By Jane Kelsey, from the Fall 2021 issue (Volume 97, Number 4) of The Westchester Historian.
The year 1908 found financier Eugene Meyer, Jr. driving around the back roads of Westchester and Fairfield counties searching for a summer and weekend home. He found what he was looking for near Mount Kisco—a property with rolling hills and woodlands high above Byram Lake, which included a farm with an eighteenth-century farmhouse. In 1909 he purchased acreage in the towns of Bedford, New Castle and North Castle, which contained several parcels that were known as the Reynolds farm. Other parcels were added later so that the entire estate eventually encompassed over 1,000 acres. Seven Springs Farm, as he named it, became the summer and weekend home for Eugene and Agnes Meyer and their five children: Elizabeth, Florence, Eugene III, Katharine (who became the owner of the Washington Post) and Ruth. Through the years it has been a private home, a conference center and a site for potential development. It is currently a subject of the investigations into Donald Trump’s financial dealings.
After graduating from Yale, Eugene Meyer, Jr. joined the international banking firm Lazard Frères, where his father was a partner. While still in college, he had established a plan for his life to make enough money by age 50 so that he could then devote ten years to public service and retire at 60. With this in mind, in 1901 he left Lazard Frères after four years to establish his own investment firm. By 1915 his fortune was estimated at between $40 and $60 million dollars.
Meyer developed an interest in the arts, beginning with a collection of Durer and Whistler etchings, literary manuscripts and Lincolniana. In 1908 he became friends with sculptor Gutzon Borglum, later famous for his work at Mount Rushmore, and purchased his carved head of Lincoln in order to donate it to the government. President Theodore Roosevelt met with Borglum and Meyer at the White House and suggested that the sculpture be displayed in the Capitol, where it is still housed.1
Another part of Meyer’s life plan was to marry and have a family. He first saw Agnes Ernst at the American Art Galleries on 23rd Street in New York, where he was viewing an exhibit of Japanese prints. He was so taken with her that he arranged for an introduction through mutual friends. Upon graduation from Barnard, Agnes Ernst became a reporter for the New York Sun, the first woman reporter for that paper. She was able to get an interview with photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. Through their acquaintance, she came to know other artists in the avant-garde “291” group, including photographer Edward Steichen and artists Marius de Zayas, Max Weber and John Martin. After a two-year courtship, Eugene Meyer and Agnes Ernst were married in February 1910. They spent the first two weeks of their honeymoon at Seven Springs Farm before leaving for an extended trip around the world.
The Meyers divided their time between Manhattan and Mount Kisco, living in the original farm house on the property. After returning from their honeymoon, Agnes resumed her association with the “291” group. She and Eugene continued to collect works by Cezanne, Manet, Rodin and other modern artists. They were also patrons of many in the “291” group, often entertaining them at Seven Springs for picnics and outings. In 1912, while at the farm, Marius de Zayas did a watercolor entitled “Picnic,” now in the National Portrait Gallery. It depicts the Meyers, Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, Katharine Rhoades, John B. Kerfoot, John Martin, Paul Haviland and de Zayas, himself, all careening downhill in a hay wagon. 2
As tensions mounted in Europe and the world slipped toward war, Eugene sought solace in his country estate, writing to a friend:
Alas, this is a world of woe! Only when I retire to Seven Springs Farm and take a walk in my nice, old hemlock wood and look at the iris and peonies–which are in full bloom– and contemplate the first blushing tints of red which are beginning to adorn my strawberries, do I begin to believe that there is some consolation somehow–somewhere. 3
By 1915 the Meyers had decided that the original farm house was not large enough for their growing family (their third child had just been born) or for entertaining their friends. Rather than adding on to the existing house, they decided to build a new one. They were friends with Charles L. Freer, renowned collector of East Asian art, who had inspired Agnes’s interest in Chinese art and led to her publishing a book on Chinese painting in 1923. Eugene now approached him for suggestions regarding an architect. Freer was in the process of reviewing the plans for the gallery he intended to build in Washington to house his collection. He told Eugene that the gallery was being designed by Charles A. Platt, one of the premier architects in the country at the time. “If your taste in architecture runs in the direction of air, light, uncluttered space, simplicity and harmony of line…you couldn’t do better in your choice of an architect.” 4 Agnes and Eugene worked closely with Platt on the design of their new year-round home.
The three-story 28,322 square-foot mansion was completed in 1918 in the Georgian style, constructed of granite quarried on the property with limestone trimmings and a slate roof. It sits atop a hill, one of the highest spots in Westchester, overlooking Byram Lake. The house was framed by formal gardens, a lily pond, an orangery and a tennis court. There were stables and trails for walking in the woods. The large trees around the house were all transplanted as the hilltop had originally been barren.
Inside, a grand hallway ran the length of the building, providing access to a large living room, indoor and outdoor dining rooms, library, study rooms and kitchen. On the second and third floors there are 14 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and many with sleeping porches. The house also had an indoor marble swimming pool, large playroom, and a bowling alley. 5 It required a household staff of about ten or 12 to run it. The Meyers named one of the spacious bedrooms overlooking the lake “The Freer Room,” hoping that Freer himself would use it on a visit. Unfortunately, he died before he could come to the house. A two-page photo spread about the house appeared in the November 1918 issue of House & Garden. It described the living room as being
…paneled and painted, a lighter shade being used to bring out the moldings. Embroidered Japanese screens fill some of the panels….Crystal chandeliers and sconces preserve the light tone….The library was done…in English oak with carved moldings. Set in bookcases are on either side of the fireplace. A stone mantel of delicate designs forms the focal point of the room. Around the hearth are grouped comfortable couches and deep chairs in a brilliant chinz. 6
The master’s study was finished in gum wood with mirror doors on the closet.
The Meyer’s daughter, Katharine Graham, described the house in her memoir Personal History as
…large but simple in lines. Though it was very grand in concept, it managed to retain a feeling of informality….The whole house was lined with large Chinese paintings. In the biggest living room was a table on which sat many of my mother’s beautiful bronzes, vases and other objects. In her study stood two Brancusis — Danaide on the mantel and The Blonde Negress at the door. In the library there was a large white marble Bird in Space, on a wooden base that Brancusi had carved in our garden on his first visit to the United States, when he stayed with us at Mount Kisco. 7
Most surprising was a big organ with pipes that wove through the house on every floor. My father loved to blast us out of bed on Sunday mornings by playing “Nearer my God to Thee” at its loudest…. 8
She fondly remembered growing up at the farm, as the family called it, which, at the age of ten, she described as “a great old Place.” 9 It actually was a working farm.
There were pigs and chickens, as well as Jersey milk cows, from which we got unpasteurized milk, buttermilk, and rich cream. There was a large and bountiful orchard and a garden at the foot of the hill, from which we ate fresh vegetables and enjoyed magnificent bouquets of flowers all over the house, refreshed and replaced daily….The care of the gardens, at least in summer, took a dozen men. Another dozen ran the farm. 8
As a young child, she and her siblings“…had a happy time together, picking fruit in the orchards and riding on the hay wagons in the afternoons, after mornings spent on lessons.” In her teen years, however, she tended to feel rather isolated on the farm. Although the Meyers had many visitors, they had little or no local social life. 10
Life at Seven Springs Farm was extremely active. There was tennis, swimming and riding. The Meyers often had house guests for the weekend or for weeks at a time. Agnes Meyer recalled in her autobiography Out of These Roots that “…we often sat down eighteen strong for meals week after week.” 11 Guests included artists, writers, businessmen, diplomats, government officials and journalists. Debate at the table could be vigorous and intense. After his first weekend visit, the French ambassador and poet Paul Claudel wrote to Agnes that he had “…felt like a cat that had been thrown into an electric fan….[and that Eugene and Agnes] were the calm imperturbable center of the vortex to which he had been exposed.” 12
With America’s entry into World War I in 1917, Eugene left his investment firm to go to Washington and work in the Wilson administration as the head of the War Finance Corporation. Thus he began the third phase of his life plan, public service. The Meyers now divided their time between Washington and Mount Kisco. He went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Farm Loan Board, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and first head of the World Bank. In 1933 he left public service and bought The Washington Post. He died at the age of 83 in 1959.
While her husband became involved in public service, Agnes Meyer became active in social causes and an outspoken advocate for public education. Her involvement in local politics began after a chance meeting with William L. Ward, the Republican leader of Westchester County. She worked to organize local women in North Castle and surrounding towns to exercise their newly won right to vote. In 1923 Ward informed her that he had established a county recreation commission, the first such county commission, and that she was to be its chair. She served in this role until 1941. The commission began by encouraging local communities to construct playgrounds. After four years there were over 100 playgrounds. The commission provided communities with advice and training for both volunteer and professional recreation workers. They also trained specialists in areas such as choral singing and storytelling. 13
The success of the drama tournaments and music festivals organized by the commission led to the construction of the Westchester County Center in White Plains. Designed by the architectural firm of Walker & Gillette, the Art Deco county center houses a 5,000-seat auditorium, a smaller theater and a large lower level opened in 1930. In its first five years the county center held about 1,500 events attended by over 1,000,000 people. 14 Agnes became a national advocate for recreation, both writing articles and speaking across the country. In 1939 she said, “What we in Westchester are aiming to do with our recreation program is to emphasize the fact that the human spirit is as much in need of exercise as the human body.” 15 In the 1960s she lobbied nationally for the integration of public schools, the creation of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and federal funding to states for education. Agnes died at Mount Kisco in 1970 at the age of 83.
Aside from Seven Springs Farm, Eugene and Agnes Meyer left two other legacies to Westchester. In 1957 the New York City water supply system tapped into the Catskill water resources, making Byram Lake superfluous after 64 years as part of the system. It was put up for sale. The Meyers purchased the mile-long spring-fed lake for $300,000 in 1958 and turned it over to the Village of Mount Kisco to preserve it as a water source and for its natural beauty. Under the restrictions in the deed it can never be commercialized. 16 In 1973 the Meyer Foundation donated 247 acres of the former Meyer estate to the Nature Conservancy, creating the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Preserve with walking trails through forests and wildflower meadows. 17
With the death of Agnes Meyer in 1970, the Meyer Foundation gave 200 acres, including the mansion, together with a $5 million endowment to Yale University to be used pursuant to her wishes “‘as a place of creative thinking about problems of intellectual and public significance.’” 18 Yale took possession in 1973 and established Seven Springs Farm Center, Inc. Joseph Green, a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, was named director and moved into the mansion with his wife. Mrs. Green saw “her role as one of assuring that the former estate remains a gracious country home in which the atmosphere is conducive to thought.” 19 Conferences on such topics as Arab-Israeli relations and change in contemporary South Africa were held there throughout the 1970s. By the end of the decade, Yale ended its relationship with the Meyer Foundation, but the foundation continued to operate the conference center as Seven Springs Farm Center, Inc. In 1984 Rockefeller University acquired the property and also operated it as a conference center.
In 1994 Seven Springs was put on the market at a price of $9.75 million. The next year real estate developer Donald Trump bought the property for $7.5 million in the name of Seven Springs LLC. His intention was to develop the property. The Gannett newspapers reported that he said, “We have two projects. One is going to be one of the finest golf courses in the country or it’s going to be 82 houses; we haven’t determined. I’m in no rush on Seven Springs, you understand that. We may go with 82 houses.” 20
By 1998 the development plan had crystallized into a proposal for a, “champion-caliber golf course and country club with a private membership of 250 [and would] include a clubhouse in the former estate house, nine tennis courts and nine single-family homes.” 21 The property spans the towns: Bedford, New Castle, and North Castle, so all three towns needed to review materials and grant approval. An agency consisting of the New Castle Planning Board, North Castle Town Board and Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals held meetings and public hearings to review the draft environmental impact statement submitted by the developer. The major concerns were traffic, particularly the impact of golf tournaments, and preservation of the water quality of Byram Lake, since it is the water source for Mount Kisco. In an effort to allay concerns, the proposal was altered by eliminating eight of the nine proposed houses, relocating three holes on the golf course to protect woods and wetlands, and providing additional barriers to prevent pesticides and fertilizers from running off into Byram Lake. The developer also pledged that no tournaments drawing spectators would be played at the course. 22
The proposed pollution control system was the subject of several NYS Department of Environmental Conservation public hearings and litigation. In 2002 a state judge ordered that the proposed linear absorption system, which employs several grassy swales and trenches to filter runoff water through carbon chambers designed to remove pesticides, be tested before construction began, since the various components had never been used together. The developer and the DEC staff appealed the ruling to the DEC commissioner. Mount Kisco also appealed over concerns about the amount of nutrients entering Byram Lake causing algae bloom. 23
In March 2004, a new development plan was proposed that did not include a golf course. Trump commented that, “if I did another golf course at Seven Springs, I could possibly hurt the other [Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor].” 24 This time 15 houses were to be built on land in Bedford and North Castle. Each house would have a pool and a tennis court. Trump now also planned to use the mansion as his home. Building on the Bedford property required a second emergency access road. The developer proposed to use the closed portion of Oregon Road in North Castle, which runs through the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Nature Preserve, for access. This plan was opposed by neighbors, the Nature Conservancy which owns the preserve, and the Town of North Castle. More litigation ensued. 25
On an otherwise quiet fall day in late September 2009, Seven Springs became the site of an international incident. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi set up his Bedouin-style tent on a corner of the property that he had rented from Donald Trump. Gadhafi, who was in the United State to speak at the United Nations, had tried to set up the tent in Central Park and Englewood, N.J., with no success. The Trump Organization rented the property to Middle Eastern associates, who in turn made it available to Gadhafi. Bedford town officials were notified by the U.S. Secret Service that a tent for Gadhafi was to be erected on the property. The Bedford building inspector visited the site and determined that the tent was, “a structure that there could be habitation in” therefore requiring a special permit. He issued a stop work order. The town attorney was told by Trump himself that he would try to get the tent removed. Soon afterward the Trump Organization announced that the tenant had complied with its request to remove the tent. Gadhafi never did come to Bedford. 26
In 2015 an agreement between Seven Springs LLC and the North American Land Trust creating a conservation easement was filed with the Westchester County Clerk. The easement prohibits any development on 159 acres of hardwood forest and meadows that include the headwaters of streams that flow into Byram Lake and the New Croton Reservoir. It is binding on any future owners and also prohibits public access to the property. 27
With the advent of the dual investigations by offices of the Manhattan Attorney General and the New York State Attorney General into possible tax, bank and insurance fraud by the Trump Organization, Seven Springs is again back in the news. Seven Springs came to the attention of investigators as a result of Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s testimony before a Congressional committee in 2019. He testified, “It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purpose, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.” 28 The crux of the investigation as relates to Seven Springs is whether the property value of the conservation easement granted in 2015 was inflated to gain greater tax benefits. Under the law the owner can take the appraised value of the donated property as an income tax deduction.
At the time of this writing, the investigations are ongoing. The next chapter in Seven Springs’ saga has yet to be told.Endnotes
- Merlo J. Pusey, Eugene Meyer, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 58-60.
- National Portrait Gallery, “The Picnic,” accessed January 10, 2021, https//npg.si.edu/object_NPG.2001.95
- Pusey, 104.
- Ibid., 111.
- Penny Singer, “The Luxury Home Market Carries On,” New York Times, July 31, 1994, N10.
- “The Residence of Eugene Meyer, Jr., Esq.,” House & Garden, November 1918.
- Katharine Graham, Personal History, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 35-36.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 37.
- Ibid., 37.
- Agnes Meyer, Out of These Roots, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953), 123.
- Ibid., 121.
- Ibid, 149.
- “5th Year Marked at County Centre,” New York Times, February 16, 1935, 8.
- “Recreation Center to Mark 15th Year,” New York Times, October 22, 1939, 44.
- John W. Stevens, “Mount Kisco Thanks Mr. and Mrs. Meyer for their $300,000 Gift of Byram Lake,” New York Times, October 12, 1958, 80.
- Eugene and Agnes Meyer Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/eastern-the-eugene-and-agnes-meyer-nature-preserve/
- Elizabeth Simonoff, “Meyer Estate to Become Yale Conference Center,” Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, N.Y., June 2, 1973.
- Ron Klaeger, “Yale Center to Stress ‘Creative Thinking,’” Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, N.Y, September 8, 1973.
- Tom Andersen, “Trump May Sink Golf Course for 82 Houses,” Gannett, March 1996.
- Andrea Greif, “Officials Take Swing at Report on Impact of Trump Course,” Gannett, April 16, 1998.
- Tom Andersen, “Trump Chips Away at Golf Club Plan,” The Journal News, January 19, 1999.
- Adam Schleifer, “Trump Wants to Build Test Golf Holes in January,” The Journal News, November 21, 2002, D4.
- Elsa Brenner, “Homes by (and for) Donald Trump,” New York Times, May 21, 2006, 11.18.
- Sean Gorman, “Trump Contemplates North Castle Housing amid Seven Springs Ruling,” The Journal News, February 17, 2008, A1.
- Joseph Berger, “Still No Place in New York for Qaddafi to Pitch a Tent,” New York Times, September 24, 2009, A34.
- David McKay Wilson, “Trump’s Seven Springs Tax Deal Scrutinized,” The Journal News, October 15, 2020, W9.
- Danny Hakim and William K. Rashbaum, “Did Trump Improperly Overvalue his Properties?” New York Times, August 27, 2020, A20.