Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Winging It: The Secrets of Clermont's South Wing

If there's a space you can't visit on your historic house tour, chances are that it becomes all that more enticing.  What's behind those closed doors and the velvet rope?

Clermont's Library in the South Wing
Clermont has a total of 32 rooms and 11 bathrooms--if you count the broad
 center halls as rooms, which was the case at some points in history.  On regular guided tour, you the visitor see 13 rooms and 2 bathrooms so there's a lot here that's not part of the public tour.  So even though you may have seen our oak-paneled library, you probably haven't seen much of the other six rooms above and below it.

But that's the good part about a blog.  While we may not be able to walk visitors into certain parts of the house (often for safety reasons), the internet has all the advantages for showing you the "extras" that we could never bring you to otherwise.   

Clermont, 1830s, showing the addition of the North and South wings.
**Please see our update about this drawing's 20th century history here.

Edward Philip Livingston
So today I thought I'd delve into the secrets of Clermont's South Wing.

You see, in the early 1800s, when Edward Philip Livingston was the head of household, Clermont was a big rectangular block, the central part of what you see above you.  He soon added on an office wing on the house's north side (at left).  Edward apparently didn't think that 20 spacious rooms were enough for his family and servants though because in 1831 he added another wing to the south.

The boxy addition stood one story above ground with a towering white chimney, three bedrooms, and a hallway.  The 1844 inventory (taken some 13 years later) show that one of these bedrooms was a nursery, still outfitted with a cradle, even though no babies has been born in the household since 1823.  Sadly, we can no longer see what these bedrooms look like, since Edward Philip's grandson renovated the room in 1894, but downstairs in the basement, there are clues to what this floor may once have looked like.

This basement is one of my favorite "nooks" at Clermont.  The wide hallway, currently used for storing files and equipment, gives you a sense of the passageway that once connected the bedrooms upstairs.  With a pretty oil cloth tacked to the floor, the upstairs space would likely have been about same proportions.

Downstairs in the basement, there were only two bedrooms, and these were occupied by servants.  They had large windows that brought in plenty of sunlight, and walls were plastered and painted white.  The woodwork was painted alternately white or yellow, depending on the time period, and porcelain doorknobs all created a finished and pleasant space.

In Edward's time the rooms were simply fitted out with two beds each--no private accommodations were afforded to servants.   One room was slightly better furnished than the other.  In addition to slightly higher-quality bedding (note that servants did not have to supply their own blankets), it also had three chairs, a washstand, and a carpet on the floor.

Everywhere else the floors were bare boards--not parquet or anything grand, but certainly good enough for servants.  Without the carpet however, they would have been icy cold in the winters: the rooms had no fireplaces to keep them warm!  Although not wholly uncommon in servants' dwellings from the 18th-19th centuries, it seems a might nippy in the cold New York winters.

It is notable that in the basement there was no door knocked through to the main part of the house.  Instead, the way in was through a staircase that lead up to the family bedrooms above.  It is possible that these bedrooms were particularly intended to be quarters for the family members who slept directly upstairs, but sadly, there isn't anything remaining to tell us who woke up in these rooms every morning.

At any rate, the isolated nature of those rooms evidently wasn't working out; Edward Philip's son Clermont Livingston cut a doorway through the thick stone walls to the main part of the basement when he grew up.

Exploring the second and third floors of the South Wing take us later into the 19th century.  These two floors weren't added until 1894 when John Henry Livingston (Clermont Livingston's only son) began making renovations of his own.

John Henry remodeled the wing considerably.  He turned the first floor into an oak-paneled library (and built straight up from there, adding a total of three stories onto his grandfather's little boxy wing.  This second addition gets us to the way the house looks today, as seen below with the addition highlighted in pink.

Like the basement before it, the second and third floors of the south wing were connected by only one door--this one down a long hallway lined with Alice's favorite art.  Perhaps punching through several feet of stone was too much trouble or perhaps John Henry just liked peace and quiet.  He put four bedrooms out there--each with its own closet, and each with a view of the Hudson River.

The bedrooms were certainly private--two of them even had their own bathrooms, visible at left in this 1965 photograph.

We don't know for sure who slept in these bedrooms and when.  Oral histories tell us that one was used as Alice Livingston's sitting room for a time.  Honoria and Janet also had their own bedrooms out here when they were old enough to leave the "nursery" in the main part of the house (the nursery was selected in part because it was close enough to the servants' stairs that their nannies could care for them easily in the night).

But of course, the real fun is up the narrow stair case to the attic.  Climb the narrow back stairs to the third floor, and you are in an unrestored part of the house:


Up here the rooms are snuggled in under the steeply-peaked slate roof.  Doors are custom-sized to squeeze in where ever they're needed.  Closets are tucked in under the eves.  The ceilings lean at crazy angles, and the windows are all deep in little dormers.

In spite of the constant need to duck to avoid the ceilings, the views are beautiful.

Needless to say, it's another of my favorite places in the mansion.  You might get the impression that these are spartan little rooms in a forgotten corner of the house.  Far from it.  When the Livingstons lived here, they were decked out with the appropriate trimmings.

Original wall papers still hang on in many locations, such as the bathroom (below left) and west bedroom (below right):

The wallpaper in the east room (shown at left) became all the more charming when I discovered that violets were at one time considered the flower of love:

Other touches show the love that was applied to the decoration of these spaces. Decorative woodwork and ornamented wood floors painted a strong contrast to the simplicity of the spaces for servants in the attic rooms over the main house--or even the plain floorboards in the the servants' bedrooms three floors down in the basement.

 The last secret of the South Wing is hidden by these narrow double doors.  Cut this way to allow the doors to open in such a small hall space, they lead up to the very top of the house.  That's right, there are two floors inside that tall roof.

I have to be honest, I couldn't bring myself to climb those stairs for this blog entry.  In addition to being unfinished, a rush of cold air rolled out of those doors the moment I opened them.  I guess some parts of the house will go unexplored for now.

When you're here, the dozens of rooms at Clermont can make you feel a little like you're in the beginning of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," wandering through long hallways in the Professors house until you come across the magical wardrobe.  As of yet, I haven't been transported to Narnia here, but having a quiet moment in some of the rooms does make it easy to pretend that I've stepped back in time for a moment.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

History is Fun; Have Fun with History--Artist Kevin Nordstrom Takes a Shine to the Livingstons

Let's be honest, we're a bunch of history geeks here at Clermont.  I mean, what else would you expect of people who voluntarily (and sometimes volunteer) spend so much of their time in a 270-ish year-old mansion talking about the Livingston family?

The truth is, it's as easy to fall in love with history as it is to fall in love with a TV show.  Our "characters" are real people who's personalities, over time, get fleshed out in the same way the Howard, Lenny, and Sheldon do on "The Big Bang Theory."  Every love letter of Janet Livingston Montgomery's, every neighborhood feud over Alice Livingston's dogs, and every childhood poem written by Honoria Livingston give us another glimpse of who these people really were.

Photo of Kevin as General Montgomery by Valerie Shaff
And then we start to have fun with it, which is how we get to Kevin Nordstrom.  Kevin came to us by luck when his newly-engaged fiance (also a Clermont volunteer) was a model in our 2013 Out of Time Fashion Show.  He soon glided easily into the role of General Richard Montgomery during our Legends by Candlelight Tours--wowing everyone with his endearing portrayal of Chancellor Livingston's brother-in-law, who was killed by a canon ball in one of he first major battles of the American Revolution.

Turns out General Montgomery had an effect on Kevin too.  When the whole story of Richard and his beloved wife Janet came out, Kevin and his now-wife Laura really identified with the couple--all the better since Laura was playing the part of Richard's wife Janet (at left by Valerie Shaff).

Kevin's sense of fun wasn't getting left out of this adventure.  After he finished his performance one night, we found this tacked up on our bulletin board:

Kevin's 1st illustration at Clermont--don't missed the cannon ball headed right for him.
You see, it turns out Kevin is an artist when he's not volunteering at Clermont.  "I'm an illustrator for a custom design company called Stafri Emblems," he informed me.  And there was more!  A visit to his Facebook and Deviant Art pages showed that Kevin is rather a busy artist with a large portfolio of works, most of which hint at his characteristic sense of humor (Depicted at right from his Facebook page, Kevin's wife Laura is also a Clermont volunteer).  Naturally, volunteers and staff alike loved the tongue-in-cheek drawing of "Baby Montgomery" and begged for more.  
"Do the whole cast!" many people cried.

And gradually, it took shape.  Even in the midst of an admittedly heavy holiday season workload, we began to see things like this pop up from Kevin: 

It didn't take much to start recognizing our fellow cast members.  There was Laura at left, playing the wistful Janet Montgomery with a note clutched in her hands, and at right Janet's younger sister Gertrude was unmistakable in her long-beaked mask and black mantle (photo at right by Valerie Shaff).  Captain Kidd was grinning sort of maniacally in the middle.  Even the 1920s serving staff--who are your guides through the ghostly menagerie of Legends by Candlelight Tours--loomed over the background like babysitters.  In the front our "inept medium," who sets the whole ghostly night in motion, waved her hands above her over-sized crystal ball (pictured below as he began inking her).
Kevin was kind enough to keep us updated with each stage as it came along.  Each stage got us a little more excited.  First the inking: 

Then then the color: 

Kevin informed us that, "Probably the most stressful and tedious part of the art is laying in the flat colors because you don't want it to look like a bag of skittles fell onto the page, and you're setting up the base for highlights and shadows to work off of so if your color theory's off the rest of the piece doesn't come together the way it should."
You might think it's a little bit unusual for a museum to go ahead and embrace a portrayal of their hallowed Founding Father as a grumpy toddler in a white wig, but finding ways to make history relevant for the general public is something we all struggle with.  Let's face it, Chancellor Livingston (photographed at left by Valerie Shaff) doesn't have any great catch phrases like "Bazinga!" that we can depend on to make our audience laugh.  Instead we have to ask the public to identify with our heroes by sorting through dense language and distant social customs that, as often as not, can alienate modern people more than bring them closer to our characters.  
And quite simply, if Horrible Histories can help people study for their exams on English Royalty, I don't know why Clermont can't have a bit of fun too.

So our sincere thanks go out to Kevin as we all rub our hands together and prepare to acquire prints that show our allegiance with Clermont and its Livingston history.  

And the finished product?  Well here it is!

From top left: 1920s servants played by Emily Robinson and Kjirsten Gustavson, Janet Livingston Montgomery (Laura Nordstrom), Montgomery Livingston (Hal Smyth and John Bisson), Margaret Beekman Livingston (Jane Miller), Captain Kidd (David Bisson), Chancellor Robert R. Livingston (Geoff Benton), Gertrude Livingston (Rebecca Smyth), Brigadier General Richard Montgomery (Kevin Nordstrom), and The Medium (Jennie Smyth)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Requiem for Arryl House in the Livingstons' Own Words

One Thursday afternoon in November of 1909, Arryl House--the Chancellor's own magnificent mansion--burned to the ground.  John Henry Livingston had only recently reacquired his great grandfather's legacy, and he was just beginning to make some strides in cleaning it up.  The house was a major source of family pride, having been built by their most accomplished ancestor.  It was later auctioned off to pay for the debts of his grandson.

And all of a sudden it was gone.

For years, the family story was that the house was burned by sparks from the near-by railroad.  Sparks from the train lit a grass fire--the tale went--which caught the house and destroyed their heritage.  They apparently used the story to leverage the railroad company to allow them a right-of-way across the tracks and secure their access to their dock on the Hudson River.  

The story became so ingrained that it was actually printed on an interpretive sign on Clermont's grounds in front of the ruins (gleaming in the sunlight at left).  

But the truth was outed sometime later when a letter from Alice Livingston was discovered in our archives.  The contents of the letter showed that the fire was not the fault of the train, but came from the Livingstons themselves--something to do with burning leaves.

For years, the story of the letter was verbally handed down at Clermont, the museum, and all sorts of stories were circulating about it.  The Livingstons were careless or silly or event deliberately negligent, they suggested.

But I went looking for letter in our archives the other day since I needed to reference it in a talk about Arryl House.  Just what caused the demise of our architectural treasure?

The truth I found was much sadder than anything we had gossiped about, revealed in some 11 pages of Alice Livingston's low, spiky script.  It required an hour or two of deciphering before I could find the whole story.  

"Why do things generally happen in a heap," Alice wrote to her mother that Saturday.  She wrote some newsy bits about eight-month-old baby Honoria, and then proceeded on to the meat of the story.  

Then Olivia went off at 3 o'clock, & while I was sitting on with the baby I looked down & saw Arryl House lawn on fire & John [Henry]ran down & watched it & staid an hour so as to watch it burn out.  

And then, there was the cause of the fire, as clear as day:  

Then a wind was blowing N.W.  John saw the men burning all our North Lawn leaves...he saw a fire down at Arryl ...and put that out.

It was November now, and all the leaves were off the trees.  It was time for fall clean-up.  Burning leaves was a common way to get rid of them; there was nothing out of the ordinary about the groundskeeper's choice to do so.  

But it got out of hand again, and this time they could not recapture it: 

...we were having such a nice time with the baby , who was good as gold...when  Men knocked at the  & said Martin said please to come out with him, There was another fire... John came back , told me it was (?) & he and Martin needed a ladder...I wanted him to let it go & stay with me.  I felt so nervous..., but I saw it would break his heart...so I said to go & I went to put the baby to bed alone.

Olivia the nanny made it home soon thereafter (apparently she'd had a tooth pulled at the dentist, which was still bleeding days later), and seeing the smoke from afar, she had thought for a while that it really was Clermont that was on fire the whole time she rode up, which must have seemed like forever since she was being taken in a horse-drawn vehicle.

With someone on hand to watch the baby, Alice could finally get away to the telephone in the servants' hallway.

I ran to the telephone & got Germantown.  They sent their chemical engine & twenty men at once...

With the Livingstons' chauffeur Christopher back from his trip with Olivia, he headed down to help as soon as the horses were put away, and the butler Clarence had already gone down there with his son.  "Soon the place was swarmed with people coming from everywhere" as they saw the smoke above the trees and came to help.

Now a sizable crew had gathered to fight the fire, but Alice was only a little comforted.  She knew that they "couldn't save the furnishings," but her bigger fear was that the fire would spread to her house.  She wanted the fire at Arryl really and truly contained.  "I didn't dare look out the window," she wrote, on the chance that the fire might be spreading.  "I think fire is the most terrifying thing just to look at," and instead she laid on the sofa in the study and waited for it to be all over.  When a friend named Jones appeared in the hall, she asked him to send his chauffeur over to help with the fire, but kept Jones in the house to keep her company.  In spite of several female servants, she had still felt "all alone."

With nothing else to do, Alice sat down to dinner at 7:30, feeling anxious for her husband, a 61-year-old man, fighting a fire, when he had already said he was tired a few hours ago.  She sent a servant, Esther, down with a thermos of soup for him and finally convinced him to leave the blaze and return to Clermont.

John walked into the dining room & sat down at the head of the table, where I always think of him looking so nice in his dress coat.  he had on a white sweater which was [smudged] in every place with black.  His face & his hands were like this, & his cheeks so hollow I was frightened & he just put his head on the table & cried "Oh the old place has gone & I couldn't save it."  

Nowadays, when burning leaves, trash, or brush has become less common, we might be tempted to ridicule the Livingstons or their servants for carelessly risking this precious building, but John Henry's reaction shows that he did not take the loss lightly.  He had worked hard and long to try to save this treasure, and its loss--along with all the furnishings still inside--was a devastating one.

John Henry ate a little dinner and returned to the fire until ten o'clock, when the fire had all but burned itself out.  Alice's ordeal was over, and she summed up the efforts all the people who had helped her through the trial: Esther's calm had soothed her, and Christopher was "perfectly splendid--worked like a horse" and Clarence, with his son and "old Martin."

But John Henry had lost one of his closest ties to Livingston family pride--the home of their most famous ancestor.  His words suggest that in his mind, he bore responsibility for the loss.  "When it came to the point he found his whole life is wound up in that house as well as this," Alice summarized.

The loss was indeed a sad one for future generations, who will never truly know the splendor of the Chancellor's house--not mention what furnishings of his remained that were lost.  The Livingstons covered up the story for years, but I think it is not one that needs hiding.  Reading this letter shows that the whole event was dramatic and frightening and upsetting for everyone, and humanizing the loss with John Henry's reaction just makes it that much sadder.

A Gilded Masterpiece: The Best Photographic Tour EVER of Mills Mansion

Mills Mansion or Staatsburg State Historic Site is another Livingston Mansion not too far from Clermont.  The place is downright overwhelming, with ornate details peering at you from every surface.  But when I happened across this photographic tour, I was thoroughly impressed with its attention to detail.  It's an homage to excess, and a beautiful way to spend a few minutes on the internet!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Look Inside Grasmere

Janet Livingston Montgomery is famous for building what is now known as Montgomery Place.  But before that happened, she lived with her husband in nearby Rhinebeck.  Although her old house burned in 1805, Peter Livingston built a new one in its place in the 1820s, and that Grasmere is still standing.  If you like peeking into old houses as much as I do, check out this great blog, which includes a terrific architectural tour of this old Livingston mansion:  New York Social Diary.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Little More Play--The New York Times on Croquet

We came across this neat little article in the New York Times today.  Need a summer game that's ripe for flirtation?  Croquet is the way!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Wedding Bloggers Blog Clermont!

Over the past 6 or 7 years Clermont has become quite the wedding destination.  If you are thinking of a wedding at Clermont, you'll probably want to book early, because we are often booked up to a year in advance.

Once you've grabbed your date and picked your spot, the site is blank canvas.  Beyond offering a selection of yards, we don't tell you how to set up your tent or where to point the chairs for your ceremony.  It can be a bit daunting.

Which is why I love it when past couples from Clermont are willing to share their experiences on the internet.  This was one of the sweetest couples of the year, and they've been so kind as to post their experience where everyone could see.  Thanks guys!