Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mills Mansion (1 of 2)

The romance of ruins figures large in poetic consciousness, although it plays an unhappy role in property maintenance. This fine wall just outside the Hudson River hamlet of Staatsburgh flanks the gates to a big house built in 1895 by Ogden Mills. That house is now a part of the Mills Mansion State Park and ailanthus trees are now growing out of Mr. Mills' wall.

Here are the gates themselves - well, more correctly here are the stone standards to which the gates were once attached. In 1938 Mills' daughter, Gladys Mills Phipps, gave the property to the state, which has now had over seventy years to lose the gates themselves.

This very elegant Greek Revival mansion used to stand where the present house stands today. The land was inherited by Mills' wife, Ruth Livingston, of the aristocratic Livingston clan. Presumably the Livingstons built this house sometime after 1792, when they bought the land. Mills was the son of Darius Ogden Mills, a man who grew rich in banking and railroads out west. His son, in a pattern repeated by many at the time - and indeed repeated by others today - married into a family that was the apotheosis of American high society.

The new house, designed by McKim, Mead and White, actually envelops the old one, the only evidence of which is the second floor windows under the porch plus a bit of the interior finish. The architects planned to do the same thing, with a similar vintage river mansion, for Fred Vanderbilt in nearby Hyde Park. However, Vanderbilt's old house was deemed structurally unsound and razed. The Livingston place made the cut it appears, and it survives - albeit nearly invisibly - inside the body of the new house. Ruth and Ogden Mills were the sort of large living Gilded Age socialites who kept houses all over the place. From its completion in 1895 until Mills' death in 1929 (his wife predeceased him by nine years) this one was used for only a few months every fall.

Here it is today. What used to look like a glittering millionaire's mansion now, oddly, looks like a post office. On the one hand, thank God for New York State, without whose intervention the house might well have been demolished. On the other, what is it about public ownership of gorgeous baubles like this that seems inevitably to dull them?

What isn't dull is the interior, which is right up there with Newport. The floor plan is a little wonky by virtue of the preservation of the old house. The Vanderbilt plan down in Hyde Park is far more logical and elegant.

The dining room fireplace.

1 comment:

  1. The Mills Mansion is often cited as the inspiration for "Bellomont", the Trenor estate in Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" (1905). It's debatable; there are certain similarities between Wharton's describtions and the Mills Mansion, but Wharton was familiar with many similar homes so her fictional estate was more likely a combination of features from several she was familiar with.

    Incidentally, earlier on the Mills' were great patrons of the Herter Brothers, both in their California estate (demolished in the 1950s) and their Manhattan townhouse (torn down before WW I; its site is now part of Rockefeller Center). The paneled library from their Fifth Avenue house survives at the former Whitlaw Reid estate (now Manhattanville College) in Purchase, NY.