This is Hempstead House today:
In comparison, the below picture was taken in 1940, shortly after Hempstead became a home for refugee children from England, who had been sent to the US because of World World II. The caption reads: “Huntsmen three play safari in the jungle that once composed the formal garden. Pith helmets were produced when children, used to English climate, complained of America’s awful heat.”
At this point, the mansion had been shuttered, and was only opened at the Guggenheim’s request. Life Magazine did a story in their July 22, 1940 issue about the situation (a month shy of 70 years ago). According to the article, Hempstead House was just a temporary stop until the children reached planned destinations. However, it soon took on a new role as an orphanage.
Compared to today (note the dead grass where the above path once was):
When they left, the Guggenheims took everything, from statuary to furniture, and the Navy wasn’t much kinder on the place. Luckily, much of the first floor has been restored.
When you first enter, you find an ornate wooden staircase…
…leading up to a three-story tower, with an arched ceiling and hanging chandelier.
There once was an organ on the ground floor, and you’d assume the pipes above are all the remains. However, they’re fakes, installed just for show. The sound actually reverberated through openings in the floor.
Another Life photograph was taken on this staircase…
“Going to bed 3,000 miles from home, refugee children climb the carved stairs of Hempstead House. Most of those shown here are children of staff of Lady Baillie of Leeds Castle, Maidstone. Mary Besney (second from right) and brother John (directly behind her) are children of a London bobby. All were brought here by Mrs. Charles S. Payson, cousin of Lady Baillie.
One great little detail that survived in the front doors…
A pair of dragons wedged into the top corners:
After entering the front hall…
…you’re immediately brought into one of the most beautiful rooms of the house: Palm Court, sunken a few steps into the ground.
This was once both an indoor garden and aviary for the Guggenheims, filled over 150 rare orchids and plants, as well as caged exotic birds.
The ceiling once let in sunlight. However, it is now artificially lit:
To my knowledge, no photographs exist of its use as a garden.
However, this one was taken from the 1940 Life shoot, showing a few of the items that were removed (the fountain, for example, is not original). The caption reads: “One small refugee explores halls of Hempstead House. Here, in the huge Palm Room orchids and other rare and exotic flowers from famed Guggenheim conservatories formerly bloomed.”
The replacement fountain, which works; the mosaic around it is the only indication that plants once filled most of the room:
One of the best aspects of Palm Court is that it fully opens up the first floor – you can see all the way to the rear of the house.
This is the first room after Palm Court:
An enormous chimney dominates its center:
Continuing to the rear of the house, you find a back breezeway of sorts…
…with enormous windows providing a great view of the backyard. Despite the temperature being at about 90 the day I took these photographs, the open first floor promoted a cool breeze to blow through.
This room is filled with a ton of great decorations, which are more cartoonish than the usual gargoyles and grotesques you find in places like this:
These two guys are holding up the fireplace mantle:
But best of all are the figures lining the ceiling, all of whom are making really silly faces at you:
I can guess what some of the animals are supposed to be – others are a mystery:
A couple more:
For such an austere residence, it’s surprising they’d put these in:
I love the monkey on the right:
Does the one on the right remind anyone else of Miss Piggy?
Heading back to the northern-most rooms, you find yourself in what was once the billiard room.
It once featured hand-tooled leather on the walls and a gold-leaf ceiling, though both have vanished.
The carved oak woodwork here is from a 17th-century Spanish palace:
Lions grace the mantle:
Heading through this door…
We find ourselves in the darkest room of the house: the walnut-paneled library, copied from the palace of King James I.
Books are protected by interlaced cabinets:
The ceiling features relief carvings of famous literary figures:
A massive wooden crest is centered above the fireplace…
One oddity – on the right of the fireplace is this topless woman…
…And on the left is a bearded man…but judging by his chest, maybe he was originally intended to be a woman as well?
Back across the Park Court, we head through a door…
…taking a moment to appreciate the giant hinges:
This was most likely the dining room, as what remains of the kitchen is just down the hall.
Seeing the opulence and beauty of Hempstead House’s first floor, it’s easy to think the rest of the house is in just as great shape. However, just one flight down, and you find what remains of the old ice rooms…
On the second floor, you might be relieved to find the master bedroom in such great shape…until you learn this is just a movie set:
And of course, the third floor, which still has hints to its former life as an orphanage:
Hempstead House has a lot more to explore. Come back tomorrow for the next installment!