Thursday, November 7, 2013

Safe Refuge: the Livingstons' Home-Away-from-Home in 1777-78

A fellow Livingston historian and friend was all dressed up as Chancellor Livingston for our Halloween program when he began to wonder just where Margaret Beekman took her family when she fled the burning of the mansion in 1777.  We just had to know the answer...

On October 18, 1777, Livingston in-law William Smith recorded the following note:

...Rob R. L. & his Mother’s burnt...

Smith was tersely recording a pivotal and now-storied moment in Clermont's history: the infamous Burning of Clermont. 

The story of just how Margaret Beekman Livingston packed the wagons and fled with her children and slaves is the stuff of Clermont legend.  She rescued what she could and left the rest of her belongings to an uncertain future.  When she returned to find them in a pile of ash, she showed her endurance by rebuilding on the same foundation before the end of the war.

But even I have only ever given a little thought to what happened in between leaving Clermont and coming home.  What was the winter of 1777-1778 like for her?  Where did she stay?

Margaret fled to Salisbury, in the northwest corner of Connecticut in late of October of 1777.  It was a journey of about 30-35 miles and
probably took two days so she would have had to lodge her family and servants somewhere along the road.  A tavern?  A friend's house?  It has not been recorded.

source: Salisbury Historical Society

The house she was fleeing to was at that point owned by cousin Robert "the 3rd Lord" Livingston.  Robert appears to have only recently purchased it from its builder (a Mr. Swift).  The house was quite new, built in 1774, and it may have been purchased for his son Robert Cambridge Livingston, who eventually became its longtime resident.*  Nevertheless, that first fall it may still have been unoccupied.  The author of the 1900 book Colonial Ways and Days seems confused on this subject and suggests that "he [Robert the 3rd Lord] occupied it himself for short periods."  Perhaps in all the scuffle of Livingstons fleeing the Hudson Valley, he and his family fled there too?

A large and commodious house, its brick-and-stone hulk conformed to fashionable standards of the day, and it was located between two picturesque lakes.  Unfortunately for us, it was demolished in 1895 after lying derelict for many years, but the nostalgia of the Colonial Revival in the early 20th century lead to foggy recollections of its former glamor.  It seems to have been built basically along a Georgian floor plan with a center hall.  However, while one side was divided into the usual two front and back rooms, the other (the north side) appears to have been one long, wood-paneled room from front to back.  By 1900, this was romantically referred to as a "ball room," but it would likely have served other purposes as well (how many "balls" can one family throw in a year--enough to merit a whole room in the main part of their house?).  At any rate, such a large room may well have been closed off for the winter as it would have proven very difficult to heat with a single fireplace, especially with its large windows and high ceilings, as they are described.

A close-up of the demolition photo from 1895 shows the front parlor, which may also have been paneled along the lower portions, judging by the fact that the plaster stops there.  A large--and probably fine--mantle has also been removed from the building before its demolition, leaving behind the bare stone of the chimney.  All-in-all, this would likely have been a showy and pleasant room for Margaret's family.

The second floor seems, from pictures, to have been more modest.  Visible in the 1891 image at right, it was a clapboarded wooden story on top of the more imposing stone one, and it looks to have slightly lower ceilings and smaller windows that may have made these rooms easier to warm (the roofline in this image has been changed from the original, which was hipped or gambril, depending on the source you use.  The early engraving also shows a small dormer that enabled a large, fashionable Palladian window in the center hall.  This also didn't seem to survive into the 18th century).  The attic was apparently also a usable floor--if not for storage, than perhaps as bedrooms for slaves.  As shown below in the complete 1895 image, there were no fireplaces in the garret, and it would have depended on the radiant heat from the chimney to keep the temperature hovering around freezing. 

The 19th century engraving above also shows a lean-to-style extension on the back of the house as well as a small wing on the south side (wing also visible on the right side of the 1895 photo).  The lean-to on the back appears to be integrated well enough that I would not doubt its being original to the house, and it would not be out of context amongst its fellow New England structures.  Although a little out-of-date, these were often one long room from side to side and featured working areas for the house, such as the kitchen. There is a similar long room along the back of the More House at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, NY.


I am less sure about whether or not the little south wing would have been present in 1777.  Its apparently wooden structure suggests that it may have been a later addition.

At any rate, Margaret Beekman Livingston, her three unmarried daughters, and an assortment of slaves would likely have found Montgomery House a comfortable and fashionable place to spend the winter.  Even if it wasn't home, even if they'd been uprooted and lost most of their belongings, at least they were ensconced in a place that befitted their station.

With the information we have left to us, many questions remain unanswered.  Was there any furniture there when Margaret and her family arrived or did she have to use the scanty furnishings she had rescued from her own house?  We know that she brought feather beds, which usually refers to just the mattress.  Were there bedsteads?  Did she set up her battered tall case clock in the hall?  Did the portraits of she and her recently-deceased husband get hung up to brighten the bare rooms?

Or was the place already being prepared for Robert the 3rd Lord's family and now stuffed with goods?  Were there other family members crammed in with them, refugees from the burning of the Hudson Valley?

Without more evidence, all this is left to the imagination.  Even so, just knowing that the house the family fled to was sufficiently grand and new helps illuminate that gloomy winter.  And yet another glorious old mansion left to decay and be torn down!  Bon soir Montgomery House.


*Geoff Benton suggests that the property may also have been purchased as a base of operations for supervising his mining interests in Salisbury.

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