The Tales they Tell Part II - Montgomery Place: A Classical Confection
This second installment of a four part series on the evolving appearance of some well-known Hudson Valley homes and the personalities that shaped them will look at Montgomery Place. To see the first intallment, on Clermont click here.
In 1805, a new mansion arose in the midst of a commercial farm and nursery roughly ten miles to the south of Clermont. Built for Janet Livingston Montgomery, relatives and associates were a bit surprised when the middle-aged, childless widow (of Revolutionary War General Robert Montgomery), already possessing a comfortable estate outside the village of Rhinebeck, took on this new venture. A drawing of Mrs. Montgomery however, might give a hint, as it reveals the same formidable features of her mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston whose drive and determination she also inherited.
Before construction began she implored her brother Robert, then serving as Minister to France, to send her house plans in the latest French style. It was not merely to be fashionable, but also reflected the family’s (and young nation’s) decided lean towards all things French as opposed to mimicking the British as they had during the colonial era. Robert apparently didn’t come through. Her mansion overlooking the Hudson, while featuring modish French-influenced furnishings and dubbed “Chateau de Montgomery”, bore a rather conventional federal exterior to the world.
Janet died in 1828, leaving the property to her youngest brother, Edward Livingston
and his wife Louise D'Avezac Moreau. Haitian-born of French descent, the new chatelaine of Chateau de Montgomery was exotic, elegant and as decorative looking as Janet was practical.
The Livingstons made few changes to Janets home initially, as Edwards postings first as Secretary of State, and later as Minister to France, kept them away for long periods of time. After their permanent return from Europe in 1835 the couple wasted wasted little time in putting their stamp on the property. Inspired by the romantic movement then in vogue and the landscapes of European estates, they began pushing the utilitarian farming elements away from the house and transformed the agricultural estate estate into an ornamental country place. While intense activity commenced on the landscape, the house, renamed Montgomery Place, remained relatively unchanged. Edward died unexpectedly in 1836, and the widowed began spending winters in Philadelphia with their daughter Coralie and her husband Dr Thomas Barton, who in turn began summering with her at Montgomery Place.
Coralie shared her mothers passion for gardening and the two, aided and abetted by AJ Downing’s nursery down the river, continued to improve the grounds. In 1841 Alexander Jackson Davis was engaged to update the house.
While AJ Davis was a proponent of the irregular and picturesque in architecture, his clients insisted the house retain a classical feel (perhaps to reflect the late Edward’s long role as a public servant). Pavilions were added to both ends of the mansion, balancing each other. The southern pavilion was enclosed, providing a library for Thomas Barton and additional interior living space,
while the northern pavilion was left ope, offering sublime views of the Hudson river and distant Catskill Mountains.
A porch was also added across the river façade at the same time. Viewed from a distance, the expanded Montgomery Place maintained a dignified formal symmetry.
As one gets closer however, one could see how how Davis enlivened the experience by adding a multitude of decorative elements. Swags, pilasters, urns, and medallions were applied to any and all possible surfaces, turning the house into a neo-classical confection of sorts.
Davis was given more romantic latitude on other buildings commissioned by the family for the property, including a charming bracketed farmhouse,
as well as a swiss cottage to provide housing for estate workers.
In the early 1860s Coralie Barton, now sole owner of the home after the death of her mother, turned to AJ Davisfor more changes make more changes. Davis duly prepared designs to embellish the front with a semi-circular portico inspired by the temple of Vesta in Tivoli (Italy, that is, not the village several miles to the north of Montgomery Place),
along with a third story featuring a raised roofline and balustrade.
Coralie was enchanted by the new portico design, but found the cost and complications of adding a third story to the mansion too much, and decided to only have the new porch constructed. As it was going up, things went awry. As beautiful the new portico was, its overall appearance dominated the house, making it look squashed. Surviving letters to Davis from Barton implored him for a solution (that would not necessitate the expense of constructing an additional floor to balance the overall composition, as he originally recommended. They reveal quite a bit about her personality, their client/architect relationship and the embellished prose of the romantic era.
“The columns are up & the entablature is progressing. The whole thing per se is beautiful — but alas! It squashes down the whole home, & as one of the ancients said: Who has clapped my old house to the Temple of Vesta!' The addition to the top of the house becomes a necessity & is the only thing to save us from a monstrous incongruity ... ... Pray-pray-my dear Mr. Davis, think of what can be done ... You see, I am in despair ... ... You wicked man, with your Temple of Vesta to lead me to all this ruinous extravagance which I cannot now avoid without being ridiculous. "
Davis was in Barrytown a week later to work out an affordable, aesthetically pleasing solution. Instead of a raised roofline, only the central portion of the balustrade was raised, further heightened by decorative urns to balance the overall composition.
Mrs. Barton was thrilled, praising the results at length. The solution proved so enduringly successful that while the home continued to be a private residence for over a hundred more, no further substantial changes were made to its exterior.
The house appears today much as Louise, Coralie and AJ Davis envisioned it with Janet’s solid federal home still visible under it all, holding up the later decorative elements, wings, and balustrades quite handsomely. TodayMontgomery Place is owned by Bard College, the grounds are open to the public daily and the house for tours seasonally.