Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones was a formidable woman. A cousin to the Astors and aunt to Edith Wharton, she occupied a space in the upper echelons of New York high society that matched her considerable frame. In 1853 she had built for herself a grandiose gothic mansion in the sleepy hamlet of Rhinecliff, a hundred miles up the Hudson River.
Designed by architect George Veitch with 24 rooms, the mansion was topped with a steeple towering over 80 acres of spectacular river views. Wyndcliffe was so magnificent and imposing it inspired a fashion among her similarly wealthy contemporaries to build their own palatial mansions along the Hudson Valley. But Elizabeth’s was the first and the grandest, and is thought to be the inspiration for the phrase “to keep up with the Joneses.”
So overbearing was Jones’ gothic fairytale castle in the woods overlooking the Hudson that it terrified her famous niece. In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton wrote in 1933 of visiting her aunt at Wyndcliffe, as though it were a bit of a horror story, even comparing the imposing exterior with her aunt’s imperious disposition.
Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones never married, and after her death, the mansion’s later owners fell foul of the Great Depression, until in 1950, the house was abandoned for good. Today Wyndcliffe lies hidden in the thick forests of the Hudson river valley. Approaching through the forest. the first thing intrepid explorers will see rising out of the pine trees is the old turret. Like a latter day Manderlay, the house which inspired a generation of property tycoons, lies in crumbling ruins. Whole floors have collapsed leaving staircases hanging in mid-air. Half way up the walls, ornate wooden paneling covers arched doorways which once led to further rooms behind. The grand semi-circular dining room wing has all but disappeared. The surrounding 80-acres which once featured outdoor tennis courts where the players could enjoy cold beer piped directly from the house, has been reduced to two, and the sweeping river views have gone.
Today, this imposing manse of a once formidable Victorian matriach is slowly disappearing, brick by fallen brick. Visit it soon, because before too long, it will be hard to imagine that anyone ever lived there at all. The only thing keeping up with the Joneses today is the surrounding forest that is slowly and steadily reclaiming what was once the grandest mansion in the state of New York.