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Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Sarah Gunner

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, also known as Mills Mansion, was donated to New York State in 1938 by Gladys Mills Phipps. Bordering the Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park, it is located in Staatsburg. The estate embodies a significant amount of history among its beautiful Beaux Arts architecture and picturesque grounds, and it tells the fascinating story of a wealthy family who lived during the Gilded Age.

The house was originally built in 1832 as a twenty-five-room Greek Revival structure by New York Governor Morgan Lewis and his wife, Gertrude Livingston. Lewis is perhaps best known for his role in the American Revolution, during which he served as second in command to Major General Horatio Gates. After the war, Lewis became a lawyer and was elected a member of the state assembly from Dutchess County. In 1792 he became chief justice of the state supreme court and served as governor from 1804 until 1807. He lived at Staatsburgh from 1807 to 1812; while there, he devoted much of his time and energy to agriculture. In 1812 he accepted the post of Quarter Master General to the United States Army; a year later, he was made Major General. He died in New York City in 1844, leaving Staatsburgh to his daughter, Ruth Livingston Mills, and her husband, Ogden Mills. Ogden and Ruth left their indelible mark on Staatsburgh. It is the Gilded Age estate they created that is currently standing and interpreted by the staff.

Ogden Mills inherited his vast fortune from his father, Darius Ogden Mills, who became wealthy from investments made during the California Gold Rush. Ruth and Ogden had three children: a pair of twin daughters, Gladys and Beatrice; and a son, also named Ogden. Ogden Livingston Mills became a very successful politician, serving in the New York State Senate and eventually as Secretary of the Treasury under President Hoover in 1932 and 1933.

Not much information is known about the Millses because the family was extremely private and either took or destroyed almost all of their personal papers upon leaving Staatsburgh. However, it is known that Mrs. Mills was an avid bridge player and was noted for the house parties she threw for the specific purpose of playing bridge. That Mrs. Mills was a keen bridge player is not surprising given the fact that she was a high-society lady during the Gilded Age. Lasting from roughly 1870 to 1900, this was an era of American opulence in which many people made huge fortunes by investing in industries such as railroads and steel. The time of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie, the Millses were also considered part of this elite class. The Gilded Age ushered in many advances in technology, so the wealthy were able to experience such luxuries as electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and telephones. The epoch is characterized by its extravagance: hosting huge parties and owning several large houses were considered the norm by many of the wealthy who lived during this time.

During the Gilded Age, America’s nouveau riche wished to impress upon European high society that they too could live like royalty. This brought about the “Beaux Arts” style of architecture. Beaux Arts, which means “fine art” in French, was a highly popular style of building that was used for many public buildings and mansions during the Glided Age. It is noted for its use of symmetry, formal design, and elaborate ornamentation. Many of the structures built in the Beaux Arts style feature columns, balustrades, grand staircases, large arches, and highly decorated façades. Grand Central Terminal, the main branch of the New York Public Library, Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, and Staatsburgh are all excellent examples of the style and the ideals that the Gilded Age embodied.

In 1895 the Millses decided to enlarge the existing home and hired the prestigious architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White, which had already designed the nearby Vanderbilt mansion. Stanford White was the primary architect of the house. Upon its completion in 1896, Staatsburgh boasted sixty-five rooms, including forty-seven bedrooms, fourteen bathrooms, and twenty-three fireplaces. The house has not undergone any major renovations since—inside or out—so when a visitor approaches Staatsburgh, it is nearly the same experience that Ruth Livingston Mills enjoyed when arriving home from an outing.

However, there is one unfortunate difference between the appearance of the house as it looked in 1896 and today. In the 1950s, after the state inherited the house, it was decided that the exterior should be sprayed with gunite for preservation purposes. A form of concrete, the gunite dulled the exterior from its original brilliant white, making it appear gray. Restoration efforts are under way to remove the gunite and resurface the exterior with stucco, with which it was originally covered. Thus far, the south façade and terrace have been restored. The restoration process is very costly and takes time because gunite contains asbestos, which forces the restoration team to proceed with caution so it does not contaminate itself or others.

Almost all of the interior furnishings, including artwork, are those chosen by the Millses. One major exception to this are the upholstery silks in Mrs. Mills’s bedroom, They were recently replaced with new silk made to match the originals. Mrs. Mill’s bedroom is the quintessential Beaux Arts room. The walls are covered in an intricate, rich, deep-pink silk, which also happens to be the color of the room’s upholstery and carpet. The furniture itself is a cream color and lavishly decorated with carvings. Discerning the room’s original colors required some detective work. The wall hangings were replicated after discovery of a scrap of original silk remaining on the wall. The color of the carpet was determined after examination of the floor beneath the small stage on which Mrs. Mills’s bed was mounted.

While perhaps not as striking as Mrs. Mills’s room, the rest of the house is a beautiful example of Gilded Age design. Throughout the house there is not a single room—from the library to the massive dining room—that is not elaborately decorated. Even the maids had their own individual bedrooms, each with a window, heat, and electric light. A visitor could wander through the house for hours, absorbing the rich details of the intricately carved furniture, the book-filled shelves in the library, and the numerous paintings, many of Livingston ancestors.

The grounds are also very well planned. They are designed in the Picturesquelandscape fashion, a style of landscape architecture that emulates nature, with many rolling hills, clumps of trees, and small bodies of water. When the Millses inherited the land, there were 334 acres. By 1911, the couple had begun purchasing adjacent land. When Ogden died in 1929, the estate had grown to more than 1,600 acres.

Strolling through the grounds of Staatsburgh is aesthetically pleasing. There are many winding paths, with openings through the trees that reveal views of gently sloping hills leading down to the Hudson River. Some of the land at Staatsburgh was used for farming when the Millses lived there, and it is easy to imagine Mr. and Mrs. Mills watching cows graze in their pastures as they walked to the nearby St. Margaret’s Church for services. The road a visitor takes while leaving Staatsburgh is perhaps the most attractive; after snaking through the landscape it ends at two beautifully constructed stone pillars.

Staatsburgh offers many tour options. During the holiday season, there is a “Gilded Age Christmas Tour” that runs almost every day from late November to Christmas. During the summer, visitors flock to Celtic Day, held on the lawn, where they enjoy Celtic music and dance. There are also golf tournaments, a tennis tournament, environmental education programs, and numerous outdoor concerts.

The staff at Staatsburgh also offers themed tours every year. The most recent was based on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. It allowed visitors to see what life would have been like for Lilly Bart, the novel’s main character, and plays off the idea that Wharton may have based her description of Bellomont, where much of the action in the novel takes place, on some aspects of Staatsburgh. Themed tours are offered from the beginning of April to the end of October.

There are also many opportunities for school trips to Staatsburgh, and the staff has created programs for children of all ages. These range from a look at a servant’s life on a large estate during the Gilded Age to environmental programs where students learn to identify animals by their tracks and scat. Through these programs, the youngsters receive valuable, hands-on lessons that build upon the New York State curriculum. These tours and programs are offered year-round Staatsburgh.

Staatsburgh is a place where time has been suspended; the visitor is allowed a glimpse into the life of Mr. and Mrs. Mills. The estate is extremely well maintained, and the restoration efforts that are underway will help return the home’s exterior to its original splendor. It is a valuable historical site in the history-rich Hudson River Valley, and well worth a visit for anyone interested in the life of the wealthy or the Gilded Age.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is located on Old Post Road in Staatsburg. It is open 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Sunday from January–March and Tuesday–Sunday from April 1 to October 31. It is also open daily throughout the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Admission is $5 for adults; $4 for seniors, students, and groups; $1 for children ages 5–12; and free for children under 5. For more information, visit www. staatsburgh.org or phone 845-889-8851.

 

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