Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It All Started Here: Livingstons and the Mansions of the Hudson Valley

At Clermont, we love to say that "it all started here"--the Hudson River Valley mansions, that is.  It's a bit of an overstatement, but you may be surprised to know the number of mansions that were built by Livingston family descendants.

When the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) was done as part of the National Parks Service in the 1930s, one report listed "twenty-one contiguous estates along the east bank of the Hudson River between Staatsburg and Tivoli."  Fifteen of those have ties to the Livingstons, and there are plenty more that don't show up on the HABS list.  In all we can claim links to about three dozen dozen mansions along the Hudson Valley.  The Livingstons' architectural legacy here is staggering.  The houses run the gamut from stately Georgian and Federal rectangles to fanciful Queen Anne Revival confections, and while some are still privately owned, others are now museums that you can visit. 

All of this makes us at Clermont feel pretty important, the originators of a huge dynasty of grand mansions.  Looking at this list highlights below gives you a good idea of just how interwoven the Livingston family is with the history of the Hudson River Valley and New York.

Name: Staatsburgh--aka Mills Mansion--
Livingston Connection:  Gertrude Livingston Lewis, builder's wife, (1757), Maturin Livingston (1816-1888), and Ruth Livingston Mills (1855-1920)
Status: Museum
Staatsburgh, as we know it now (short for Staatsburgh State Historic Site), is a big grandiose Gilded Age mansion.  If you want marble and gold and silk on the walls, Staatsburg's got you covered.

It was originally a Greek Revival house, built by Morgan Lewis (a New York governor) in 1832 on the ruins of his previous 1792 mansion, which had burned.  His wife was Gertrude Livingston, a daughter of our beloved Margaret Beekman Livingston.  They married their daughter off to one of her Livingston cousins named Maturin Livingston.

Finally, Ruth Livingston (Morgan Lewis's great granddaughter) inherited the house, married wildly wealthy Ogden Mills and began updating her childhood home with vigor.

In 1895 they hired the fashionable firm McKim, Mead, and White to renovate the house into the palatial estate they truly wanted, seen above from the back side.  The results are grand in the extreme, and the museum is currently a favorite spot for the local public to visit at Christmas.  The over-the-top decorations are something to see!  You can befriend them on Facebook and follow their activities.  If you can't get there for a visit, which is the best way to really feel the impressive quality of the space, you should at least look through the photos.

Name: Montgomery Place
Livingston Connection:  Janet Livingston Montgomery, builder, (1743-1828), Edward Livingston (1764-1836)
Status: Museum

Janet Livingston was the oldest daughter of Margaret Beekman Livingston and no spring chicken when she built Montgomery Place in 1805.  She was given the land by her mother, and she named the estate after her husband who unfortunately died in the American Revolution after three years of marriage (originally she called it Chateau de Montgomery, but successive generations Anglicized it.).  It was a Federal mansion, a big rectangular block with good symmetry, a fabulous orchard, and a romantic waterfall in the back.

Without any children of her own, Janet passed the house on to her youngest brother Edward when she died, and Edward's darling Haitian wife Louise decided to tart the place up a little.  They hired AJ Davis to do it right, and the place achieved that grand blending of architecture and landscape that makes it so highly regarded today.

The house later passed into the Delafield family (who are closely married into the Livingstons--for instance Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston was the offspring of both clans--and was eventually donated to Historic Hudson Valley.  Now it's one of Clermont's closest neighbors and right next door to Bard College.

Name: Teviotdale
Livingston Connection:  Walter Livingston, builder, (1740-1797)
Status: Private

Walter was descended from the Manor Side of the Livingston family and inherited this piece of the original manor when his father Philip the 2nd Lord passed away.

This is another classic Georgian block of house, proudly built of brick, and elevated well above the ground level to give it an imposing feel.  Built on a hill above the Roeliff Jansen Kill, the house may once have faced this broad creak and been remodeled later to focus instead on the entrance from the road on the other side of the house.  My favorite feature about this house is undoubtedly the funny little servant's passage that leads out of the dining room.  It is neatly concealed behind a decorative arch, making it seem as though your food is appearing out of thin air.  A matching passageway exists on the other side of the house, but this one leads to the exterior, suggesting that this building may once have had hyphens and dependencies (pg 784-6 in
Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America, Volume 2 for more examples of this architectural feature).

This house has come up in a couple of Clermont's blog entries as the home of Harriet Livingston Fulton, wife of Robert Fulton.  It passed out of Livingston hands in the 19th century and was generally ignored and unloved by the Delafields for a number of years.  I am told by the current owner that when his predecessor purchased it in the 1980s, it was derelict, home for farm animals and vagrants.  Now it is beautifully restored, though many choices had to be made that were conjectural because of an absence of evidence.  The current owner has occasionally opened the place up for public tours, and if you have the chance, I encourage you to hop on one!

Name: Wilderstein
Livingston Connection:  Thomas Suckley, builder, (1810-1888)
Status: Museum

This glamorous Queen Anne Revival mansion ranks somewhere between castle and confection.  It's got a five-and-a-half story tower, an amazing glassed-in porch, and enough brilliantly-painted trim to dazzle the uninitiated.  And the interior is just as good as the exterior.  Can you tell I love this one?

One of it's big claims to fame is that it was home to Daisy Suckley, whose intimate relationship with FDR was discovered through the discovery of a box of letters, literally hidden under the bed in this house. 

The house itself went through a lot of changes to get to this point.  It started out in 1852 as a two-story Italianate house.  The builder, though he didn't carry the name Livingston, was descended from the Manor side of the family.  His great-great-great grandfather was Robert the Founder.  If you need any more proof that they family identified themselves as Livingstons, check out the stained glass window at right in the dining room, installed later.  Yeah.  That's the Livingston crest.  They've also got a copy of Margaret Beekman Livingston's portrait hanging in the entry hall for everyone to see.

In 1888 Thomas's son updated it, almost completely obscuring the original house.  Though they hired a local architect, they also hired a Tiffany to decorate it and Calvert Vaux (of Central Park fame) to do the landscaping. 

The interior is mind-blowing--check out the griffin lamp that is mounted on the main staircase at left.  In fact, check out the whole set of photos taken during the 1933 HABS survey on the Library of Congress website.

The only thing about those photos is that they were taken as the house feel into disrepair.  The Suckley family had a reversal of fortune shortly after they remodeled the house, and it deteriorate steadily until Daisey Suckley's death in 1991.  It's hard to believe it got worse after the 1930s, but you have to imagine another 60s years worth of neglect.

Thankfully, now a private museum, Wilderstein has undergone some amazing restoration.  Really amazing.  Step by step, they are taking back to the glory that  young Mr. Suckley had envisioned in 1888.  Go there if you are ever nearby.

Name: Rokeby
Livingston Connection:  Alida Livingston Armstrong, builder's wife (1761-1822)
Status: Private

I've got to admit, Rokeby is my favorite of the Livingston mansions, and it's entirely because the whole first floor is lined with French doors, a personal weakness.  I once cleaned every single pain, inside and out, for a Friend of Clermont fundraiser there. It was worth it to see them all sparkling in the sunlight.

It's been in the news a bit lately as its current residents have decided to share their curious story.  One has even just recently published a book about her life there.

The house's story goes like this: Margaret Beekman's youngest daughter Alida built this house with her husband, and when their youngest daughter Margaret married William Blackhouse Astor, they tarted it up quite a bit.  After some additional work in 1895 this included an octagonal tower containing the paneled library, a massive drawing room designed by Stanford White (below from the Library of Congress), and landscaping by the Olmstead Brothers.

The house is full of twisting staircases and surprises in every corner.  Historic wallpapers and this terrific mural combine with an unusual floor plan to be just fabulous from every angle.  I won't bore you by trying to sum them all up, but instead direct you to the Library of Congress's HABS photos once again. 

The family's descendants have lovingly kept ahold of the home and its many outbuildings, making as few changes as possible, and they continue to live there today with the ghosts of their ancestors.

Name: Edgewater
Livingston Connection:  John R. Livingston, probable builder, (1754-1851)
Status: Private

John R. was the Chancellor's brother, and Margaret Beekman Livingston's 3rd son in 1824, when Greek Revival architecture was all the rage.  As a result, the place looks like a big temple sitting within view of the Hudson River.  According to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, he may have given to hi daughter Margaret to share with her husband.  When both John and his son-in-law died the same year, Margaret sold it right out of the Livingston family and left for England, but that didn't reduce its social importance.

The next owner almost immediately hired AJ Davis to add a library, conservatory and several outbuildings.  Eventually the house was purchased by author Gore Vidal and currently is occupied by Richard Jenrette, who keeps the house in a state that respects and honors its historic past (follow the link to see a stellar brief video of the space as it is now).  The light gleams in through more French doors,

This house was also the subject of a HABS visit, and the photos capture a house that never suffered the kind of neglect that some of the other Livingston mansions did. 

Mr. Jenrette has also occasionally opened the house up for private tours, and he demonstrates considerable pride in its current state.  If the opportunity arises, I recommend that you jump on the chance to visit this one as well.  They don't come often.

Name: Oak Hill
Livingston Connection:  John Livingston, builder, (1750-1823)
Status: Private, with some public use

Yet another Livingston named John built Oak Hill, this one descended from the Manor side of the Livingston family.  He was Walter of Teviotdale's cousin.  Like many other Livingston mansion from the early generations, this one is a weighty brick block of Georgian architecture.  Subsequent generations added a mansard roof on top and the large veranda (both visible in the 1900 image at left), but otherwise, it saw few major changes.

John Henry Livingston's mother Cornelia was born at Oak Hill, and the family traveled back and forth to the house frequently during the mid 19th century.  The house actually remained in the family, and Livingston descendants still live there.

Although Oak Hill is still a private home, you can get married there; the house's lovely lawn can be rented for weddings and receptions.  The family has even used their lawn for some of the Livingston Family Reunions, held every five years (last held in 2012). 

Name: Hoyt House, aka The Point
Livingston Connection: Geraldine Livingston Hoyt (1822-1897)
Status: closed

The last Livingston house I'll pay tribute to today is Hoyt House, known by the family as the Point.  Hoyt House is "a point" of controversy, having been taken from the family by eminent domain in 1963 during a period of massive expansion of the New York State Parks under Robert Moses.

It is rumored that his original plan called for the removal of the house in order to make room for a swimming pool (the same fate was slated for Clermont), but fortunately the plan was not enacted, and the house waited for years to find out about its future.  It waited for so long that it eventually began to fall into disrepair and was subject to vandalism.  Now, some 50 years later, a new generation of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation staff are looking for answers to preserve this once-beautiful home.

This cross-gabled, but primarily square structure was designed by Calvert Vaux and built in 1855.  It boasts naturalistic stone walls, and it resembles some of his homes in his 1857 book “Villages and Cottages.”  Only a few changes were made during the century that it was occupied so much of Vaux's original structure remains present in deteriorating condition.

Gertrude, wife of Lydig Hoyt, who commissioned the house, was descended down from both Robert "the Nephew" and dear old Margaret Beekman Livingston via her daughter Gertrude Livingston Lewis of Staatsburg (I know, I know!  One day I'll figure out how to post a semi-respectable family tree for Blogger--it gets a little crazy sometimes).

There is hope for Hoyt House.  The Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance, working with New York State's new generation of staff, has made strides in generating funds for roof repair--one of the most critical ways to slow deterioration of the building while continued efforts are made to save it.  You're not likely to have a chance to visit Hoyt House any time soon, but hopefully, continued fundraising will make it possible in the future.  You can even donate right on the Preservation Alliance's page!

Well, this is a far cry from a complete listing of Livingston mansions, but you get the point. Just to wrap things up, I think I'll list off a few more of the Livingston homes, each with its own fancy name:

Callendar House / Sunning Hill
John Jay Homstead
Forth House (at right from Schoolfield Country House)
Grasmere (Janet Livingston's home before Montgomery Place)
Northwood (below at right)
Oak Lawn/ Oak Terrace
Pine Lawn
Mystery Point (Edward Livingston)
Holcroft (Alice's house growing up)
Locust Grove
Rose Hill
The Hermitage

Alright, you get the idea.  Like I said, there are over three dozen Livingston mansions in this region!   The Livingstons left a wide selection of beauties in the Hudson Valley, ranging from big over-the-top monstrosities (I use the term affectionately) to smaller, more manageable homes, stretching across two centuries of lovely, lovely architecture.  I mean, considering how prolific the Livingston family was, and that that all of them wanted somewhere nice to live, it's no surprise that this catalog of great architecture can all be linked to them.

Many have been lost to fires or neglect over the years so preserving those that remain--either as private homes or as museums--is a kind of special pursuit that almost becomes a bit of a club.  I've been lucky enough to be invited inside to see several of these houses; hopefully you have that chance too!


  1. Richard Jenrette hosted a private tour of Edgewater for the Columbia County Historical Society last year, and it was amazing. Not only was the house beautifully restored, and the views of the Hudson gorgeous, but the objects he has managed to re-unite with the house, after many years of separation, are mind-boggling.

  2. If someone from the Historical site could please get back to me that would be greatly appreciated.Hello,My name is Daniel Livingstone.I am a direct relation to Lord Robert R.Livingstone,Phillip Livingstone etc.We were Lowlanders from Scotland and related to Royalty.More specific Robert The Bruce & King William as were the Bush & Clinton Families.One of the four Marys of Scots was a Livingstone.We are also related to Dr.David Livingstone,The famous explorer.Dr.Livingstone I Persumed ! I have a family history book stating these facts and it was written by Edwin A. Livingstone.I very interested in getting more information about your tours etc.I live in Ottawa,Ontario,Canada a short distance from the New York Border.Thankyou ! I look forward to hearing back from you.My email is dan5980@bell.net