After so many years of writing about the fabled American debut of the dinner jacket at the exclusive Tuxedo Park Autumn Ball it felt surreal to actually participate in the latest incarnation of this historic event this past weekend. My visit to “the Park” (as many residents call it) was a fascinating peek into the lives of New York’s ultra rich, a captivating encounter with some amazing architecture, and a rewarding opportunity to share my formalwear interest with others equally passionate about the subject. For those curious about what lies behind the gates of this private community, here’s the scoop.
In 1885 tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV envisioned a massive hunting and fishing resort on nearly 5,000 acres of family-owned land about 40 miles north of New York City. It was to be centred around Tuxedo Lake (pictured at top of page) which takes its name from an Anglicization of the Algonquin ptauk seet tough, or “place of the bear”. In just 18 months 1,800 labourers created a bucolic planned community featuring 13 shingle-style “cottages” that architect Bruce Price designed to harmonize with the rustic setting (see examples in above illustration). To ensure exclusivity, residency was limited to members of the invitation-only Tuxedo Club.
The enclave opened in the summer of 1886 and drew many financial, industrial and social leaders of the day which would eventually include JP Morgan, William Waldorf Astor and Emily Post. Its instant success resulted in rapid growth that that soon upturned Lorillard’s original vision of a sportsman’s retreat. Facilities such as a racetrack, golf course, tennis courts, and a swimming pool were added while Price’s original homes were either replaced or expanded beyond recognition and supplemented by palatial mansions modeled after European chateaux, manors, and villas. During the first thirty years, more than 250 houses and stables were built in Tuxedo Park, as well as retail stores and service buildings
The Great Depression hit Tuxedo Park hard and recovery was slow. Its wealthy residents could no longer easily afford second, third or fourth homes and so by 1950 many families were gone and some of the larger mansions were divided up, abandoned or deliberately burned. Many secondary structures such as coach houses, gardener’s cottages and chauffer’s residences were converted into separate homes. In 1953, no longer able to sustain its services, Tuxedo Park incorporated as a self-governing village within the surrounding township of Tuxedo. Home ownership restrictions were abolished and admissions criteria for the Tuxedo Club loosened. Although membership is still by invitation only, it is no longer limited to residents, and residents are no longer required to join the Club. In 1980 the village was designated as an historic district by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Today this gated community of about 620 people is a mix of modest houses and sprawling mansions representing numerous time periods and architectural styles. As of 2012 the average median income was $124,709 and the average house price $911,358 which is hardly extravagant considering that the average detached house in Toronto will set you back CN$965,000. Some homeowners visit seasonally – much like the original residents – while others live there year round.
Because there is no visitor lodging in the Park, out-of-town guests of the Autumn Ball are billeted in private homes just as in days gone by. My husband and I had the privilege of staying at the delightful guesthouse of Peter and Barbara Regna, owners of the breathtaking ‘Hacienda’ mansion seen above.
Another highlight of my visit was the opportunity to give a presentation on the origin and evolution of the jacket named after the enclave. The local residents take their history as seriously as their formal wear so I was thrilled to share my recent original research into the dinner jacket’s connection with Tuxedo Park. I also brought along some vintage formal attire to demonstrate the intricacies of the full-dress kits regularly worn to past Autumn Balls.
While Tuxedo Park is not open to the public (unless you’re attending a function at the Tuxedo Park School or a service at St. Mary’s church), the adjacent town of Tuxedo has a few sites worth checking out if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. The town was established three years after the private colony opened, arising from the shantytown outside the enclave’s gates that housed the small army of immigrant labourers who built the original resort. Although the township’s borders now encompass the village, its business centre (“downtown” is too grand a term) remains adjacent to the Park’s entrance and includes the train station that has been serving residents ever since the enclave opened.
Up Next: The Ball
For a look at some of the Tuxedo Park mansion interiors (and price tags) check out real estate sites such as Tuxedo Park Estates or Zillow.com. It’s actually quite surprising to see how many homes are currently for sale in such a small community.