Looking north from the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, it takes a lot of imagination to envision storybook manors perched high atop the Palisades. Shows like The Jersey Shore hide the Garden State’s history as the playground of the rich and famous. But for locals of the Northern Valley (called “the valley” by locals), the legacy is still very much alive. The extraordinary ruins of the Rio Vista estate built by sugar baron Manuel Rionda exemplify the turn-of-the-century Gilded Age excess.
Much of the present-day towns of Alpine, Closter and Cresskill were once part of the sprawling 200-acre Rio Vista estate. Built in 1904 by Cuban immigrant-turned sugar baron, Manuel Rionda, the estate includes a man-made lake and a 100-foot-high water tower. The tower contains a library and chapel wing designed by New York architect Charles Rollinson Lamb.
The tower was built behind the main house so that Rionda’s wife could enjoy views of New York City. Although his wife died of natural causes in 1922, local legend has it that the tower is haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Rionda, who caught her husband cheating and jumped to her death from the top of the tower. According to local lore, driving around the tower backwards three times at midnight summons the spirit of Mrs. Rionda and driving around backwards six times will summon the devil. This myth has long since become a rite of passage for local teenagers and gave the tower its name, the Devil’s Tower.
The striking neo-Gothic compound managed to escape the developer’s wrecking ball, unlike other Gilded Age mansions. Without an heir, Rionda sold the land to the Tammybrook Country Club and developers (after the town of Alpine turned down Rionda’s offer to use Rio Vista as a public park). The chapel and mausoleum of Mrs. Rionda (the contents of which has since been relocated to Brooklawn Cemetery in neighboring Englewood, NJ) masquerades as a monumental garden structure to one of the newer homes. The tower and drive leading up to the tower serve as the centerpiece to Alpine’s Rio Vista neighborhood. It’s populated by the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, CC Sabathia, Britney Spears and the illustrious Frick family, who still live on the neighboring Frick Estate.
Structures from the estate made, noticeably distinct today for their deep-grey stone, lend a historical significance and visual coherence to the neighborhood. These include the carriage house, satellite building and garden walls incorporated into the newer mansions. Although home to some of America’s largest private residences, the tower continues to pierce the treeline and cast a shadow on the neighborhood as it has done for over one hundred years.
Besides the main buildings, moss-covered stone bridges from the garden make for delicate artistic masonry tucked away in what is now conserved parkland in Alpine. Driving through Alpine, NJ even as a detour is a rewarding visit for history buffs and architecture enthusiasts.
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