MAY 2007 – NO. 15
An Upstate Kingdom
Nothing of Chappaqua kingdom "Chiselhurst" remains
One hundred years before the Clintons came to Chappaqua, New York, Victor Guinzburg created a family estate — Chiselhurst — that he designed as a replica of a lordly English manor. Following the example of greater industrial barons of the gilded age — the nearby Rockefellers and the "cottage" builders up in Newport, Rhode Island — Victor spared no expense in building his Chappaqua kingdom. He had made out like a bandit in the rubber business — and those were the good old days before income taxes. So he had more than enough cash to buy up struggling farms for a song and hire crews of laborers to dig his lakes by hand.
By 1920, he had an acre for every day of the year and a lake for every season. He needed 20 live-in domestics to service his sprawling Victorian mansion; perched above a stone staircase that descended to a lake, it had a dining room table that seated 100 people. The lakes were adorned with pagoda-like boathouses. Statues of Pan and of wood nymphs surrounded a tile swimming pool. The estate had also been provided with a vast gravity pump and an intricate underground water system, as well as an ice-house, a greenhouse, a tea house, stables, and a chicken coop. During the Depression, when a Model T overheated on King Street, Victor's butler brought the motorist water in a silver pitcher.
But fortune is a fickle mistress. Victor lost two grandsons, one killed in the Ardennes forest and the other on a beach in Normandy. And yet Chiselhurst survived two world wars and even the suburbification of Chappaqua. And then a very different disaster struck in the early 1960s, when Victor's youngest son lost his stock in the rubber business and the family lost control of the corporation. The stage was set for Victor Guinzburg's kingdom to morph into a real estate nightmare and a fratricidal battleground.
At first it was enough to cut off chunks of the realm, sell them, and relinquish the proceeds to the taxman. But in time, all the easily amputated pieces were gone, and a more final plan was born: to borrow money and subdivide the kingdom into dozens of house sites. Everyone would make a fortune.
Before long a bank had lent a million dollars, and lawyers, land planners, and engineers had gotten down to work. But the work was slow and years passed without a saleable subdivision, and not a nickel was spared to roof the graffitied boathouse or mend the leaky swimming pool. Still, the army of professionals and the 15% interest on the mortgage had to be paid. In a bidding war between ravenous developers, one developer offered millions. But when a rumor spread that the Department of Environmental protection would never allow such a large subdivision in New York City's watershed, the winning developer withdrew its bid — and its rivals followed suit, shunning the Chappaqua kingdom as a cursed property.
Bargain-hunting developers and land-brokers smelled blood in the water and circled like a school of sharks.
In the end, the DEP offered to support a three-lot subdivision — and to give cash in exchange for a conservation easement. The tree-huggers on the planning board were pleased — and almost overnight, the 100 year-old kingdom's remains were chopped and sold. Victor Guinzburg's "big house" was razed and replaced by a McMansion. The swimming pool was abandoned to the weeds. Nothing of Victor Guinzburg's kingdom survives except, perhaps, a story to tell to a curious stranger.
Back to Top