I am an equal opportunity location aficionado. Filming sites, pop culture landmarks, true crime scenes, literary locales – they all fascinate me. Today might be a first, though, as I don’t recall ever covering a spot made famous by a doll! While perusing Instagram recently, I was introduced to the Theodore Carpenter House, a stunning estate sited about 35 miles north of Manhattan at 81 W. Main St. in Mount Kisco, New York, which played a central role in the story of Samantha Parkington, one of the first American Girl dolls. Outfitted with a handsome mansard roof featuring scalloped shakes, glorious ornamentation and a central four-story tower, the property is the stuff Victorian dreams are made of! But it is the pad’s place in pop culture history that really had me chomping at the bit. (Please remember this is a private home. Do not trespass or bother the residents or the property in any way.)
For women of a certain age, few toys are as revered as the six original American Girl historical dolls. A definitive piece of nostalgia for Gen Xers, Millennials and even Gen Zs, Samantha, Kirsten, Mollie, Felicity, Josefina and Addy are as beloved today as when they initially debuted in the 1980s and 1990s. Manufactured by the Pleasant Company, the 18-inch soft-body figures were the brainchild of Pleasant Rowland, a former teacher and one-time vice president of the Boston Educational Research Company, who was inspired to create the line during a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. While visiting the historic district, Rowland sensed there might be a market for dolls representing various eras in America’s past. Her inclination was spot-on.
Initially based in Middleton, Wisconsin, the Pleasant Company released its first three historical dolls in May 1986, with Samantha leading the pack. A book detailing the moppets’ various backstories was included with each purchase. The line became an instant hit and additional dolls were soon introduced, each with their own clothing, accessories and books.
Though Rowland sold the company to Mattel for a whopping $700 million in 1998, just a little over a decade after it was founded, doll sales never skipped a beat. The American Girl characters remain wildly celebrated today, with children lining up in droves to visit the outcropping of officially branded stores, sprawling high-end outlets complete with expansive sales floors, salons (for the dolls, of course) and cafés, which have become exceedingly popular sites for birthday parties. Although countless historical and non-historical characters have been introduced in the years since, the original six remain the most beloved, with Samantha the senior OG of the bunch.
As told in “Meet Samantha,” the book detailing her back story, the nine-year-old character became orphaned at the turn of the 20th Century when her parents passed away in a boating accident, leading her to relocate to the fictional town of Mount Bedford, N.Y. to live with her wealthy grandmother, aka “Grandmary,” in her sprawling Victorian mansion.
Author Valerie Tripp looked to her hometown of Mount Kisco when envisioning Mount Bedford, with the Theodore Carpenter House serving as the model for Grandmary’s estate. Illustrations of the towering property appear throughout the book’s pages, as well as on the covers of its third, fourth and Scenes and Settings editions. As such, the dwelling has become synonymous with the character – so much so that Rowland even attempted to purchase it in 1995 in the hopes of transforming it into a museum highlighting early 20th-Century life that she planned to call Samantha’s House. In a move that sounds like a precursor to the American Girl stores, the adjacent carriage house was set to become a tea room available for hosting birthday parties and private events.
Community opposition thwarted the deal, which resulted in Rowland threatening to break the residence apart and rebuild it in a town more amenable to her museum concept. Thankfully, that idea never came to pass and the house remains intact in all of its historical glory in the exact spot where it was originally built over 145 years ago. It remains a pilgrimage site for American Girl fans to this day, even though the Samantha doll was officially retired in 2009. As then Pleasant Company director of public affairs Susan Zilber told The New York Times in 1995, “In our minds and our hearts, that is Samantha’s House.”
In real life, the dazzling Second Empire Victorian was completed in 1877 and named in honor of the wealthy merchant who called it home during its early years. Featuring four bedrooms and four baths in 3,684 square feet, the exquisitely preserved residence last changed hands in July 2018 for $1.5 million. Represented by local Westchester, Connecticut and Hudson Valley associate broker David Turner of Compass-Bedford, the listing marked the first time the pad had been up for grabs in more than two decades, last selling in 1997 for $560,000.
As the 2018 MLS images show, every inch of the property has been thoughtfully maintained, from the antique door handles to the elaborate plaster ceilings to the patterned wallpaper coating nearly every room.
Original detailing abounds at the residence, with hardwood flooring, mantled fireplaces, bay windows and handsome framing displayed throughout. Though the kitchen and bathrooms have been updated, their designs mesh beautifully with the home’s old-world aesthetic.
Tasteful living spaces include a parlor, a formal dining room, a living room and a breakfast room lined with windows, all capped by 11-foot ceilings.
Outside, on the leafy 1.41-acre grounds are a large wraparound porch, a graveled driveway, multiple manicured grassy expanses and the carriage house, which is comprised of a garage and a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment.
As well as being known as Samantha Parkington’s house, the dwelling has yet another claim to fame. In 1981, it appeared as the New Rochelle residence of Mother (Mary Steenburgen) and Father (James Olson) in the movie adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s revered 1975 novel “Ragtime.”
The film’s art director Patrizia von Brandenstein (who also worked as a costume designer on “Saturday Night Fever” and was behind the look of John Travolta’s iconic white suit) was tasked with scouting the property. A New York Times article from 1980 details, “Von Brandenstein’s assignment was to find a turn-of-the-century, hilltop mansion within an hour’s drive of New York City and then persuade its owners (with cash) to disappear while she and an army of workers removed 74 years of sags, wrinkles and modern anachronisms like asphalt driveways and deadbolt locks.” The process of prepping the property lasted a whopping 90 days, with an additional three weeks dedicated to filming.
At the time of the shoot, the abode had just changed hands and was unoccupied, making it the ideal candidate to stand in for Mother and Father’s residence. The pad was also in need of myriad repairs, which the filmmakers were only too happy to execute. The Times explains, “‘Ragtime’ offered to rent the house for about $20,000, install about $40,000 worth of permanent improvements, including a gazebo and landscaped garden, and then remove anything that didn’t suit the owner’s fancy at the end of the rental.” Considering that $60,000 equates to about $215,000 today, it was quite a boon for the new buyers!
No element was overlooked by the “Ragtime” production team, who swapped out sconces, hung wallpaper, painted interiors and refurbished woodwork. The group even went so far as to custom-design doors for the shoot. The Times describes, “Two sets of tall mahogany doors, opening into the front parlors, were handmade by a local restoration specialist, Herbert Dutton, and fitted with floral patterned hinges and ‘hideously expensive’ (that is, $1,500 each) etched glass panels designed by Miss von Brandenstein.”
Incredibly, those pieces still welcome visitors into the parlors today, serving as gorgeously preserved reminders of the historic filming that took place on the premises more than four decades ago.