The Tales They Tell Part 4 - Staatsburgh: A Palace for a Pretender to the Throne
There is perhaps no place in the Hudson Valley that better serves as a symbol of family pride and ambition (thwarted or otherwise) than Staatsburgh, home to five generations of the Livingston family (which had no surfeit of either).
Staatsburgh is the southernmost in a chain of estates built by nine Livingston siblings who grew up at Clermont. Constructed for Gertrude Livingston and her husband General (later Governor) Morgan Lewis, it commanded the crest of a hill on a portion of her 20,000-acre dowry. There is little hard evidence of what the original structure looked like, other than being described “as capacious as it was ugly”. After it burned to the ground in 1833, Lewis replaced it with a monumental Greek revival mansion featuring a six bay façade, broad wings and a massive portico supported by four monumental Doric columns.
Undeniably impressive, the grand edifice might easily have been mistaken for a bank, civic, or institutional building, which would have suited the temperament of Margaret, the Lewis’ sole child and eventual owner of the property perfectly.
Born into one of New York’s most illustrious Colonial families and married to distant cousin Maturin Livingston, Margaret gained a fearsome reputation as a hard-nosed, imperious dowager. Alarmed by newer names and money beginning to slip into the tightly knit folds of New York Society, she made it her mission to ensure that those she considered beneath her were kept at a distance. Newspapers reported one year that a mere 80 guests were invited to her New Years Day reception in New York City (reversing the long-standing tradition of hostesses of New York’s Knickerbockeracy competing to host as many people as possible at their New Year's Day "Open Houses". The papers also noted that half of them were related to her by marriage or blood (given the fact she married a cousin, it actually meant both).
Ironically, perhaps those who eventually suffered the most from her exclusionary view of the world might have been her twelve children. If one of them wed below their station in her opinion (which they almost all inevitably did, given her exalted opinion of her family lineage), she did not hesitate to remind them or their unfortunate spouse for the rest of their days. From her Greek temple on the hill, Mrs. Maturin Livingston could look down both literally and figuratively, on those in less vaunted positions with smug satisfaction.
Though not the most noble of family traits, this inbred imperiousness not only prevailed, but grew as it passed down through subsequent generations, reaching its zenith under Margaret’s granddaughter Ruth Livingston. Born in 1855, Ruth had witnessed a sea change in High Society by the she came of age, ruled by distant kinswoman Caroline Schermerhorn Astor at the time. Thanks to her marriage to the Astor millions, Caroline instituted elaborate new ducal standards of living and entertaining. Liveried servants, endless-coursed dinners served on gold and silver-plate, tiaras, Paris couture and strict etiquette replaced the simpler, stolid values and entertainments of society’s earlier generations. In addition, Mrs. Astor opened its doors sufficiently to let in some “arrivistes”, New Money families whose immense fortunes allowed them to easily afford this new gilded playing field.
Ruth married Ogden Mills, heir to a vast fortune made during the California gold rush era, in 1882. More than a few eyebrows were raised, given her family's reputation for extreme snobbery and Ogden representing the “New Money” that her (conveniently deceased) grandmother abhorred. Ruth, ever the keen strategist, knew exactly what she had to do however. While one could still be a part of society with proper lineage, a narrow brownstone and an upper middle-class income, to compete in the top tier, a large fortune counted in the millions of dollars was required. Ruth didn’t want to just compete; she wanted to rule, even if it meant taking down cousin Caroline a notch or two in the process. With her impeccable bloodlines and the Mills’ many millions backing her, she now had two valuable weapons at her disposal, but begin her quest, she would need the proper settings in which to stage her campaigns.
The Mills bought a large villa on Bellevue Avenue in Newport called Ocean View for the summer season
In 1887 they commissioned Richard Morris Hunt design a Venetian gothic townhouse for them on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 69th street. They showed considerable fore site (or just had dumb luck) in choosing the location. While considered far uptown at the time (when Society was still centered around Caroline’s mansion on 34th street). in less than a decade it would be in the heart of New York’s most fashionable neighborhood.
The Mills became fixtures on the social circuit, their presence noted at every important event and began to entertain lavishly. With her impeccable attention to detail and protocol, Ruth's dinners began to rival Caroline Astor's in formality and elegance. It was at Staatsburgh however, where Ruth's intentions were most visibly apparent.
After inheriting the estate from her father in 1890, the Mills hired McKim Mead and White to transform the monumental Greek temple into a French-inspired palace. Two huge wings ballooned to the north and south of the original house, dwarfing the original block.
to contain a massive marble-clad dining room and a cavernous paneled library
Interior walls were knocked down in the older core of the house to create larger spaces, including a grand entry hall and a long drawing room.
To compensate for the shift in scale between the new and old sections, a third floor was added to the original house, its four-columned Doric portico replaced by a taller six-columned ionic version. Decorative cartouches, swags and pilasters were applied to the exterior facades to enliven the overall appearance.
Most likely the firm would have preferred to tear the old house down and design a new mansion from scratch in its place, but Ruth was adamantly opposed to the idea. Her guests needed to know that the floors walked on had been in her family for generations (something very few in her set could boast of).In the fifty foot long library, a large portrait of Ruth's great grandfather General Lewis presided over newly purchased gilded furniture, lest people needed to be reminded this was an ancestral home.
Completed in 1896, it predated the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park and the Astor’s Casino at Rhinecliff, and no other place in the Hudson valley could come close to competing in terms of scale or splendor with Ruth and Ogden’s new 65-room palace. The Mills used Staaatsburgh during the fall and spring seasons. Hosting weekend house parties, they filled the mansion with carefully culled lists of those she deemed socially acceptable.
In 1892 Caroline Astor had lost both her husband and a daughter, which plunged her into two years of mourning. Noise and traffic from the Waldorf Hotel rising next door to her mansion at 34th street around the same time marked the end of her annual balls there. In 1896, when she commenced the tradition again in her newly constructed chateau on 65th street, the press reaffirmed her position as Queen of Society. To those in the know however, Caroline never fully regained the authoritarian grip on society she had prior to that. Ruth decided it was time to take direct aim at Mrs. Astor’s position.
While she faced stiff competition from other society hostesses, she took a unique approach. She then played her trump card, severely restricting the number of people invited to her entertainment thereIn a move that would have made her grandmother proud. She let it be known that poor cousin Caroline, who was getting on in years, had inadvertently opened Society's doors a bit too wide. How ow on earth there could possibly be 400 people in society when there were really only twenty families that really mattered? The Mills hired society architect Horace Trumbauer to redecorate the interiors and enlarge their New York mansion in 1901. He paid particular attention to the ballroom, which would soon hold those lucky enough to make the cut from Mrs. Astors list.
Around the same time, the Mills began toying with the idea of purchasing a grander cottage in Newport and added the Hotel Broglie in Paris to their collection of homes.
She ultimately failed in her bid to wrest control of society by whittling down its size. Even her most ardent supporters (a good deal of them Livingston relations whom she enlisted in her campaign) came to realize they didn’t want to spend each week looking at the same few familiar faces across a dinner table and ballroom. Ruth’s tight list grudgingly expanded to seventy-five, then one hundred and fifty. As much she might have wanted to, Ruth couldn't exclude certain new money families like the Vanderbilt clan either, for by that time no social event was considered important without at least one or two present. When the New York Times noted that the guest list to one of Mrs. Mills annual balls held in the early 1900s (by then numbering between 300 and 350 people) was amongst the most restrictive in Society, there were just as many, if not more Vanderbilts as Livingstons found on it.
When Caroline Astor finally died in 1908, Ruth was ready to step up and assume her scepter and crown. A funny thing happened on her way to the dais, however. Society had shifted yet again, even from Caroline Astor’s heyday. Socialites weren’t content to merely attend stately entertainments and formal soirees; they also wanted to have fun. While the regal Ruth excelled at the former, when it came to the latter, not so much. There was a just little too “froid” in her “sang”, as it were. In Newport she watched in horror as Mrs. Astor’s tiara was snatched and broken into three pieces by “The Triumvirate” of Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (a divorcee?!), the irreverant Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, (whose parties featured dogs and monkeys as guests of honor!?), and the vivacious Tessie Olerichs, whose new Comstock Lode fortune was uncomfortably close to the source of the Mill’s own money for her comfort. Back in New York, while she was still regarded as one of Society’s top hostesses, the Vanderbilt clan (with money only stretching back two generations before them) had superceded in popular opinion her as the apex of the “Old Guard”, with Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Florence Vanderbilt Twombly becoming the Queen Grande Dames everyone looked towards to maintain the standards of the older era.
As galling as all this must have been, Ruth still had Staatsburgh and the Hudson Valley, where she ruled unchallenged (luckily, the Astor women really never adopted the Hudson Valley as their own, and her friend Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt to the south just didn't take those things that seriously). Each fall and spring she would continue to fill the house with guests, entertaining lavishly, if predictably and stiffly. Invitations were still eagerly sought, and the carefully chosen friends, relations and sycophants continued to congregate in palatial splendor atop the hill and look down on those below.
After her death in 1920, the estate was used less often. When her son died 17 years later, no one else in the family wanted to assume the headache or expense of maintaining the enormous place. Instead they to the State of New York. Today it is operated as a house museum, popularly known as the Mills Mansion. The hordes of tourists who march through gawking at the opulence probably never realize the full extent of the campaigns that were planned and waged there by the family to keep all but the select few from entering.
From the outside, the two enormous wings overshadowing the enlarged original center portion of the mansion stand as mute monuments to the “Woman Who Would be Queen”.
This was the final Installment in a four-part series on the stories of some of the Hudson Valley’s well-known historic mansions seen through their exteriors