October 9, 2017
By Arthur H. Gunther III
NYACK, N.Y. — It was easy, at this fund-raiser aiming to protect and restore a 200-year-old village house, to imagine social gatherings in the 1930s-‘50s at which Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur held court. Easy to picture, leaning against the 1800’s living room molding.
Lawrence Olivier might have done that, or later Marlon Brando, or Debbie Reynolds at “Pretty Penny,” the Broadway house costing just that when the famous movie and stage actress bought it with her husband Charles MacArthur, the newspaperman and playwright.
Fund-raisers — most social gatherings — don’t offer interest, maybe because I had to cover so many for the original Journal-News, but this one was a must. It was sponsored by johngreencoalition.org to help rescue Nyack’s oldest remaining Dutch sandstone house, a few streets south from the Hayes mansion. Saving history is always worth the trip.
But back to the Hayes/MacArthur home, offered for the day’s fund-raiser by its present owner, art dealer/map collector Graham Arader.
It is now restored, in part according to the tastes of actress Rosie O’Donnell, who once lived here. When I was in the house about 1967 to photograph Miss Hayes for The Journal-News, the still-stately architecture needed a tune-up. She had been living there alone, but with a secretary, for decades after the passing of her daughter Mary and husband. Their son, Charles, had moved on to acting.
Yet you barely noticed the loose windows and the need for paint in the mansion because Helen Hayes overtook the scene. She was a true theatrical presence as well as a genuinely charming Nyacker often seen walking into town.
The day I took her photograph for a feature story, I was asked to sit on a couch and wait. A little while after, Miss Hayes came slowly down her elegant staircase, a huge portrait of her as Victoria Regina on the wall. She literally paused for a second, and the shot was better than any photograph I could take. While a more-standard picture was published, I have never forgotten how stage-worthy the moment was.
It also reinforced a sense of history — a noted actress, a famous playwright choosing to live and participate in a old house in a Hudson River town where industry long flourished, in part because of movers and shakers like John Green. (The man was a powerhouse, helping to build commerce from Nyack’s riverfront to Suffern and beyond via the original Nyack Turnpike.)
The fund-raiser to save his home on lower Main Street, which, hopefully will become a community gathering
place along a waterfront that must always be open to the people, was appropriately held in another historic Nyack house, itself just north of the Edward Hopper House, the home of America’s foremost realist artist.
Soon, the Green House will be dwarfed off Main and Gedney streets by even more modern-day “progress” — townhouses for those who can afford them. Yet, as the house is rescued, a herculean effort to be sure, it will increasingly be recognized as an anchor to the past, of growth in its time, too, but also of community involvement, 200 years ago, now and in the future.
Playwright MacArthur could have written such drama. Actress Hayes could have played the part. Now the stage is set for this rescue. Visit johngreencoalition.org.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. firstname.lastname@example.org, thecolumnrule.com