The Judge Builds a House

Watercolor of the Fullerton House by Mary Evelyn Whitehill (1920-2012)

It is an unfortunate coincidence that 1868 was the year in which ex-Judge Fullerton found himself accused of extortion and criminal conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Treasury.

From the New York Times, March 10, 1869

At the beginning of 1868, ex-Judge William S. Fullerton was 52 years old. He was not yet famous — that would not come until 1875 — but highly respected among New York City’s elite trial lawyers. It had been a long hard slog for the former farm-boy from rural Wawayanda. In the twin, Thornton Niven-designed courthouses of Newburgh and Goshen they remembered him as the “Orange County Cyclone,” but he had long since moved his practice to the ever-expanding metropolis, while parking his wife and two children sixty miles up the river in Newburgh.

Thornton Niven Courthouse in Newburgh

Thornton Niven Courthouse in Goshen

Modesty was not expected in successful Gilded Age circles. It was time to provide Cornelia, Gussie and Willie with a comfortable home that would also announce that Judge Fullerton had arrived.

The lot was carefully selected, roughly 1.5 acres on a slight rise west of Grand Street, which at the time offered sweeping views of the Hudson River in a neighborhood that was dotted with architectural gems. Only one block to the North, A.J. Downing’s picturesque Gothic mansion, Highland Gardens, was still standing, although its visionary creator had died in a steamboat accident in 1852.

Long-vanished Highland Gardens (early 20th century photo)
“View from Ruggle’s House, Newburgh,” William Bartlett, Hand-colored Engraving

William Hilton was a carpenter/builder who lacked formal training as an architect, but made rich use of the models that were available. The Fullerton’s house can best be described as Italianate-eclectic, (The front porch was added some 50 years later, by patent-medicine king Harry Cathcart. We will get to him in due course.) Although the house interior has suffered from the ravages of the time, and the original furnishings and wall paper have long since disappeared, surviving details suggest a great deal of expense and careful attention to decor.

We know very little about Cornelia, but one of her grandfathers had been a respected Judge in the Revolutionary War period (when Judge Fullerton’s ancestors were barely eking out a living and coping with Indian raids) so she likely had her own ideas about status and style. New York’s Victorian ideal held that the woman was the ruler of her domestic sphere. Some of the surviving features, like the ornate white marble fireplace in the salon and the nature-themed (grapes and morning glory) crown molding in the dining room should be viewed as her surviving contribution.

Dining Room, with Crown Molding
Marble Fireplace

The salon features remarkable acoustics, and music must have played an important role in their home life. A well-bred young lady like Gussie (and her own daughter Daisy) was expected to learn an instrument, and singing around the piano with friends and extended family must have filled many evenings. Prosperous Newburgh had its own musical instrument dealers and sheet music publishers in the now-vanished business district along Water Street.

The Fullerton Music Room

Willie obviously showed early promise as a musician and composer — his earliest surviving piece is a waltz dated 1871 — the year in which he turned 17.

Silver Strains, courtesy of the Library of Congress
View from Library

For those weekend visits home, the Judge had his sanctum. At the end of the long formal hall, a curved, Moorish-revival doorway opens into a small but dignified library/study, with dark wood bookshelves and a fireplace. The room features its own overhanging arch, which frames the windows looking out onto the gardens behind the house.

Library

From the apex of the central bookcase, a carved monogram “F” reminds us of the now forgotten lawyer who had little doubt of his own importance.

“F” for Fullerton

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