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. Little hard evidence exists as to what the original structure looked like, other than being described “as capacious as it was ugly”. Burning 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. The grand edifice might easily have been mistaken for a civic building, bank, or institution, which suited the temperament of Margaret, their sole child and eventual owner of the property perfectly.
Margaret gained a fearsome reputation as a hard-nosed, imperious dowager. Born into one of New York’s most illustrious Colonial families, and married to distant cousin Maturin Livingston, she was alarmed by newer names and money beginning to slip into the tightly knit folds of New York Society. Mrs. Maturin Livingston made it her mission to ensure that those she considered beneath her were kept at a distance. Newspapers reported that a mere 80 guests were invited to her New Years Day reception (this was a reversal of the tradition for Knickerbockeracy hostesses to host as many people as possible at their new Year's Day "Open Houses" . The paper went to note that half of them were related to her by marriage or blood (given the fact she married a cousin, it actually meant both). Ironically, those who perhaps suffered the most by her exclusionary view of the world might have been her own 12 children. If one wed below their station in her opinion (which all almost inevitably did, given her high view of her family), she did not hesitate to let them or their unfortunate spouse know it. From her Greek temple on the hill, Mrs. Maturin Livingston could look down in all directions, 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 was passed down through subsequent generations, reaching its zenith under Margaret’s granddaughter Ruth. Ruth Livingston was born in 1855. Growing up, she witnessed a sea change in High Society, which was ruled by distant kinswoman Caroline Schermerhorn Astor by the 1870's. Thanks to her marriage to the Astor millions, she instituted elaborate new standards that transformed the playing field. 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 couldn’t be ignored.
When Ruth married Ogden Mills in 1882 more than a few eyebrows were raised, given her family's reputation for extreme snobbery. Heir to a vast fortune made during the California gold rush era, Ogden represented the “New Money” that her (conveniently deceased) grandmother abhorred. Ruth was a realist, however. One could still be a part of society with the proper lineage, a narrow brownstone and an upper middle-class income, but 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 unapproachable bloodlines and the Mills’ many millions backing her, she now had two valuable weapons at her disposal.
To begin her quest, she would need the proper settings in which to stage her campaigns. The Mills bought a large villa in Newport called Ocean View for the summer season
and had Richard Morris Hunt design a Venetian gothic townhouse for them on the corner of Fifth Avenue East 69th street in 1887.
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. Most likely the firm would have preferred to tear the old house down and design a new mansion from scratch, but Ruth was adamantly opposed to the idea. People needed to know that the floors her guests walked on had been owned by her family for generations (something very few in her set could boast of). 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.
Two huge wings containing a massive marble-clad dining room and a cavernous paneled library ballooned to the north and south of the original house, dwarfing the original block.
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.
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 in her quest, she took a unique approach. She let it be known that poor cousin Caroline, who was getting on in years, had inadvertedly opened Society's doors a bit too wide. In a move that would have made her grandmother proud, Ruth publically wondered how on earth there could possibly be 400 people in society, when there were really only twenty families that mattered?
She ultimately failed in her bid to wrest control of society from Caroline 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 list grudgingly grew to seventy-five, then one hundred and fifty. Though she might have wanted to, Ruth couldn't exclude certain new money families like the Vanderbilt clan either, whose campaign to enter society had been so complete that 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 (numbering between 300 and 350 people) was amongst the most restrictive in Society, there were just as many, if not more, Vanderbilts as Livingstons to be found on it.
Undaunted she decided on a different tack – if Ruth couldn’t dethrone Caroline Astor, she would succeed her. Ruth patiently watched and waited. 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 (once she was gone).
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.
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 from Caroline Astor’s heyday a decade before. Socialites didn’t just want to 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 wanted to assume the headache or expense of maintaining the enormous place, donating it instead 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 that still threaten to overshadow 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