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  They honored their family's ancestral home, but by no means felt the need to live in outdated spaces.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.  

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