Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Dutchess County Dowager

Here in the Hudson Valley, say the word "Livingston" and your listeners will immediately gird themselves for a history lesson. Philip signed the Declaration of Independence; William drafted the U.S. constitution; Robert swore in George Washington; ......zzzz. The gates in the image above lead to one of many former Livingston estates hereabouts. This one is called Grasmere, located just outside the village of Rhinebeck.

The builder of Grasmere was Janet Livingston Montgomery, widow of General Richard Montgomery, the hero - or victim, if you will - of the Battle of Quebec. In 1775, Montgomery became the first high ranking American officer to be killed in the War of Independence. His wife, who had inherited this land from her grandfather, was undaunted by the general's death, built a big house for herself anyway, and lived there for 27 years. In 1805 she move upriver to Barrytown, built another big house, and called it (somewhat after the fact) Montgomery Place. This good looking driveway standard is far too modern to my eye for the Lady Montgomery period. Grasmere's house and grounds were extensively altered in the early 20th century and I'm pretty sure it dates from then. By the way, upper class ladies in 18th century America rather liked being addressed with spurious titles; Lady Washington certainly did.

What a nice driveway, lined as it is with ancient locusts planted by Janet Montgomery herself and bordered - at least this year - with a bumper crop of corn. Grasmere, if you're wondering, is the name of a village in the English Lake District, located adjacent to a lake of the same name. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) called it, "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found," although I doubt Janet Montgomery heard him. I think the name was tacked onto the place by her brother-in-law, Peter R. Livingston, to whom she sold the property in 1822.

Grasmere is an enormously likeable old pile but it has been kicked around architecturally for 150 years. Even when money was spent, an uncertain aesthetic hand prevailed. Grasmere's utter lack of stylistic purity, however, is the basis of its charm.

Note the plaque beside the front door says "Homesite," not "Home." After her departure for Barrytown in 1805, Mrs. M. rented the house to a succession of relatives before selling it to her brother-in-law, Peter Livingston. Almost immediately it burned to the ground. He built the present house on the old foundation.

Peter Livingston died in 1847, and by 1850, in the wake of a rash of family deaths, Grasmere wound up in the hands of his nephew, Louis H, Livingston. Louis and his brother, James, would live at Grasmere for more than 40 years. In 1861, as they entered their second decade in the place, and at the height of the Victorian age, they got the renovation bug. My sister says of Christmas decorations that they are an opportunity for all of us to wallow in garish taste and get away with it. I reiterate my affection for Grasmere - I really like it - but what the Livingstons did to a delicate Federal mansion in 1861 was, architecturally speaking, perfectly heinous. The windows - oddly, only on the first floor - were given rounded Victorian tops and a ponderous, albeit appealing, marble porch with heavy marble stairs was tacked on to the front. A third floor was added, which wasn't so bad, but the new interior room arrangement resulted in a total bollixing of exterior windows on the garden facade.

What didn't change - and hasn't changed - is the remarkable view to the southwest. Formal gardens originally stretched toward the distant mountains, but the view without them remains superb.

Also superb are the trees, many of which have grown to magnificent maturity.

Time to take those marble stairs to the marble porch. Wonderful as they are, porch and stairway couldn't have less to do with Federal architecture had they been made of cantilevered steel and glass. If Peter Livingston were alive today, he might well have opted for exactly that.

My genial guide is Jonathan Mensch, whose family reunited Grasmere's original 600 acres and has laudable - read that, "no-real-estate-subdivision" - plans for the future, about which more later.

The front door looks newer to me than 1861. However, the box lock inside - now just an ornamental pull - looks original to 1823.

Boss Tweed might have felt right at home in Grasmere's reconfigured hall, but General and Lady Montgomery would surely have "plotzed." The original center hall layout and delicate Federal stairway have vanished, replaced by fancy ionic columns in place of missing walls, a weighty Victorian staircase, and an air of vastness and Gilded Age theatricality.

It was a look, however, that suited Grasmere's next owner, Judge Ernest Howard Crosby (1856-1907). Of all the socialites and plutocrats I have posthumously encountered on Big Old Houses, I wish most that I could have met Judge Crosby. The honorific stems from President Benjamin Harrison's 1889 appointment of him to a judgeship on the International Court at Alexandria, Egypt. So disgusted did he become by the European powers' blatant exploitation of its colonials, and so moved was he by Tolstoy's book "Life," that he resigned from the court and devoted the rest of his own life to anti-militarist and anti-imperialist causes. In 1892 Crosby went to Russia and met Tolstoy in person. He returned to the States, according to a contemporary, "imbued as never before with the religion of humanity." In 1904, he supported Alton Parker over his old friend Teddy Roosevelt, saying of the latter, "His idea of national greatness means nothing but physical strength, and for great ideas he would substitute a big navy."

Crosby was a prolific writer. In lieu of a forgettable list of his published works, I submit two short excerpts from "The Real White Man's Burden," published in 1902 in response to Kipling's egregious poem of (almost) the same title. Crosby's complete poem is part of a collection of his work titled "Swords and Plowshares."

Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth your sturdy kin,
And load them down with Bibles
And cannon-balls and gin...

We've made a pretty mess at home
Let's make a mess abroad
And let us ever humble pray
The Lord of Hosts may deign
To stir our feeble memories
Lest we forget...the Maine...

Crosby died in 1907 at the age of 51, leaving Grasmere to his son, Maunsell.

Maunsell Schieffelin Crosby (1887-1931) may or may not have cared about man's inhumanity to man, but he did care about birds. He was, in fact, the "Dean of Dutchess County Birders." The extensive and precise records of his sightings and conclusions became the basis of Ludlow Griscom's authoritative "Birds of Dutchess County." Crosby substantially overhauled Grasmere after his father's death, adding the wing you see on the right in the image below. The new addition fatally skewed the proportions of the original design, but considering everything else that had happened, this hardly seems to matter.

Here's the dining room, presently disguised as a living room with furniture removed from a 2-bedroom flat in Battery Park City. I suppose the eastern alcove was intended as an attached breakfast room. Crosby's 1907 wing must have been accompanied by tinkering in other parts of the house, although not much seems to have happened here.

Some of Grasmere's fireplaces are very fine, but whether they survive from Lady Montgomery's period or were added by Maunsell Crosby - or anybody else, for that matter - is unknown.

I'd date those serving pantry cabinets to 1907, certainly not to 1861. The cabinetry in the basement servant hall has a similar look.

The drawing room is on the south side of the house, parallel to the entrance hall behind the wall on the right. Irregularly spaced french doors on the left lead to a verandah overlooking the large view illustrated earlier. To my eye, this room has a sort of modified post-Civil War brownstone double parlor look to it - with better fireplaces.

This superb solid mahogany door leads back to the dining room.

And this one leads out into the main hall. Maunsell Crosby's Grasmere was a profitable crop and dairy farm. The mansion and formal gardens probably reached their peak of magnificence during his tenure. After he died in 1931, the family stayed until 1938, then sold to the first of two sophisticated owners. In 1954, a third sophisticated owner came along, this one a famous former duchess.

Louise Clews Timpson (1904-1970) was the granddaughter of the celebrated banker and political reformer Henry Clews (1836-1923). It was Clews' famous "Committee of 70" that rid New York of the notorious Tweed Ring. Louise married her first husband at age 18, rarely a good idea, and divorced him three years later. Her second husband, the Duke of Argyll, married her on the rebound from a nymphomanical wife. That marriage ended in 1951. Back in the States by 1954, she bought Grasmere, by then on 25 of its former 600 acres, and a year later married Robert C. Livingston Timpson. It was Louise Timpson who renovated the library in the view below, a room that has more than a whiff of what is now called "mid-century modern." I can't say I like it much, especially that fireplace. As a document of Grasmere's ongoing evolution, however, it has validity.

Mr. T's initials are on one side of the fireplace and his wife's are on the other. Unfortunately my photo of the latter was (mysteriously) too out of focus to include.

The adjacent room, which occupies the first floor of the 1907 addition, is accessed through double doors from the library. Louise Timpson called it the morning room. It has the same simplified look of the 1950s (probably her doing) and served as a day to day living room. The adjacent powder room is a classic '50s period piece.

We're going to admire the servants' stairway (at least, I am), retrace our steps past the library, peek en route into a small study whose Palladian window (Louise Timpson again, I'll bet) looks so wildly out of place on the exterior that it actually works, and finally cross the entrance hall to a door beneath the main stair.

The serving pantry glimpsed earlier from the dining room was connected by dumbwaiter to a kitchen in the basement. The adjacent basement servant hall was subsequently converted to a modern kitchen and the original allowed to fall into ruins.

I used to have a boiler like this until my landlords installed a pair of twin high powered numbers that still use more fuel than I can afford.

The laundry is not as tight a ship as it used to be.

Enough basement. Let's check out the second floor master bedroom.

Mrs. Timpson's bad luck with men caught up with her again in 1963, when she wound up divorcing another one. Suddenly, money was tight. "I'm not rich enough to live here with a big staff," she admitted in a 1968 interview with Enid Nemy of the New York Times, adding that she was prepared to "live in the attic" rather than give up the house. So she did what many of us (including, I blush to admit, yours truly) do in tight spots - she took in boarders. Also, at least during the summer of 1967, she gave house tours for $1 a head, something I have yet to do. "But I ended up with only $150," she lamented to Ms. Nemy. One chilly morning in early February, 1970, Mrs. Timpson simply didn't wake up. She was 65 years old.

I don't know who removed the vintage fixtures from this potentially fabulous bathroom off the master. The shower conversion is particularly depressing.

Here's the second floor hall. In addition to the master, Grasmere has 15 other bedrooms located off this hall and one very much like it on the floor above. The abundant bedrooms attracted the next owner, a commune (really) of middle class professionals who, in 1972, bought Grasmere for I'll bet a fraction of Previews' listing price of $175,000. The Cantors, the Spectors, the Rells and the Scheins, from Westchester and Delaware respectively, used it for vacations with an eye for eventual communal retirement. The "larger family" had meetings and kept minutes, but was intentionally leaderless. Participation by the children, who were all mixed together on the third floor, was strongly encouraged.

When not at meetings, communal meals, or communal activities, the "Grasmunards" occupied their many bedrooms...

.. and bathrooms

...and more bedrooms, and more bathrooms.

This is the classic image of the grand old house on its uppers - mattress on the floor, ailanthus out the windows, and bare walls painted swami pink. Whoever said color was a decorator's best friend was clearly out of his mind.

A trunk elevator is at the western end of the second floor, as is the servants' stair. We're returning to the other end of the hall, however, so I can take the main stair up.

Off the third floor hall are bedrooms, bedrooms and more bedrooms, but only one bath.

Over the course of many years, Grasmere's current owners had quietly purchased the estate's original subdivided acreage in order to protect it from development. It wasn't until 2006, however, that they finally bought the mansion on 25 acres. They already owned the imposing 1901 stone barn, which they had rebuilt after it was gutted by fire. The renovated barn has been a venue for charity benefits and social events, among them Chelsea Clinton Mezvinsky's 2010 wedding reception.

As of this writing, big things loom on Grasmere's horizon. The stone barn is to be converted into a culinary center - read that, "high class restaurant" - with "food produced on site and sourced from local Hudson Valley farms." The restored mansion will be converted into a 12-room hotel, and serve additionally as entry point for a collection of chic guest cottages tucked into the surrounding woods. Spa plans remain in the hypothetical stage. Grasmere was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Due to the number of contributing structures on the original estate, it is actually its own Historic District. The link, although there's not much information on it yet, is; email inquiries should be directed to


  1. Who knew that the us had such amazing houses! Imagine if you ever went to London or Scotland. 0.o

  2. This house is fantastic... those mantles... and the marble stair rail posts on the exterior are incredibly unique- I've seen that form in wood and iron, but never stone.

  3. You know, I've always wondered what lay behind the front entrance and down that lane of locust trees. The house is beautiful, in spite of all the conflicting styles...though I find the 'nakedness' of the rooms a little startling. The landscape is, plainly speaking, glorious.

  4. All very interesting! I would surely have taken in borders to keep this long as they were terribly interesting and not related in any way!

  5. I've only seen the exterior of this house prior to today. The exterior, in my humble opinion, is a bit heavy and un-gracious, so it's a surprise to see what a pleasant interior the house has; much nicer than I would have expected, anyway. I especially like the two interesting marble mantelpieces. The one with the caryatids (sp?) looked very familiar to me, and it took me quite a while to figure out why. There's a very similar mantel in one of the parlors at Oak Terrace, the Hall place near Tivoli, NY, where Eleanor Roosevelt grew up. I found a pic of that Oak Terrace mantel and it's a pretty close match:
    It's kind of interesting to me that both of these old mantels belonged to members of the Livingston family. Perhaps they originally came from another old family home?

    1. They probably both knew the same artisan whom made them!

  6. I was one of the "Grasmunard children" you referenced in your excellent article. I'm so glad to hear that the house has been reunited with the larger property and will be developed into a hotel. I have incredible memories of summers spent renovating the house, painting the roof, cutting the lawn with our farm tractor, rebuilding the pond (is it still there?), and so on.

    While I'm not an expert on architecture and therefore can't comment on your observations about the structure, I think you overlooked one important characteristic of the house: it was an extraordinary place for people to be with other people without being on top of each other. I suppose it helps that the residence comprises 30,000 square feet, but the rooms have a very natural flow that allow people to be alone in one moment, and integrated into the larger group in the next. Even the flow between floors is easy - the main staircase has a very open feel, and sound carries up and down easily.

    We used to have holiday parties every year, and we'd have 100 or more people in attendance, and the house somehow never seemed crowded.

    I'm glad Grasmere is still in good hands.

  7. Between 1981 and 1983, when I was a student at CIA, I was one of the secondary caretakers at Grasmere. My roommate and I lived in the basement, original service quarters I believe. There was a terrific old kitchen just pass the basement entryway from outside. From your picture, it looks like it's been torn out. There were, of course, many stories about ghosts and I must admit, there were some strange occurrences. It was cold and damp in the basement. Most of my care taking job was painting walls on the first floor. We paid a small rent for the privilege. Such beautiful grounds--I'll never forget the experience.

  8. Why do you refer to Mrs. Montgomery as Lady Montgomery?

  9. Nice blog..! I really loved reading through this article.
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