Showplaces of the Greatest Showman; The Real Homes of PT Barnum
Watching The Greatest Showman recently, I was amused to see Woodlea (the former home of Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard, now the Sleepy Hollow Country Club) used as the home lived in by the snooty parents of PT Barnum’s wife, while interiors of the Duke Mansion on Fifth Avenue stood in for rooms in Barnum’s own mansion. While both were undeniably fabulous settings, neither was correct period-wise.
It started me thinking about Iranistan, the exotically fantastic mansion that Barnum had built in real life. While searching for images of it online, I discovered PT Barnum had built no less than four splendid mansions in Bridgeport Connecticut over the course of his life.
Iranistan was the first. Inspired by the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, a building Barnum had greatly admired n trips to England, its design is credited to architect Leopold Elditz.
Completed in 1848, it was constructed during a period when American architecture was turning away from the classicism of Greek revival in favor of more romantic styles. The results ranged from storybook Gothic revival charm
to Egyptian Revival monumentality.
Iranistan stood out on its own. Nominally labeled "Oriental", it referenced a number of historical styles including Byzantine, Turkish, and Moorish, with arched galleries on all floors and onion domes sprouting from its top. Its essence was quintessentially Barnum, who spared no expense on the home or the property.
The stables, conservatories and outbuildings were described as perfect in their kind, set off by specimen trees, fountains, urns and statuary. The architectural masterpiece, so unique for its time, had a tragically short life, destroyed by fire in 1857. Though some pictures and furniture were salvaged, its outbuildings and grounds were still intact, Barnum decided not to rebuild on the site of his former masterpiece, turning his attentions elsewhere (the property was later sold to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine).
He did not look back when creating his next home. Construction began in 1859 on a new mansion in the Italianate style. Completed the following year, it was named Lindencroft.
While Barnum may have originally made his fortune with some outrageous attractions of dubious taste,
nothing could be farther from the truth when it came to his homes. Lindenwald was considered the height of good taste in its day.
He later remembered, "All that taste and money could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft; so that, when all was finished, it was not only a complete house in all respects, but it was a perfect home. And a home I meant it to be, in ever and the best sense of the word, for my declining years. Consequently, from basement to attic, everything was constructed, by days work, in the most perfect manner possible. Convenience and comfort were first consulted, and there-after, with no attempt at ostentation, elegance, pure and simple, predominated and permeated everywhere."
A photograph of he and his wife Charity on the piazza, surrounded by grandchildren and servants shows a typical upper-class family of the day.
Despite his intentions, PT Barnum would occupy the home for less than a decade. Charity became chronically ill, and Doctors recommended living near sea air to improve her health. The Barnum’s sold Lindencroft to the Bassick family (it was eventually razed in 1924) and began construction of a new home by the water in 1869.
As Barnum was often away traveling, Charity probably would have been happy to have her new home be smaller and more manageable. That was not Barnum’s way however, and their new house, named Waldemere (Woods by the Sea) ended up being significantly larger than Lindencroft.
Whatever Charity felt towards the size of the house in the end, she would not live there long, dying in 1873 while Barnum was in Germany.
Grief-stricken over the loss of his life partner of 44 years, he decided to remain in Europe, eventually going to England to visit an old friend John Fish. Just 13 weeks and two days after Charity’s death, the 63-year-old Barnum married Fish’s 22-year-old daughter Nancy in London (Barnum was nothing if not resilient). He did not bring Nancy back to the states right away for propriety’s sake (this was still the Victorian era, after all). She came over later that year and the couple had a second public wedding ceremony in New York that September.
Nancy and Barnum settled down at Waldemere and lived there quite contentedly for a while. In 1888, the 78-year-old Barnum decided he wanted something more modern and comfortable with no drafts, constructed of brick. He loved Waldemere’s location and grounds however, so he began building his new home right next to it.
As soon as construction on their new place was finished, the Barnums moved next door and had Waldemere razed.
They named the house Marina and Nancy had a great influence on its furnishing and decoration.
It was there that Barnum passed away in 1891. Barnum left the house to his grandson, and Nancy received a generous annuity from a trust fund, going to marry twice again, lastly to a Baron. The University of Bridgeport acquired the property from Barnum's descendants in the 1940s, and the mansion was eventually demolished to make way for a dining hall. For more information on the life and homes of PT Barnum, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport is an excellent resource.