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Mount Gulian

The Hudson River Valley Review; Regional History Forum Volume 20, Number 1 

 

Mount Gulian

Mount Gulian, in Beacon, was the home of the Verplanck family for ten generations. In the late seventeenth century, fur traders Francis Rombout and Gulian Verplanck together purchased 85,000 acres—known as the Rombout Patent— from the local Wappinger Indians. After Verplanck’s death, it took fifty years to divide his share of the land among his many heirs. Eventually, Gulian II (the original Gulian’s grandson) received 2,880 acres, 400 of which surrounded the new home he built between 1730 and 1740 on a slope overlooking the Hudson River. He named his estate Mount Gulian, in honor of his grandfather.

For nearly 200 years, this Dutch vernacular house offered the Verplancks and their guests a summer escape from New York City, the location of their main residence. Many visitors today come to explore the role the home played in the American Revolution. In 1783, it served as the headquarters of American General Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who served as the Continental Army’s drillmaster and inspector general. Under his supervision, the inexperienced American army was transformed into a disciplined military force. It was also at Mount Gulian that the Society of the Cincinnati was formed on May 13, 1783. The society began as a fraternal organization of officers of the Continental and French armies, and its mission was to support veterans. Still in existence today, it has fourteen chapters, one in each of the original thirteen states and France. Fittingly, Mount Gulian is the official headquarters of the New York Society of the Cincinnati.

Tragically, a fire destroyed most of Mount Gulian in 1931, although the stone walls, as well as some furnishings and plants from the garden, were rescued.  An immediate reconstruction was considered, but in the end, the house’s ruins were left to the mercy of nature. Years later, its historic significance led architect Kenneth Clinton to approach Bache Bleecker, a Verplanck descendant who owned the Mount Gulian property, about rebuilding the house. In 1965, when an apartment complex was being planned for the site, the Temple Hill Association (represented by Clinton) suggested rebuilding the structure in New Windsor, across the river. The following year, Bleecker—who recognized the importance of reconstructing Mount Gulian in its original location—donated its ruins, along with ten surrounding acres, to the newly formed Mount Gulian Society.

From the start, the society’s goal was to restore the original building to its eighteenth-century appearance and to promote the site as a historical, educational, and cultural resource. On March 31, 1967, New York State granted the society a provisional charter; its founders met at the Harvard Club in New York City and named a board of trustees, which included Verplanck descendants.

Work soon began on the reconstruction and refurbishment of such interesting architectural features as the gambrel roof, verandah, original colonial kitchen, and four capped chimneys. Results of an archaeological dig conducted around the ruins allowed workmen to reproduce to the inch the house’s original oak beams, pine floor planking, and first-floor door and window frames. In addition, Mount Gulian’s stone walls were repointed and the fireplaces restored.

In October 1967, the Mount Gulian Society received title to the property, which had been deeded to it by Bache Bleecker, but financial difficulty delayed the house’s continued restoration. The building’s exterior was finally completed in 1973, but it remained empty, again because of expenses. The interior required period stairs, paneling, moldings, window sashes, doors, hardware, and furnishings. (Many of the original furnishings from the home—including family portraits painted by John Singleton Copley—are displayed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum.)

In 1973, the society acquired its first piece of furniture, an American Hepplewhite drop-leaf table. The next year, it purchased an eighteenth-century Dutch barn in Hopewell Junction that was moved to Mount Gulian. The historic house opened its doors to the public in 1975, just in time for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, and a full year before the organization’s target date. The following year, more furnishings were added and Mount Gulian received a permanent New York State charter. Today, the home features a meeting/museum room and a dining room filled with colonial furnishings.

An archaeological dig in 1978 uncovered a midden—in this case, a dump of clamshells left by Native Americans—which indicated that humans had inhabited the site as early as 1000 A.D. As a result of this find, Mount Gulian expanded its exhibits to include Native American artifacts. That same year, it also began sponsoring paid functions, which have helped to finance further work, including the ongoing restoration of Mount Gulian’s garden.

Mount Gulian 75 (PICTURE) The restored formal garden at Mount Gulian (Photograph by Amy Mathason)

The original formal English gardens at Mount Gulian were an important feature of the estate, attracting visitors for over a century. Designed in 1804 by Daniel Crommelin Verplanck (Gulian II’s grandson) and his daughter, Mary Anna, they originally comprised six acres, but later were scaled back to three. They contained fruit trees, vegetables, flowers, and formal box-edged beds, as well as a pergola, sundial, and brook. Among the garden’s 140 rose bushes was one planted by the Marquis de Lafayette, who stayed at the house.

Gardener James Brown kept an extensive diary about his life and work at Mount Gulian from 1829 to 1868. Brown was born into slavery in Maryland in 1793; at age 25, he ran away. Little is known about his escape, but after his arrival in New York City the Verplanck family employed him as a coachman and waiter at their Wall Street home. Eventually, he became the gardener at Mount Gulian. (According to Verplanck legend, the family was eventually forced to purchase Brown’s freedom after a guest at the house recognized the former slave and reported his whereabouts to his Baltimore master.) Mary Anna Verplanck taught him to read and write, and he wound up leaving many fascinating accounts of happenings along the Hudson River—steamboat explosions, ice races, slave uprisings, prayer meetings—as well as material about the day-to-day lives of the Verplancks. He also wrote about his marriage to Julia, another slave whose freedom he purchased in 1826. The New-York Historical Society currently owns Brown’s original writings; Mount Gulian has photocopies. Its school program on African-American life at Mount Gulian is centered on him.

In 1996, researchers were thrilled when fifty-nine letters written by Robert Newlin Verplanck were found in the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie. The letters, which had been sent to Verplanck’s mother and sister at Mount Gulian, describe his service as an officer in the 6th U.S. Regiment of Colored Troops during the Civil War. They vividly document the contributions of the 200,000 African-American soldiers who fought for the Union.

In 1997, trustees of the Mount Gulian Society proudly reported that a five-year plan to pay off debts and make the site profitable had met its goal two years ahead of schedule. Stemming from that success, they began a major new initiative: to purchase acres of wooded land adjacent to Mount Gulian that were slated for a housing development. The urgency of this purchase had been fueled, in part, by a more recent archaeological study that determined that Native Americans had inhabited the Mount Gulian area some 7,000 years earlier than originally estimated.

Since the success of its first Living History Weekend in 1993, interpreters and guides dressed in period clothing have become a staple of Mount Gulian’s educational mission. Future plans include the addition of a living history museum. “We envision a site wherein the visitor will be immersed in history, able to see, smell, hear, touch, and even taste it,” says Director Elaine Hayes. “All the wonderful stories associated with Mount Gulian will be part of the experience.” Mount Gulian’s collections grew last September with a generous donation of furniture and other items from William Verplanck. (The gift includes mid-nineteenth-century furniture that belonged to Robert Newlin Verplanck and his wife, Katherine Brinckerhoff.) Also on display—and on long-term loan to the house—is a Cincinnati eagle insignia originally owned by a descendant of Abraham Lincoln.

Since opening to the public, Mount Gulian has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors. School groups and individual tours focus on such topics as Dutch settlers, the Revolutionary War, nineteenth-century domestic life, African Americans, and Native Americans. The facilities feature changing exhibits, workshops, and arts and crafts classes. Special events include a colonial dinner based on authentic recipes, Revolutionary War Living History Weekend, Halloween storytelling, and a Christmas candlelight tour. A gift shop (located in the original kitchen) includes handmade items by local craftspeople, as well as a variety of “Americana” items for adults and children.

—Amy Mathason, Hudson River Valley Institute

Mount Gulian, in Beacon, is open 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday from mid-April through December; on Sundays, special events are held. The house is also open by appointment. Group and school visits are offered year-round. 

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