Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wrong Time

This post is the third in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

John Fitch was laboring away on a river that wasn’t likely to produce a good return on his investment. In contrast, Robert Fulton found an immediate niche to fill as he began to ferry the New York upper class to and from Albany. But there’s another advantage that Fulton had in 1807 that Fitch never could have foreseen in 1790.

In 1792, two different men, one wealthy and the other hoping to become wealthy, began to build two different hotels in a sodden little town called Ballston. The town had been founded in 1770 near a cluster of mineral springs believed to have medicinal properties. A few miles away were another cluster of springs call “Saraghoga” by the Mohawk.

These springs had gradually begun to gain popularity. The use of natural spring water had long been used as a treatment for various conditions, and the process was referred to as the “water cure.” The whole site had potential as a medical and social retreat, but its development was hampered two problems.

First, the accommodations were primitive. In 1790, the area was described as a quagmire without civilized facilities. The two hotel proprietors, a local named Benjah Douglas and a wealthy businessman named Nicholas Low, were each trying to remedy that by building hotels that would appeal to the gentry.

Low’s reputation and connection’s allowed him to draw business to his new hotel, named the “McMaster’s.” By 1797 the area was attracting small numbers of New York’s genteel travelers. In 1800 it changed its name to Ballston Spa to emphasize its primary draw. In 1803, Low was involved enough to build an even larger hotel in the area – the “Sans Souci” – which was America’s first large resort hotel.

But, as I wrote last week, getting from the traveling hub of New York City to Ballston Spa was frequently a long and tedious process. No direct road along the Hudson would be cut until the 1840s, so a boat ride was the only option. But before 1807, there was no regular service and no established lines. A traveler simply had to try and catch a ride on whatever boat was available.

Naturally, Fulton changed all that. Thanks to his North River Line, tourists could get to Albany reliably, comfortably, and above all, quickly. Not only did this increase the flow of tourists, but it made certain other things feasible. New types of entertainment trickled into Ballston Spa, like cabinets of curiosities and traveling players.

The steamboat and the spa had a symbiotic relationship. The growth of tourism kept Fulton busy with passengers. The passengers took rooms in the new hotels. After just 18 months of operation, Fulton had had a profit of $16,000. Fulton was really the right man at the right place at the right time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

First Lady of Clermont?

During a painting survey last week, one of our experienced painting conservators peered through her goggles and mused, "I think this painting is a Duyckinck." My interest was piqued. I looked up the portrait.

For one, I have to admit that I was excited to finally here the name Duyckinck pronounced (it sounds like DIE-kink). I am still fairly new to all this Dutch scholarship in the Hudson Valley, and my pronounciations generally come out all mumble-y.

More interestingly, former curator at Clermont Ashley Hopkins-Benton has already speculated about the various possibilities another Clermont portrait by a member of the Duyckinck family. Perhaps this little painting was one to add to the catalogue of this important Dutch family of portraitists.

First things first. I had not previously paid a lot of attention to this small portrait in the corner of the dining room. The file on it describes it as an unconfirmed female subject by and unidentified artist. Thanks for the help.

But in the 1910 book The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (written in collaboration with John Henry Livingston), the author mentions that this "sweet faced lady" is thought by the family to be Margaret Howarden Livingston (1693- circa 1750). If so, that would make this a portrait of the wife of the builder of Clermont. We know of no other portrait of either her or her husband, which could make this the only surviving image of that generation.

A Huguenot descendant, Margaret married the younger "wild child" of Alida and Robert Livingston. Young Robert was a bit of spendthrift, who's own mother hinted at his exploits with the ladies. Yet he remained the family pet, and was given 13,000 acres of land inherritence, even though English law dictated that the entire 160,000 acres were supposed to be given to his elder brother (thanks to primogeniture). Once Robert settled down and began buying up large tracts of land in the Catskills, Margaret would have been able to look out the front door of her new house at Clermont in the 1740s and know that most everything she could see belonged to her husband.

Is this portait first Lady of Clermont? She certainly is a fashionable young woman. Portrayed in the style of deshabille (or undress), she is remensicent of some of the images of royalty that were coming out of Europe. That dashing state of being half-clothed in loosely-wrapped garments was very popular in the early 18th century.

And back to the possible attribution to Duyckinck--our conservator was not the first to make this connection. The 1986 exhibit catalogue A Portrait of Livingston Manor also suggests that it may have been Gerardus Duyckinck who painted the image.

The Duyckinck family were among the most popular limners in New Amersterdam (and later New York) during the early part of the 18th century. Gerardus, our Duyckinck in question, came from a long line of them in New Amsterdam and Holland.

According to art critics more skilled than I, it is the rendering of the nose and mouth that make our painting most likely by Gerardus. Comparing it with another of his female portraits shown at right, you can sort of get the idea (note that she is also shown en deshabille).

Identifying our portrait as a possible Duyckinck locates it within a tradition of early Dutch-American portrait art, interesting if you're a painting scholar, and especially fun since Clermont's dining room offers you a good timeline of American portrait art. It starts with the early 18th century image we've been discussing an progresses up through the 1920s with images of Janet, Honoria, and Alice Livingston.

Taking another look at the portrait also gives me a chance review one of the least-discussed generations of the Livingston family. There is a whole set of lives that I know so little about. My thanks go to our conservators for stopping me to take another look.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wrong River

This post is the second in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

Last time I wrote about some of the problems that John Fitch – creator of the first steamboat – had with ... well, with being John Fitch. Fitch's temperament probably made him the wrong person to try and sell the public on his newfangled steamship. But he had another problem stemming from where he decided to set up shop: the Delaware River.

The Delaware river was deep and fairly easy to traverse. It had established coach lines paralleling it. In other words, Fitch had competition from regular ships and coach. Granted, Fitch could go twice as fast for half the cost, but his ship was an awkward looking thing just waiting to burn or explode. Steamboats were still a new and crazy idea, and Fitch's line didn't last long enough for people to become comfortable with it.

Fitch wanted to expand to other rivers where he would have better luck, but his backers were in Pennsylvania. He fled to France, but his bad luck followed him: the French revolution made things too hot for him. Fulton, on the other hand, was backed by Chancellor Livingston, who had both the wherewithal to support him, and a pressing local need for him to fill.

The Hudson has two nicknames that are relevant here: Henry Hudson himself called it the “River of Mountains,” and the Mahicans called it the “River that always flows” or perhaps “the river that flows both ways.”

Hudson's nickname captures the experience of anyone who has ever traveled the river and watched the mountains pass by on either side. Flanked by the Catskills and the Taconics, the Hudson passes through terrain that is both imposing and difficult to traverse.

The result is that the Hudson – the main artery of transportation in the northern colonies – was also the only means of north-south transportation for New York. Its presence made Albany the hub of turnpikes coming from the west, but the mountains prevented coach lines from paralleling the Hudson. If you wanted to travel from the economic center of New York City to the political center of Albany, you had to travel by ship up the Hudson.

But then you had to reckon with the Mahican's observation. Anyone who has ever watched the Hudson from a stationary point knows how much it is controlled by the tides. Just outside my window is a sandbar in the center of the river that is invisible at high tide, but exposed and covered with plant growth at low tide.

Even after the sandbars were charted, the changes in the flow of the river could impede all headway. Unable to simply rely on the flow of the river, sails were the only way to make progress. But the mountain weather disrupted stable air currents and made the direction of the wind unpredictable.

Stories abound of how long it could take to make the trip between Albany to New York City. Three days at least, three weeks at most. One story concerns two brothers who both set sail for New York City at the same time: one from Albany, the other from London. Both arrived on the same day, twenty four days later.

All of this made the Hudson the ideal river for Fulton's new boat. Fulton's North River Steamboat made the trip with satisfying speed: just over thirty hours without a breakdown. His connection to Chancellor Livingston tied him to New York's upper class, and they could immediately see the use of a boat that didn't rely on wind. Fulton's financial success was assured.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Finding Arryl House

Chancellor Livingston was in Kingston with the State Senate while his mansion was going up in flames. On October 17, 1777, British Major General Vaughan drew his boats up to Clermont's dock on the Hudson River, sent troops ashore, and burned Clermont to the ground. The old mansion was not the only building worth burning; Vaughan also burned twenty-some outbuildings and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston's mansion Belvedere fifty yards away.
His monther had taken his younger siblings (and her slaves) to Connecticut to stay with family. Without a place to live in the Hudson Valley, Chancellor Livingston took his wife and daughters to say in the paron's house in nearby Staatsburg.
For the the winter of 1777-78, the snow covered only the charred remains of what had recently been one of proudest estates along the Hudson River.

The Chancellor was despondant about the destruction of Belvedere. Once "pleasantly situated upon the river," the mansion that had offered him visible prestige was now a gaping wound that only reminded him of the confusion of the war. The loss of his home seemd to combine with the uncertain political situation to unbalance his sense of control. It came out in his disdainful letters about his political situation. "And to manage fools to which I have sometimes submitted disgusts me when it is no longer justified by some important end," he wrote that January to his friend John Jay. He was unhappy, frustrated, restless.

While his mother was rebuilding her mansion in the summer of 1778, the Chancellor continued to slog through New York politics, complaining all the way. "I converse with men I can't esteem and I am engaged in a round of little politicks to which I feel myself superior." Though he visited his mother's construction site frequently (she rebuilt on the same foundation, thumbing her nose at the English who had burned it), he refused to rebuild his own house Belvedere. The wound it had left was still to raw.

It took more than ten years for the Chancellor to rebuild, and even then, he moved his house several hundred feet further south to be one fresh ground. He planted a weeping willow tree, a symbol of mourning, atop the old ruins.

But his new mansion was a site to behold. He called it New Clermont (this name was confusing enough that the house later went through a series of titles, eventually settling on Arryl House in the 20th century).

It was H-shaped, which afforded it gradiose courtyards in the cup of the H both front and back. (above you can see it from the side) "One of its wings forms a dining room," wrote a visiting contemporary, "another the drawing room..., leading from it is another room for billiards: farther on a library...downstairs three bedrooms for the family, upstairs five similar ones for guests."
Twelve rooms on the main living floors! (This description tells us nothing about the basement, which would have also been used) Each family member commanded their own bedroom, and guests were given the royal treatment as well. Next door, Old Clermont, which was certainly a large and "commodious" mansion, had only ten rooms on its main floors.

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston's considerable pride was certainly on display. The windows in high-ceilinged receiving rooms (library, dining room, drawing room, and billiards room) were enourmous. They would let in light and air in the summer, capturing breezes off the river. Flat window glass, or crown glass, was expensive, a commodity favored by the wealthy. In the 20th century photograph below, you can see John Henry Livingston standing beside one. At six foot, five inches tall, John Henry is still dwarfed by the windows.
Unfortunately, given 18th century window technology, these windows were also quite drafty, and vicous winds along the Hudson River must have howled right through them. The house was notoriously cold in the winter.

Livingston staffed the house with liveried slaves (Because people thought of their slaves as a piece of property, dressing them up was a way of showing off, not unlike setting a fancy dining table. The appearance of the slave, reflected more on the master than on themselves.). When he went down to his new house on the Bowling Green in New York City, Livingston travelled around in a carriage (also a great expense; his cousin Walter Livingston at Teviotdale insisted that his servants treat the carriage there with kid gloves) pulled by four matched white horses and accessorized with postillion and outriders.
Alongside his new mansion to the south, the Chancellor fed his desire for spectacle by including a formal garden "with only flowers and rare bushes"--i.e. nothing so practical or unattractive as vegetables or herbs. An "orangerie," or greenhouse was also nearby for forcing bulbs or growing plants unsuited to New York's climate. The Chancellor loved to show off his fashionable scientific curiousities to his friends, including Thomas Jefferson, and even occassionally published on his findings.

On the north side of the mansion, the Chancellor cut a door facing his mother's house (Old Clermont), exotic acacia trees lined the roadway that lead there alongside a broad meadow. it was seated on a high bluff, overlooking one of the most important rivers in the new United States. Its white stucco glittered in the sun.

This was a glamorous estate.

So what happened to it? New Clermont, Iddyl, Arryl House--whatever you wanted to call it, was willed to the Chancellor's daughter Margaret Maria and her husband when the Chancellor died (it is worth noting that he did not take this opportunity to free his slaves. Instead, he also passed those onto his children). Eventually, the house passed to other wealthy socialites distantly related to the Livingstons. They considered it "out of the family."

But in 1906, John Henry Livingston reaquired the property. It was derelict, empty, and sagging. But it was still "Chancellor Livingston's House." It was herritage. It was history. John Henry was filled with the pride of ownership and had his new wife Alice photograph him standing outside it in several locations.

But just a few years later, in 1909, Arryl House saw its end. John Henry had his staff burning off leaves, and that steady river breeze caught the flames and whisked them over to the old hulk of Arryl House nearby. The house, and all its wonders, were devoured by flames. John Henry, dressed in a white sweater, now stained black with soot and filth, walked into the dining room of Clermont, sat down at the table, and cried. He had lost his great grandfather's pride and joy.

Fragments of the brick and stone walls of Arryl House remain standing as a ruin at Clermont today. South of the current parking lot (which is where Belvedere once stood), you can see the remnants of the Chancellor's mansion. A few pillasters and the gaping rectangles of the windows are really all that is left to hint at what was once a towering estate. They are ringed by a fence since the basement underneath still pozes a hazard, but standing in the cup of the H in front of the house, it worth imagining the Chancellor welcoming Robert Fulton, foreign statesment, and once George and marth Washington up the same bluff and into the front door.
Well--that is, if you have the imagination for it. Mine isn't quite that vivid. To be honest, I mostly just enjoy the view.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What did Fulton have that Fitch didn't?

This post is the first in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

If you were visiting Clermont during out Halloween season, you might have encountered the ghost of John Fitch. He was the cranky one watching the ships steam by on the Hudson.

John Fitch was the first person to build and operate a steamboat. Named the Perseverance, it was an odd looking craft with banks of vertical oars – see the sketch on the right. Backed by a number of stockholders and working with a partner, Fitch carried passengers for a full season in 1790 – that's 17 years before Fulton was able to make his famous run.

From early spring until the winter ice, Fitch operated his boat on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. (This raises the question of what he was doing haunting the Hudson, but I make it a policy to never question the undead.) The Perseverance traveled somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 miles, averaging only one breakdown per 500 miles – not a bad record for such an early ship.

Despite all this, the Perseverance failed to make money. In fact, it lost money on every trip. At the end of the season, after some more bad luck and a failure to raise money, Fitch left the Delaware behind and traveled to France.

In order to understand what Fulton was able to do, it's worth looking at what went wrong for Fitch. What problems did Fitch contend with that Fulton didn't?

For starters, John Fitch had to deal with John Fitch. Fitch had a hard life, and it left him with an abrasive temperament. In his own words: “... when in wretchedness [I am] haughty, imperious, insolent to my superiors, tending to petulance ... And a man of this disposition ... can never get through the world easy.”

Fighting to build and maintain a type of ship that many people considered to be a crackpot idea meant dealing with a lot of “wretchedness.” Throw in the fact that in 1790 Fitch was the losing side of an uncomfortable love triangle, and you start to understand why Fitch just left the country after the failure of his business.

Fitch's abrasiveness meant that he had problems dealing with his financial backers and this limited his ability to raise money. Fitch's attitude also cost him with his customers. It seems that Fitch had to be prodded by his backers into making concessions for his guest's comfort. Given his druthers, Fitch would have left the Perseverance as a simple craft with nothing to distract him from the technical problems of the engine.

Fulton, on the other hand, started off with a stocked bar on-board. It may seem excessive, but it was touches like that that made him a hit with the traveling classes. And that was important, because his connection to Livingston meant that he had an connection with the upper tier of New York society.

With the help of his connections and his business sense, Fulton was able to do something that Fitch couldn't: he made the steamboat fashionable. Whereas Fitch piloted an odd ship that was seen as a floating fire-trap with a wood-fired boiler on board, Fulton's North River Steamboat was well received and made its creator a fair sum of money.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Under the Window" and Under My Nose

Ah the Livingstons' historic library: it is always a source for new curiousities. The last time I poked my nose in there, I found Beatrix Potter books. This time, I found...
Illustrated children's books as we know them today were in their infancy when Alice Livingston was growing up in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Although stories written for children had been around for some time, books full of unified text and illustrations had to wait until the triumverate of early English children's illustrators--Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott (illustration pictured at right), and Kate Greenaway--came onto the scene in the the 1870s. The wild popularity of these new books would have been part of Alice's childhood, and perhaps she even owned a few of them.
Of these three illustrators, Kate Greenaway (1846-1801) has probably retained the most popularity in modern America. She published her first book, Under the Window, in 1877, and more books followed until her death in 1901 (the year before Beatrix Potter published her first book). Two of these books can be found in Clermont's collections today: Under the Window and Little Anne.

Like the rest of Greenaway's work, these books are heavy with nostalgia, featuring care-free images of "yesteryear." Greenaway grew up during the era of Dickens, in an England thick with the smoke of industrialization. Her books vividly called up cultural memories of the early 1800s, complete with stylized Regency-era costumes, gentle blue skies, and delicate English country gardens.
They feature poetry for children, written by Greenaway herself. Sweet, moralistic, and with a simple rhyme structure, they make especially good reading for young children by the standards of the day.

Her books were influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and John Ruskin, with whom she also became friends. The influence can be seen aesthetically in her choice of natural settings and extensive use of soft naturalistic colors--especially green. The Arts and Crafts movement's eye for simplicity and Japanese-influenced themes (her cherry trees are particularly remeniscent of this) also can be seen in Greenaway's work.

The connection to the Arts and Crafts movement makes it interesting to see these books in Alice Livingston's collection of books. Though Under the Window was published in the 1870s, and it was around when Alice was a child. Alice appears to have re-purchased the book as an adult, in 1903--before her own children were born in 1909 and 1910--indicating that it was of some imoprtance to her.

The inscription in the front of Under the Window reads "March 1903/We had our original copy on 42nd Street in 1881." The handwriting appears to be Alice's, perhaps indicating that she purchased a new copy of the book as an adult.

Alice was interested in many kinds of art from early in her life. Of her two-year honeymoon through Europe and northern Africa, Alice once said that Egypt had been her favorite part of the whole trip because of its art. Within Alice's writings that survive today, one of the most touching describes her emotional devotion to art and "line." It suggests that she drew a sense of comfort from art during the tumult of her adolescent emotions.

Later in life, Alice also demonstrated some interest in Japanese art and the Arts and Crafts movement. A Morris chair, a definitively Arts and Crafts piece of furniture, stands in her bedroom, and she was very interested in Japanese floral arrangements.
The illustrations in Greenaway's books also mirror Alice's own art. Both feature neoclassical costumes and figures, and both prominently feature women, children, and pets.
Finding these influencial children's books in Alice's belongings during a time in which she had no children herself and was out of their target age range is suggestive of the way that Alice perceived of them. Were they escapism for her? A memory of a book that had been precious to her in childhood and reminder her of that security as an adult? It is not impossible that she simultaniously saw them for their artistic value.
However she saw them, the two books remain in Alice book collection over a century later, probably after having become part of Janet and Honoria's childhood as well. Kate Greenaway's books continued to be part of other children's lives as well, being republished in their entirety as recently as the late 1970s, and her artwork still be published in numerous collections from a variety of book sellers.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Underneath it All

"What did they wear... under there?" asks the visitor. The question is tentative and curious, but a little nervous that they are diving into some personal territory. In the process of offering more costumed interpretation at Clermont, I've gotten this question a lot.

It's because much of historic women's clothing requires a complex array of undearwear so dramatically unlike anything worn today. To create the shapes we've become familiar with in historic images or modern movies with historic settings, the shape of a woman's body must be compressed in some places, and enlarged or enhanced in others. Fashion's recent re-discovery of corsets has increased public familiarity with this concept of simple body modification.

So last Independence Day, while Margaret Beekman Livingston was inside the mansion talking about the English army burning her house in 1777, I was outside talking about Revolutionary-era underwear. The one-hour lecture was a hit, and the little knot of spectators grew from five or six to two dozen as the program proceeded. I even spotted a few people jogging across the yard to get over in time to see it!
My favorite moment had to be passing around my 18th century stays (also known as a corset) and watching people bounce them in their hands to test the weight and try to flex and bend them to feel the steel inside.
The success was gratifying, and in response we've put together a three-part lecture series this winter about underwear through the ages: specifically 1770, 1800, and 1880. (Never fear for modern decency standards; historic underwear offers enough coverage that it will conceal a complete compliment of modern summer clothing).

Undergarments throughout history were linked to concepts of hygiene, beauty, and femininity, making them an great way to understand some of the inner workings and very personal histories of American women. The lectures will use a combination of reproduction clothing, period illustrations, and, in the final lecture, a few selections from Clermont's own collections for an educational session on the many layers of historic costuming.
So if you have ever found yourself wondering how a bustle worked or what a steel corset actually looked and felt like, these three winter lectures might be just the Sunday afternoon activity for you.

A detail of the trim on a pair of split knickers in Clermont's collections from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century