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The History Of Brandreth’s “Anti-Aging” Pill, Mount Kisco’s Ragtime Mansion, And Local Lustron Houses

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Q: I was recently in Ossining at the site of Brandreth Pill Factory, which I noticed was a designated historic site. I’ve read about the old buildings and the land and such, but I can’t find out what pills they actually made there—can you help me? —Howard Cheever, Briarcliff Manor

Benjamin Brandreth was an Englishman who, if he lived today, would probably be considered a new-ager who ate a lot of kale, favored seaweed enemas, and got mad at you for heating things up in BPA plastic containers. He settled in Sing Sing (now Ossining) and built the Brandreth Pill Factory in the 1830s, mostly to produce his eponymous “medication,” the Vegetable Universal Pill. 

Those quotes are in fact for necessity. The ingredients included mainly sarsaparilla but also other herbs and plants like aloes, gamboge, and cobcynth. Their main function was to, uh, how do I say this gently…make you crap a lot. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that the cleansing of blood and bowels was the answer to avoiding disease and growing old.

In many ways, Brandreth pioneered the art of raising mass awareness about products through advertising, and Americans eagerly gobbled them up for their purported “benefits.”

Hey, the pills were a big enough deal that Melville mentioned them in Moby-Dick, and Poe wrote a short story in which the lead character wondered about the product’s ingredients. Poor Edgar didn’t have the “Any Questions?” column during his time.

Portions of  1981’s Ragtime were filmed at this Mount Kisco mansion. 

 

Q: What’s the story with the house in Mount Kisco known as the “Ragtime Mansion?” —Julian Downing, Mount Kisco

The 1981 movie Ragtime was James Cagney’s last full-length motion picture. It’s the story of a black pianist who gets involved with an upper-crust white family in New York City in the early 1900s. Most of it was filmed in London, but they needed a period-style house that depicted the wealth and status of the era.

The art director, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, conducted a lengthy search until she found the Theodore Carpenter House in Mount Kisco. The house was a bit run-down, but in 90 days the crew transformed it into what would’ve been a premier mansion in 1906. New driveways, a coat of paint, and a rebuilt porch were all part of the work done to make the house consistent with the period. They also replaced the deadbolt locks, changed the landscaping, and rebuilt a lily pond.

Von Brandenstein, who also did costumes for Saturday Night Fever, had a crew that scouted more than 1,000 photos of homes. She personally visited 50 in the area and fell in love with the Carpenter House. “The house is just magic,” she told the Sarasota Herald Tribune at the time. The movie people threw in $40,000 worth of improvements and paid $20,000 to rent the property during filming (in 1981 dollars).

In addition to Cagney, the movie starred Harold Rollins. Several actors, early in their careers, made appearances. Debbie Allen from Fame, Mandy Patinkin from Homeland, Mary Steenburgen, and a young Samuel L. Jackson had roles, while Norman Mailer and Jack Nicholson made cameo appearances.

Q: I recently learned about Lustron houses, these steel prefab, ranch-style homes built after World War II. Apparently, they look like an inside-out bathroom. A good friend told me they’re all over the place. Are there any in Westchester? —Cheryl Hanler, Ossining

An inside-out bathroom? Did you know the use of most hallucinogens is illegal in this county?

And how dare you disparage a house style that some cities have put on national historic registers? Well, okay, they did it in Albany, New York, which probably tells you all you need to know.

There is a Lustron house on Pond Meadow Road in Croton-on-Hudson. The Lustrons were prefab units built after World War II as one answer to the post-war housing crisis spurred by the flood of returning GIs. They were marketed in several styles, the most common of which was coincidentally known as “The Westchester,” and they were touted as being practically maintenance-free. The steel tiles on the exterior, for instance, never needed painting. The interior had all sorts of mid-century modern touches like pocket doors, built-in metal cabinets, and metal ceiling tiles. Gray was the predominant color.

The Lustron Corporation made about 2,500 of these homes, and they are strewn around the country. As I mentioned, Albany has five on one block, and our fine state capital had the street designated a historic site. Not unlike Airstream trailers and Silk City Diners, Lustrons have a certain following.

Sixty were built on a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. In 2006, 58 of the homes were offered up for free as the base decided they were too small for today’s military family. Only one was claimed.

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