Saturday, July 30, 2011

Just a Facade: Changes to the Face of Clermont

At Clermont, we welcome our guests at the back door. This isn't just because we like to be friendly. This is because our back door is the first one you come to, and we don't want you to have to go wandering all about the place just to get a tour.

With that big porch attached to it however, many people get a little confused and think they are coming in via a lovely front porch.

The front of the house actually faces the river, and if you think about the 18th century, when most visitors would come by the Hudson River, this only makes sense. The river was the super highway of its day.

The front of the mansion was of great importance, putting the Livingston's best foot forward, so to speak. It could welcome, impress, or intimidate guests, and it comminicated Livingston status and wealth throughout the house's 220-ish years of occupancy.
So there it is, the front of the mansion, with its Georgrian symetry, its stately roofline, and its quaint shutters with their moon-shaped cutouts. But Clermont, as you know, has been the object of many, many building projects, and the facade was not spared from the updater's zeal.

Clermont began its life in the 1740s as a Georgian structure, built by Robert of Clermont. It was a symetrical home with five bays (each window and door space across the front counts as a "bay." Five was ideal in a fashionable home). Ornament was regular and simple, primarily consisting of a railing across the top, with the attractive tall chimneys thrusting upward out of the whole structure. A contemporary traveler described it as "a Large BricK House on the East Side [of the Hudson River]." At right you can see the Dey mansion in New Jersey, built around the same time. This imposing block would have conveyed not only wealth, but a scientific regularity prized by the Elightenment and reflecting Classical Roman ideals.

Don't expect to see a porch on Clermont at this time. Porches were still a rarity on American homes--especially in the North. The idea of an "outdoor room" did not become popular in Western homes for another two generations.

Was it all brick? The north and south walls were reused after the burning 1777, and those are stone. In some 18th and early 19th century homes the front was given the most attractive and wealthy-looking treatment, while the back and sides might be given less expensive treatments. Arryl House, Chancellor Livingston's 1793 mansion next door, is built partially of brick and partially of stone, but was also covered with stucco and painted white. The More House (at right) at the Farmers' Museum gives you a good idea of this; the front is cream, the back is cheaper red paint. What was the case at Clermont? Unfortunately, without some more research, I can't prove it one way or the other. Either way, the house was dressed to impress.

According to family lore, Margaret Beekman Livingston rebuilt the house during the Revolutionary War and kept it the same as it had looked in the past. You can see it at left as it looked in 1796, with its grand staircase, pediment over the door (with fanlight), Palladian window, and no shutters.

At some point, whether during the rebuilding or later, Clermont's face went from red brick to white stucco. Incised with ruler-straight lines that immitated cut stone, this would have made a big difference in the overall impression. Cut stone would have been considerably more expensive than brick, and thus the move was a clever one to improve the house's image.

Margaret's son-in-law Edward Philip Livingston made the next big changes in the early 1800s. Here was his house, now 70 years old and looking out of date next to its airier-looking Federal competitors (think Mount Vernon). Over the course of several years, Edward Philip added a two one-story wings to the north and south of Clermont, maintaining the building's symetry. These were constructed using bricks made in Red Hook and stone quarried on the property. He (or possibly his son) also added a grand entrance to the front with a projecting square porch. Note that the door in this early illustration has a fanlight above it, but lacks the side lights that we have now.

In 1844, this porch over the front door got friends when Edward's son Clermont added two matching piazzas on either side. He also had his workmen chop the first floor windows right down to the floor, providing access to the piazzas and more light. This manuever gave the building a more up-to-date Italianate look.

The next major change was the addition of the large, pointed roof in 1874, shown here when it was still brand new. Now Clermont towered above the ground (though it was still dwarfed by the massive trees planted to sheild it from the noise of the railroad that now cut along the bottom of the bluff). Dark green louvered shutters now also adorned the house, offering shade on hot summer days.

Eventually, Clermont Livingston moved out of Clermont (the house), and left John Henry Livingston to enjoy it with his family. John Henry set to work right away, adding a second floor to the south wing and redecorating mcuh of the first floor interior.

What happened next was the biggest change to Clermont's face that had yet occured. In the 1880s John Henry added a massive front porch to the house. The porch highlighted the house's roll as a place for summer relaxing. It would have captured the breeze of the Hudson River while providing a deep shade in which to sit and read or even do some informal entertaining. The windows that had been cut to the floor in the previous generation were returned to normal height, and some French doors were added to give access to the porch from other rooms inside the mansion.

John Henry's impressive decorating masterpiece (the architect was actually Michael O'Connor of Hudson) obscurred much of the orginal staid Georgian structure with late-Victorian exuberance. So it is curious that just 20 years later he tore it all back down again in an attempt to return to the house's "Colonial" appearance.

While he and the rest of the family were living in Italy and gallavanting about Europe, John Henry was sending back instructions to do new work on his beloved Clermont. In 1925 he orderd "Blue Stone, for entrance to Livingston Home" at a cost of $1,650.00, and by 1926, that big porch was gone, replaced with the stone steps and lions we know and love now.

At this time he also switched out the old green shutters with the white paneled ones that are still there today.

The post card at right was sent from John Henry's daughter Honoria to her former nursemaid to show off the changes. The house had been transformed from the one Honoria grew up with!

Most of the many changes to Clermont were updates attempting to bring it into the current fashion trend. While the age and history of the building was appreciated, a need to keep current was the driving force. But this final consturction project of John Henry's (only a year before his death) was an act nostalgia, bringing the facade back to a state that more closely honored the way his grandfather Chancellor Robert R. may have known the house during the American Revolution.

But even this "retro" Clermont was a new face entirely, its door flanked by bright Federal-looking sidelights, its roof topped with a towering Chateauesque addition. Each generation left its mark, molded Clermont a new face, and tried to hold onto their legacy while keeping it looking modern.

To the Livingstons, the house remained historic even with all of the changes to the outside. To them, the history was inside. Everything else was just a facade.

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