Keep­ing up with the Jone­ses in the Hud­son Val­ley

The Golden Age in the Hud­son Val­ley

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Two hours north of New York City, be­tween the towns of Hyde Park and Rhinebeck, lies the small vil­lage of Staats­burg. The vil­lage to­day is a lovely, quiet, ru­ral com­mu­nity with the Portofino Ris­torante lo­cated promi­nently on the main road, the small, brick post of­fice, St. Mar­garet’s Epis­co­pal Church, the com­mu­nity li­brary, and then the long ex­panse of the Dins­more Golf Course, one of the old­est pub­lic golf cour­ses in the coun­try, which was cre­ated by the wealthy own­ers of the es­tates which once adorned the river­front.

There were four such grand es­tates in Staats­burg c. 1915: The Point (the Hoyt Es­tate), Staats­burgh (the Mills Es­tate), The Lo­custs (the Dins­more Es­tate), and Hopeland (the Hunt­ing­ton Es­tate). The Point, Staats­burgh, and The Lo­custs were all con­nected orig­i­nally to the Liv­ingston fam­ily, re­garded as “America’s Aris­toc­racy”, while Hopeland was as­so­ci­ated with the Dins­more fam­ily which came to own The Lo­custs and its abun­dant acreage. All four of these es­tates once em­ployed the ma­jor­ity of the cit­i­zens of Staats­burg, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, and although the days of the Gilded Age in America are long gone one can still feel those times as one stands on the hill out­side the mansion of Staats­burgh, walks through the woods to the ru­ins of The Point or strolls the pleas­ant paths through the grounds of Hopeland.

The Hud­son River Val­ley was dis­cov­ered by Euro­peans in the 17th cen­tury and was de­scribed as un­like any­thing Cap­tain Hen­drick Hud­son had ever seen. It was lit­er­ally a new world of end­less wilder­ness cov­er­ing high hills and val­leys cut through by a river so wide it made the Am­s­tel seem like a stream. It was not long, how­ever, be­fore the Euro­pean set­tlers be­gan trans­form­ing the land so it would re­sem­ble the old world they had left. Lots were cleared and build­ings raised and the paths worn through the woods by na­tive Amer­i­can tribes like the Mahi­can and Mun­see be­came roads which, in time, were paved. By the year 1712, the English had taken the land from the Dutch and in­creased de­vel­op­ment which would ex­pand even fur­ther af­ter the Amer­i­can War of In­de­pen­dence ended in 1783. Over the next one hun­dred years the land would change so sig­nif­i­cantly that it would have been un­rec­og­niz­able to the early Dutch set­tlers and, by 1883, in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and ur­ban­iza­tion was in­creas­ing daily.

Those af­flu­ent mem­bers of so­ci­ety, in­dus­tri­al­ists, rail­road ty­coons, in­vest­ment bankers, who lived in New York City, more and more sought refuge in lav­ish coun­try es­tates they could re­treat to and chose the Hud­son Val­ley for its beauty and prox­im­ity. The his­to­rian Har­vey K. Flad com­ments on this, writ­ing, “The build­ings and the care­fully land­scaped grounds be­came a par­lor in the wilder­ness.” The wealthy could have all the com­forts of their ur­ban homes in a ru­ral set­ting and cre­ated ar­ti­fi­cial land­scapes in the wilder­ness of the Hud­son Val­ley in which they lived their dreams of ease and lux­ury. These rich cap­tains of in­dus­try did not just hap­pen upon the Hud­son Val­ley in the 19th cen­tury, how­ever; the re­gion al­ready had a rep­u­ta­tion for nat­u­ral beauty which en­cour­aged the more af­flu­ent in so­ci­ety to build their es­tates along the river a cen­tury ear­lier.

The Es­tates

The first es­tate was de­vel­oped in 1792 when New York’s third gov­er­nor, Mor­gan Lewis, built a 25room coun­try manor in Staats­burg over­look­ing the river. The 1,600 acre par­cel be­longed to his wife, Gertrude Liv­ingston, whose fam­ily lived north of the vil­lage in Cler­mont. The orig­i­nal house burned down in 1832 and Lewis had a new Greek Re­vival home built in its place. The house was passed down in the fam­ily un­til in­her­ited in 1881 by Ruth

Liv­ingston Mills and her hus­band Og­den Mills, a fi­nancier and phi­lan­thropist, who named their es­tate Staats­burgh. Mrs. Mills was a mem­ber of high so­ci­ety and, as a Liv­ingston, felt she should set the stan­dard by which other es­tates in the Hud­son Val­ley would be mea­sured.

To that end, in 1895, she hired the firm of McKim, Mead White to en­large the mansion. The great ar­chi­tect Stan­ford White added two wings to the ex­ist­ing house and a third floor, com­pletely en­gulf­ing the previous struc­ture ex­cept for the mas­sive cen­tral por­tico with its Ionic col­umns. The ren­o­va­tion took 18 months and cost 350,000.000. When White was fin­ished the new home was a mansion in the beaux-arts style of 65 rooms, 14 bath­rooms, in­door plumb­ing with hot and cold run­ning wa­ter, and 750 gas lights which were pow­ered by a pump house on the river gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity. The his­to­rian Con­rad Hanson writes, “Pre­dat­ing the Van­der­bilt mansion in Hyde Park and the As­tor's Casino at Rhinecliff, no other place in the Hud­son Val­ley at that time could come close to com­pet­ing in terms of scale or splen­dor with Ruth and Og­den’s new 65-room palace.”

Keep­ing up with the Jone­ses

Among the many ladies of high so­cial stand­ing whom Ruth Liv­ingston Mills wished to lord her new es­tate over, none would have been as im­por­tant as Caro­line Scher­mer­horn As­tor who was lead­ing the New York So­ci­ety so­cial scene at the time. Mrs. As­tor was re­lated to El­iz­a­beth Scher­mer­horn Jones who, in 1852, built the grand­est of all Hud­son Val­ley es­tates in the nearby vil­lage of Rhinecliff. Jones’ es­tate, known as Wyn­d­clyffe, was a three-story, 24-room mansion on 80 acres of land with a car­riage house, boat house and dock, all set grandly on a hill of ter­raced lawns over­look­ing the river.

Miss Jones had her house so op­u­lently fur­nished, her grounds so well sculpted, that other wealthy fam­i­lies in the area added adorn­ments and ex­trav­a­gances to their own coun­try homes to keep pace with her this prac­tice gave birth to the fa­mous id­iom re­gard­ing try­ing to match the life­style of one’s neigh­bours, “keep­ing up with the Jone­ses”.

Even though Miss Jones died in 1876 and Wyn­d­clyffe was less lav­ish than it had been, when Ruth Liv­ingston Mills de­cided to re-model her home in Staats­burg she would have had it in mind to out-do the fame of Wyn­d­clyffe and she suc­ceeded. Wyn­d­clyffe’s grand days were al­ready a thing of the past when Staats­burgh was at its peak in terms of high so­ci­ety be­tween the years 1900-1915. Lav­ish par­ties were reg­u­larly held at Staats­burgh with only the most select guests in­clud­ing writer Edith Whar­ton (niece of El­iz­a­beth Scher­mer­horn Jones) who would later use Staats­burgh, Wyn­d­clyffe, and the Hud­son Val­ley in her novel The House of Mirth and men­tions them in her mem­oir A Back­ward Glance.

In ad­di­tion to the mansion house, Staats­burgh had the pre­vi­ously men­tioned pump house by the river, a boat house, mul­ti­ple out-build­ings, and was a work­ing farm on which Og­den Mills raised prizewin­ning cat­tle and grew flow­ers in the elab­o­rate green­houses which cov­ered por­tions of the es­tate’s gar­dens. A mem­ber of The Jockey Club, Mills raced prize-win­ning horses which won nu­mer­ous pres­ti­gious events such as the Grand Prix de Paris in 1928. Each Christ­mas Og­den Mills gave ev­ery ser­vant a twenty dol­lar gold piece and was ex­tremely gen­er­ous in his gifts to the vil­lage which in­cluded stained glass win­dows im­ported from Chartres for St. Mar­garet’s Church, am­bu­lances for lo­cal hos­pi­tals, and state-of-the-art equip­ment for the lo­cal fire­house. This is more im­pres­sive when one un­der­stands that Staats­burgh was not the Mills’ pri­mary res­i­dence. The Mills only oc­cu­pied their mansion in Staats­burg Septem­ber through Novem­ber or De­cem­ber they had five other homes in­clud­ing a Paris res­i­dence next door to Au­guste Rodin.

The Point

To the south were the Mills’ neigh­bours and rel­a­tives, the Hoyts, who had their own mansion, The Point, on a high crest of hill with a wide river view. The Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places In­ven­tory from 1978 de­scribes The Point as “An im­por­tant ex­am­ple of Hud­son River Gothic, two-and-a-half storey blue­stone house de­signed by al ert aux. late roof, arched win­dows in gables and dormer, brown­stone quoins and other trim, but­tressed stone en­trance porch with Tu­dor arches, and much dec­o­ra­tive wood­work.” The house was built some­time be­tween 1852 and 1855 for the wealthy mer­chant Ly­dig Mun­son Hoyt and his wife Blanche Geraldine Liv­ingston. Vaux, best known for his work with Fred­eric Law Olm­stead on New York’s Cen­tral Park, po­si­tioned the house care­fully in ac­cor­dance with the sweep of the land so it would seem an or­ganic out­growth of its sur­round­ings and then de­signed the en­tire es­tate to give vis­i­tors the im­pres­sion of en­ter­ing another world as soon as they passed through the gates. Elab­o­rate gar­dens and wooded glens graced both sides of the long drive­way which wound through the for­est and up to the mansion. Although the house had only seven rooms it was still con­sid­ered a grand manor sit­u­ated on 92 acres of a work­ing farm with green­houses, sta­bles for the horses, and barns for the other an­i­mals.

On the other side of Staats­burgh es­tate rose the tow­ers of The Lo­custs which was first de­vel­oped by Henry Brock Liv­ingston in 1797 and named af­ter the black lo­cust trees which grew abun­dantly on the grounds. His prop­erty spanned a half-mile along the Hud­son River and over a thou­sand acres of land. In 1871 the suc­cess­ful ship­ping mag­nate Wil­liam Dins­more bought the prop­erty, tore down the old manor house, and built a four-story, 92 room Ital­ianate-style mansion on the spot. Like the Mills and the Hoyts, Dins­more op­er­ated a farm on his prop­erty and was es­pe­cially well known for his flow­ers and ex­otic plants. The grounds were com­pletely ren­o­vated un­der Dins­more’s care and he in­sisted on clover-shaped win­dows on all his

build­ings to mark his vast and sprawl­ing es­tate a design which can still be seen on ex­ist­ing build­ings in the re­gion to­day.

To the north of The Lo­custs was the fourth es­tate known as Hopeland which was first de­vel­oped in 1859 by Ma­jor Rawl­ins Lown­des and his wife Gertrude Liv­ingston who had Calvert Vaux design their house as he had The Point. In 1907 the ar­chi­tect and ten­nis celebrity Robert Palmer Hunt­ing­ton ac­quired the 300-acre prop­erty and en­larged the main house to cre­ate a 35-room Tu­dor Re­vival mansion. Hunt­ing­ton had mar­ried He­len Dins­more in 1892 and the fam­i­lies lived eas­ily as neigh­bours. As with the other es­tates, Hopeland was a work­ing farm and it seems as though Hunt­ing­ton was given leave to use the Dins­more es­tate’s barns. The Hunt­ing­tons raised three chil­dren on the es­tate all of whom mar­ried into re­spectable, and wealthy, fam­i­lies. The el­dest, He­len, was mar­ried to Vin­cent As­tor (son of John Ja­cob As­tor IV who died on the Ti­tanic) for 26 years un­til they di­vorced and she mar­ried the wealthy real-es­tate bro­ker Mr. Ly­tle Hull.

He­len Hull in­her­ited The Lo­custs (from her grand­fa­ther) and Hopeland (from her fa­ther) and dis­posed of them both. At some point be­tween 1940 and 1950 she had the mansion at Hopeland dis­man­tled by lo­cal work­ers who used the win­dows, doors, and trim in other projects in the com­mu­nity and then had the house de­stroyed. She re­tained the land, how­ever, which she even­tu­ally do­nated to the New York State Parks De­part­ment. She then had the 92-room mansion of The Lo­custs dis­man­tled and built a smaller Neo-Baroque manor in its place. With the other es­tate own­ers, Mrs. Hull had de­vel­oped the golf course for pri­vate use and now do­nated it to the state of New York’s Parks and Recre­ation De­part­ment for the pub­lic.

The Mills Mansion of Staats­burgh, though still stand­ing, was no longer an es­tate by this time. In 1938 the mansion and grounds of Staats­burgh were do­nated to New York State for use as a park by one of Og­den and Ruth Mills daugh­ters, Gla­dys Mills Phipps, in hon­our of her par­ents. Only the manor of The Point now re­mained as it had been at the peak of the Gilded Age and was still in­hab­ited by the Hoyt fam­ily. In 1963, when the “mas­ter builder” Robert Moses was ac­quir­ing green space along the Hud­son River for use as pub­lic park space, the Hoyt fam­ily was evicted and the house seized un­der em­i­nent do­main. The orig­i­nal plan was to de­mol­ish the manor and build a pub­lic swim­ming pool but the com­mu­nity ob­jected. In­stead, the house was left to de­cay and the grounds and sta­bles fell into ruin.

Less than sixty years ear­lier, these four es­tates were the life blood of the com­mu­nity. The grand hotels which once lined the streets of Staats­burg and Route 9 catered to guests of the Hoyts, Mills, Dins­mores, and Hunt­ing­tons as did all of the other busi­nesses up and down the river. Staats­burg once had its own train sta­tion, side­walks with street lamps, pubs, restau­rants, shops and fac­to­ries, and at least four hotels in the vil­lage alone, not count­ing those along Route 9; to­day there is only one restau­rant in the vil­lage and all the rest - in­clud­ing the side­walks - are gone. The Gilded Age of the very rich passed into mem­ory with the ad­vent of in­come tax in the United States in 1913 which cur­tailed how much money the wealthy could spend or, at least, how much they were will­ing to ad­mit to. World War I (WWI), the stock mar­ket crash of 1929, and the Great De­pres­sion all con­trib­uted their own mea­sure to the de­cline

of the es­tates and de­scen­dants of the Gilded Age mil­lion­aires ei­ther do­nated their fam­ily homes (like Gla­dys Mills Phipps), de­stroyed them (like He­len Hull), sold them or, like He­len Hoyt, were evicted from the prop­erty to make way for a new par­a­digm of so­ci­ety in which the es­tates played no part.

Vis­it­ing to­day

Ex­cept for The Lo­custs, how­ever, one may still walk the grounds and visit the houses which once gave Staats­burg its life. The Point is presently un­der ren­o­va­tion cour­tesy of the Calvert Vaux Preser­va­tion Al­liance and the Na­tional Park Ser­vice. If you walk down the river path at Staats­burgh, pass by the small beach, and con­tinue on into the woods, al­ways stay­ing on the path and head­ing up­wards, you will find The Point in sur­pris­ingly good con­di­tion for a house which has been va­cant for 52 years. One is not al­lowed in­side the house, which is now fenced off, but one can visit and see the out­build­ings which were once the sta­bles, the green­house, and barn.

Leav­ing Mills and head­ing north on Old Post Road, you will pass by The Lo­custs which is to­day pri­vately owned by hote­lier An­dre Balazs as a farm and pres­ti­gious cen­tre for con­fer­ences and high­end wed­dings. One may visit by ap­point­ment only. At the north­ern end of the vil­lage, just past The Lo­custs, the grounds of Hopeland are open to the pub­lic as a park. Peo­ple can still en­joy the grounds, bridges, and paths through­out the es­tate and the site has be­come pop­u­lar with bird-watch­ers, dog­walk­ers, and artists. Mills’ mansion of Staats­burgh re­mains al­most com­pletely in­tact with tours of the home of­fered Thurs­day through Sun­day and the grounds open seven days a week dawn till dusk. Spe­cial “Down­town Abbey” tours are of­fered as well as talks on The Ti­tanic as the Mills had tick­ets for a re­turn pas­sage on the doomed ship in 1912.

A tour of the mansion is a walk through his­tory as the guides take the vis­i­tor back in time to the Gilded Age and the era of high so­ci­ety when the af­flu­ent of America looked out through the long win­dows of their par­lours in the wilder­ness and cre­ated the world they wanted to see.

How­ever one may view the wealthy of the Gilded Age to­day, they were the celebri­ties of their time and their wed­dings, scan­dals, and grand par­ties were the talk of the town and the stuff of high news­pa­per sales. More im­por­tantly, though, they pro­vided for the com­mu­ni­ties which sup­ported their way of life and, af­ter their time had passed, small vil­lages in America like Staats­burg would have to fend for them­selves, for bet­ter or worse.

Miss Jones had her house so op­u­lently fur­nished, her grounds so well sculpted, that other wealthy fam­i­lies in the area added adorn­ments and ex­trav­a­gances to their own coun­try homes to keep pace with her; this prac­tice gave birth to the fa­mous id­iom re­gard­ing try­ing to match the life­style of one’s neigh­bours, “keep­ing up with the Jone­ses”

Right: The Lo­custs (The Dins­more Es­tate) in

Above: The Hud­son River

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