The house that Morgan built

Le Château immortalizes French cuisine and a titan’s power

My sister Gina and I are having Sunday brunch at Le Château in South Salem, seated at a table whose window frames the verdure of Lewisboro as it rolls into the summer mist and the Hudson Valley’s ever-elusive horizon. Over cappuccino and tea, she remarks that the two couples sitting behind me look so much alike that they could be each other – 50 years apart.

As they pass, I realize how fitting my sister’s remark is. At Le Château, the past, present and future dine happily together.

Banking on Morgan

The restaurant and event destination – a fixture of classic French cuisine in the region for almost 40 years – is, after all, situated in the house that J.P. Morgan built. Or at least his money did, as a retirement home for the Rev. Dr. William S. Rainsford, the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan.

As a longtime member of St. George’s and one of its wardens, Morgan sought to bring dynamic spiritual leadership to the church when attendance dwindled after the previous rector died.

“J.P. wanted someone with new ideas to serve as rector,” says Monique Lozach Jaffré, who owns the restaurant, which was started by her parents. “Dr. Rainsford was in (Ontario,) Canada. He didn’t want to live in the States.”

You didn’t, however, say “no” to J.P. Morgan. Rainsford – a progressive who championed the rights of workers and an end to slums – came to America under certain conditions.

“He wanted to free the pews so that it was first-come, first-served, not the first pews for the rich,” Jaffré says.

Rainsford also demanded that all church committees except the vestry be abolished so that he could appoint future committees and that Morgan set up an annual fund of $10,000 – apart from his salary — for three years of church work. The financier and philanthropist responded with one word – “Done.”

He must’ve liked Rainsford a great deal. The two breakfasted together almost every morning at Morgan’s Madison Avenue home. (It was replaced in 1928 by the Annex building, part of The Morgan Library & Museum. See related story.) The pair also went to Africa on big-game expeditions with President Theodore Roosevelt and Gen. George Patton, participating in 22 lion hunts. (The souvenirs of those trips were located in the South Salem property’s Trophy House, now leased privately.)

But neither spiritual work nor travel could stave off Rainsford’s bouts of depression, a condition from which Morgan also suffered. So the banker gave him the money to build a manor of some 20 rooms on 1,250 acres in what was then Ridgefield in 1907, the year after Rainsford retired from the church.

Designed in the Tudor style by Grosvenor Atterbury, an architect who was as well-known for his urban planning as he was for his Gilded Age mansions, Savin Rock – as it was called — was a marvel of brick, stone and timber with a tile and shingle roof, sweeping wood-paneled halls of cherry, oak and American chestnut (no longer available due to the chestnut blight); stone fireplaces; and bay windows offering panoramic views.

Jaffré points to the butterfly joints holding the textured chestnut beams in place in the imposing entrance hall. The restaurant’s accompanying brochure notes that such craftsmanship would be hard to duplicate and fund today.  It’s easy to see why.

A French flavor

By the time her parents saw Savin Rock, it was a shell of its former self. The year was 1971, and 50 hippies were living in the house.

“They would run around naked and jump in the lake till my parents spoiled it all,” Jaffré says with a Gallic-flavored laugh.

Her parents, Yves and Denise Lozach, emigrated from the northern French province of Brittany to New York City in 1949 and opened a small Manhattan bistro, Le Coq au Vin. With the rent rising, the couple decided to look for a place where they could live and work in Westchester County. They were not in the market for something as grand as Savin Rock. But, Jaffré says, the Realtor kept dropping the price. Le Château opened two years later. Jaffré took over in 1980.

“We try to keep it as authentic as possible,” she says, bearing in mind that none of the original decor was left when her parents bought it.

Today, floral wallpaper, striped curtains and wood valances with botanical medallions capture the baronial charm of what was once a country estate. An area for wedding receptions has replaced the living room and greenhouse. With 30 picturesque acres, Le Château is perfect for nuptials, which is a big part of the business, says Jaffré’s daughter, Lenaick Cea, called Lee, who spearheads that part of the operation. But the grounds are also suitable for other kinds of events as well as BBQ Thursdays, a summer staple.

Upstairs, JP’s Lounge offers a Sunset Dinner in a more casual, masculine atmosphere and will be holding a cabaret with cover acts on the last Sunday of every month, beginning Sept. 30. Meanwhile, the neighboring Bridal Room provides the lady of the day and her attendants with an elegant space in which to ready themselves while an adjacent room can accommodate an intimate party for up to 25.

It’s not, however, just the Morgan connection or the family ownership that enables the past and the present to coexist so felicitously at Le Château. It’s the continuity among the patrons. As my sister and I savor grilled scallops, a delicate red snapper with capers and legumes, a rich crepe stuffed with shitake mushrooms and leeks and a mushroom, bacon and spinach quiche, our chatty, gentlemanly waiter, Kus Beham, observes that many of those dining around us are longtime patrons who’ve also held events there.

Such devoted patronage is the backbone of any business.

No doubt J.P. would’ve heartily approved.

Le Château is on Route 35 at the junction of Route 123 in South Salem. For more information or to make reservations, call (914) 533-6631, visit lechateauny.com or email banquets@lechateauny.com.

 

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