The Rosen House: Built for Beauty
In anticipation of Caramoor’s Volunteer Fair on April 23 I’ve been talking to Rosen House volunteers and staff to get a sense of what to expect. I’ve always been intrigued by the artwork in the House and impressed by the story of Lucie and Walter’s life. I’ve been on several tours of the house and its collection, and each time I marvel at the docent’s expertise as much as I admire the artwork. I wonder how they master the material, which includes tapestries, sculpture, paintings, textiles, furniture, stained glass, Urbino Maiolica and a major jade collection.
According to staff and volunteer docents, the fascination lies not only in the vast collection of fine and decorative arts, which includes 15 complete period rooms that Walter Rosen imported from European palazzos. The real story is about Lucie and Walter—how they built Caramoor, opened the estate to their friends, and bequeathed a legacy to the public. As Lucie Rosen declared, “We built a home, my husband and I, not to be old or new, just to be beautiful.” They likewise did not purchase artwork for its investment value, but instead chose objects that appealed to their sense of beauty, said Merceds Santos-Miller, Rosen House Manager and Director of Rosen House Programs. “Walter was a collector. He collected objects that he loved, and that he and his family could use in their day-to-day lives,” she explained. “As you go through the house, you feel the love they had for each other and for their splendid country home.”
Several volunteer docents agreed. Eileen Brown, for instance, said she initially had no intention of becoming a docent. However, when she first walked into the Rosen House, she encountered an incredible sense of déjà vu, and felt like she instantly belonged. Now Ms. Brown leads the docent-training program with co-leader Cliff Ray, and sees her role as “helping to integrate people into the fold.” According to Ms. Brown, the volunteer experience is like becoming part of a family, with newcomers learning from the current docents, who act as mentors.
“When I first started, I had no background in art,” Ms. Brown said. “Merceds said, ‘don’t worry, we can train you,’ and she was right. Now I’m the one doing the training. I share my story, and I make sure the new people have a certain comfort level. I remind them that we all want them to succeed.” There are three days of training, with lots of reviews, and the material is broken down into a manageable size so the information is not overwhelming, she said. “It’s a great program.”
Judy Rubin became involved for “the sheer beauty” of it. Before moving to Somers three years ago, she lived in Manhattan, where she had done volunteer work for a museum. When she moved north, she decided to check out Caramoor based on its reputation. “I had heard of Caramoor; I knew that it had this wonderful Renaissance collection,” she recalled. “I hadn’t planned to volunteer, but when I saw it, I wanted to share it with other people.”
Now she shares it with the children and adults who take tours of the Rosen House. The children come as part of a formal education program sponsored by Caramoor for local schools, while the adults visit during arranged tours.
Does she find it challenging to hold the children’s interest? “Occasionally I have had times when the kids were more interested in talking to one another,” Ms. Rubin said. “So I try to talk about the things that are unique. For instance, I point out the top of the dining room fireplace, which was made with paper mache two centuries ago. When they hear that, it stops them a little in their tracks and they focus, for a moment at least. It leads them to think there might be other interesting things. You have to be alert to what’s going on around you. You can’t just talk about what you’re pointing at. You’ll have them for a period of time and then you might lose them for a moment and you have to bring them back. It’s kind of like meditating.”
With the adults, the questions can be more open-ended, leading to an occasional admission of ignorance, Ms. Rubin noted. “The adults tend to ask you about interests they have. I read over my notes every time I have a tour, but every now and then there’s a question I don’t know, so I will go and look it up.”
Fortunately, all the docents can turn to the House’s extensive catalogs for backup. If they are still stumped, Ms. Santos-Miller is on hand to help. And if they are too shy to lead a tour, they can always volunteer to help with office work, assist in the archives, or work as ushers at a concert.
Come to the Volunteer Fair on Tuesday, April 23rd at 10:am in the Rosen House at Caramoor. For more information, please call the Box Office at 914.232.1252 or visit us online