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)