Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Warwick Village Historian Jean B. May’s columns about the village’s past.
WARWICK — Shortly after the incorporation of the Village of Warwick in 1867, development of Oakland Avenue was moving apace.
William H. Chardavoyne’s elegant Mansard roofed house, which we reported on in May of this year, was built in 1873.
That same year and just a short way up the avenue, William Smith Benedict’s magnificent confection of a mansion was nearing completion. Benedict had recently retired from farming on the “Wickham” farm where he had obviously prospered to the extent that he was able to afford this showcase house pictured above.
The local paper described it as “one of the finest ornaments in our village and a lasting comfort to its owner and the generations to come.”
‘Friendly rivals’Two years before, Samuel Welling, who had inherited a large tract of the family land, part of the 1,000 acres that Daniel Burt had sold to the first Thomas Welling in about 1747, built his stately French Victorian mansion, which still exists at 27 Oakland on the opposite side of the street, just slightly south of the Benedict property.
Welling and Benedict were friendly rivals, each trying to outdo the other with their large homes.
Welling had demolished the Alanson Austin residence, described as “one of the grandest of country houses hereabouts in its day” in order to build his new home, which he named “The Maples.”
With the death of Welling, his daughter Sara and her husband Samuel Van Saun Jr. occupied the house for many years.
An elevator, tooThe Benedict house was set back from the street about 300 feet and was approached by drives from both sides of the building. A wide veranda wrapped around two sides. The outside was painted and sanded and surmounted by a French roof with tower on the southern front side. Large bay windows on both sides of the house gave plenty of light and air. A wide staircase of black walnut and ash rose from the front hall to the second floor. The walls and ceilings on the first floor were ‘hand finished’ and corniced with casings of walnut. An elevator working with weights carried passengers from the cellar to the second story, and a large heater warmed the rooms and provided hot and cold water and gas. George W. Wood was the architect and builder.
After its completion, the family held a gala house warming. According to Hylah Hasbrouck’s Interesting Notes on Old Warwick, “Folks for miles around were invited; an orchestra provided music for dancing and at midnight a collation was served.”
Miss Hasbrouck notes that “with such a large house, as many as one hundred guests could be accommodated. To make the dancing easier, a coarse cotton fabric called ‘crash’ was stretched over the carpeting. A corps of local waiters in full dress served refreshments at midnight, including cold chicken, pickled oysters brought by the tub, sandwiches and slices of large raised butter biscuits as well as clear lemon gelatin, the most popular new dish of the day. It was served with three or four kinds of layer cakes which were three or four layers high.”
Only ten years after completing his house, William Benedict died in 1883. His son, James D. Benedict, who had spent about nine years living in the village with his family, returned to the Wickham farm where he lived until his death.
Following Benedict’s death, Dr. George Pitts purchased the house and lived there until his death in 1920. He had been born near Mt. Eve in 1849 and studied medicine at New York University Medical College, graduating in 1877. Practicing his profession in Warwick, he was also active in the Methodist Church, the Board of Education and a one-time president of the YMCA.
The coldest night of 1934By 1923 the house was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. John G. Mrs. Beach of Allentown, Pa., who gave it the name of “Sunset Hall.”
For many years it was the meeting place of the Warwick Rotary Club.
Both furnished and unfurnished rooms were rented on the second floor.
In February, 1934, the coldest day of the year, Warwick’s volunteer firefighters were called out to fight what became a spectacular fire and kept the them working most of the night and into the early morning.
Mrs. Beach admitted that she had started the fire while burning papers in one of “heaters” when her apron caught fire. She tore it off and threw it into a corner, sending word to a friend who phoned the fire chief.
Apparently she had no phone in the house. Chemicals were used to put out the fire in the basement and after an inspection, it was thought the fire was out.
Later that day the Assistant Fire Chief was leaving his office on Oakland Avenue when he spotted smoke coming from the upper floor of the Beach house.
The spirit of communityWhen firemen came a second time, they found the second floor in flames and the “whole of the third floor a raging furnace…” With the thermometer registering twelve to fifteen degrees below zero, the firemen, who had answered the alarms in business clothing, suffered intensely from the cold.
As fast as relays could be made, individuals were sent home to secure more suitable clothing. Some worked throughout the night, dealing with frozen hoses and frostbite.
The neighbors came to the rescue on seeing that the fire would be a long one, bringing hot coffee, soup, beans and sandwiches to the cold and weary firemen.”
This writer clearly remembers her father’s story of one of the tenants of the house imploring the firemen to go into the burning building to rescue her “nightgown with the crocheted yoke” as well as her beloved rubber tree.
The rubber tree was rescued but froze from exposure to the bitter cold and it too was lost. The fate of the nightgown remains unknown.
Slow declineThe house was repaired and several of its rooms and apartments continued to be lived in for a number of years, but it was never returned to its original splendor.
By the 1960’s the house had deteriorated badly and became the “spook house” of the Village. It was demolished in 1967 and the property sold to the Warwick Savings Bank.
Today the Sterling National Bank occupies the site.
The noble and ancient oak tree which still stands in front of the building has seen its fair share of changes on the avenue. The old stone mile marker underneath it, which was probably put there in the late 1700’s, reminds us that it is 28 miles to Newburgh from that very spot, a fact that Google Maps confirms some 220 years later.