By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
WHEN it was built in 1833 Colonnade Row was the biggest thing in New York since the British occupation, a 200-foot-long sweep of glistening white marble in the form of a Corinthian colonnade, nine houses combined into one great Greek revival statement on what is now Lafayette Street, opposite the Public Theater.
But five of the houses were destroyed early in the last century, and their graceful fluted columns and Corinthian capitals were carted away, vanished from the city with the dust of demolition. Vanished, that is, until a garden designer and a Benedictine monk solved the decades-old puzzle of a mysterious Lost City in the woods of a New Jersey monastery.
Although the exterior is now deteriorated to slum condition, Colonnade Row was once the most impressive Greek Revival grouping in the city. The first families of New York lived there, Gardiners, Delanos, Morgans, along with new money like the Astors. In part they sought the privacy of Lafayette Place, a two-block long cul-de-sac. But they were also attracted to the colonnade’s architectural delicacy, up to date with the sophistication of the terrace houses of London and Bath.
The grand facade was part of the allure, like the fake gold on a Donald Trump building, although a bit more demure. The expanse of gleaming white was a deluxe contrast to the severe red brick of the preceding Federal period.
The developer, Seth Geer, had made a sharp deal with authorities at Sing Sing prison to have convict labor work the Westchester marble, at a very steep discount from commercial rates. According to an article in The New York Tribune in 1902, stonecutters rioted in protest and the militia was called out.
But the gentry are a fickle bunch, and within a few decades they moved uptown, leaving their Classical empire to boarding houses, hotels and private schools. The loss of caste was irrevocable after Lafayette Place became part of a much longer Lafayette Street, a crowded industrial highway.
In the 1890s the Philadelphia dry goods magnate John Wanamaker, who had taken over the old A. T. Stewart store on Broadway and Eighth Street, acquired the southerly five houses of Colonnade Row. In 1902, or perhaps 1903, he demolished his properties.
Two decades later, Delbarton, the country house of the banker Luther Kountze in Morristown, N.J., came to be owned by a Benedictine monastery, St. Mary’s Abbey, which also operates the Delbarton School.
Generations of students wandered into the woods for nonacademic purposes, encountering a mysterious group of tumbled Corinthian capitals, column drums, wreaths and cornices that came to be known as the Lost City.
Father Benet Caffrey, the archivist for St. Mary’s, puzzled over the marbles for years. It seemed safe to associate them with Mr. Kountze. It was known that he had collected sculpture — about 20 years ago the school sold two of Mr. Kountze’s Berninis to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Mr. Kountze had definitely incorporated some salvaged architectural artifacts into the garden colonnade at the rear of his house. But no one was quite sure where the ruins were from.
“One guess was that they were an ancient temple in Sicily,” Father Benet said. Then again, hearsay had it that the marble had some association with Wanamaker.
Last month the developer Jeffrey Zak, the parent of two Delbarton graduates, wrote me that the mystery of the Lost City had been solved.
The break in the case was the school’s sale of the wooded land where the fragments lay.
The Lost City was moved from its semisecret resting place to a faculty parking lot.
In a chance encounter with a garden designer, Marta McDowell of Chatham, N.J., Father Benet mentioned his continuing quest. Within a day or two, he recalls, she had typed into Google the search string “wanamaker Corinthian demolition,” raising a March 2008 article in Period Homes magazine by the classical architect Thomas Gordon Smith on the surviving houses of Colonnade Row — with images that match exactly the pieces of Delbarton’s Lost City. Bingo.
As it happens Mr. Smith, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, has for years been studying Colonnade Row, making measured drawings of the surviving houses and interiors. He used them as an inspiration in designing the 2007 Classical Galleries in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When he learned of the Delbarton trove, he was in Morristown in a week, like an Egyptologist who has found out that there is another chamber in King Tut’s Tomb.
Against the asphalt of the parking lot, the Lost City marbles lack the mysterious, pungent majesty they had in the woods, but they are still a startling sight: more than a dozen complete columns and scores of other pieces. There is enough marble to reconstruct one or more whole facades. Many pieces are still moss-encrusted. A few are nearly pristine, others severely deteriorated.
Father Benet is reticent about the school’s plans for the marble, but notes that “the headmaster says he would like his parking lot back.” One idea that has been floated is to use some of the elements to extend the Kountze garden. But they are definitely going somewhere soon.
As it happens, Mr. Smith says that in the 1960s curators at the Metropolitan Museum talked of buying the surviving facades of Colonnade Row for what became the garden court of the American Wing, but the museum ultimately re-used the 1822 Greek revival facade of the old Assay Office on Wall Street.
Is the Met now interested in the other half of Colonnade Row?
Approached on the subject, Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman chairman of the American Wing, said the museum was working on a purchase, but for just a few of the elements.
More images- http://www.nyc-architecture.com/LES/LES026.htm