Landmarks: A Victorian treasure lives on
Couple restored run-down house used in film ‘Ironweed’
For Eileen Tryon, it wasn’t love at first sight. Not nearly.
As she walked into the dilapidated building at 1511 New Scotland Road in Slingerlands, buying the property was the furthest thing from her mind. Then, after coming in through the back door and walking through a kitchen and a dining room, she entered the front part of the house. That’s when everything changed.
“We were just looking at the house because we liked old houses, and people told us we had to see it before it fell down,” she said. “It was in rough shape, but when I walked into the front room you could see the wonderful woodwork and how beautifully it was built. Then, I fell in love with it.”
It was 20 years ago that Tryon and her husband, Marc, bought the house from Garrett Dillenbeck, a retired scientist/inventor who helped create the fax machine. A few years earlier, in 1986 and ’87, Dillenbeck had let a Hollywood movie studio into his house for the filming of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Ironweed” starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. And it was Dillenbeck, a personal friend of Tryon’s sister-in-law, who showed the Tryons what would become their new home.
“I was in the back of our van, and my husband and Mr. Dillenbeck were in the front,” said Tryon of her introduction to the house. “Mr. Dillenbeck said, ‘There it is,’ but we were coming up from Bridge Street and with all the big trees and being in the backseat I couldn’t really see too much. And there was so much paint peeling off the house it kind of blended in with the trees.”
Things didn’t look any better once they pulled into the driveway and noticed that part of the east wall was gone.
“I got out of the car and looked up to see the light fixture in the upstairs bedroom,” said Tryon. “Then we came in through the back stairs, and when I peeked into the dining room I saw the missing wall and how part of the floor had caved in. But when we got to the front room, the sunlight was beaming through the windows and it was beautiful.”
No one had lived in the house for quite a while. According to Tryon, Dillenbeck had another home and said he hadn’t turned on the heat at 1511 New Scotland in 16 years. He also mentioned that he was willing to sell it, but preferably to a family.
“He had a lot of offers, but people wanted to break it up into apartments, and he said that it would be nice if he could sell it to one family,” remembered Tryon. “Well, with that he offered it to us and we took it. We didn’t pay market value, but we paid what we could afford and soon began hearing from family members and close friends that we were insane.”
Marc Tryon said he never second-guessed himself or his wife. He too was sold by the front room.
“We were actually pretty happy living in our house in West Sand Lake with our three little boys,” he said. “But when you saw the molding, the woodwork and the carved doors, you realized it was a pretty special property. We decided at that point to stabilize it and save it. We just didn’t want it to disappear.”
The Tryons retained the walnut and chestnut wood that runs throughout the house, as well as an elaborate hall tree that belonged to Dillenbeck. There is also a Dutch oven in the furnished basement that Eileen Tryon refurbished herself, but almost everything else is new.
The Tryons have done extensive work on all three-and-a-half floors of the building, which was built in the Victorian/Second Empire style that typically reflected the opulent architecture of France during the reign of Napoleon III.
Built in 1876
The house was built in 1876 for Charles Darius Hammond, an executive with the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. It was Hammond who in 1901 took personal charge of a D&H train and headed to North Creek, where he handed Theodore Roosevelt a telegram informing him that President William McKinley had died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, and that Roosevelt was now president.
Hammond was also active in the Slingerlands Methodist Church, just a few doors to the north on New Scotland Road (Route 85), and was instrumental in the building of the Slingerlands railroad station in 1863.
It was somewhere around 1790 that John Albert Slingerland built the first home in the area just west of the Tollgate Restaurant on New Scotland Road. That whole stretch of Route 85, between Maple Avenue to the east and Helderberg Parkway to the west, has recently been designated as a National Historic District.
“We surveyed about 100 homes, and many of them still had outbuildings or carriage barns that survive today,” said Susan Leath, town of Bethlehem historian. “Along with all the Victorian homes that were built in the 1870s and 1880s in the same vicinity as the Slingerlands railroad station, there are also some very historic industrial buildings, such as the Slingerlands Printing Co. and the Tollgate Restaurant.
“But the first house, the house built by John Albert Slingerland at 1575 New Scotland, is still there,” continued Leath. “It’s not a grand Victorian house. It’s smaller and it doesn’t really catch your eye like some of the other big houses, but it’s still a great old house.”
John Albert Slingerland had three sons, the most noteworthy being John I. Slingerland, who built a house at the end of Bridge Street in 1843 and became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1847. Still, the community he lived in didn’t really start to grow until the railroad came to town.
“Slingerlands had a post office as early as 1851, but it was quite a small community until the Albany-Susquehanna Railroad came through in 1863,” said Leath. “When they got the railroad to stop there and built the station, that’s when Slingerlands started to grow and you saw a little cluster of homes. With the train, people realized they could work in Albany and live out here in the suburbs.”
It was John I. Slingerland who built the house at 1511 New Scotland that Hammond moved into. Hammond lived there with his family until 1912, when the property was sold to Emma Hutt, who added on two more rooms in the back of the house as well as one of the two long porches that adorn the east and west side of the structure. In 1926, the Dillenbeck family, just the third owner in the history of the house, moved in.
Garrett Dillenbeck was in his early 20s when his father, a pharmacist, purchased the home. Along with his sister, Garrett lived in the house off and on for some time, but during the 1950s it was Garrett and his wife, Marion, who used the home as their full-time residence. During the peak of the Cold War years, Dillenbeck turned his home into a radio transmitting station for the Armed Services, his work earning him the 1955 Air Force Scroll of Appreciation Award for improving morale.
“During part of the Cold War, Garrett was up at the Air Force base in Thule [Greenland] and he would be transmitting messages back to his wife at the house in Slingerlands,” said Jill Tryon, who met Dillenbeck in 1987 while she was helping to prepare the house for the filming of “Ironweed.”
“He had set up all these huge antennas — all his own doing — on the land behind his house, and when he was back home he would be contacted by servicemen and he would patch those calls into their homes here.”
Tryon had been working as a painter in 1987 when she got a phone call from her local union boss to head over to 1511 New Scotland Road.
Working on film
“We had been working on all the movie sets for ‘Ironweed,’ so when I first went to the house it was in pretty rough shape,” said Tryon, who is married to Marc Tryon’s brother. “They put up a fake wall in back where it had collapsed, and then we did a lot of painting and wallpapering in the front room to spruce that up and made it look pretty sharp. I was surprised after watching the film because we would spend days preparing this one spot in the house, and then you would only catch a glimpse of it here and there. But I guess that’s how they do it in the movies.”
Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie and had both of his daughters, Dana Nelson and Kathy Caruso, working on the production crew, said they were looking for a house that reflected some wealth as well as the hard times of the 1930s. Nicholson’s character, Francis Phelan, was a former professional baseball player who, after falling on hard times, returns to his home in Albany.
“I actually had done a story on Dillenbeck, a real pioneer in the radio field, back in the 1950s for the Times Union,” said Kennedy. “I can remember they had to paint half of the house and that they shot a couple of scenes out there. The house had to have a certain level of elegance and Dillenbeck’s house did. They [the Phelans] weren’t millionaires, but they were well-to-do people.”
Jill Tryon, meanwhile, along with getting an education about movie-making, had a wonderful opportunity to get to know the homeowner.
“At lunch time, all the carpenters and painters and set decorators would leave for an hour or two, and I always brought my own lunch,” she said. “So I would spend that time sitting and talking to Garrett, who was a wealth of information. He was eccentric, and he had some ways about him, like most people do who lived through the Depression, but I liked him very, very much.”
Dillenbeck died in 1993 at the age of 90. His wife died in 1985.
“I never met her, but I think they had a beautiful relationship, and I got the impression they were real partners,” said Tryon. “Marion was actually Garrett’s cousin, and that’s why they never had any children.”
It was in 1962, according to Tryon, when Dillenbeck and his wife moved out of the house on New Scotland Road to a farm in South Bethlehem. For much of the next three decades the house sat vacant, although Dillenbeck reportedly came back quite a bit to his old home and would often spend the night there.
“I’ve met so many people who knew this house when they were young and just loved it,” said Marc Tryon, who added a fourth child, a daughter, to his family soon after moving into the Dillenbeck house. “We love it, too, but the kids are older now and out of the house, so we’re thinking about selling it. We may move, but we felt like this house was a treasure that needed to live on. We saved it, so we feel great about that.”