A Stained-Glass Window to the World

A chance encounter with a historical Irvington castle inspired Mary McDermott’s wanderlust.

As a teen in Dobbs Ferry, I had serious doubts about a town that wouldn’t let a girl quarterback the boy’s football team (the nuns at Maria Regina, my all-girls high school, wouldn’t hear of it) or caddy at the Ardsley Country Club (I didn’t know an eight-iron from a driver—but my brother caddied, so I thought I should’ve been able to caddy, too). I wanted to push the envelope, move forward, and explore the world. Little did I know, I would go around the globe doing just that, but my first and best expedition would take place just two towns away. 

One spring afternoon, two friends and I set off for nowhere in particular, on borrowed bikes, ready for adventure; we ended up in the woods of Irvington. The air, like us, was fresh with unlimited possibility. So fresh that when Brian, a humorist, doubled back saying he’d found an enormous castle, we giggled. Yet to our disbelief, past a hallway of purple rhododendron rising six feet high on both sides of us, there stood Irvington’s “Rochroane” Castle. 

By the kind of luck that seems to shine down during childhood, a rear entrance had been mistakenly left ajar, and, in sneakers and shorts, we stepped into history.

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Built in 1903 for M. S. Beltzhoover, an oil and cotton millionaire, and designed by Arthur J. Manning, a New York City architect who lived in Irvington, the castle featured a spectacular stained-glass window made by Louis Comfort Tiffany. (The window is now in the Corning Museum of Glass.) The 44-room, bluestone castle, situated on 37 acres overlooking the Hudson River, also included a burnished mahogany ballroom, complete with organ pipes as tall as the ceiling, a six-foot-wide staircase with hand-carved railings, and room upon room painted in every color imaginable. 

The second floor contained one room packed with canceled checks. I examined one, signed by Mrs. Halsey Taylor (wife of the inventor of the modern-day water fountain). On the floor was an ivory-colored dance card, with the wristlet string still attached, numbered 1 to 10 and annotated in dainty black script with words like “charming, humorous, handsome.” I realized going back in time was equally important as going forward. 

Bought by Benjamin Halsey in 1927, the castle was renamed “Grey Towers,” but for some reason we called it “Bell Silvers.” We explored it for a few more days until it was boarded up and donated by Mrs. Halsey to Immaculate Conception in Tuckahoe. It caught fire shortly thereafter, and now only the teahouse on the pond remains.

Stumbling onto the castle inspired me to travel the world—to walk down new streets and take turns without knowing the outcome. Thanks to the neatly stacked boxes and the beautiful stained-glass window, I have an appreciation for mementos from another era as well as European architecture, blue stone walls, and grand staircases. Everything they loved so much remains and lives on in me, like a passport to the world.

As for quarterbacking and caddying, I’m now content to watch football and golf on TV. But from this childhood experience, I realized Westchester isn’t just a place; it’s a place in history. 

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