Monday, October 19, 2015

The Black Walnut Tree: Trying to Find the History of a Tree

If you've been here, you've seen; you just might not realize it.  Clermont is home to one of the oldest black walnut trees in New York State.  Depending on who you talk to you, it might be the oldest, the second oldest, or possibly the third oldest.

Either way--it's old!  It's been estimated that it's somewhere around 240 years old, which means it was a little sapling when Margaret Beekman Livingston was watching her house get rebuilt in 1778.

This monster of a tree reaches its craggy branches up over the towering roof of the mansion's South Wing, offering shade in the summer, and dropping great big green-coated walnuts down from the sky every fall (Honoria used to wear a hard hat near there when she got older to protect her head!).  It is natural landmark and one of the first things you see when you come walking down the Lilac Walk on your way to the house.  It's a bit of a natural wonder to stand at the foot of it and realize how very big it really is.

We love this tree.  But it's a living thing, and well--it's getting old.  Almost every year, we have the tree examined by arborists to ensure that it is still safe, and we know that it's life is running out.  The time will come when the tree will have to be removed for safety's sake.

Thinking about this made me think about looking for the tree in historic documentation.  What history can you find about a tree?

The easiest image to spot was this one from around 1908 to 1910.  Alice photographed her newly-turned patch of dirt that would become the Spring Garden, and there is our old friend the Black Walnut.  Even over 100 years ago, it is tall enough to tower above 5 stories of house (since it sits on level with the basement).

Some 30 years earlier around 1775, the second-story addition to Clermont's south wing had not yet been built.  The walnut tree stands proudly shading the bedrooms below it while someone--maybe John Henry?--relaxes on a bench overlooking the river.

Now we are treading into territory where photographs are few.  The only photo I have of the house in the 1860s id from the wrong angle, and you can't see the tree at all.  Nevertheless, if you're will to trust a drawing, there is an image from around the same time that may show the black walnut, tall and proud off the southern corner of the house.  In the 19th century, it was clearly old, but not quite the Grande Dame that it is now.

My last possible "spotting" is from the 1790s.  A drawing by a visitor captured a clutch of trees off the mansion's south corner.  Could one of these possibly be our Black Walnut tree?  Was it once surrounded by other walnuts waving in the breeze and dropping little bombs on passers-by every fall?  I like to think so.

So there you have it--the history of a tree.  There is something a little comforting in following the history of our tree friend--even if we know that we will have to let go in a few years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Livingstons Get Inked: Clermont’s Tribute to an All-American Art Form.

Comic books and historic homes.

At a glance, there aren’t a lot of correlations between the two; comics are low brow, for the masses, easily accessible and disposable. Historic homes are protected, cherished, define highbrow and are for those who can afford the ticket price. They draw polar opposite crowds, but they aren’t as unrelated you may think! They are both national treasures. Comic books are one of the five “purely American” art forms (alongside jazz, musical theatre, mystery novels and the modern banjo) and carry major cultural value.

The first comic book was published in New York City in 1934. Famous Funnies was a truly American spectacle, the product of first generation high school drop outs who used their talents in design, drafting and writing to create a literary art form that was accessible to the masses. Using the ideals of hard work and skilled craftsmanship they had inherited from their parents, young hopefuls like Will Eisner and Walt Disney created a market that was instantly successful.

By the end of World War II, more than a third of all comic book readers were adults. Stories had matured with the first crop of readers, who had spent their dimes as kids in the 30s and had grown up to serve their country in Europe and the Pacific. By the early 1950s, 20 different comic publishers were producing nearly 650 different titles a month in genres such as superheroes, comedy, crime noir, mystery, sci-fi, and romance. They employed over a thousand writers, inkers, artists, letterers and editors—many of them women and people of color—who had turned to comics because their ideas would be unwelcome in other spheres of publishing and entertainment.  

But the good times wouldn’t last. The comic book success story was an American dream come to fruition that was ultimately failed by the same America that produced it.

In 1952 Senator Joseph McCarthy began probing the artistic community for communists. Anyone who read as “other” was accused of having communist ties. The comic book industry, filled with social minorities creating stories about crime, sex and violence, was an easy target.     

Comics were burned in the streets by churches and boy scouts.  Publishers shut their doors. Thousands of people lost their jobs, over 900 of them branded communists and blacklisted from ever working in the arts or entertainment industries again. Heavy censorship under the Comics Code Authority restricted the once free art form and public stigma drove down sales. Comic books were defanged and defamed in their birthplace.

But comic books weren’t going down without a fight! While publishers like DC, Marvel and Archie Comics continued publishing books neutered by the Comics Code Authority, underground comic scenes popped up across the country. Uninhibited by public stigma or pressure from politics and advertisers, they continued to produce books with mature themes, giving them away or selling them at conventions. This tradition exists today, with yearly Alternative Comics and Zine conventions in cities across the country, not to mention webcomics.   

Drawing by Kevin Nordstrom
How might the Livingstons feel about being represented as comic book characters? We don’t know. Janet and Honoria Livingston were not part of the first crop of comic book readers in the 1930s and 40s, they were in their 20s when Famous Funnies appeared in newsstands. Their ancestors would have been aware of political cartoons (and probably none too happy about appearing in one). But through Livingstons Get Inked we are looking to bridge a gap in American culture using their stories. In recent years, museums are looking for new and creative ways to connect with the community and squash public stigma about who museums are for. Comic books are a valuable teaching tool; earlier this year we implemented a short comic about the Livingston’s dog Punchy as a preliminary teaching aid for visiting elementary school students. The comic has been wildly successful; even though they read the book the day before, students remembered facts and were enthusiastic to see the artifacts that Punchy the dog introduced them to.

Through Livingstons Get Inked, we are appealing to young adults, an audience who make up more than 70% of all comic readers and whose visitation all museums are looking to cultivate. The panels were created by independent comic artists from across the country who are using their art and story-telling skills to bring new life to cherished Livingston stories. We hope to inspire new interest in our history and continue bridging the societal gap between high and low culture.    

*Livingstons Get Inked opens in Clermont's Visitors Center on October 3rd, 2015.  It can be viewed throughout the month of October from Wednesdays through Sundays 11am to 4pm.  

**Author Emily Robinson is Clermont's Education Assistant and holds a bachelors in Fine Art.  Her work has been featured in Clermont's education materials and will be on exhibit as part of "The Livingstons Get Inked."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Themes Like a Good Idea: Decorating for Clermont's Historic Halloween

Here at Clermont, we love Halloween.  It's a good thing too, because it takes some 10 weeks to plan our vary popular Legends by Candlelight Ghost Tours.  Beginning sometime in August, when almost everyone else is still beach umbrellas and summer vacations, we are already thinking orange and black.  Or red and black.  Or maybe black and white...  It's so hard to choose.

In short, we are already making plans for Halloween.

Decorating the mansion for Halloween takes quite a bit of planning.  You see, we work hard to keep it all looking appropriate for the 1920s, and that means researching the right look and where on earth to get the right products.  Luckily for us, the aesthetic for the 1920s called for tons of crepe paper, streamers, and balloons, all carefully put together to form hanging confections of decoration.

After eight years, we've gotten pretty good at it, and we're starting to get more into it.  Last year, we worked around a Edgar Allen Poe theme with "The Raven."  Quotes posted above doors and windows complemented our many feathered ravens (okay, they were really crows--but it's pretty hard to find affordable decorative ravens right now).

This year, we were inspired by this image:

And voila! our theme is now a Commedia dell'Arte Masquerade with Harlequins, Columbinas, Pierrots--all filtered through the lens of the 1920s.  It turns out these were pretty popular costumes beginning in the first part of the century, and they show up a lot during the period if you know what you're looking at. The diamond motif can be found all over Halloween imagery of the period, and the pom poms, neck ruffs, and masks were usually enough to give the viewer the desired impression.

So now it's just putting our plan into action: finding fabrics and paper, making pom poms and neck ruffles.  There is so much left to do!

*Clermont's Legends by Candlelight Ghost Tours will take place on October 16 & 17, 23 & 24 this year.  Tickets are $10 for adults $5 for children or Friends of Clermont.  Reservations open October 1st.  Call early to get your spot as our tours do fill up!  (518) 537-4240

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Something Old; Something New: When a Colonial Revival Drawing Catches You Off Guard

It's no secret that Clermont was renovated about half a dozen times over the course of its existence.  Who can blame them Livingstons?  They honored their family's ancestral home, but by no means felt the need to live in outdated spaces.  They added wings, porches, bathrooms, and decorative elements that met new standards of grandeur.  In short, Clermont has done a lot of evolving.  And sometimes that results in a little confusion.

While I was writing about Clermont's South Wing last winter, I cited this image as being from the 1830s:

You can see it's already got both the north and south wings added on (1817 and 1831, respectively), and it looks pretty similar to this drawing from that period: 

The porch and pediment over the front door are different, and the railings and roof lines of the wings show some differences too, but those could feasibly be excused as artistic issues.

So oh!--wasn't I embarrassed when our Friends of Clermont Executive Director Conrad pointed out a critical, critical piece of information on the first image: 

Please excuse the fact that it's blurry, and forget the fact that the date is obscured by an unfortunate blot of some sort.  The important information is the architect's name, and it's why Conrad caught this, not me.  

Mott B. Schmidt was an architect who first became known in New York City for his Colonial Revival town houses in the 1920s and later for the country houses that served as summer dwellings for the wealthy.  Born in 1889, his signature marks this drawing not as an image of Clermont in the 1830s, but as possibility for what Clermont could have looked like now, had things just gone a little differently.  
In the 1920s, Clermont was a big amalgamation of Victorian aesthetics , plastered over a Georgian core, and John Henry was ready to make some changes.  He wanted to make the house more reflective of its hallowed post-American Revolution rebuild.  Be gone, louvered shutters!  Be gone giant porch!  

So apparently at some point, the family consulted Mott B. Schmidt for his opinion.  

There's no doubt about it; Schmidt had a stellar grasp over early American architecture.  Many of his contemporary homes could easily be taken by a casual observer for something much older, and he proposed this same treatment for Clermont.  

By removing the Chateautesque roof and even the second story on the south wing, he could bring the house from its peaky, twentieth century look back to something Chancellor Livingston may not quite have recognized, but at least would have understood.  

Whether it was because of the likely very-great expense, some sort of reverence or pride in the work that John Henry had done, or because of the simple loss of floor space that this renovation would cause, the Livingston family turned down Mr. Schmidt's proposal.  Instead, the family removed the veranda, put up our current shutters, and basically called it good.  Apparently some Victorianisms were here to stay at Clermont.

Interestingly enough, this New York State face the same decision 40 years later in the 1960s and 70s when they determined how the house would be interpreted to the public.  They had inherited a fast-deteriorating relic that had not been lived in since 1942.  After a year of being shown to the public in 1965, the house was again closed for extensive renovation.  

Choosing its current interpretive date of 1930 was a tough decision.  New York was trying to get the house ready for opening during the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976.  Returning the house to its 18th century appearance, when it would have showcased Margaret Beekman Livingston's proud post-war rebuild, would have been most relative to the sentiments of the celebrations, and it would have showcased the Livingstons at their most prominent.  But that would have meant tearing off not only the big roof and the second floor of the South Wing, but the entire wing itself and it's mirror on the north side.  

Still, leaving the mansion as it looked in 1930 (the decision that was eventually made), meant restoring the house to a period still within living memory.  After all, in 1970, that was only 40 years ago!

There was at some point a plan to interpret the mansion to an early 19th century date--the 1830s or 40s (this comes from stories I've heard bandied about the break room by old-time staff so please excuse me if I'm vague).  Even that would have meant even-more-massive restoration projects and removal of some beautiful historic architecture.  What would Clermont be without that big, pointy roof line?

So in the end, New York State made the same decision that the Livingstons did when they were handed Mott B. Schmidt's beautiful architectural drawing.  Probably something to the effect of, "Wow that's beautiful, but we can't just throw big pieces of Clermont into the trash."

And Clermont was left with this beautiful Mott B. Schmidt drawing reinterpreting its history circa 1831.  Well, I learned something new today.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Cutest Historical Document Ever? From Katherine Livingston Timpson and Her Babies

In my spare time this summer I've been pouring over the delightful finds sent to me by Katherine Livingston Timpson's great grandson.  They are amazing glimpses into a history I wasn't even fully aware of.  And part of what makes them amazing is the way they tie into a history I am familiar with.

Much like this photo at right, which shows Clermont with the great veranda still intact (possibly the best photo of it that I've ever seen), the photos that have been sent to my email box every few days ring with familiarity while filling me with excitement at the new angles, moments, and faces.

So here's Katherine Livingston Timpson, John Henry's oldest daughter.  She spent part of her childhood at Clermont, and when she married Red Hook resident Lawrence Timpson in 1901, she threw her bridal breakfast here in the dining room (this photo was taken to the mansion's south.  The doors to the milk shed are in the background).

Katherine and Lawrence continued to live in the Hudson Valley for another four years, during which time they had their first two children: Theodore "Theo" and Katherine "Kay."

It was entirely by luck that I was scanning through Clermont's registry of visitors from 1900 to the 1930s that I came across the page below:

There at the top of the page on June 12th, 1903 is a visit from Katherine Livingston, Theodore Livingston, and the new baby Katherine Livingston.  The most charming part of the page of course is the addition of "his mark" and "her mark" where Katherine handed the pen in turn, first to her toddler, and then to her baby and gave them each a chance to "sign" the book.  Theo had signed the book twice before, but this was the first time his sister earned the honor.  

Perhaps it is the young mother in me, but it certainly gave me an "awwwww" moment.  Was it right around the time this photo was taken? (Perhaps not, Katherine looks to be quite a big baby) Can you imagine John Henry bouncing the new children on his knee?  What rhymes did he recite to them?  Did he pinch their cheeks?
This little moment of family life was rife with tradition as the children each took the pen and signed the book in a sort of ceremonial gesture, but also with familial love that identified the them as worthy of being recorded for all of history in the household register.  

It reminds me of all the little things we do with babies even today that they may not understand, but that confirm their identity as being part of our families.  They sign birthday cards.  They open presents at their first birthday (often long after they've gotten bored with it).  They are present at the Thanksgiving dinner table even though they'd much rather be under it chasing the family dog.  With a stroke of the pen, Katherine and John Henry were bringing little Kay and Theo into the Livingston fold.