Another Glimmer of the Gilded Age, and then some

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.

And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.

I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).

 

The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.

Edith Wharton Windows

Yesterday was a spectacular day in Lenox, MA, and we made an unscheduled stop at Edith Wharton’s home there, The Mount. A thunderhead had popped up out of nowhere and we were looking for a vista from which we could view the storm. While the storm passed south of us it provided some wonderful light for garden and interior photos, and I came away with so many beautiful windows. Wharton’s first book was about interior and garden design, and her love of light and appreciation for a good cross breeze is evident in the design of this house, which she built in 1902.

The window above is from the recently restored bedroom suite that included a sitting room. According to the literature, even though the sitting room has a writing desk, Wharton wrote in bed and let the finished pages fall to the floor, where her secretary would retrieve them and type them up. I find this detail enviable and impractical – oh, to be able to write as beautifully as she did and from the comfort of bed, but it makes my back hurt to imagine it. But it makes perfect sense to be writing while looking out a window with a view like the one below.

Visiting historic sites always seems to involve, at some point, a note that areas have been restored to reflect their original beauty based on photographs or narrative descriptions because the authentic buildings, furnishings, paintings, fixtures, frescoes and floors have been sold, lost or destroyed. I get annoyed that people didn’t think to preserve these details all along, particularly when they achieved fame in their own time. Then I think about modern times (our place in history somewhat less secure than Edith Wharton’s in 1912), and I imagine the docent saying, “The original Home Depot oak and laminate cabinets and linoleum floors are recreated here to the best of our ability using photographs and written descriptions of the home from that period.” Never mind.

Cranwell Window

Like the rest of the world, I fell in love with Downton Abbey.  And after 30 years in Massachusetts I finally had a chance to drive through and make an overnight stay in the Berkshires.  Now is see what all of the fuss is about.  I expected the spring beauty of the rolling hills but I was not prepared for the diverse and breathtaking architecture of Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York.  This window is the Downton Abbey moment of my first – but not last – journey to Western Massachusetts.  It was taken at Cranwell, a gilded age property with a provenance that includes Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The pastoral and architectural beauty of the property was matched only by the graciousness of the people who worked there.  A real gem.

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