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.

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