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The Art of Strolling in a Picturesque Past

Howard Zar, Executive Director at Lyndhurst
Howard Zar, Executive Director at Lyndhurst

There is a difference between walking and strolling. Ask Howard Zar, who presides over Lyndhurst Mansion, the 67-acre Gothic Revival estate of the late railroad tycoon Jay Gould. Simply writ, walking is how you get from one place to another. However, strolling is what you did on a summer’s day in the 19th century, wearing your best frock, all gussied up, posing with a certain air and cadence, gliding with perfect aplomb around the grounds of the estate overlooking the Hudson River. Zar has recreated this leisurely ritual by rebuilding the winding concrete paths that started at the veranda and curved in and out of the greenery to the Hudson River.

The paths, built of cement in the 1860s, were first introduced by George Merritt, the second owner of the mansion. The series of sidewalks were informal, irregular, and more like a park than a country retreat. They were modeled somewhat a la Central Park, with decorative stone benches and perches upon which to be photographed. That these paths were made of cement led to confusion, whereby they were sadly removed in the 1970s, as they were mistaken for a modern addition.

As the director, curator, restorer and champion of Lyndhurst, Zar understood what these early owners were doing to romantically create a “picturesque” setting. “They were creating a painting,” he said. “It’s a painting, and as a guest you may be in it.” In other words, this elegant pastime might have been the selfie of its era.

The task of putting back the cement paths was aided by a state grant and a bit of luck. When they dug down, they found the original cobblestone layer that had been under the cement, laid out for them like a blueprint. The rocks that had lined the old rockeries ware still there; they were just covered in weeds. The trees and shrubs that had seemed to be scattered throughout the landscape now made sense, as they lined the original paths.

There was one cement path that wasn’t ripped out, but seemed to end in the middle of the landscape. Jay Gould’s daughter Helen extended that path to a bowling alley that she installed in 1894. It is one of Zar’s restoration achievements. “Taking a stroll and casting your eyes away from a computer screen sounds utterly marvelous to me,” says Zar who, as Executive Director oversees one of the most prized historic houses in this country. Lyndhurst’s landscape design was the masterpiece of architect A.J. Davis, the Frank Lloyd Wright of the 19th century, and Zar is utilizing his savvy in marketing, fundraising, finance and art history to bring dynamic, multi-disciplinary leadership to this significant gem. What makes him able to tackle the many challenges of Lyndhurst are some of his own hidden treasures – an MBA from the Yale School of Management and an M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts, not to mention a B.A. cum laude from Princeton University.

You can visit Lyndhurst and be in the picture. Just bring your cell phone and the $5 parking fee. For more info on Lyndhurst, visit lyndhurst.org

A version of this article first appeared in the September issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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