Friday, May 18, 2012

Welcome to the Second Floor: A Photo Tour Continued

For those of you who've been waiting on pins and needles for the second installment of my photographic tour of the mansion, I am finally making good on my promise.  In the Part One we toured the first floor of Clermont.  To be honest, these are the most glamorous spaces; upstairs we are more homey.  In 1930, there were eight bedrooms for family and guests at Clermont, and we still show two of these as bedrooms.  Others are used as our exhibit gallery, reference library, and storage.

First things first: I will lead you up the steep servants' stairway off the main hall.  This stairway was added in the 19th century, as part of a larger national trend to conceal the work of servants in the home.  Because the staircase was added after the original building of the house, it had to be fit in as best as possible.  Consequently, it only goes about three quarters of the way to the second floor; it joins the main staircase at the landing.  The servants' stairs are steep.  I always joke that there weren't many concerns about servants' knees.

At the top of the stairs you are greeted by a little gate to keep children and dogs on the second floor.  The second floor hallway is broad and shady, the walls lined with doors.

To your left, a little hallway leads you to one of my favorite rooms, the historic bathroom.  Actually, there are eleven bathrooms at Clermont, but this is the only one restored for your viewing pleasure.

This little hallway also takes you out to the four comfortable bedrooms John Henry Livingston had added for his family in 1874.

(I'm adding a  picture of the wall sconce here because I just love the river scene on the shade.  These are located in numerous places around the house and have a great Colonial Revival look.)

There are two bedrooms on the second floor, then up a steep little staircase to two more charming bedrooms in the attic.  Each of these bedrooms was quite modern, with its closet and three bathrooms to serve all four rooms.  The historic photo here shows one room as it looked in 1965, when Alice had been using the house in the warm months to house guests.  You can just see the reflection of the the bathroom in the mirror at left.  When Alice Livingston began to run out of money after John Henry's death in 1927, she closed the wing up to save money on heat.

Alice then moved her own bedroom across the hall to this large space on the second floor. Note the small daybed where she took her afternoon naps. As was common for its Empire style, it was designed to be pushed against the wall, and the back side is consequently undecorated.

I also love to point out the exotic little screen that Alice kept in her fireplace when it was not in use.  Broad decorative screens like this had been commonly used since the house's building in the 18th century.  They were often used in the summer when the fireplace was cleaned and put to bed for the warm months.  I like this one because of the ogee arches and strong contrast between the black and gold.  It has a flair of the exotic that was popular are the turn of the century.

From Alice's bedroom, we head into the gallery.  This room was formerly a large bedroom with a view of the Hudson River.  Now it has become a space for us to exhibit some of the many treasures that are commonly in storage at Clermont.  One of these days I'm going to write a post about that dynamite chair in the corner.  It has a very curious history...

The sewing room is at the end of the hall.  In fact you can see the doorway in the very first photo in this blog.  This tiny little room was closed off from the main hall in the 19th century, and large cabinets were installed at that time.  You can just see one of them to the right of this picture.  The room has a stellar view of the river.

At the next doorway, we come to the guest bedroom. 

When Janet and Honoria were infants, this was their shared nursery.  It was later the room in which Rex McVitty staid when he came to visit Honoria (before they were married).  Like almost all of the other bedrooms in the house, this one has a bathroom adjacent.  This time it's the blue bathroom we've already seen.

(I love a historic bathroom.  It's so human to see the hum-drum day-to-day parts of people's lives).

So that about wraps up the second floor!  While heading back down the stairs, it's a good idea to pause on the landing and enjoy the view of the front hall.  I think if I can get some time with my camera (always a tricky proposition once the Tour Season has started), I will snap a few behind-the-scenes photos for you of the 18th century basement details and the 19th century servants' spaces in the attic.  Stay tuned!

Friday, May 11, 2012

History Mythical Enemy No. 1: Times Were Simpler Back Then

Lot's of people say it. Lot's of people think it: "I wish I lived back then, when times were simpler."

I remember the first time the absolute balderdash of this saying really hit me. I was watching a television show (which shall go unnamed), where the host was staying with an Indonesian tribe, who happened to practice cannibalism, for a week or so, trying to convey to the audience a sense of their lives and culture. And at the end, when summing it all up, he described their lives as simple as they cooked over an open fire and hunted for subsistence and slept in elevated dwellings in the trees.

Except, ten minutes earlier he had been describing the fact that this tribe had, only two years before, eaten a man from the neighboring tribe because they believed he was possessed with evil. Now there was a social need to interact with the people of tribe #2 again, and they were dealing with that awkward "Hey, I ate your cousin" problem.

What about that is simple!?

The fact is that human lives are messy and always have been.

As best as I can tell, the idea of a "simple" life seems to be one that is not necessarily easy and devoid of work, but rather one where the choices and conflicts of social life are absent. A Simple Life is one where you know what you have to do, and you do it: You get up in the morning. You plow your field. You bake your bread. You go to bed satisfied at a job well done and know that you will do it again tomorrow.

Sadly as far I can tell, this has never exisited. One has only to look at the twisted web of Nancy Shippen Livingston's, ill-fated marriage and custody battle for her child to find examples of this. Or what about Harriet Livingston Fulton's rather awkward marriage?  Her husband seemed more devoted to his friends the Barlows than he did to her. When he died, she remarried, left her children with relatives, and ran away to England with her new husband.  That could not have been simple either--for her or the children.

Or consider the complex nature of the relationships developed within the Livingston's household as a result of slavery. Slaves might have been loved by their owners and sometimes viewed very much like a pet (and I use this analogy with belief that keeping children enslaved as errand runners or dressing adults up in clothes you find cute is a pretty misguided way to view and treat a fellow human being), but they did not free them. The reasons not to free slaves were also complex, ranging from a widespread belief in African Americans' childlike intelligence to an understanding that without protection from the law, they were vulnerable and economically at risk. Or possibly it was the fact that you were essentially setting free an expensive piece of livestock. Treating slaves with dignity (when it happened) may have been nice and all, but those people were still enslaved.

This yearning for simplicity is nothing new.  When Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Chancellor Livingston 1797, he wistfully described a tenant farmer sitting on his porch and surveying his corn field.  "This was a farmer who, from the position of overseer or manager, has today become the owner of an excellent homestead.  Considered the best farmer in the whole neighborhood, he has now passed his cares on to his son, leaving for himself only supervision and rest... We left him untroubled in sweet contemplation."

This passage always seemed to me like Niemsewizc was wearing uncharacteristically rose-tinted glasses.  Worries about crop success or failure, what prices he could get, whether or not his sons were ready to be entrusted with the farm, etc. cannot have been absent from this man's mind. Nagging wives, lost friends, and social injustices, whether nearby or afar may have plagued his thoughts.  He had lived through the American Revolution, and war too leaves long-lasting marks on people.

Each generation has had its own proponents of the Simple Life.  "From the cradle to the grave, in his needs as in his pleasures, in his conception of the world and of himself, the man of modern times struggles through a maze of endless complication," wrote Charles Wagner--and that was all the way back in 1901.  I wonder what he would think of today's 24-hour news channels, Facebook, and smart phones?  But his age was also bombarded with intimidating new technologies: telephones, monstrous ocean liners, and (very soon) airplanes.  I have no doubt Mr. Wagner felt just as assailed by his world as we do today.

Some musings about the Simple Life have become proverbial, such as the famous Walter Scott line, published in 1808 "Oh what a a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!"  Here is complaining about the complexities we bring on ourselves as opposed to those from outside forces.

And if you want to go way back in time, you can remember Hamlet.  As with all of Shakespeare's work, it is the human complexity that makes the play ring so true today.  Hamlet is compelled to avenge his father's death by killing King Claudius, but his own fears make it take half the play just to make up his mind.  Shakespeare's characters are forever trapped in their own tangled webs, which Hamlet intones to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! 

For Shakespeare, nothing is ever simple.

So the next time you find yourself musing about the Simple Life, keep in mind that at no period in history has life ever been simple--at least not since humans developed these big brains.  But you don't have to feel bad about it.  You can be counted in with many great thinkers wishing for the same. There is nothing wrong with trying to create a Simple Life scenario in your head, just remember that the only way you're ever really going to see the real Simple Life, is if you take steps to simplify your own life today.