The History Behind Two Historic Structures in Yorktown
As you travel west along Route 6 through the hamlets of Mohegan Lake and Shrub Oak, history calls quietly from both sides of the road. To your left, a stone chapel sits heavily upon a weed-strewn lot, and on a hilltop to your right, partially hidden by trees, an old, two-story house stands in tattered dignity.
Neither structure is representative of American architecture and both appear out of place in the small rural community. The former, constructed in 1913, replicates a French 11th century Norman Chapel while the latter, built in the 1860's, is a "chalet" in the Swiss style. Neither are these structures historic in the "George Washington slept here" sense of the word. Rather, their historic importance stems from the prominent family which resided in one and built the other...the family La Farge!
Most notable of the residents of the chalet was John La Farge, who the New York Herald described as "One of the greatest artists this country has produced and a universal genius to all time..." Painter, author and muralist, La Farge is equally famous for his work in stained glass for which the French Government awarded him the Legion of Honor. This process was mistakenly credited to Louis Tiffany until La Farge won his court action to retain his patent rights.
In 1860, La Farge married Margaret Perry of Newport, Rhode Island (the granddaughter of Commodore Perry). The couple had 11 children, four of which died in infancy. Of the surviving children, John and Christopher figure most prominently in the area's history. John became a Jesuit priest and writer very influential in the Catholic Church. His book "Parish Boundaries" highlighted his efforts to promote civil rights in the 1930's. He is buried on the Loyola campus in Yorktown.
Christopher La Farge became a noted architect and later joined his Aunt Aimee's husband, George Heins, to form the firm of Heins and La Farge. The firm was responsible for a number of important designs, including the chapel at West Point, St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington and the New York Zoological Park buildings. Following the death of Heins in 1907, Aimee Heins commissioned her nephew, Christopher, to design the stone chapel in Mohegan Lake in memory of her late husband and her father. The work was completed in 1913 and named St. George's Chapel. Three stained glass windows by La Farge originally graced the structure but have recently been removed.
In 1870, John La Farge's widowed mother, Louisa Binese La Farge, married a local businessman, Thomas Jones, and took up residence in his estate in Shrub Oak...the Swiss Chalet. With his studio in New York City, La Farge was a frequent guest at the chalet. When his wife and children spent the summer there he proposed they remain there so that the family could be closer. Margaret declined and, being in poor health and not altogether impressed with the locale of her new father-in-law, returned with the children to the more congenial atmosphere of her Newport, Rhode Island home. She is said to have remarked "I refuse to have my life spoiled by being imprisoned in Shrub Oak."
Louisa Jones resided at the chalet until her death in 1897. The premises were left to her daughters, Marie and Aimee. Following Marie's death, Aimee continued to live there, financially burdened by the cost of building the chapel. In 1933, she sold the property and moved to Peekskill. She died in 1938.
Failing in mind and body and with dwindling finances, John La Farge passed away in the fall of 1910 and was interred in the La Farge family vault in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It is a measure of the admiration in which he was held by members of the artistic community when one reads the long list of famous artists that attended his funeral; William Chase, John Sargent, George Maynard, Childe Hassam and Kenyon Cox among them.
The La Farge family is gone from us now, as is the era in which they lived, but the chapel and the chalet remain to remind us that a most remarkable family once graced our community. They should be preserved and treated with the dignity they deserve.
Judith E. Gordon is a 30-year resident of Mohegan Lake and, along with her husband John, is a member of the Northern Westchester Water Colors Society
Source: Guest commentary by Judith E. Gordon, North County News, December 5 - 11, 2001, p. 9
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