Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rambling and Drawing Around Clermont

Clermont has many things to offer on its 500 acres of historic grounds.  Many of our neighbors  (and I'm talking everyone within a ten minute drive) have made us their regular spot for watching sunsets, walking their dogs, and generally taking in the peace and quiet of the landscape.

Conrad Hanson--who is not only our neighbor, but also on the board of trustees of the Friends of Clermont--stopped by for one of these walks just the other day.  He was kind enough to share his musings and his artwork from the day.  Scroll down to see some really lovely images of our view, the barn, and even Sylvan cottage.

I love his inclusion of the century plant in the image below.  Our plants are believed to be descendents of those grown by Margaret Beekman Livingston in the 18th century.  History isn't just in the mansion here!

Hudson Valley Walk Number 4 : Rambling and Drawing around Clermont State Park

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

That "Witty Boy": Robert Livingston, the Builder of Clermont

I have posted little regarding the Builder of Clermont--one of many Livingstons named Robert--on this blog, but it is largely because I've had few opportunities to study him.  Since no portrait survives of him, probably having been burnt in the 1777 fire, we do not even have a face to put with his name.  Nevertheless, he lent his own interesting personality to Clermont's story.  This blog entry is edited from a larger work on Clermont's proprietors written by Bruce Naramore, Clermont's former director of some 27 years. 

Robert (of Clermont) was the third son and fourth child of Alida and Robert (the 1st Lord).  He was born in Albany on on 24 July 1688.  Robert was raised in Albany and  New York City, as well as at the home built in the late 1690s at the confluence of the Roeliff Jansen Kill and Hudson River on the Manor of Livingston. In 1699 11-year old Robert sailed aboard the Caledonia from New York to Glasgow, eventually winding up with his uncle William Livingston. Between 1700 and 1705 he attended the Latin School in Leith and the High School in Edinburgh. 

The young Robert Livingston was an interesting character, described at this time by his aunt, Barbara Miller, as "a well disposed and witty boy...he loves to be fine and to have his things genteel." But nevertheless surviving correspondence indicates that Robert was also something of  an indifferent scholar. Even so, in 1705 he moved to London to attend college, where he took up the study of the law at the Middle Temple, Courts of Inn. In 1711 he returned to America, along with "a quantity of law books" although without a degree, intent to establish a law practice in Albany. Alida Livingston wrote to her husband at this time, "…...please do set Robbert [up] that he will be in a good position to earn his living. I would love to hear it and tell him that I am concerned about it. let him eat at Mrs. Syepert and let him spend his time well to make gains for himself for idleness does not get one a thing" 

Alida Livingston's concerns were well placed, and by 1713 Robert Livingston, Jr. had moved to New York where his penchant for "things genteel" could be better indulged. Robert Livingston, Sr. wrote his wife on 4 April 1713 that "Robert has no customers, but [has] wasted a lot of money on clothes, board, room-rent, etc. It may last till June, then he'll have to come to the plantation." Several days later he wrote Alida again to tell her that their son would soon be on his way to the Manor to recuperate from a groin injury. Robert, Sr. lamented, "Our son has cost a lot here, but [has] accomplished little or nothing. A 7 lb. wig in these times is unbearable. He does not consider it, however" 

Although documentation is spotty, it would appear that Robert Livingston, Jr. spent the next four years working for his father. Livingston Manor had entered a period of sustained growth, including the temporary addition of 342 Palatine families on a 6,000 acre tract on the east side of the Hudson River. The scheme to have these families produce naval stores turned out to be a failure however, and within several years many of the Palatine families had left the Hudson Valley. Several hundred Palatines did remain behind to cultivate freehold farms in the Germantown settlement or to lease land on the Manor of Livingston.

The tenants of Livingston Manor supplied the proprietors with several days labor each year for road-building and other projects essential to the development of the Livingston landholdings. In addition, they paid an annual rent consisting of wheat, other grains and fowl. The Livingstons also profited from the grains retained by the tenants, which had to be ground at the Manor's gristmills, as well as by the sale of finished goods at the Manor's store. It was the operation of these varied commercial interests that occupied the younger Robert Livingston during the period 1713 to 1717.

 By the Spring of 1717 Robert, Jr. had apparently had his fill of the merchant's life. Alida Livingston noted her son's return to New York City in a letter to her husband dated 22 April 1717: "I hope that Mr. Robbert now minds his business to get a job in the law and that we may hear joy from him." The Lord of Livingston Manor noted a change in his third son when he observed several days later that "Our son Robert is reading lustily and [I] hope will behave well now." Robert's new-found ambition coincided with his meeting a young woman, Margaret Howarden (Hawarden), the daughter of an English merchant, then residing with her widowed mother; by September they were discussing marriage. Correspondence between Robert Sr. and Alida Livingston suggests a fair degree of uncertainty over the wisdom of this marriage on the part of both the intended groom and his parents. Alida Livingston confessed to her husband, "I don't know what to counsel Robbert. he has to do as he pleases if it so happens he will have to move in with the mother and follow his profession as a lawyer. perhaps she will be a good wife. it is difficult to advise correctly. if that is how it is he should not break it off again." He did not. Robert Livingston, Jr. and Margaret Howarden were married in New York City on 11 November 1717. Alida Livingston did not attend the wedding.

It would appear that marriage did little to change Robert Livingston, Jr.'s nature after all. His law practice never got off the ground and he once again entered the world of commerce. Here, too, he exhibited an indolence and carelessness that forced his exasperated father to declare in 1722 "...our son Robert is not willing to pay a single skivver for house-rent, so that I am at odds everywhere. He is very ungrateful and wants to extort everything from me, but his hopes will be deceived and it will not be to his profit." Despite the strain that existed between parents and child, Robert Livingston, Jr. eventually did profit. The first Lord of Livingston Manor died on 1 October 1728; Alida Livingston died five months later. Robert and Alida's eldest son, John, had died in 1720, and so the bulk of the Manor, approximately 141,000 acres, was inherited by their second son, Philip (1686-1749). Robert, Jr. was not forgotten in his father's will. He inherited nearly 13,000 acres of Manor land south and west of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. This tract later came to be called Clermont.

Robert Livingston, Jr. did not immediately take up residence on his country estate. He continued to engage in commerce, perhaps with more diligence now that he no longer had his father's fortune to fall back on. By the 1740s, now well into middle age, he decided to retire to his country seat. Now that he had the security of a regular income from his upstate landholdings, or at least the promise of a regular income, he began to make a series of purchases on the "Great Hardenburgh” Patent, which embraced much of present day Greene, Ulster, Delaware and Sullivan Counties. He eventually acquired nearly 500,000 acres in the wild and mountainous terrain west of the Hudson River. Livingston's speculation in Catskill Mountain lands across the river from the house he began to construct circa 1750 probably inspired the name he chose for his estate.

Livingston family tradition holds that Robert first proposed to name his estate "Callendar", after a Livingston estate in Scotland (shown at left), but was dissuaded from doing so by his brother Philip, who thought the notion presumptuous. It is documented that Robert's 13,000 acre estate was called "Ancram" by the early l740's, the same name Philip Livingston chose for his iron- manufacturing settlement on the Manor.  Sometime between 1745 and 1755 Robert settled on the name "Clare Mount," or "clear mountain." The name was later shortened to "Claremont" and, after the outbreak of war with England, some family members begin to spell the estate's name in the French manner: "Clermont."

Margaret Howarden Livingston died in December 1758 and was interred in a burial vault constructed 200 yards north of the Livingston family home at Clermont. After his wife's death Robert of Clermont, as he was now known, settled into a comfortable retirement, surrounded by his books and a growing brood of grandchildren. His granddaughter, Janet, wrote of him many years later, "[He] always rose at five in the morning and read without ceasing until near breakfast. The year before his death he learned the German tongue, and spoke it fluently." A grandson, Edward Livingston, described Robert of Clermont at age 84: “Never was a man better entitled by his manners, his morals, and his education to the appellation of gentleman...He marked the epoch at which he retired from the world by preserving its costume: the flowing well-powdered wig, the bright brown coat, with large cuffs and square skirts, the cut velvet waistcoat, with ample flaps, and the breeches barely covering the knee, rolled over them with embroidered clocks, and shining square toed shoes, fastened near the ankle with small embossed buckles. These were retained in his service, not to affect a singularity, but because he thought it ridiculous, at his time of life, to follow the quick succession of fashion.” 

In his grandchildren's remembrances of the elderly Robert of Clermont, the bright, witty boy who yearned for "things genteel" can still be seen. The patriarch of Clermont was in many ways the spoiled younger son of the self-made man. A failure in the law, in business, and in the eyes of his own parents, he nonetheless entered his final years with the satisfaction that he had not only maintained the estate passed on to him by his father, but had increased it 40-fold through his speculation in Catskill Mountain lands. He could take satisfaction, too, in the success of his only child, Robert R. Livingston, who was as industrious as the father was indolent and who had few equals among the legal profession in the Province of New York.

Robert of Clermont died at his home on 27 June 1775, shortly after hearing of the skirmish between British regulars and American militiamen at Lexington and Concord. He was buried with his wife in the family vault at Clermont.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Deciphering the Cipher Chair

The Livingston Cypher Chairs are an unusual set of eighteenth-century furniture that has long been the source of some curiosity at Clermont.  Their high quality and exceedingly rare style and poor condition seem at odds with one another.  What happened to these high-style beauties?

In 1742, pretty young heiress Margaret Beekman married her distant cousin the powerful Robert R. Livingston.  Although it was an arranged marriage, it was a passionately loving one.  "You are the cordial drop with which heaven has graciously though to sweeten my cup," wrote her husband to her once, and she described him once as having an "unequaled sweetness of disposition."

And so when her husband passed away suddenly in 1775, it was not an easy loss, and I am willing to believe that the things that reminded her of him became that much dearer to her.

Two years later, when Margaret later fled Clermont before threat of fire from the English army, she was faced with the complicated decision of what things to take, and at least a few things that reminded her of her husband were among them, in particular two large portraits painted of them in their youth by John Wollaston (seen at left and below).  She left other portraits at home, where they were burned in the fire a few days later.  A portrait of her father-in-law, who built Clermont, was left behind and lost, along with a considerable quantity of furniture and the food that had been put aside for the winter.

In fact, most of the few things that survive at Clermont from before the 1777 fire are things that Margaret and her children saved, which is how we get to the cypher chairs.  

The cypher chairs are a set of side chairs, the kind that were commonly used in fine houses of the 18th century for dining, socializing, and what have you.  With their gracefully-carved ball and claw feet and wide compass-shaped seat, it shows many similarities with fashionable New York chairs of the period.  But one aspect of these chairs is not common.  Carved in the back is the intertwined monogram of Margaret and Robert's initials--a feature exceedingly rare in chairs of the period, but especially so in the Colonies.  The decoration in these chairs show that the Livingstons were doing their best to stay abreast of the latest fashions in English furniture.  Neato!

But then the chairs have their own mystery surrounding them.  In spite of being exceptionally beautiful specimens, all seven known chairs appear to have suffered some reasonably serious damage in their lifetimes.  One of our conservators once told me "it's like someone just picked them up and threw them."  In fact, the one at Clermont has had the entire back replaced with a simpler design (seen at left).  A skilled craftsman at our Peebles Island Resource Center carved a replica of the original splat, which we currently have on exhibit (shown below at right).  Other examples at various museums around the country show damage to the legs and other areas.

What happened to the chairs?  Didn't the Livingstons care about their ancestors' furnishings?

Most certainly they did!  The Livingston family has long showed great pride in their ancestry and the objects they left behind.

So here's my thought: The chairs are estimated to have been made around 1760, before the fire, and when Margaret and Robert were living in a town house on Pearl St. in New York City.  The couple came up for the summers to Clermont, but the country mansion still belonged to Robert's father (his mother is thought to have passed away by that time).

If the chairs staid in the New York town house, they would have been subject to use by English army officers, who used the Livingston home, along with many others, when they occupied the city during the Revolution.  Were the officers rough on the furnishings of the rebels?  Some were, I'm sure.  However stories suggest that the officer at the Livingston home was not as abusive of his surroundings as some of his compatriots.

The only other likely place Margaret would have stored her chairs was at Clermont.  Her father-in-law passed away in 1775, and it is possible that she moved the chairs the the grand estate then--or perhaps even earlier when her mother-in-law passed away and left her the mistress of the house.

If the chairs were at Clermont and survived the fire, then the only conclusion seems to be that they were amongst the belongings she hurriedly packed on a wagon and hauled off over bumpy roads to Salisbury, CT.  And of course, everything that went to Connecticut in a hurry came back over those same bumpy roads in a wagon in the next year or two when the house was rebuilt.

Were the chairs damaged in the move?  I tend to lean towards this conclusion.  Overland crossings were generally rough, and most roads were nothing like the lovely smoothed and graded beauties we're used to today.  And you think cars are jarring on a bumpy road?  Take away the rubber tires and sophisticated suspension systems--now how well do you think the chairs would have fared?

Clermont's tall case clock didn't seem to get through the experience unscathed either; the clock's case was remodeled after the war, and general consensus is that it was because it too suffered damage in transit. 

Putting these three groups of objects together--the clock, the portraits, and the eight chairs--gives me a better idea of what Margaret's wagons looked like when she was hustling her children and slaves out of the house that October day.  It also gives me a little extra reverence for our member of the set--a weary traveler, beaten up by the road.

Want to see the chairs, but don't live near Clermont?  Bayou Bend in Texas, Winterthur in Delaware, the Cleveland Art Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art all hold chairs from this set.  Two others are known to exist in private collections.

*Photos of the chair with original splat are from a recent Christie's Auction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mrs Livingston, I Presume: Part 3

So Louise settled in with Edward Livingston as the new Mrs. Livingston, and Edward opened his arms to her family.  And the D'Avezac family responded by moving in with the newlyweds.

Louise's grown brother Auguste and little Anglea (the sister whom she had carried across the Caribbean Sea two years before would now have been at least four years old) would have been valued companions, although eventually Anglea was shipped off to a convent where she was apparently very happy.  How her uncle Jules "Major" Davezac got into the mix, I'm not sure, but he came along to the Livingston household too.  I guess it's a good thing he was witty and good company.  But I imagine that when Louise's mother was brought from Haiti, it was the greatest relief for her.

I don't know what Edward thought about all of these in-laws, but their French chatter (the mother-in-law never learned English) certainly became part of his daily life.  The Memoir makes this sounds idyllic.  Literary readings around the breakfast table, a broad piazza shaded by orange and fig trees, a balcony that caught evening breezes, pralines (at left), and fresh figs at every meal.

The book doesn't mention the oppressive heat, appalling mosquito problem, or the Yellow Fever epidemics that regularly assaulted the city, but nevertheless, life was good.

Louise's intellect, which had always been a strength, was now put towards learning English and getting as involved as possible in Edward's law career.  But the duties of womanhood of the time were never far away. She was responsible for dinner parties, entertaining the city's elite in order to help keep Edward's status on par, and eventually she was wrapped up in preparations for motherhood.

In 1806, Louise gave birth a fourth time, this time to a daughter named Coralie.  The Memoir is at pains to describe Louise's devotion and attachment to Coralie--even to suggest that she smothered her a bit-- but I can't blame her; it was the first of her children to survive infancy.  "Early in the evening, when the hour came to put the little girl to bed, [Louise] so gay and admired, would leave everything and everybody to go with her child; she would get under the mosquito-bar, and...hear her say her prayers, and kiss her good-night, and return to the company."

When Coralie was allowed to visit neighboring plantations, the letters would come flowing in from her mother.  "What is my little girl doing?  I ask myself all day long.  At what hour do you go fishing, and are you sure to wear your sun-bonnet?"  The Memoir does not indicate how long these visits were, but hopefully they gave Coralie the chance to explore her independence a little.

The little girl was also lucky to receive tutelage from her highly-educated uncle Major.  She learned Latin and spent hours practicing translations, which her mother saved in boxes the way my mom posted my spelling tests on the refrigerator when I was little.  At least one portrait also suggests that Coralie was given a musical education; as an adult she was painted with a guitar in her lap.

Edward too devoted to his care and love to Coralie, walking with her in the cool of the evenings and encouraging his older children (still living with his brother John in the Hudson Valley) to build their relationships with her through letters.  The Livingston family was proud to proclaim what a loving and devoted environment they raised their children in, and Edward appears to have been no exception.  On one of her birthdays he wrote,

This is the anniversary, my dear wife, of the birth of our daughter, to whose existence we owe so much of that happiness we have enjoyed, whose life has been one continued blessing to us, without one hour's uneasiness arising from her fault.

Somehow, I think that any daughter is bound to give her parents some "uneasiness" over the years, but Edward's sentiment is nice anyway.  Coralie was the light of her parents' life together.

In 1809, Louise and Coralie finally got a chance to met their Livingston relations for the first time, finally making a trip north to the Hudson River Valley.  They left Edward behind and crossed the dense woodlands of the southern United States. The "long and fatiguing voyage" was intended to assist Coralie's health, and it seemed to have the desired affect--until they returned to New Orleans the following year.  I wonder if the environment played such a clear role, perhaps the ailment was asthma or allergies?  Thereafter, Coralie dreamed of "the banks of the Hudson," and eagerly awaited any opportunity to return. 

This year-long visit to New York was to have farther-reaching effects than just Coralie's temporary improvement in health; Louise charmed Edward's oldest sister Janet.  The 66-year-old blind widow was now ensconced in a stately mansion a few miles south of her mother's, one she had name after her deceased husband--Montgomery Place (shown at right).  Louise later described her meeting with Janet thus, "You ... were so kind to me when I first came, you and inexperienced, from a distant land, far from my natural home, not even speaking your language.  You were just the protecting friend I then needed..."   By the end of the visit, the two women had become fast friends, and when Louise returned to New Orleans, they began a correspondence that was to last for years.  Later, when Coralie dreamed of returning to New York, it was to her aunt's mansion with a little bedroom just for her and a babbling waterfall on the edge of the clearing.

The relationship that developed between Janet and Louise eventually played a role in the future of Montgomery Place.  When Janet passed away in 1828, she left the mansion to her brother and his charming Haitian wife.

Louise was soon to join Washington DC society when her husband was elected to Congress to represent the state of Louisiana in 1822.  Though her charm continued to serve her well, and they were granted entry to some very elite social circles, Louise seemed to have felt her age greatly.  She had thrown a 30th birthday party for herself and toasted her age just a few years ago, but warned Janet when she came to visit in 1822 that "I am much altered in appearance, but I return with the same heart..."  For a woman of 37, she had done a lot of living.

Louise had been a widow at 16.  At 19, she had fled a violent rebellion, and two of her companions (slave and grandmother) were killed in at her side, only just barely leaving her sister alive.  Then she and her aunt led the survivors of the party as refugees to a foreign country where she had scrambled for a plan.  But at last now she was settled in.  Having married into one of the wealthiest families in America, Louise could now spend pleasant summers strolling along the Hudson's banks with her growing daughter and loving husband.

Louise D'Avezac may have become "Mrs. Edward Livingston," but a name change could not conceal the hard-won identity and engaging personality that made her who she truly was.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Being a teen during the Revolution: Alida Livingston

Budding historian and Clermont tour guide Susan Naramore has developed a deep personal connection with Clermont over the years.  Growing up, she attended our history day camps, most events, and every single Old-Fashioned Independence Day for her entire eighteen-year life.  
As our guest blogger, she uses this connection to develop Alida Livingston Armstrong (daughter of Margaret Beekman Livingston) from a direction I had not thought of before...

A few months ago I came across a webcomic called The Dreamer by Lora Innes. In the comic heroine, Beatrice Whaley, is a 21st Century high school senior. Beatrice begins to have dreams about the American Revolution. These aren't like any other dream, they're vivid and always pick up where they left off. In Beatrice's 18th Century world she tags along with Knowlton's Rangers. For those of you who don't know that much about the American Revolution, Knowlton's Rangers were an elite group that went on reconnoissance missions.What makes this comic so fascinating for history lovers is that the 18th Century cast is full of historical figures, including: Thomas Knowlton, Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Warren, and Nathan Hale.  

On June 30th I drove all the way to New London, Connecticut. Why? Well, the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London was having an exhibit opening. Lora Innes and a team of researchers had created six comic panels that tell Nathan's story in New London. Walter Woodward (State Historian of Connecticut), Stephen Shaw (Nathan Hale Schoolhouses, New London and East Haddam), and Lora Innes all gave talks on their respective expertise. Ms. Innes didn't just talk about her webcomic and Nathan Hale, but also about narrative history. That got me thinking about the Livingstons and how we present them. I'm not going to start writing storybook style, but I do think that there's a way to make them feel more human and less facts on a piece of paper.  
Fictional Alan Warren and Nathan Hale having a "disagreement"
On Christmas Eve 1761 Alida Livingston was born. She was one of the many children of Margaret Beekman Livingston and Robert "The Judge". She grew up at Clermont surrounded by family. Of course the Livingstons weren't just any family. As a prominent family in New York they were very involved in the colony's politics. Alida's father and grandfather spoke out against the Stamp Act. Her father was even a member of the Stamp Act Congress. She didn't only have an influential father, but also a passionate patriot for a brother. Robert "the Chancellor" was fifteen years her senior. By the time Alida was three her big brother had already graduated from King's College (Columbia University). He was appointed to the Continental Congress where he helped draft The Declaration of Independence. Then in 1777 he became Chancellor of New York. With a brother like the Chancellor one can assume that Alida, like the rest of her immediate family, was a patriot. Then again she was thirteen when the war started, so she may not have had very strong opinions on the matter. 
(October 2010) Blue: Me as Alida, Pink: MBL,
Red: Chancellor's wife Mary Stevens, and the Chancellor 
Alida's childhood was like that of any girl of the era. Her mother was a strong woman and had most likely instilled that in her young daughter. She probably went to New York City in the years before the war to stay in the Livingston's city home. She most likely went to Kingston to shop or just because it was the colony's capital and she was a Livingston. When she got older chances are she looked after some of her younger siblings like her youngest brother Edward.

One can only imagine what kind of a whirlwind she was thrown into in 1777. By this point her father had passed away, the Chancellor was dealing with politics, and her brother Henry was enlisted. On July 21, 1777 a British officer, Captain Montgomery, was brought to Clermont as a prisoner. This man wasn't just a prisoner of war, but a relative of Alida's late brother-in-law General Montgomery. There must have been a great deal of tension in that household and sixteen year-old Alida had to live with it.

October 17, 1777 was a day that Alida couldn't forget. Most people wouldn't be able to. Prior to that day General Vaughan had been making his advance up the Hudson River. This was part of the British's failed attempt to cutoff the colonies from one another. As the British moved up the river they destroyed properties belonging to prominent patriots. Family stories say that the Livingstons decided to leave as they watched Kingston burn from across the river. If this story is true then it must have been a horrifying experience. Did Alida watch the city burn from the big windows in the drawing room? Was she scared or brave? Did she hesitate or immediately help her mother prepare? If her younger siblings were scared did she comfort them? Sadly we don't know the answers to these questions, but they're fascinating ones to ponder over. What we do know is that the family left for Connecticut in a hurry. They took what things they could and buried others.

Margaret Beekman Livingston didn't wait too long before she set her mind to rebuild Clermont as soon as possible. By April 1778 she had returned to the site where her home once stood and began work on regaining what she had lost. She was an incredibly brave woman and wouldn't let the British have the last laugh. While Margaret was back home her children were still in Connecticut with family, Alida among them.

Alida Livingston isn't a person to be overlooked. She may not have been a member of the Continental Congress, but imagine what she lived through! We know what she was happening during her teen years, but not how she dealt with it all. The closer one looks at her life the more one realizes how amazing she was. Now her adventures during the Revolution I'd love to read.