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AT first, they were five adult siblings and their widowed mother, Lucy, all college educated and opinionated, civic-minded and characterful, all living together in the brick-and-stone, late-1920s house perched like a beached ocean liner high on a hill overlooking the river here.
Maud, Mattie and Jacqueline were schoolteachers like their mother. Charles, a social worker, had been an Air Force officer during World War II. Randolph, named for their grandfather Randall Bell, who had been born a slave, was an electrical genius who worked in shipyards.
They were all single — Maud and Jackie, as she was known, had been married and divorced — in 1966, the year they pooled their resources and bought the estate. With 30-odd rooms, a 45-foot-long living room and nearly 20 acres of land, the place cost $155,000, ample change for the times, but it solved a unique problem: how to house six singular adults and one child, Jackie’s 2-year-old son. In the late 1960s, another sister, June, a former model who had been in the Air Force, moved in after her divorce, and then there were eight. (Their brother James, a noted adolescent psychiatrist who had worked at West Point, also invested in the place and spent weekends there.)
“Growing up, I always thought I wanted a ‘normal’ family, a mom and a dad in the same house,” James Moorhead was saying the other day, wandering through rooms that still wear their period costumes: a ’40s bedroom set in June’s suite, a silver go-go dress in Mattie’s closet, a stack of Look magazines in the octagonal paneled library (and on the same table, three folded American flags from three military funerals). Mr. Moorhead, now 47, was Jackie’s son, but all the siblings doted on him. Mattie taught him French and science; Maud focused on current events and ancient Greece. Charles loved politics and pop culture. And Randolph (Rand for short) was Mr. Moorhead’s constant companion, driving him to music lessons and to school, talking with him as he worked on the house. Rand was the systems guy, the tinkerer, fixer-upper and landscaper, bright, patient and kind to a small boy.
All the siblings gardened with brio (Rand’s garden was heart-shaped), and Maud kept chickens. Mr. Moorhead described a house crowded with strong opinions and spirited debate. And the parties! There were cast parties for the drama students Maud taught, and political and civic rallies — Maud was the head of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
“They all talked about everything all the time, and they never muted their behavior for me,” Mr. Moorhead said. “It forced me to think, to learn critical thinking. At the same time, nobody ever said they were too old to play catch.”
They taught him, too, about the roadblocks of racism, still formidable in this country in the mid-20th century and beyond, and the family’s response, which was to power on ahead. An oft-told story recalls one afternoon when the siblings were house-hunting here. They had been living in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, home to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. When they arrived in separate cars at a prospective house, the real estate broker took one look at them and announced that she had lost her keys and couldn’t show the house.
Maud also liked to recall the day she applied for a teaching job in Riverdale, the Bronx, and was told she wasn’t qualified, despite her master’s degree in English and fluency in three languages. “She marched right into the board of education offices, and I can only imagine what she said,” Mr. Moorhead said. “But as the story goes, the next day she had the job. Possibly on some prescient level, the administrators couldn’t fathom the thought of three Bell sisters all teaching in the same school, as Maud, Mattie and my mother all ended up there.”
Lucy Bell, his grandmother, was proud that she had sent all eight of her children — there was another Bell sibling, also named Lucy, who did not live in the house — to college (three also earned advanced degrees) during the Depression, a time when many families could manage the tuition for only one child, if that. (Lucy and her husband, Charles, were also college educated in the early 1900s.)
In 1977, the year Maud retired from teaching, a columnist from the local newspaper paid a visit to Hudson View, as their house was called. She took him to see her chickens, and opined on education and life.
“I’ve always believed you have to find a way or make one,” she told him. “You have to forge ahead, reach out and make a goal. Some avenue will open if you do.”
Now, there are no more Bell siblings at Hudson View, and Mr. Moorhead is looking for a way to solve the conundrum of their vast house. “Even if money weren’t an issue” — Mr. Moorhead noted a yearly tax bill of over $45,000 — “a house like this has to be your life, and I’m not sure that’s what we want.”
Mr. Moorhead is an architect with his own practice, and offices in Manhattan and Seattle. He and his wife, Pattie McCluskey, 46, a marketing director, moved here from Seattle in 2006, to take care of Jackie, Mattie and June, who were all in their late 80s. A year earlier, Rand had died at 89, though he had been working on the house almost until the last day of his life. (Mr. Moorhead recalled watching him fix a stone wall in his own unique fashion, sitting on a kitchen chair and hiking it along as the work progressed.)
Mr. Moorhead and Ms. McCluskey’s daughter Oona was just 4 when they moved in; Tuula was born two years later, on a day Jackie had to go to the emergency room. Caring for three elderly relatives all at once seems a Herculean challenge, but Mr. Moorhead described it differently.
“It was pretty easy, considering how much they’d done for me,” he said. “The hard part was when they stopped treating me like a 40-something-year-old and instead treated me like I was 3. I called them on it one day — Mattie, June and my mother — and they just gave each other a look.”
Mattie died in 2007; June went last September, and Jackie in January. But like the gold wall-to-wall carpeting Mr. Moorhead and Ms. McCluskey are painstakingly ripping up (having “stabilized,” as Mr. Moorhead put it, structural issues like the roof and the plumbing), their personalities loom large and are hard to excavate. Faced with the records of all those extraordinary lives, what do you save and what do you throw away?
“The histories are priceless,” said Tom McMahon, a plumber who has been caring for the pipes and more here since the mid-1990s. He remembered his first visit, driving up the long, steep driveway to the large, forbidding house. “At that point,” he said, “it was to some degree overgrown, like the Addams Family lived there.”
He was greeted by Mattie, slight and no-nonsense. “I wasn’t sure if she was going to beat me with a stick just for the exercise,” he said. Instead, she slipped him a $5 tip along with his check (a rare occurrence for a guy with his own business). And so began a long relationship with the Bell family, and their quirky house.
“They were frugal and ran a tight ship,” he said, keeping the place afloat “with all labor and no materials. When they built these great houses, they were state-of-the-art. As time goes by, everything decays in various ways.”
But the bones are sound; the slate roof is leak-free and the boiler is newish. Mr. Moorhead showed off some decorative flourishes, the marine elements in the living room (“Is it because of the river?” he wondered), including sailboats in the ironwork around the gallery and in the grillwork on the two fireplaces. There are secret cubbies behind nearly every panel and a notched-and-carved ceiling whose beams are painted, mysteriously, in Native American motifs.
The house was built in 1928 or 1929, he said, for a family named Strong, and sold to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1943. For decades, it was used as a retreat for union members. (Croton-on-Hudson was something of a haven for communists, socialists and artists; Jack Reed had a place here.)
Mr. Moorhead and Ms. McCluskey are poised between improving the house and jettisoning it. Do you subdivide? Do you sell?
“The real estate climate is not what it was a few years ago,” he said. “Should it be a bed-and-breakfast? A museum?”
Meanwhile, Oona and Tuula play school in Mattie’s lovely front room, and Ms. McCluskey finds herself holed up for hours at a time poring over family documents, newspaper articles and, most compellingly, the stacks of composition books Lucy used as her diaries.
Like her children, Lucy had a passion for family, politics and baseball, in no particular order. She touched on each daily, using her perfect cursive to fill hundreds of books. Over the years, she wrote gleefully of Hank Aaron besting Babe Ruth’s home-run record, of Nixon’s impeachment, of a hot spring day. She noted Earl Warren’s death, Duke Ellington’s burial, Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. And she wrote simply and sweetly about domestic matters: “shining” the huge kitchen, fixing masonry, rearranging the living room furniture.
July 7, 1974, was a typical entry. “Maude went to the hospital to see about her bee sting,” Lucy wrote, and then described a visit from family friends. “Everyone likes this place I picked. Surely God and my prayers made it possible to get this place (especially in view of the strife in the United States).”
She concluded sagely: “Indeed, prayers played a great part.”
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