Frank A. Vanderlip

Frank A. Vanderlip

In his 1935 autobiography, From Farm Boy to Financier, Frank A. Vanderlip recalled a major decision that he and his wife, Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, made in 1905. "Our second baby, Charlotte,…had arrived in the world. So we were eager to have a country place," he wrote. "Mr. Stillman encouraged me, suggesting that I look along the Hudson, somewhere above Tarrytown." James Stillman, president of National City Bank, was even then grooming Frank Vanderlip to become his successor. Vanderlip had every reason to trust his judgment.

Frank A. Vanderlip

Frank A. Vanderlip. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Vanderlip himself initially had doubts about the property he wanted to buy in Scarborough, "a very old place…with an enormous house….It seemed such a startling step for the boy I had been to own an estate on the Hudson.

"'Buy it,' said Mr. Stillman.

"So I bought Beechwood."

The decision had significant consequences, for when he and Narcissa moved to Beechwood, they soon became leading citizens of Scarborough. Their contributions and influence extended not only throughout their own community but also to the rest of Westchester County and beyond.

Frank Arthur Vanderlip was the epitome of a self-made man. Born on an Illinois farm in 1864, he was forced to quit school at the age of 16, when his father died of tuberculosis. He became "the man of the house" for his mother, sister, grandmother and two maiden aunts, and took a job in a machine shop, working 10 hours on weekdays and nine on Saturdays for less than $4.50 a week.

He was determined to "escape from overalls." In what little spare time he had, he read voraciously to supplement his rudimentary education. He took a correspondence course in shorthand and later enrolled part-time at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. Even more significant, he left the machine shop to work for a newspaper, learning to report and write on the job. He loved the work, and later stated, "In my heart I am now and have always been a newspaperman."

He left the newspaper business temporarily for a job with a mortgage analyst, and essentially taught himself the basics of economics and finance. He then became a specialist in business reporting, and eventually became the financial editor of the Chicago Tribune, where he quickly made a name for himself by his trenchant investigations and fluent writing.

His journalistic achievements brought him to the attention of Lyman J. Gage, a Chicago banker who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the McKinley administration. Gage was one of the mentors who, over the years, recognized Vanderlip's talents and proved crucial to his advancement. Gage got Vanderlip an appointment as Assistant U.S. Treasurer, and Vanderlip proved his worth by successfully managing such complex projects as the issue of government bonds to finance the Spanish-American War.

As a result, even though Vanderlip had no formal banking experience, James Stillman hired him in 1901 to be a vice president at the National City Bank, and within a few years made it clear that he expected Vanderlip to succeed him. In 1909 Stillman did indeed step down as president, to become chairman of the board. Vanderlip served as president for the next 10 years, and amply fulfilled Stillman's confidence in him by increasing the bank's assets fivefold during his tenure.

At the beginning of 1903, Vanderlip was still a bachelor. "All my adult life," he recalled, "I had shouldered so much responsibility as to keep my mind closed to romance. However, I suppose I was ripe for it; I was thirty-eight." He met Narcissa Cox, 23 years old, a friend of his sister Ruth and a senior at the University of Chicago. Frank Vanderlip was immediately smitten, and apparently the feeling was mutual. He and Narcissa were engaged within a month, and they married in May, a few weeks before she would have graduated (more than 30 years later she returned to complete her degree). Theirs was a long and happy marriage, ending only with Frank's death. They had their first two children by 1905, and four more after they moved to Scarborough.

Ionic Column

Ionic column standing at the entryway to Beechwood. WCHS Picture Collection.

Beechwood was already a substantial house when the Vanderlips moved there, and it came almost completely furnished. The original building, dating back before 1800, had been doubled in size by the preceding owners. The Vanderlips nonetheless hired architect William Welles Bosworth to design an additional library wing in the Colonial Revival style, to harmonize with the earlier structure. Bosworth also designed improvements to the grounds, such as the swimming pool where Frank, in the warm months, loved to swim before going to work. And when Frank salvaged two monumental Ionic columns from the demolition of the bank building in New York City, Bosworth arranged to have them sunk part way into the ground to frame an imposing entryway from the Post Road.

A few years later, Vanderlip undertook a project that had a powerful and lasting impact on Scarborough. Across the Post Road from Beechwood was the even larger estate of Woodlea. It contained a huge and sumptuously appointed Renaissance Revival mansion designed by the firm of McKim Mead and White for corporation lawyer Elliott F. Shepard and his wife, Margaret, the daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt. Mr. Shepard died while the house was still under construction in 1893, and his widow found it increasingly burdensome to manage. In 1910 she sold the estate to Frank Vanderlip for a small fraction of its cost.

Narcissa, though, refused to move from Beechwood, declaring Woodlea "too grandiose." Frank might simply have resold the property, but instead recruited several of his wealthy friends and neighbors to enlarge it still further and create the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. The house and grounds have thus survived intact, a dominant feature of the Scarborough landscape.

Frank and Narcissa Vanderlip both had wide-ranging intellectual interests and enjoyed exploring innovative ideas. Narcissa, moreover, was a member of the church founded on the doctrines of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and the Swedenborgian Church placed a high value on public service. One of the first contributions the Vanderlips made to their community resulted from their shared enthusiasm for progressive education. They founded the Scarborough School in 1913. It was initially intended as a small day school to educate their own children, plus those of their friends and neighbors. It later expanded to as many as 300 students, mostly from the area, but also a few boarders from elsewhere.

Scarborough School

Scarborough School, now the Clear View School.WCHS Picture Collection.

The Vanderlips once again hired William Welles Bosworth to design the school buildings, in a restrained Neoclassical style. The most unusual was the theater, which seated 250 but had a stage as completely equipped as any on Broadway. It served not only the school but the community, and continued to host dramatic and musical performances until quite recent years.

The curriculum of the school was initially based on the child-centered principles of Maria Montessori, but eventually became more traditional. Classes ranged all the way from the primary grades through high school. Scarborough School survived its founders, remaining in operation until 1978. It reopened in 1981 as the Clear View School, serving children with special needs.

Narcissa was also deeply involved in raising their six children and was, in effect, the resident manager of Beechwood. Her duties included providing hospitality to Frank's many friends and business associates. As he recalled, "If I brought out from town, for the night, some officer of the bank, a president of some corporation, or a distinguished foreign visitor, that was not a matter of comradeship so much as it was an extension of my job as banker. Nevertheless, I brought some one nearly every night, and at least a part of my reason was my pride in Beechwood."

The Vanderlips also did a good deal of what might be called philanthropic entertaining—community events, charity fundraisers and the like. To cite a single example, in June 1924, they gave an elaborate party for 2,000 at Beechwood to raise money for rebuilding a Japanese university following the earthquake that had devastated the country a year earlier. Japanese food was served (including sushi and green tea), and the entertainment included Japanese music, dance and a demonstration of jiu-jitsu in which the Vanderlips' daughter Charlotte participated.

Narcissa Vanderlip with two children

Narcissa Vanderlip with two children. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In addition to education, Narcissa devoted herself to several other public causes—particularly those of importance to women. She ardently supported woman's suffrage, and from 1921 to 1923 served as the first president of the New York State chapter of the League of Women Voters. From 1929 on she was the president of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (later just the New York Infirmary), helping to rescue it from financial insolvency and fostering its growth into a major New York health institution.

As head of the largest bank in the country, Frank Vanderlip was a leading figure in the field. He was known as the "publicist banker." He made extensive use of his journalistic skills to explain banking practices and issues to a wide audience, and not incidentally helped the bank cast "a large shadow." But perhaps his most important contribution was less publicly conspicuous. He was a member of a small group of bankers who in 1910 provided Congress with draft legislation that eventually resulted in the creation of the Federal Reserve, bringing much-needed stability to the industry.

He commuted daily to his city office by train, and he traveled in style. He had a private club car, which was attached each morning to the 8:26, and he endeared himself to his friends and neighbors by providing them with rides. Many of his fellow passengers passed the time playing poker, but he was too busy. "That was the time to digest the newspapers," he recalled, "and pore over documents that Ned Currier [his secretary] would place in my pockets or hand to me from a briefcase."

After a decade as president, Frank Vanderlip found himself burnt out. "I had reached a time when my work for the City Bank was even more like drudgery than that work I had done in overalls before a lathe in an Aurora Machine shop." Moreover, although he didn't yet know it, he was beginning to suffer from diabetes. He retired from the bank in 1919, at the age of 54.

In retirement he soon regained his former health and energy. One of the first projects he undertook again had a lasting impact. Just north of Scarborough, in the town of Ossining, was the hamlet of Sparta. It had been a thriving river port in the early 1800s, but later declined. By the beginning of the 20th century it had become, as Vanderlip described it, "a very tumbled-down town, a place without electricity, without gas, without baths and possessing not a single hot-water heating plant. It had been left behind, skipped over by modern conveniences and comforts."

His solution was to buy up most of the community, 29 properties in all. With the help of the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon (best known for the design of the Empire State Building), he embarked on a pioneering program of historical restoration. A few buildings, judged past redemption, were demolished. Some houses were moved back from the street, or turned to face the river. Some underwent extreme makeovers.

In effect, Frank Vanderlip gentrified Sparta. Some of the new residents were teachers at the Scarborough School, and some were artists, but many were business people or professionals who commuted to New York City. They developed a strong and loyal community spirit, and formed an active residents' organization to protect and improve their distinctive neighborhood. In 1975 the Village of Ossining assured the long-term preservation of Sparta by designating it as a Historic and Architectural Design District.

Frank Vanderlip spent much of his later life at an estate of several thousand acres he bought in Palos Verdes, California. He died in 1937 at the age of 72. The cause of death was a sudden, severe intestinal infection, of the kind that might have been remedied by modern antibiotics.

Narcissa continued to live at Beechwood, devoting herself to public service, almost until her death. The welfare of the New York Infirmary remained her main commitment. One of her most important charitable contributions in later life was her 1950 gift of four acres of her estate at Palos Verdes, California, to the Swedenborgian Church. It was here the famous glass-enclosed Wayfarers Chapel was erected. The chapel was designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), and it attracts many thousands of visitors every year.

A revealing personal glimpse of Narcissa is provided in an interview published April 1, 1940, in the New York Journal-American, when she was 60 years old.

Her tireless, boundless energy is a constant source of amazement….She's practically indefatigable and can wear out others long before she herself experiences even a flicker of fatigue….She's reserved, almost cold, but has a great "family feeling."…That she has had her cook for almost 30 years, and her chauffeur for 29, speaks for itself….Her memory is such she'd forget everything if she didn't make a memorandum, and the floor of her room is usually cluttered with slips of paper bearing notes on this and that….She whistles while she works….She reads incessantly, donning spectacles; speaks Italian, German and French fluently; and has a great intellectual curiosity about things….There's no denying that the good works she accomplishes are boundless, and that she's a champion of the "underdog."

Narcissa Cox Vanderlip died March 5, 1966, at the age of 87. Both she and her husband are buried in nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Beechwood

Beechwood. Photo by Gray Williams.

Aside from the Vanderlips themselves, the most famous 20th-century resident of Beechwood was John Cheever, who from 1951 to 1961 rented a house on the estate that had formerly been occupied by one of the Vanderlips' daughters. Here he wrote many of the stories that came to define postwar suburbia, as well as his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicles.

Another author associated with Beechwood was Richard Yates, whose mother taught at the Scarborough School, and who attended it himself for awhile. His acerbic novel Revolutionary Road took its title from the stretch of the old Post Road that extends from Scarborough into Ossining.

Beechwood was sold by the Vanderlips' heirs in 1979 and redeveloped as a complex of clustered condominiums. The layout was carefully planned to preserve many of the fine old trees and other landscape features of the estate. The house itself was also preserved, divided internally into three units, roughly corresponding to the original structure and its two additions.