Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cars and Clermont

The Livingstons loved their cars. Although for a long time John Henry vehemently opposed automobiles even driving onto the estate's grounds, in 1917 he finally relented and purchased the family's first car. In Honoria's eyes, this was late, as many wealthy families had been purchasing automobiles since the tale end of the nineteenth century, and Henry Ford had released the affordable Model T before her birth in 1908.

The Livingstons' purchase of a car was an event important enough to merrit Alice getting out her camera and snapping a few photos. The children hopped right into their favorite places: Honoria in the comfortable and scenic back seat, Janet with her hands on the steering wheel. I am always struck by the amount of pride this photo seems to convey. The festive mood has even spread to Christopher Meyers, the coachman, whom you can see joking with John Henry at right.

Photographs of the Livingston family and their cars followed occassionally in the years to come, especially in the post WWII years. This car, probably from 1948 or '49, demonstrates the persistence of Livingston pride in their automobiles--particularly Janet's.

When I first arrived at Clermont, a brief annecdote was relayed to me about Janet Livingston "tearing around Tivoli in her little red sports car." Is this the infamous red car? Either way, it was important enough for her to drive it over to the mansion and pose it by the lions for a picture. This one is part of a series where she manuevered it all around those front steps to get the best image of it that she could. You can see it again at right, prowling through the woods. Someone who knows cars better than I do might be able to identify it by the striking grill (I've heard both Pontiac and Chevy suggested).

For Rex and Honoria, the cars became emblamatic of their annual travels. The two snowbirds spent their winters in Sarasota, FL and their summers at Sylvan Cottage just up the road from Alice Livingston. Quite a few pictures exist of Honoria mid-journey posed in front of the car with one of their canine companions. My favorites are of the Volkswagen Beetle (but that may have something to do with my father's devotion to vintage Volkswagens). The practical and affordable little car seems quite in contrast to Janet's glamourous monster purchased some ten years before.

The Livingstons housed their cars with love, building garages onto every residence. The mansion housed a garage in the basement next to the laundry room in the 1930s HABS survey. This was neatly fenced off to conceal it's utilitarian function. But later on, when Alice moved out to Clermont Cottage, she added a large two-car garage in the front of the little house with one bay for herself and one bay for Janet, who came up from the city on weekends to care for the estate and her mother. Honoria and Rex had a small one-car garage up at Sylvan Cottage. This was painted to match and had applied trim over the door. There was no hiding these garages! The mid twentieth century had made automobile a something show off.

I have heard from vintage automobile lovers that a big part of car collecting is nostalgia. Remembering the cars you grew up with and the times you had in them: family vacations, dates, hours spent crammed together in a small space that bred both frustration and love. When I found a 1970s picture of Rex at the wheel of a 1920s car, I imagine that these were the memories its occupants were running through.

I have to wonder, will anyone have this kind of love and nostalgia afor the cars of my youth? Will I be walking down the road one day and stop to marvel at a perfectly-restored Plymouth Horizon? While the cars of the 1980s wait in limbo for their fates to be decided, the car lovers of today continue to work on the dwindling remains of other favorites: Mercury Comets, Bel Airs, and Chevy Impalas.

I hope some of these nostalgics will bring their cars out to our Cruisin' Night this Saturday. While I don't remember many of the cars myself (being, as I mentioned, a child of the 1980s), they still speak to the pride of ownership and a love of design--and who can't appreciate a siny old car?

*The Sock Hop and Cruisin' Night is Saturday, July 17th from 6-9pm. Entrance is $10 per car--vintage cars are free and encouraged to come early for special parking. The event will include 50s dance demonstrations, hot food, and a concert of 50s music by the Greyhounds.

**Because I am not well-versed in car identification, I have not attempted to name most of the cars pictured above. Any assistance on this matter is appreciated!

1 comment:

  1. "Will I be walking down the road one day and stop to marvel at a perfectly-restored Plymouth Horizon?"

    I know of at least one gentleman who has a collection of early 80's Mercurys in perfect condition but I just don't see the beauty in their boxy shapes and blue plush fabric bench-seat interiors! ^_^;