Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reenactors, Story Tellers, and Dancers--Oh My!

Given Clermont's direct ties to the American Revolution, Independence Day is a big deal around here. On Sunday and Monday, July 4th and 5th, you can find a little something for everybody at Clermont State Historic Site’s Old-Fashioned Independence Day two-day event. On Sunday, reenactors in 18th century costume, firing demonstrations, live music, kids’ entertainment, hot food, and more make Clermont a step back in time from 1:00-7:00pm. On Monday evening come right at 8:00pm for a relaxed family concert on the lawn while you wait for a view of the Saugerties fireworks after dark. Tickets are just $8 per car on Sunday and $10 per car on Monday.

On Sunday, the Old-Fashioned Independence Day will kick off at 1:00pm with an 18th century firing demonstration. The English army was widely regarded as one of the best and most disciplined in the world. We've invited the 16th Light Dragoons to demonstrate their techniques alongside the 1st Ulster County Militia so you can see the difference. Later on the two groups will present both sides of the story of the American Revolution in a series of skits, finally erupting into gunfire at 4:00.

At 2:00pm, Headless Horsemen Fife and Drum Corps will liven up the grounds (and they usually get the kids marching roo). At 3:00pm children can compete in Cherry Pit Spitting contests, a Three-Legged Race, and the hilarious Grinning for Cheese Challenge. And at 4:30pm enjoy the lively historic songs and stories by veteran children’s entertainer Tom Hanford. For the grand finale, you can get your English Country Dance lessons from musical group Salmagundi and then join in an old-fashioned ball from 5:30-7:00pm.

Throughout the day on Sunday, visitors can also play with historic toys and learn 18th century card games: Whist and Go Fish (I never realized how much more fun Go Fish is with four players!). Delicious gourmet and family-friendly food will be available from Spacey Tracy. Stewart's Shops has donated ice cream (strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and fireworks), which we will be distributing free while it lasts.

Be sure to get on one on the special tours of the mansion. From 1:00-5:00pm Clermont will bring to life the Livingstons who survived the tumult of the Revolution in Hudson Valley with costumed actors portraying Livingston characters. You can even talk to them and ask questions as you wander the house at your own pace in an Open House style visit. ($5 for adults, $4 for seniors/students, children 12 and under are free.)

On Monday from 8:00-10:00pm, the Providers, a classic rock and soul band, will give a concert on the lawn, keeping your whole family entertained well into the night. Dancing and picnicking are encouraged or sample more goodies from Spacey Tracy’s delicious menu while you wait for a view of the Saugerties fireworks. To see the fireworks, I encourage you to come early as the park will close its gates when capacity is reached. The price for entry is $10 per vehicle.

This event is one of best chances Clermont offers to sample 18th century life and one of the best places for families with young children to watch the fireworks (plenty of open space and a little less "boom!" becauce of the distance). For my part, I am particularly looking forward to the ball, since I am a big dancing fool!

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Favorite Room at Clermont: The Bathroom

One of my favorite rooms in any historic house is the bathroom. I can't help it! According to Wiki Answers, the average modern American spends about two hours in the bathroom per week. So you can see that this room has become very important to all of us. But of course, indoor bathrooms were not always part of our lives.

On a normal day, a tour of Clermont includes a look at the large sky blue bathroom beside the front guest bedroom. Installed in the late 19th century, this bathroom looks pretty familiar: large claw-foot, iron tub, marble sink, toilet with a tank and pull-chain above it.

But many people are surprised to learn that this bathroom is only one of ten at Clermont. Well--at my last count it was ten anyway. Little tiny bathrooms are tucked into every corner of this house, and every once in a while a dispute opens up (people say anywhere from 9 to 11), and we have to go around counting them all again. Whatever exact number you arrive at, most people are quite surprised to hear that all of these bathrooms are present in a house not updated since the 1920s.

The Livingstons were a little late to embrace indoor plumbing. Our bathrooms weren't installed until the late nineteent century, with the first few being possibly around 1883. Additional bathrooms were added in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, at Lindenwald (the Martin Van Buren home in nearby Kinderhook) boasted two water closets when the house was remodeled all the way back in 1849. One of Lindenwald's, including an attractive porcelain bowl, is pictured at right.

So you might think that John Henry certainly took his time getting around to installing this new luxury. There are a few indications that he may have been slow to adopt new inventions in general: he refused to allow automobiles at Clermont until he purchased one for himself in 1917. However, retro-fitting plumbing into Clermont's 2 1/2 foot thick stone walls may have slowed the process. To solve this problem, plumbing was run all over the house on the outside of interior walls, making plumbing a very visible part of the interior space.

John Henry was only ten years behind Frederic Church's bathroom just up the road. Prior to building his grand mansion, he and Isabell lived in a cottage where they family continued to use the outdoor privies and chamber pots that had been common practice for well over a century. When he constructed Olana in 1870-74, a family bathroom was installed as part of the process, along with a half-bath in the cloak room (historic urinal pictured at right). A pink marble sink completes this facility just outside the door and is still visible while you are on tour. Later, Church also installed another full bathroom when he added his studio 1888-1890.

Apparently John Henry couldn't get enough of construction since he added at least one bathroom in 1883, almost ten years after completing a large construction project that added a third and fourth floor to the house. His account books show this and an 1893 addition of bathrooms in conjunction with another large construction project that updated the drawing room and added four bedrooms in the new second and third floors of the south wing.

Three bathrooms, serving four bedrooms, are still located in this wing. An image of its Dutch Colonial Revival wallpaper is shown above at left. The image below also shows the southeast corner bedroom as it appeared in 1965, with the reflection of its private bathroom just visible in the mirror on the door at right.

Clermont's bathrooms might also be though by some to be a little plain in comparison with his neighbors'.

Indoor privies in this era could get quite fancy. Church's 1888 studio wing bathroom features an exquisitely decorated sink and fine wood paneling (pictured at right). And Martin Van Buren's flushing privy shown above featured a highly decorative toilet bowl.

At Clermont, every bathroom features sterile white procelain and cold gray marble. The only bathroom with any fixture to draw attention to is actually on the third floor and was used by servants. Here, lurks a tiny bathroom (located in the middle of the building where it requires a skylight and translucent glass to get any light in there at all) with a fancy toilet--all ornamented with Baroque flora and a Greek key along the top edge. All the rest feature the plain fixtures you saw in the large blue bathroom pictured above.

Perhaps it is a feature of their late addition to the building. Several were added after Alice Livingston married John Henry in 1906, at a time when bathrooms and other began to reflect a particular concern for the appearance of hygeine. Take for instance the circa 1920 image I borrowed from the 1912 Bungalow Blog. These plain surfaces were easy to wipe down, and the cleanliness becomes a visible feature. The growth in popularity of tile helped to minimize the presence of mold and mildew in bathrooms, probably a constant battle in bathrooms full of absorbant wood paneling.

The positioning of Clermont's bathrooms is the last bit of interest I'll point out before I stop this rather rambling entry. Unlike many contemporary vernacular homes built during the early 20th century, John Henry associated all but one of his bathrooms directly with a specific bedroom (or in some cases two bedrooms). At the time, the idea of a bedroom for every bathroom was uncommon, as one or ocassionally two, tended to serve every person in the household.

John Henry appears to have anticipate modern day however, with almost every bedroom getting its own bathroom. In fact, only one "family" bathroom could be entered by guests or family without first having to cross someone's bedroom (this is again the blue bathroom I mentioned first). The other five family bathrooms are all located with entrances in private spaces. And all but one bathroom are located on the second or third floor. In fact, it apparently became so important to have a private bathroom space, that rather than risk sharing the large bathroom below with guests, Alice installed a half-bath immediately beside it.

This larger bathroom could be entered from either Alice's bedroom or the guest room in the front of the house. At some point, a tiny water closet was installed right next to it, with the effect being that two bathrooms can be entered from Alice's bedroom.

Servants were not permitted to use the family bathrooms and instead had their own. Three full bathrooms were installed to serve their seven bedrooms on the third floor. To prevent them from having to make the long trip up about 30 stairs for every "call of nature," one half bathroom was also provided for them near the kitchen.

So the story of Clermont's many bathrooms is a long and confusing one. With so much space being devoted to bathrooms here, many have had their fixtures enclosed by cabinetry so the rooms can safely be used for storage.
Nevertheless they remain an historic curiosity and a clue to the daily experiences of people's lives. From the separate hot and cold faucets (still troublesome to modern users who face the choice between burning their skin or freezing it when washing their hands) to the large tubs instead of showers, it's little things that people took for granted, and still do, that fill up the background of our days and make life what it is.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Philip "The Signer" Livingston

In honor of the approach of Indpendence Day, I think it is time we paid a little tribute to the Livingston who signed the Declaration of Independence.

A large portait of Philip Livingston hangs in a place of honor in Clermont's drawing room. He is a fashionably-dressed--if not flashy--man with only hansome white ruffles at his wrists and fine wig to display his considerable station in life.
When Alice Livingston hung this portrait here in the 1920s, it was a way to lend status to her family when other well-heeled guests came a-calling: Philip bears the distinction of signing the Livingston name to the Declaration of Independence, making Alice a decendant of some pretty fancy stock.
Taking a moment to sign a treasonous document at risk to his own wealth, status, and life was not his only acheivement though. Like many others who participated in the was, Philip was commited enough to put his life in grave danger, eventually dieing in service of the cause, far from home and family.

Philip never lived at Clermont; born in 1718, he grew up at Livingston Manor (interesting fact: Clermont was divided out of Livingston Manor in 1728 and the cousins on either side of the creek that divided the two were regularly at odds. See the map below. Clermont is in yellow; Livingston Manor is in orange). As fourth son he did not inherit land from the manor. Instead he, his Yale education, and his wealthy Ten Broeck (a Dutch family) wife headed to New York City to become a wealthy merchant.

They built a country estate out in Brooklyn, and he did all the things that a civic-minded wealthy man should do in the eighteenth century: he served as an alderman for the city and speaker in 1768. When the taxes of King George began gnaw at certain colonial residents, Philip was quick to speak out. He was a leading voice against the Stamp Act at the Provincial Assembly in 1765, and he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774. He returned in 1776, leaving behind business and family in an increasingly unsteady environment, for the Second Continental Congress (you can read his correspondance from this time at the Library of Congresss website if you search his name).
The mansion he left behind was situation well enough to serve the Continental Army, where Washington used it as his headquarters for a time that year. The English liked the house too; they later used it as a hospital for the Royal Navy.

In August of 1776, while Philip's cousin Robert R. "the Chancellor" Livingston headed back to Clermont where he could be more active in state government, Philip stuck it out in Philadelphia long enough to sign his name onto the infamous Declaration of Independence. He too was traveling back and forth however, trying to balance local government with this cumbersome new continental one.

But in 1778 Philip was sick--too sick in his opinion, or maybe his family's, to rejoin Congress in central Pennsylvania. Having fled Philadelphia after Washington's defeat at Brandywine, Congress huddled a few days west in York, Pennsylvania, far from the more commodious accomodations they had been enjoying before. Governer Clinton of New York would give Philip no rest however, and believing him vital to the situation, urged him to make the perilous journey through contested territory to join with the rest of Congress there. (You can learn more about York County, PA history at their blog here)

The trip was exhausting. Several days on horseback with a single companion to give him support took their toll on Philip. Settling down at the villiage inn, he joined in the celebrations on May 4th when the group received news that France would be joining their side in the war--finally some good news! But Philip's health could not take the trip. Realizing the seriousness of his condition, Philip drew up his will in a hurry, and several of his fellow delegates made trips to his bedside to offer their wishes. Three delegates were well-respected physicians, and they did everything that 18th century medicine could do for a dieing man. But in the end, Philip succumed there in York.
His wife and children were not even given the chance to say any final farewells, since transporting a body about 200 miles in the early summer heat, across a war zone was pretty much out of the question. Philip was burried in York, and his body stayed there until 1858, when it was moved to Prospect Hill Cemetary.
When Trumbull imagined the scene of the signing of the Declaration of Indpendence and made this painting some 40 years later, he stuck Philip way out on the right-most edge of the painting where he would be forever find himself cropped off the two dollar bill and out of many internet images.
But Philip "the Signer" Livingston did more than just sign his name to a major historic document. His commitment to the cause of American Independence was fierce one, leading him to speak up on many committess and travel great distances to fullfill, and it was one that followed him to the end of his life.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Old Wives' Tales: Mary Stevens Livingston

Fourth of July always brings about some research for me as I investigate charactors that will be brought to life for special tours. Margaret Beekman Livingston is a "must." Her leadership of the family through the difficult times of the American Revolution and the exceptional efforts of our impersonator mean that there is no doubt that she will be accepting guests at the mansion.

This year one of my enterprising young guides has volunteered to play Mary Stevens Livingston, the Chancellor's wife, and Margaret's daughter-in-law. Mary and Robert R. were married on September 9, 1770. She was an heiress from a wealthy New Jersey merchant family, an "exemplary wife," according to historian Cynthia Kierner, and excelled at the social graces of the day. At 25 years old, Mary staid with her husband in the Hudson Valley during the tense summer of 1777 and fled the burning of Kingston with him that October, only days before their house at Clermont was burned by the same general. Her life was filled with the fears of war, glamour of a high-class social life, and love of close family.

But we know little of this woman's life, character, or personal being. So little has been written of her that she did not even merrit her own reference in the index of the definitive biography of her husband by George Dangerfield. Where is Mary's story?

Though letter writing plaid an important part of social life for the well-to-do of the eighteenth century, I have been unable to locate and letters either from or to her. In the Library of Congress, I found reference to one letter written to her by her husband in one he sent to her father John Stevens (now a fellow member of the Continental Congress) in 1780 when she would have been put somewhere safe while giving birth to her first child. Livingston asked that Steven pass along an account of war events along "with the Letter to Polly" (at least we know she had a nickname). Sadly, the letter Livingston refers to no longer exists. Was she one of the many people who burned their correspondance for privacy?

Mary's father and Robert R.'s father worked together on the protest to the Stamp Act in 1765. As socially-elite traders, the two gentlemen probably had many reasons to bump into one another in New York City society. Is this how she met her eventual husband?

If I have nothing of her own words, what did others have to say of her? In Traders and Gentlefolk, Kierner quotes that Mary was a "polite, wellbred, sensible woman of one of the best families in the State, and who brought a great property into the family." I unfortunately could not find the source of this quote. Again we come back to the fact that Mary was good at being a social ornament. Not very personal, but given the amount of work and training that were required to acheive this status, at least we can get an idea of one thing that was important to her.

I also found references to Mary made by her sister-in-law Nancy after the war in the the early 1780s. Mary and her husband had a house in Philadelphia (where Nancy was staying with her parents) and often provided her company and comfort during the difficult marriage she had entered into with Henry Beekman Livingston.

"It being a very fine day I rode out & took Betsy & the Child with me--Called upon Mrs Robert R. Livingston--but found only Mrs. Montgomery at home, Mrs. L came later. The made me happy by praising my darling Child--& Caressing it very much."

This passage also seems to indicate that Mary's other sister-in-law Janet Livingston Montgomery (of later Montgomery Place fame) was visiting with her. Mrs Montogmery and Mrs Livingston figure frequently into the social scene described by Nancy Shippen: visiting, gossiping, card-playing, and comfort. It fits with out other description of Mary Stevens Livingston as an adept hostess and social creature.

So for now at least, I have as much of an answer as I can get: Mary Stevens Livingston was perfectly suited to the stresses and requirements of eighteenth century high society. Many inferences can be drawn from this, based on what we know of women's social lives during this period, and for the time being I will have to fill in the remaining details with what I know of her life as connected to Chancellor Livingston.
My writing challenge (to now make a script from this) is set before me, and my interest is piqued enough that I will have to keep my eye out for any further that I can find. I will be certain to share whatever appears.