Ralph Gardner Jr: A Rural Resident

Jun 2, 2018

The spiral staircase at the Dr. Oliver Bronson House
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr

We ran into a friend as we arrived last Friday for the inaugural Design Hudson Festival. The event, spread over Memorial Day weekend, featured homes reimagined by local interior designers.

The opening night cocktail party was held at the Dr. Oliver Bronson House, an estate being restored on the outskirts of Hudson that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. The House is the earliest extant example of the style known as Hudson River “Bracketed.”

Before we go any further, I need to confess that I don’t know what bracketed architecture is and nobody at the party seemed significantly better informed than me. An Internet search of the term has also proved less than fruitful.

Half of the proceeds from the cocktail party were going toward the early 19thCentury home’s restoration. Movie buffs may recognize it as the dilapidated but nonetheless distinguished locale for scenes in the Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner as Jason Bourne.

According to the website Housekaboodle the residence was too fragile to handle the action scenes (for those unfamiliar with the adrenalized movie franchise there’s typically a chase or fight scene every few minutes where people die and things get broken.) So the mansion’s details – the white washed floors, large windows, flaking paint and impressive three-story spiral staircase -- had to be recreated. But it was used for exterior shots.

But back to that friend we encountered as we arrived. “Everybody’s here,” she told us as she was leaving, or words to that effect. So I expected to be swaddled in the warm embrace of friendship, mutual affection, and the shared memory of past cocktail and dinner parties.

But we didn’t know anybody. Or hardly anybody. This didn’t look like a Columbia County crowd, at least the Columbia County I know, though I’ve noticed that Columbia County residents have been upping their game in recent years.

This didn’t even look like a Brooklyn crowd; I understood that some, perhaps many of the designers and their guests had migrated upstate over time from that trendy borough. But they looked far more put together than your average eight a.m. L train passenger.

No, this was more a crowd that you’d have expected to find in Capri or Mykonos, not that I’ve ever been to Mykonos.

What had drawn my wife and I to the event was one designer in particular, a gentleman named Timothy Dunleavy who passed away in 2014.

Timothy’s interest in the Hudson Valley and its architecture inspired him to co-found Historic Hudson. It’s a non-profit that promotes the city’s historic architecture. Timothy also worked hard to preserve the 1830’s Bronson house. Those efforts led to its National Historic Register designation.

However, Timothy may be best known as the owner of Rural Residence on Warren Street. I’m not sure how to describe the business? A home furnishings shop? An antique store? It was ultimately a showcase for Timothy’s exquisite taste and talented eye. And under the ownership of Steven Bluttal, who decorated one of the showrooms on the top floor of the Bronson mansion as part of Design Hudson, it remains that way.

While we were Rural Residence customers – I still prize my matching cut crystal seahorse and jellyfish-decorated shot and whisky glasses – we first got to know Timothy as a designer of children’s dresses when he used my daughters as models.

This was lots of fun for them. But also for us because we got to buy them beautiful dresses that would have cost hundreds of dollars if purchased from the high-end stores Timothy Dunleavy sold to around the world. His obituary says that examples of his children’s dresses are part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

If attending a cocktail party where you know hardly anyone has any advantage it’s that it gives you more time to focus on the art, or whatever the event is celebrating.

In this case it was showrooms beautifully decorated for the home’s natural light by Hudson merchants and antique dealers.

But as I said our destination was the third floor at the top of the spiral staircase and the showroom Rural Residence had created. It included a woman’s 1870 walking dress on a mannequin, an elaborately carved black walnut bed circa 1850, and some of the rugs, linens and clothing for which Rural Residence is best known.

But the centerpiece of the showroom was a small portrait of Timothy in a gilded frame – looking as precise, casually put together, and affectionately opinionated as he always was – surrounded by bouquets of white flowers.

It’s sad when people go before their time. Timothy was sixty when he passed away. But he left behind a legacy and then some – in his work to restore Hudson and its architecture; in preserving the Dr. Oliver Bronson house; and in the lives of two little girls who got to play at being models and, along the way, reap the benefits of a designer with an unerring eye.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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