracles called butter balls…. that they rubbed chunks of butter between butterball paddles into balls and served the butter on ice. Off the main kitchen was a small dining room for the staff, and a back door to the servant’s quarters upstairs which had four bedrooms and two full baths. It was also the entry to the vast attics which were on the third floor and were miraculous places to play. The kitchen had a long hall leading to the laundry room. A laundress, Hatti, came several days a week and ironed the linen sheets on a gigantic mangle and cooked starch on a two-pit gas stove in a giant vat.
Off the pantry was the flower room, which had a sink and a zillion vases in it. Mr. Smith, who created and tended the gardens for the rest of his life, would bring flowers to the door that led into the gardens and Gonnie would arrange them, and then William would put them all over the house. Since the house had greenhouses, it had fresh flowers the year round.
A lot of staff was required to run the house. Before the war there was a cook – whose name, as far as Joan could tell, was “Cook.” There was the maid, Agnes, and Irene, the upstairs maid. Nanny, who was Richard and Herb’s nanny, came back to the house when Gonnie and Papa were very old. There was William, the general handyman, with his short leg and a pronounced limp: he later became the cook and would travel with the family to the vacation house in Barnard, Vermont, where he was the cook and cleaner. There was Frank, the chauffeur, and Mr. Smith and Onofrio who cared for the grounds, with some help from Frank. Papa couldn’t drive because he got distracted with business ideas and was a threat to pedestrians. Frank had been their chauffeur in NYC before they moved out. He and his wife Mary lived over the garage. Mr. Smith and his wife lived in the gate house. William, the maids and Cook lived in the servant’s quarters.
Basically, the shape of the main ground floor was something like this:
with the kitchen angled off the upper side the dining room. There were other small rooms here and there. A large powder room, and closet which would have been an elevator, and a very large wide staircase off the entry. There was also a great wind-up grandfather clock on the first landing of that magnificent stairway. Papa used to wind it with a big key every Sunday.
There were a number of bedrooms on the second floor down a wide hallway through the center of the house. Gonnie and Papa’s suite was at the end. Joan recalls that there were several neat aspects of the suite. Papa had a shower with multiple shower heads that went up the sides of it as well as the main shower head at the top. The shower tickled. Each of our grandparents had walk-in closets and if you opened the doors and positioned the mirrors just so, you were forever reflected in mirror after mirror after mirror. Nearby was an attic that included a cedar closet for furs and such.
There were even several basements. Victoria remembers them empty, but in earlier years, Richard and Herb would throw parties in a playroom, Richard, a talented photographer, had a darkroom down there, and there was a ping pong table and lots of room to sit. There was a large colorful mural along the wall entering the basement painted by Joan’s mother, Bonnie Prudden, with Francis Hjort (Uncle Charlie Anderson’s and Aunt Ketchen’s daughter). They were both pregnant and they painted the murals just before Joan was born.
Exploring the grounds, there were lovely gardens, both formal and informal, kept by Mr. Smith. The tennis court, when Victoria found it as a child, was returning to nature, with good-sized trees and shrubbery growing out of its surface. The gatehouse was next to the drive at the street, and the driveway swooped back towards the house and into a large oval with expansive green lawns to the right, and a multi-car garage to the left. One of the more fascinating things to Joan as a child was the apple cellar which was off the kitchen drive – a little down the “road” that led past the tennis courts to the other end of the property. It smelled of rotting apples and had stacks of screening on which the apples were stored. Papa truly believed in “An apple a day…” and he used to cut off the skin in one long snake – to Joan’s wide-eyed fascination.
The story Victoria heard from her mother many years ago was that Gonnie and Papa and their sons moved into the house a week before the crash of 1929. Richard was in his last years of high school, and Herb was five years younger. Papa was a businessman, and also invested in the markets. On the day of the crash, he called aside Mr. Smith, the chief gardener, and told him that he didn’t know how the family would fare in the market downturn, but he wanted Mr. Smith to assure all the staff that they would be employed. Papa said that he knew the men would need the jobs and he would take care of them.
Our family ultimately fared well in the crash and depression, but a few things were not quite finished at the house: elevator was never installed and the living room terrace was not glassed in. Certainly Gonnie could have used that elevator in her later years. She could no longer make it up and down stairs with any ease, despite having a moving seat that carried her up to the first landing. As the depression wound down, our grandparents made it possible for many who needed to flee Germany to settle in the U.S., and many of those passed through Harrison.
A few years before her death, Herbert decided that Gonnie, disabled and fairly senile at this point, could not afford to live in Harrison any longer. The taxes on the property alone were $25,000 a year, and another $25,000 to run the house. The house was also in need for a lot of repairs. In Victoria’s last visits, she felt a bit like she was watching the fall of an empire.
Herb found a smaller house close to his home in Connecticut for Gonnie that had a lot of the character of the house in Harrison. It also had had French doors that opened to a lovely small garden, and that is where Gonnie’s chair was put. The house was on one level, which made it was easier for Gonnie to get from her bedroom to her chair and the dining room. Mr. Smith moved over with Gonnie to a guest quarters. He had been employed by the family since the 1920’s, and was employed for the rest of his life, even though I am not certain he was able to do much of the gardening in those later years. But Mr. Smith created a great number of bird feeders outside a picture window where Gonny usually sat and the birds provided her with endless hours of entertainment.
Gonnie was moved to the new house in the course of one day, with military precision. Herb and his wife, Ethel, went to a lot of trouble to match the two houses including refurbishing the furniture with the exact same slip covers. Gonnie was not told she was moving. Herbert and Ethel took Gonnie out to lunch that day, and while they were visiting, the movers came to Harrison, packed a limited amount of furniture, drove it to Westin, CT, and unpacked it, placing it carefully to create an illusion that the house was Harrison. After lunch and the visit, Gonnie was brought over and settled in by Herb and Ethel. There was some family concern that such a move at her age could kill her, but she seemed to settle in well. Gonnie died several years later, in her sleep.
Meanwhile, Harrison was sold, and given what has happened to property values since then, it is a shame we could not have kept it. It has been remodeled a couple of times, with Herb being called in to consult when a later buyer wanted to restore it to its original condition. Herb expressed some satisfaction with what was done. During all this remodeling, the house was significantly enlarged.
We have also been told that the house still stands, but much has changed. Most of the acreage around the house was sold off into smaller lots. The gatehouse was sold, and the driveway relocated. The façade of the house was changed, except for the front entry, and garages have been added onto the kitchen end. We believe one of these houses pictured here may be Tarantara, but we could not tell you which.
Joan remembers the house fondly. She spent much of her youth there and whenever she wants to go to a place of peace and joy she roams through the rooms in her memory. It was the most wonderful place to grow up in: magical inside and out. One of her best memories during was a hurricane and the trees were in agony …. whipping around…. Some of the trees had been there since the 1700’s. Anyway Suzy (Joan’s full sister) and Joan took off all our clothes and went out in the wind and the rain and ate fresh tomatoes down by the greenhouses – next to the garage but out of sight of any windows. They still can’t eat tomatoes without talking about that time. Nor can Joan eat shrimp or cream puffs without instantly being transported back there. Joan finds that she lived much of her life in a different age because of our grandparents. It was gracious.