20 Park Avenue & 6 Chestnut Avenue
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In the mid-1890s, Elizabeth Custer bought her first Bronxville house, 20 Park Avenue, next door to a Michigan hometown friend. The house included two towers, one originally with a crenelated parapet that was said to be reminiscent of Western forts where the Custers had lived. In 1902 the Widow Custer built a second home at 6 Chestnut, only a few hundred feet from her Park Avenue house. This larger sixteen-room home was said to have been built to enable her to entertain more easily.
20 Park Avenue “Elizabeth Bacon Custer home #1”
Elizabeth Custer, widow of General George Armstrong Custer (who was killed at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana), moved to New York City in the late 1870s. She was drawn to Bronxville in the 1890s by the presence of her Michigan childhood friends, sisters Sarah Bates Lawrence (wife of William V. Lawrence) and Agnes Bates Wellington. By this point in her life, Mrs. Custer had become a well-known author and lecturer whose subjects were most often of the Custers’ experiences in the West. Around 1894, architect Bates built the 20 Park Avenue house for Mrs. Custer at the same time he built the house next door at 24 Park for her good friend Agnes Bates Wellington.
The most distinctive features of the Custer house are the two towers. The hexagonal tower on the south was originally a single-story open porch with a crenellated parapet (an upper wall with “teeth-like” cut-out sections). This fortress-like feature may have appealed to the widow of a general. This tower was later enclosed and a second-floor room was added. The north round tower has always been two-story. Typical of architect Bates, the base of the house is rough stone and the walls are shingles that vary in pattern, especially the zigzag shingles on the hexagonal tower. The house is perched on a hill and this allows the natural terrain to dictate its organization. Behind the two towers is a two-story rectangular structure with peaked roof, and across the northeast back corner of this central rectangle is a single-story enclosed porch, topped by a balcony with a railing.
Elizabeth Custer’s second home in Bronxville, 6 Chestnut Avenue, was built only a few hundred yards from her first at 20 Park Avenue. She purchased the property in 1899 from William Van Duzer Lawrence and in 1902 built a much larger home. She named this house “Laurentia” in honor of her close friends, William and Sarah Lawrence. In the nearly three decades she owned the house, Mrs. Custer often leased it, fully furnished, during periods when she traveled extensively or was staying elsewhere, which included the nearby Hotel Gramatan.
Designed by architect William A. Bates, 6 Chestnut is considered to be one of the finest of the dozens of structures he built in Bronxville. It is a large, stone and shingle house with a three-story tower (with a wrap-around balcony), and multiple dormers. Built on the edge of a sheer rock face, it fronts on a curve on Chestnut as the cobblestone roadway steeply descends from Prescott Avenue on its winding route to Park Avenue below. The large stone porch has built-in wooden benches on either side of the front door. The long driveway to the house approaches from lower Park Avenue (the yellow brick road) near its intersection with Tanglewylde.
Architect: William Bates