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.

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