Wheeler Hill Historic District
The Wheeler Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Wheeler Hill Historic District is a residential area along the Hudson River in the town of Wappinger, Dutchess County, New York. The Wheeler Hill Historic District is characterized by picturesque, winding country roads delineated by dry-laid stone walls and mature trees. Set on the first ridge above the Hudson River's eastern shoreline, the Wheeler Hill Historic District's rolling topography pitches steeply down to the water. The natural terrace above the slope provided an attractive location for building, with panoramic views of the Hudson River and mountains beyond, and six large estates were established here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The residential architecture of these estates includes notable examples of a wide range of nineteenth century styles, and a majority of the estates retain their original landholdings and support facilities. The Wheeler Hill Historic District also includes two eighteenth-century buildings that were part of the earlier river-front commercial development in this area. The Wheeler Hill Historic District includes forty-nine contributing buildings, four contributing structures, and fifteen contributing sites. The non-contributing elements in the 320-acre district include twelve modern buildings, some on estate grounds and some on subdivided lots.
The Wheeler Hill Historic District begins on New Hamburg Road (Route 28) one-half mile west of the center of the small, unincorporated hamlet of Hughsonville. From north to south the Wheeler Hill Historic District includes the estates of Obercreek, Elmhurst, Edge Hill, Henry Suydam, William Crosby, and Carnwath Farms. The Lent/Waldron Store and the Stone House at Farmer's Landing are located at the river edge, to the west of the Suydam estate. The grounds of the large estates remain intact except for the Crosby property, which has been subdivided and now contains three non-contributing modern homes. Set back and heavily screened from the road, these one-story residences do not detract from the cohesive sense of the district. The principal boundaries of the Wheeler Hill Historic District include the MTA rail line along the Hudson River on the west, the property lines of the Obercreek estate on the north, Wheeler Hill Road on the east, although the Elmhurst estate extends the district to the east side of this road, and the property lines of Carnwath Farms on the south. The boundaries were drawn to include all the parcels which were historically associated with the nominated properties during the circa 1740 to 1940 period of significance. They encompass the natural and designed landscape features belonging to each individual estate, including winding drives, stone walls, mature plantings, and agricultural acreage. These six contiguous estates are the only examples which retain this level of estate integrity in this area of Wappingers. The Wheeler Hill Historic District is completely surrounded by modern subdivisions on all sides but the west, which is bounded by the Hudson River.
The Wheeler Hill Historic District is architecturally and historically significant as a highly intact concentration of stylistically distinctive Hudson River estates that recall the nineteenth and early twentieth century social history of western Dutchess County development. Architectural styles represented by the six principal estates in the district include high-style examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, Second Empire, Shingle and Colonial Revival design. The estates retain intact support buildings, model farms, gardens, landscaped grounds, and a picturesque river-oriented setting that together recall the aesthetic sought after by the valley's wealthy elite. Interspersed among the estates are two earlier eighteenth century properties that recall the vernacular Dutch building tradition dating from the region's period of settlement. The Wheeler Hill Historic District is one of the most cohesive enclaves of historic resources remaining along the Hudson River in Dutchess County.
Settlement in the Hudson Valley began with the establishment of Dutch trading posts during the seventeenth century. More extensive occupation soon followed as Dutch farmers took up agricultural lands along the Hudson River and its major tributaries. The area at the confluence of Wappingers Creek and the Hudson River was particularly attractive because of the wide and fertile bottomlands along the creek, the potential of the creek to power mills, and the direct transportation link to New York provided by the Hudson River.
The first settlers built small homesteads based on northern European precedents. Employing local fieldstone, this vernacular housing was characterized by rectangular, one and one-half story massing with a steeply pitched gable roof, end chimneys, asymmetrical fenestration incorporating multi-pane, double-hung windows, and an overall lack of detail or ornamentation. A distinctive roofline with overhanging eaves incorporating a full-length porch is also characteristic of the building type. This early form of residential architecture continued to be built until well into the eighteenth century in the Hudson Valley, although later examples also commonly employed brick as a building material as that commodity became more available. Heavy timber frame houses sheathed in clapboard also typified the eighteenth century vernacular building tradition in the region.
The Stone House (c.1740) and the Lent and Waldron Store (c.1750) are rare surviving examples of this eighteenth century tradition. The Stone House epitomizes the vernacular masonry tradition, while the store is an example of heavy timber construction. Notable characteristics of the Stone House include the building's one and one-half story rectangular massing, broad eave with integral porch, and combined stone and brick construction material. The Lent and Waldron Store's raised foundation, heavy timber frame, and contemporaneous woodwork are that building's most evocative components. The two buildings are in very close proximity to one another, and together they recall the principal varieties of rural eighteenth century construction in western Dutchess County.
Following the Revolution, the influence of national styles played a larger role in shaping local architectural design. The Federal period of American architecture was strongly influenced by English idioms, particularly the work of the English architect brothers, James and Robert Adam. Their work, which represented a sophisticated adaptation of Roman-inspired classicism, was distilled and simplified for American builders in numerous builder's guides, such as Asher Benjamin's, The American Builder's Companion (1806), which became widely available during this period. Two of the residences in the Wheeler Hill Historic District are significant examples of the type of Federal period residential architecture that was commonly constructed at this time in Dutchess County. The Suydam House (c.1835) combines the vernacular two-story, five-bay, center-hall, wood-frame template with refined Federal-style features including a central tripartite window and boldly projecting door and window lintels. The Crosby House (c.1800), more modest in its original size, is notable for its prominent entrance surmounted by a leaded glass transom, and by the integrity and level of craftsmanship associated with much of its interior woodwork.
The architecture of ancient Greece began to capture American tastes in the early nineteenth century because it symbolized the democratic ideals which Americans had fought to attain. Contemporary Greece was also on the mind of Americans as that country fought to attain its own independence from Turkey in 1821. As America gradually turned away from English tradition, Grecian classicism provided the principal inspiration for the first truly American architectural style. The Greek Revival would come to dominate residential and public building throughout the 1830's, 40's, and 50's. Edge Hill (c.1840) is the only example of Greek Revival architecture in the Wheeler Hill Historic District and one of the few surviving buildings of this style in the town of Wappinger. The residence, with its full pediment, two-story, fluted Doric columns, and pilastered entrance with rectangular transom, is a distinguished example of its type in the rural Hudson Valley. The building's size, brick construction, and high quality interior woodwork, plaster work, mantels and hardware identify it as the residence of one of the area's financial elite. Edge Hill was one of the first properties developed as a country estate in the Wheeler Hill Historic District.
By the 1840's, Romantic period alternatives to the Greek Revival were influencing American architecture. Designs based on Medieval and Italian Renaissance traditions were popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing and others, and this Picturesque Movement was embraced to a greater degree in the Hudson Valley region than anywhere else in the nation. Obercreek (c.1850) was originally constructed in the Italianate style popular during this period, and although the residence was later redesigned, it still retains features characteristic of its original style. The Henry Suydam House was redesigned in the Italianate style (c.1855) and the addition to that building of ornamental roof brackets, bay windows, arcaded loggia, arched lights, and flat roofed appendages epitomizes the Italianate design scheme widely embraced in the valley.
Despite these other examples, it is the house at Carnwath Farms (c.1850) which best epitomizes the Romantic Period in the Wheeler Hill Historic District. Constructed in the Italian Villa style, this three-story, brick mansion embodies all of the principal characteristics of this style, including a prominent three-story tower, flat roof with wide overhanging eaves, ornamental roof brackets, arched windows, asymmetrical interior floor plan with a central grand staircase, elaborate plaster work, parquet floors, and richly panelled rooms. Much of this interior work dates to the 1870's, and many of the other estate buildings on the property date to this period as well. The large carriage house (1873) and cow barn (1876) on the estate reflect the Second Empire tastes of the post-Civil War era and, along with the main house at Elmhurst (1867), are rare examples of this style which was uncommon outside the urban centers in the Hudson Valley. The dominating Mansard roofs of these buildings represent the principal concession to the Second Empire style, which was modeled after contemporaneous French building fashions.
While the Second Empire style expressed heights and vertical surfaces, the subsequent Shingle style which became popular at the end of the Victorian era emphasized broad, horizontal planes with free-flowing interior spaces. The Shingle style was a uniquely American adaptation that combined elements of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Richardsonian Romanesque design. Primarily an architect's style that was never widely adapted to vernacular housing, the Shingle style was most common in the coastal areas of New England. The style is very rare in the Hudson Valley area of New York and the re-design of Elmhurst (c.1885) must be considered one of the region's principal examples. Although Elmhurst retains only a modest degree of integrity, the building still displays many of the defining characteristics of the Shingle style, including its low, broad, rambling massing, integral and attached porches, Colonial style entrance and woodwork, large multi-paned windows, and shingle sheathing. In addition the Elmhurst estate gatehouse, with its broad roofline, swept gables, and shingle sheathing, is an important example of the application of this style on a small scale.
After the Centennial celebrations in 1876, American architecture began to embrace the nation's colonial heritage and to turn away from Victorian styles. The Colonial Revival architecture which derived from this movement rarely copied historical prototypes directly, but rather developed new interpretations of pre-1840 designs that employed a widely-varied colonial vocabulary. Colonial Revival houses were generally larger than their historic counterparts with many elements of the design exaggerated. The popularity of the movement spread rapidly and was remarkably enduring, dominating American architecture through the 1940's. The principal example of Colonial Revival architecture in the Wheeler Hill Historic District is the house at Obercreek. Originally constructed in the 1850's, the residence underwent an extensive Colonial Revival remodeling during the 1920's. The principal area of enrichment was the building's formal facade, to which an elaborate new entrance was incorporated. A side-lighted doorway with Federal-style transom and a two-story portico with modillioned cornice represent the primary concessions to the Colonial idiom.
The Wheeler Hill Historic District is architecturally significant as a remarkable collection of residences that recall virtually every prominent architectural style in American architecture from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. The Wheeler Hill Historic District is also significant for its regional historical associations. This area was originally part of the Rombout Patent granted to the children of Gulian Verplanck on October 17, 1685. Farming settlements were established by the early eighteenth century on the fertile lands between Wappinger and Sprout Creek, and Philip Verplanck erected a mill on Sprout Creek by circa 1720. In the early 1740's New Hamburg Road was constructed from Sprout Creek to the Hudson to bring flour and produce down to the river from the early settlements of New Hackensack, Hopewell, Sprout Creek and Swartoutville. Verplanck built a dock at the outlet of Wappingers Creek which he called Farmer's Landing and the Stone House at Farmers Landing was the residence of Verplanck's wharf agent beginning circa 1740. The dock operations continued to grow during the eighteenth century and at one point included two storehouses, two dwellings and a dry goods store. Only the store, operated by Abraham Lent and Peter Waldron in the late eighteenth century, remains standing today. Together with the Stone House, the Lent/Waldron Store recalls the commercial activities associated with early settlement and agrarian development in the region. The Hudson River was the dominant transportation link to New York City markets and the location of these buildings on the Hudson at the end of a principal settlement period thoroughfare is indicative of their role in the business of trading goods and commodities. There are very few settlement period commercial properties remaining in the Hudson Valley region and the rarity of these trading posts adds to the significance of the Farmers Landing buildings.
Other properties in the Wheeler Hill Historic District, such as the Suydam and Crosby Houses, document the transition from farming to country estates which transformed the area along the river during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Suydam House was originally the Federal-style farmhouse of Job Angel. Angel operated a productive farm and his landholdings in this area were extensive. In 1846 the house and a modest parcel of surrounding land was purchased by Henry Suydam, who began transforming the farm into a picturesque estate. Additions were made to the house, which was remodeled in the Italianate style, and interior renovations employing high-quality materials and craftsmanship were also completed. By the late nineteenth century a Romantic style landscape plan was in place, completing the transformation of the property from a functioning farm to a rural country retreat. The Crosby property went through a similar evolution from farmhouse to estate during the nineteenth century. The original two-story, gable roof, rectangular form and Federal style details are retained in both the Suydam and Crosby houses and these features recall, along with the house locations in an area of fertile lands along the river, the original farm-related use of the properties. The later stylish additions to the houses and the designed landscapes that were constructed around them reflect the transition of these properties to formal estates.
The remaining properties in the Wheeler Hill Historic District, including Edge Hill, Obercreek, Elmhurst, and Carnwath Farms, were established in the 1840's, 1850's and 1860's as country estates of wealthy Hudson Valley natives or relocated New York City residents. The wealthy were attracted here by the rural setting, highlighted by the vistas of river and mountains beyond. Like others up and down the river, they created impressive estates to reflect their position in New York City and Hudson Valley society. Unlike other very private estate enclaves, however, the Wheeler Hill estates remained more open and integrated, the result of family associations and strong local ties.
The history of these estates and the interrelationships of their families began in 1850 when the estate at Carnwath Farms was built for William Henry and Lydia Willis. Mr. Willis was a retired hardware merchant from New York City. The Willises were related to the Mesiers, an early and prominent Wappingers Falls family, and it may have been the close ties between these two families that brought William Henry Willis and his wife here in 1850. Willis sold the house at Carnwath Farms in 1855 and then built and resided in the house at Obercreek. Carnwath Farms was later (c.1870) owned by Francis W. Rives and his descendants, one of whom also owned and occupied the Crosby House for many years in the early twentieth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, Crosby House had been owned by G.C. Satterlee and the Satterlee family was also linked by marriage to the Suydam family, owners of the Suydam House. One of Henry Suydam's daughters married a Satterlee and lived at Edge Hill in the 1860's and 1870's. Edge Hill was later sold (1891) to W.R. Sands, a relative of Samuel S. Sands who built and owned Elmhurst from 1865 through the late nineteenth century. Members of some of these families continued to own property in Wheeler Hill well into the twentieth century. In continuous family ownership for close to 150 years, Obercreek is still occupied by the descendants of William Henry Willis.
These interconnected nineteenth century families were primarily responsible for the development of the estates along Wheeler Hill Road, and this development included major new construction, additions to older buildings, and the design of surrounding landscapes. The academic architecture and Romantic style landscapes which were developed reflect the wealth and position of these people as well as societal attitudes about art, taste, and aesthetics. The tight grouping of the estates and the notable informality with which entrances, roadscapes, and property boundaries were dealt reflect the interrelated associations among the resident families.
One of the important components of the estates theme as it is reflected in the Wheeler Hill Historic District is the prominent designed landscape associated with most of the big houses. During the mid-nineteenth century, and particularly after the publication of A.J. Downing's influential Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening adapted to North America, a wide-ranging interest in landscape design and horticulture developed in the Hudson Valley, and the nation. The romantic designs popularized by Downing and others emphasized the visual appeal of the site, and river settings with scenic vistas were preferred. The setting was consciously enhanced by carefully planned landscapes designed to frame the vistas and surround the house with flowering and ornamental gardens and a variety of specimen trees. Support buildings, orchards, woodlots, functioning farm enterprises, fields and pasturage were other integral components of a nineteenth-century estate which were usually screened from the main house in the landscape design.
The integrity of the designed landscapes and estate holdings enhances the significance of the properties in the Wheeler Hill Historic District. Five of the six estates represented in the district retain their original landholdings and, while the range of integrity varies, all of the estates in the Wheeler Hill Historic District retain some remnants of their original Romantic style landscapes. Some, such as the grounds at Obercreek, are completely intact to the period of significance, and include original plantings and specimen trees, support facilities, and a functioning farm. Rare historical documentation exists for a number of the designed landscapes, including landscape plans for the Suydam House and horticultural purchases for Obercreek. Many of the original trees for the designed landscape of Obercreek were purchased from the Downing nurseries in Newburgh between 1855 and 1857. This documentation provides a means of understanding and interpreting the extant landscapes, and a rare opportunity to better understand the historical development of the grounds of these estates. While landscape documentation does not exist for Carnwath Farms, Edge Hill, or Elmhurst, the layouts of these estates, the road patterns, and the types and locations of the remaining plantings are representative of Romantic style landscapes as they were designed during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The landscapes of a number of the properties, including Obercreek, Crosby House, and Elmhurst, also include intact gardens and other features added in the early twentieth century which reflect the popularity of formal English and Italian gardens following the Romantic landscape period.
Bachman, Chas., and G.H. Corey. Map of Dutchess County, New York. Philadelphia: John E. Gillette, Publisher, 1858.
Beers, F.W. Atlas of the Hudson River Valley from New York City to Troy, New York: Watson & Co., 1891.
Beers, F.W. Atlas of New York and Vicinity. New York: F.W. Beers, A.D. Ellis and G.G. Soule, 1867.
Downing, A.J. A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening adapted to North America. New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1844.
Dutchess County Planning Board. Landmarks of Dutchess County 1683-1867. New York: N.Y.S. Council on the Arts, 1969.
Gekle, William. A Hudson Riverbook. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Hamilton Reproductions, July 1980.
Gray, O.W., and Davies, F.A., comp. New Historical Atlas of Dutchess County. Reading, Pa.: Reading Publishing Co., 1876.
Hasbrouck, Frank, ed. The History of Dutchess County, New York. Poughkeepsie, New York: S.A. Matthieu, 1909.
Lossing, Benson J. The Hudson, From the Wilderness to the Sea. Port Washington, New York and London: Ira J. Friedman division of Kennikat Press, 1972.
MacCracken, Henry Noble. Blithe Dutchess. New York: Hastings House, 1958.
Reynolds, Helen Wilkinson. Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776. New York: Payson & Clark, 1929.
Reynolds, Helen Wilkinson. Dutchess County Doorways. New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1931.
Reynolds, Helen Wilkinson. "Country Seats on Hudson's River in Dutchess County." in Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook. Poughkeepsie, New York, 1935.
Simpson, Jeffrey. The Hudson River 1850-1918 A Photo Portrait. Tarrytown, New York: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1981.
Smith, James H. History of Dutchess County. Syracuse, New York: D.Mason & Co., 1882.
Springarn, J.E. "Henry Winthrop Sargent and the Early History of Landscape Gardening and Ornamental Horticulture in Dutchess County, New York." in Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook. Poughkeepsie, New York, 1937.