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Oak Hill & Vicinity: The Tripp House from 1958

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

The Tripp House in years gone by. Contributed photo

If you read the story of the Tripp House in the previous Oak Hill and Vicinity column, you know the property can be traced back to the Maitland Patent, was owned by Lucas Dewitt and a series of blacksmiths, and two Greenville brothers, and that Alfred and Maria Utter Tripp and their descendants owned it for 112 years (1846-1958). 

Alfred Tripp left the property to his youngest son, Isaac Utter Tripp, who left it to his nephew, Alfred Tripp Burnett. At that point no one in the family wanted to live there, so the Tripp family ownership ended July 7, 1958, when Alfred T. Burnett sold the property to Raymond and Sarah Robelen.  

Since then, the property has had 10 owners. Today I want to share the story of the last 10 owners.

The Robelens had moved to Oak Hill from Long Island. Sarah had been a realtor there and was one in Oak Hill. Raymond was an art dealer. 

“They owned the green house, which they turned into a showplace! That’s where my grandmother grew up until her mother died when my grandmother was nine,” Wesley Brown recalled. 

“Sarah was quite the businessperson. It was Ray who really wanted to live in Oak Hill. After he died, she moved to Florida. They were active in the community and the U.M. Church. They were good friends with my parent and us,” Brown said. 

The historic house, on property that can trace its history back to the 1700s, with a car parked in front. Contributed photo

Raymond died in 1991, Sarah in 2006, and both are buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery. The Robelens never attempted to live in the Tripp house or change it, although they sold items that had been left in the store.

In 1965, the Robelens sold the property to Robert Garrity. According to his niece, Robert Garrity’s family was from Queens and then Long Island. Robert (Bob) was the oldest of four children; he had been a ship’s captain for Exxon. His parents moved up here and he eventually came, too.

A lifelong bachelor, Robert lived in Cairo. He had many interests including collecting antique motorcycles. He, too, never lived in the Tripp house or attempted to change it.

In 1973, Robert Garrity sold the property to John B. and Carolyn Hightower, who owned a house in Medusa but lived in New York on the Upper West Side. 

“I think they just bought it [ the Tripp House] for its beauty; they did almost nothing to it,” Wesley Brown said.   

Hightower grew up on Long Island and graduated from Yale University in 1955 with a degree in English. After serving in the Marines for two years, he worked a series of jobs in banking and business before being hired in 1963 as an assistant to the director of the fledging state arts council. He was named to lead the agency the following year.

The Council had a budget of $500,000 in his first year and $22 million in his last [1970] Hightower championed a grassroots approach to the arts, which became a template for state councils nationwide. He then went on to be the director of the Modern Art Museum in New York City. 

The old store before it received a fresh coat of paint. Contributed photo

Apparently at public meetings with some dissident artists, he said he agreed that the museum board should include artists “as well as rich people.” Hightower realized too late that his comments were upsetting his trustees, he said in a 1996 interview. He was summoned by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller shortly before being fired.

“The trustees don’t think you like them,” the governor said.

“I still think I can do the job,” he recalled replying.

The governor said, “They’re not going to let you.”

Hightower became the leader of the South Street Seaport Museum in 1977, and later helped create the Norwalk, Connecticut, Maritime Aquarium before heading the Mariners’ Museum. Hightower died on July 6 in Newport News, Virginia, at 80.

In 1975, the Hightowers sold the property to Wesley and Shelley Brown. Wesley had lived in Durham as a child [think Brown Road in Cornwallville.]

According to Brown, who today lives on Martha’s Vineyard and in Albany, “We were very young and had to borrow money from my aunt and take over the mortgage. When we were unsuccessful in getting jobs in the area, it was clear that we needed to sell it. We had replaced the roof and all of the broken windows (with old glass) and cleaned up the overgrown yard.”  

Once again, Sarah Robelen put up a for sale sign and in 1979, William Lea Thompson, Richard Jenrette’s longtime partner, was driving by, saw the house and the sign, and as he told me, “I had to have it.” 

He had ideas about how to turn the brick house into a livable home, but as Richard Jenrette said, “He wasn’t doing much with it, so I took it over.” 

Thus, in 1982, William Thompson sold the property to Richard H. Jenrette.

The Tripp house viewed from the rear. Contributed photo

Richard “Dick” Jenrette, a Wall Street investment banker who devoted his free time to purchasing and restoring historic homes, was one of the founders of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, an investment bank that was absorbed by Credit Suisse for $11.5 billion in 2000. 

Beginning in the 1960s, Jenrette, a self-proclaimed “house-aholic,” restored a dozen historic homes, most dating to the 19th century. Though most of his energy was directed at the historic housing in Charleston, South Carolina, he also did a considerable amount of work in New York.

His own New York residence was made in the George F. Baker Houses on Park Avenue, one of the last family compounds in the city, which dates to the 1920s. Jenrette carefully restored that home, saving most of its original fixtures and the historic elevator, after purchasing them from the Baker family in 1988. 

Jenrette was a hands-on preservationist who wrote “Adventures with Old Houses” in 1998 to share his love of historic house restoration. He was active in a number of preservation organizations including the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and Historic Hudson Valley. In 1996, he was awarded the highest honor in historic preservation. 

In 1993, Jenrette founded the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust to purchase and preserve his beloved homes in perpetuity. In one of his final contributions to the world of historic preservation, Jenrette arranged for the trust to open all of the properties to the public so that his legacy could be enjoyed.

Because of his ongoing work in preservation of houses of this period, Jenerette had workmen who were able to stabilize the Tripp house, replace rotting cellar beams and restore a fireplace chimney. He took of all the shutters and sent them to New York City to have them restored at what locals considered an enormous price.

While the Tripp house was a much more modest house than those he completely restored, I believe he appreciated its beauty and history.

When the property was listed again in 1986, Norman and Christine Young, longtime antique dealers and auctioneers in Nassau, New York, purchased it. Norman loved the buildings and started more restoration and painting. He sold some of his antiques from the store and had an auction on site.

The house as it looked during the era when it was owned by antique dealers and auctioneers Norman and Christine Young. Contributed photo

Then in 1989, the Youngs sold the property to artists David McDermott and Peter McGough.    According to an account written by Peter McGough, “Friends who had a house in the Catskills told us about a property we had to buy in Oak Hill, the next town over. We went to look at it with them, peeked into the 18th century windows, and fell in love with the place. It was a brick house from 1790 that had a working hand pump by the side of the kitchen as its only source of water, a large 1880s general store next to it, and an apartment with original wallpaper. The store that stood there was tacked onto the back with large barns behind it and a two-seater outhouse that had a wallpapered interior and a drawer that, when full, you could pull out and empty. Neither building had been modernized. Behind was a running creek.”

“We didn’t act fast enough and the house was sold,” he added. “It came on the market again in 1989 and since we had just sold a group of paintings, we bought the property. We set up a balloon payment so we didn’t have to put down as much money and the former owner held the mortgage. us about a property we had to buy in Oak Hill. We went to look

“Quite a lot of money was coming in with sales of our photographs and paintings. We had never experienced anything like it. We bought [our friend] Bastian two Morgan horses that he kept behind the house after building a fenced-in area for them. Then there was all the custom tack that was needed along with the hay, the grains, the blacksmith, and the vets. I used an old shed in back as a painting studio. I couldn’t use the barns because we had just bought a two-seated carriage, a surrey, and a wooden omnibus with a painted side that sat 18.”

Apparently, the artists, who wanted to live in the past when there was no income tax, among other things, failed to pay their income tax and mortgage. 

“After the IRS seized our property, they had a three-day auction in Albany of all the antique furnishings of the house, the general store, the apartment above it and the contents of the barns. I begged the local antiques dealers, whom I knew well, and those who came from far and wide, not to bid against us, so I could buy back the contents of my life. My pleas fell on deaf ears. The highest bidders left with our furnishings, 18th century clothes, carriages, and an 1880s wooden, horse-drawn omnibus.”

Because of their failing to keep up the payments on the balloon mortgage, the property reverted to the Youngs, who once again advertised it for sale. In November 1996, Nick and I purchased the property and still own it.

The house in one of its many iterations. Contributed photo

In the late summer of 2001, Thompson and Jenerette visited us in Oak Hill and afterwards sent a copy of the book “Adventures with Old Houses” inscribed to me and a letter which said, “Bill Thompson and I certainly enjoyed our visit to your charming home in Oak Hill. It made us both feel good to see what loving care you and your husband have lavished on the house. It really seems very comfortable. The house — for the first time — seems happy.” William L. Thompson died in 2013. Jenrette died April 22, 2018, aged 89.

It is interesting to note that Prince Charles, now king of England, wrote the forward to the book Jenrette sent.

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