The Stories They Tell: Exterior Tales of the Hudson Valley Homes

We are fortunate to live in a region offering a trove of historic homes open to the public, from simple colonial farmhouses to beaux-arts fantasies.  A quick exterior observation of many can lead one to mistakenly assume they stand today as unaltered architectural monuments to one person’s vision or the era in which they were originally constructed.   Most however, belie far more complex and interesting stories. Whether to accommodate expanding families, reflect modern lifestyles, personal taste or ambition, to keep up with the Joneses or a combination of the above, many have changed in appearance over time, some quite drastically. Also intriguing are the unrealized dreams and plans for many, never executed due to lack of funds, indecision, or simply a change of hands in ownership. Whether they stand as examples of architectural evolution or arrested development, it is often possible to discern the stamp of different owner’s hands on these solid survivors.  In some, with a little awareness and scrutiny, the original structure and style is clearly visible, while in others, it requires a harder look and some imagination to recognize it under later additions and ornamentation.  

Part I

Clermont: From Colonial to Queen Anne and Back Again

Clermont, the first example, is also the oldest of the buildings we will look at. Home to seven generations of the Livingston Family, the solid Georgian Manor was known as one of the most imposing and beautiful country seats between Albany and New York City when originally constructed around 1740.  Its first major physical transformation was wrought by necessity rather than choice, when the British burned it nearly to the ground in 1777.   Margaret Beekman Livingston, matriarch of the family and daughter in-law of the original builder oversaw a complete reconstruction of the mansion, which was habitable by 1781, despite the entreaties of her family to wait until the war was over. Margaret Beekman Livingston by Gilbert Stuart

Whether architectural innovation is naturally at a low ebb during times of war, attachment to the home where she and her husband raised their ten children was overwhelmingly strong, or perhaps the indomitable Margaret wanted to thumb her nose at the enemy, demonstrating just how resilient she and the nascent country were, the new mansion built on the foundations and charred walls of the old was by all accounts a strikingly similar, if not an exact replica of the original.The decades following the Revolution saw a flurry of new country estates established by the wealthy (including most of Margaret’s children) along the Hudson. By the time Margaret’s granddaughter Betsey and her husband (as well as third cousin) Edward P. Livingston were residing at Clermont in the early nineteenth century, it was no longer one of the most imposing villas in the region, and spatial requirements for a leading family of the young republic were much different than those of Colonial aristocrats.

Betsey LvingstonEdward P Livingston

By 1805 a one-story wing had been added to the north side of the mansion.  In the 1840’s a flanking one to the south had appeared as well a shallow piazza running across the river façade.  With its first floor windows cut down the meet the porch floor, Clermont presented a more horizontal, symmetrical, if somewhat chaste presence to the world over the next several decades.

John Henry Livingston (the last master of the house) decided to expand the house again in the 1870s. Many of his relatives and neighbors estates up and down the river were also building or enlarging homes during this period, often with typical second empire mansard roofs atop them, reflecting the enduring popularity of that style. John Henry opted for something a bit different.  Perhaps to remind people of Clermont’s role as one of the historical center of Livingston Manor, he instead added a striking, chateauesque style roof to the mansion. Generally associated with larger, more palatial buildings, it dramatically increased Clermont’s height, creating a much more imposing building.

By 1893, the south wing had gained a second floor, also topped with a chateau-esque third floor and roofline, raising it to the same height as the center of the house.  With variations in dormer treatments, contrasting shutters, and a much larger veranda with a semi-circular porch dominating its river façade, Clermont took on some of the outward characteristics of the Queen Anne style then in vogue.

Things took a decidedly different turn after John Henry’s third marriage to his distant cousin Alice Delafield Clarkson.John Henry and Alice Livingston

If there was anyone more proud of the family’s glorious past than John Henry, it was Alice.  The couple planned the last major modernization of the house, intending to rid it of any Victorian excesses and create a monument to the family’s social and financial heyday at the same time.  In the Clermont archives a drawing by society architect Mott Schmidt for the Livingston’s proposed the removal of the steeply pitched roof and upper floors of the south wing.

Had it been enacted, Clermont would have resembled it’s 1840’s appearance once again, as well as an interesting similarity to Marienruh, the estate Mott Schmidt was designing to the south in Rhinebeck for Alice Astor and her husband Serge Obolensky.

Whether the idea proved too costly, or too ambitious given John Henry’s age (he died in 1927), these plans were never followed.   Instead, a compromise of sorts was reached.  The roof and upper floor of the south wing remained, but the contrasting shutters were removed or painted white, the wide veranda and porch disappeared, and a restrained, colonial revivalized house emerged, very similar to what we see today.

For more information about CLermont, please visit the Friends of Clermont website.

The Next Part in this series will look at Montgomery Place's Exterior Story

The Tales they Tell Part II - Montgomery Place: A Classical Confection

Homes on the Hill in Macon, Where Pittypat Refugeed