Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is it Original?

When I guide tours at Clermont, I would have to say the most common question I get at Clermont is, "Is everything in the house original?"

Now, I am the queen of long-winded answers--perhaps that's why I was picked to manage this blog--but there is no easy way for me to answer this question.

It seems simple, right? It's a yes or no question. But there is no simple answer. The best I have come up with is this: "Everything at Clermont is the Livingston family in one period or another."

It's a bit like listening to a rock radio station. They play "the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today." It's up to you to know when each song is from. In 1930, Alice had five generations of Livingstons before her to pick her "greatest hits" from.

Take the drawing room pictured above (photo from 1938). The problem is this: We are interpretted to the period of 1930. This means, that we have done our best to make Clermont look as Alice Livingston had it decorated that year. But Alice loved her family's old furniture. Instead of buying fashionable, new 1930s furniture, she dug through the attics and barns and back rooms to find anything "old."

Alice was taking part in the Colonial Revival , an important period of time when Americans started getting interested in their own history--especially the period of time surrounding the American Revolution. People all over the country were saving historic buildings, buying reproduction furniture, and playing Betsy Ross at their town pageants. Photographer Wallace Nutting was famous for recreating Colonial-esque scenes during the early part of the 20th century. His images were very popular and often used 18th cenutry antiques rearranged into modern interpretations.

So is everything you see on display at Clermont from 1776? No--here's where things get even more confusing. Even though Alice was refering to her family's 18th century "Colonial" history, she did not limit herself to the actual 18th century artifacts. Anything old would do--just so long as it was a good piece of furniture.

As a result, our rooms are a confusing mash-up of 19th-century Duncan Phyfe sofas under proud 18th century portraits. And causually sitting in the middle of all this is a late 19th century Belter style chair.

That's a little like wearing a poodle skirt with a Hannah Montana T-shirt and getting a Farrah Faucet hairdo. The styles weren't originally meant to go together. Each of the individual pieces in our outfit comes from a very specific point in time (the 1950s, 2000s, and 1970s), but together they make up one wholistic--albeit strange--fashion statement.

The people of the 1700s would never have recognized her decor. You can see the difference for yourself in the image at right of Schuyler Mansion in Albany, which is intpretted to the 1770s. Even in a mansion belonging to the Schuylers, the rooms look sparse to modern eyes. (read more about 18th century room decoration here)

That doesn't mean that Alice's decor is not historic though. It is historic to her time--1930. Remember our radio station that plays "the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today?" If you taped that radio station and listened to it 20 years from now, you would know it was a special product of the 2000s. That very slogan identifys it as such. Plus, they've only picked what they consider "the best." They may be still be playing Bruce Spingstein, but they have probably forgotten the New Kids on the Block.

Alice's collection of furnishings come from about 150 years of Livingston history, but they are arranged and jumbled like that radio station, and together they form a whole new look that worked for the 1930s.

So I guess at Clermont the answer to the question "is it original?" is "yes." If it looks like Victorian girandole candelabra, it probably is--just remember that it might be sitting in front an Empire mirror and next to a 20th-century plant stand.


  1. I love the radio station analogy. A very good way of putting it. In a house that has been lived in and changed by seven generations, it is facinating to see the mark of all of them.

  2. Great post. I love the information about Clermont itself, and the links to more general information are very helpful. I learned a lot.