Credit: Paul Irish

Locust Grove, Poughkeepsie

Samuel F.B. Morse's
Locust Grove
In the
Hudson River Valley

Mike Russo

Locust Grove is a point of significant historical interest within the Hudson Valley. Over time, this estate has belonged to some of our earliest landed gentry such as the Vanderburghs and the Livingstons who owned much of the east side of the mid-Hudson River Valley. The property was then purchased by the Montgomerys, followed by artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, and then finally, the Youngs, a society family from Poughkeepsie at the turn of the century. While this paper will mention the rest of the owners, it is mainly concerned with the period of Morse’s ownership, as he was not just an accomplished artist but also one of the earliest advocates for landscape design.

Today, Locust Grove is best known for its famous landscape design and exterior house architecture that Morse planned with renowned landscape designer A. J. Davis. At the time it was built, it was one of the Hudson Valley’s and America’s first truly grand landscape designs. After Morse died, Locust Grove was purchased by the Young family, Poughkeepsie socialites, who turned the house into a personal museum with the intentions of making it open to the public.

I. Samuel F.B. Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse was an important figure in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in Charlestown, just outside Boston, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791. He came from a moderately wealthy family. His father, Jedidiah Morse, was a pastor at a local church; however, he was better known for creating some of the first detailed geographic maps of America that won him moderate fame.
Samuel Morse’s family was wealthy enough to send him to Yale College where he was a mediocre student. He was more interested in perfecting his artistic ability rather than study, although he found his classes on electricity very interesting. He graduated from Yale in 1810 and decided to pursue art. In that time period America was not an ideal place for a young artist to learn, and against his parents’ wishes he decided to go to England to study painting. When he was eighteen years old, Samuel Morse made his first of many trips to Europe to study under renowned American painter Washington Allston. Even though Morse practiced his craft of painting along side many of the artists considered to be part of the Hudson River School, he always considered landscape painting as a secondary love to his true pursuit of painting the historical figures and scenes which artists in the early nineteenth century felt were the most valuable subjects and themes. He found his inspiration from earlier artists such as Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart, all of whom were popular in the eighteenth century.
Morse was an artist concerned with details. In 1822, on his first return to America he painted huge historical scenes such as the meeting of the House of Congress. His eye for detail was so honed that in preparation for the painting of Congress he first painted large scale studies of each of the Congressmen’s heads even though they would be no larger than an average person’s fingernail in the final painting.
Unfortunately, America was not Europe. There was no demand for such grand paintings because of America’s still developing culture and economy during the early part of the nineteenth century. While he still continued to paint these grand scenes, he became known as one of the world’s premier portrait painters, painting everybody from the common man to famous people at the time. His portraits included DeWitt Clinton, William Cullen Bryant and then President James Monroe. During the early part of the nineteenth century, Morse traveled between America and Europe, often starving and struggling to succeed financially at something that he loved.
In Morse’s youth and young adulthood, landscape architecture in America was in its infancy. However, Morse was greatly influenced by the English gardens that he saw and read about on his trips to Europe, especially England, and their long tradition of landscape architecture. Although there is little evidence that Morse had direct experience with landscape design or actual gardening because he lived only in London and New York City and his limited financial means left it unlikely that he would have been able to travel into the country. However, Morse used landscapes in the background of some of his portraits and from time to time, painted a landscape. The critical importance of this is that in that time landscape painting was considered to have a direct link to landscape design. Furthermore, Morse considered landscape gardening and design a fine art. He felt that it was not the person that simply worked on the landscape but the person who could see the bigger vision of the finished and mature landscape as the person that practiced landscape design and gardening as a fine art.
Although not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, by 1825 Morse was climbing to the near top of the social and artistic community in New York City. In this same year, he helped to establish the National Academy of Design with Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and Asher B. Durand and served as its first president. This Academy would become a New York institution and museum that still exists today. One year later, in 1826, Morse came out with a lecture series on what he would call the five “perfect fine arts – painting, sculpture, poetry, music and landscaping”. Locust Grove best illustrates his concept of landscaping. Landscaping was one of his earliest lectures that survived and one of the most lasting because it became the cornerstone of 19th century American landscape theory and design. Even though landscape design and gardening were considered fine arts in England for generations, Morse was one of the first people to bring landscape design to America, which makes the landscape at Locust Grove even more valuable.
Morse’s lectures came to symbolize the first important step of a new school of landscape design that would be developed in America as an extension of the English landscape gardens. Instead of the formal gardens of England, the new school would be called "picturesque.” Morse would be one of the first people to put this new form in writing. While he borrowed the theories of Thomas Whately, who was a prominent eighteenth century English landscape designer, he would expand and rethink Whately’s views to fit this new theory of landscape design. In Morse’s new form, design mimicked nature and showed that there was a connection between nature and God.
Morse felt that the natural, or the picturesque, should take precedence over any artificial landscape feature. In these lectures, Morse discussed how the four elements of the picturesque design – “ground, wood (trees and shrubs), water, rocks and the (the exterior appearance of) buildings.” His lectures presented a detailed discussion of how the landscape designer or gardener could use these four principles to create a natural looking landscape. This would provide for a clean and tidy appearance but at the same time take advantage of the great natural beauty that surrounded the landscape. The reason that this would become so popular in America in the first half of the nineteenth century was due to the unspoiled beauty that America had to offer. Morse used these theories in his redesign of Locust Grove taking advantage of the natural beauty of the Hudson River Valley to bring his views on picturesque landscape design into reality for himself. Morse felt that landscape design and gardening was equal or even superior to landscape painting because it dealt in “reality rather than representation.”
By the early 1830’s Samuel Morse was well known for his portraits; however, he was still a starving artist. This would all change in a short ten years. Morse had been interested in the still developing technology of electrical current since his days at Yale. While on his way back from Europe on a ship called The Sully, he got the initial idea that messages could be sent a long distance through electrical impulses along wire. He heard about Michael Faraday’s lectures and invention called the electromagnet. Morse was spurred on to develop his idea because of a $30,000 prize that the United States government had offered for a telegraph system along the East coast. Interestingly enough, the government was merely suggesting a series of signals for people to shine and nothing about electrical communication. Neither the government nor Morse had any idea of the revolutionary change that was to occur through such an invention. Morse was helped with his invention through the work of Leonard Gale, the writings of Joseph Henry on electrical currents being used to sound a bell, and the assistance of technician Alfred Vail.
What Morse did was take all this information and capitalize on it by figuring out a way to have the signal travel longer distances, and develop the apparatus to transmit the signal. His apparatus consisted of a sender made of a plate with long and short metal bars representing what would become the Morse code and a receiver made up of an electromagnet and stylus. When a message was received, the stylus would make dents in a paper tape that would be read by the operator. Morse’s original prototype of the telegraph was not made out of metal because he lacked the funds and was made instead mostly out of wood. In fact, the frame of the original invention was made from one of an old canvas painting and can still be seen today at the Visitor’s Center at Locust Grove.
Morse’s work was held up by the Depression of 1837 because he needed the $30,000 from the government to see if his invention was practical. In 1843, with the country in economic recovery, Morse obtained the appropriations from Congress to run a line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. He desired to bury the wire underground, but the plan had to be scrapped when one of his business partners bought cheap wire with bad insulation. His chief engineer Ezra Cornell suggested stringing telegraph wire in between trees and on poles to save time and money. On May 24, 1844, the first line was completed between the Supreme Court Chambers in the Capitol Building in Washington D. C. and the Baltimore train station. Samuel Morse would be the first person to successfully test his invention. His famous first words typed in were “What hath God wrought?” This was a resounding success.
In Morse’s lifetime, telegraph wires would crisscross the United States and Europe and even connect the two continents, forever changing the world connecting time and space. No longer would it take days or weeks for a message to be carried between cities. It would be instantaneous and no man would benefit more from this invention than Samuel F. B. Morse. Once a starving artist, in the next twenty years he would grow richer than his wildest dreams. This money would allow him to buy what he had always wanted, a country house far away from noise and filth of the city where he could carry out his ideas on landscape design. He would be further helped financially in 1855 when the United States government recognized him as the sole patent holder of the telegraph which had been debated for some time. This additional income was supplemented with an 1857 trip to Europe where countries gave him another $80,000 allowing him to continue to develop the landscape at Locust Grove. This money allowed Morse to express his artistic abilities in the landscape at Locust Grove.

II. Locust Grove

Locust Grove is a complex site with a rich tradition of history and styles. The first family that owned the property was the Vanderburghs who purchased a small part of Colonel Peter Schuyler’s large wilderness patent. When Henry Vanderburgh died, Henry Livingston, part of a rich and influential family in the Hudson Valley during the colonial period, purchased the property. The Livingstons maintained a house and farm on the property but none of the structures remain today.
John Montgomery bought the land in 1830 from the estate of Henry Livingston, Jr. and built a Georgian style house. The house was farther away from the King’s Highway, today’s Rt. 9, than the original Livingston house. At this time, both houses existed and were maintained. The new Georgian style house featured two similar facades each with a grand staircase. This design was considered an old standby in the time it was built and if anything, a little plain and uninteresting. One theory for the construction of his house in an outmoded fashion was that Montgomery appeared to be an Irish immigrant and may have felt more comfortable in this older style house that would remind him of home. He added a circular drive planted on both sides with sugar maples that connected with the old Livingston driveway. Whatever the configuration, the land around the house formed a considerable park like area. He also moved the Livingston’s agricultural functions on the property to below the bluff that divides the land into the upper and lower halves. This turned the upper half into a formally landscaped area instead of a farm. This process would be brought to its natural conclusion by Samuel F. B. Morse’s ornamental landscape.
Samuel Morse purchased the Montgomery house along with all of Montgomery’s land which was a bigger parcel than the current site for a sum of a little over $17,000. However, by 1850 he had sold all but the seventy-six acres, which was the ultimate size of his estate for the last twenty years of his life. In the first three years that Morse owned the property he only did minor landscape improvements while dreaming of bigger and better things to do to the property.
The reason that Morse did not begin immediately changing and sculpting the house and landscape was twofold. First, he experienced some unexpected financial difficulties immediately after buying Locust Grove, and second, he was trying to decide whether to have Locust Grove function as both an estate and a profitable farm. By 1851, his telegraph invention had become more profitable than Morse had ever dreamed, and he finally had enough money to make improvements on the Locust Grove property. He also had discovered that farming was more trouble than profit, and even though farming did continue throughout Morse’s time at Locust Grove, it was as an element of the overall landscape design. The ornamental landscape would become the dominant activity on the property. With these two issues resolved, he set forth shaping Locust Grove into his dream house and landscape. Interestingly enough, at this same time, he had begun to refer to his house as Locust Grove because of the large locust trees in front of the property. This is not the first time the property was called this as the Livingstons had also called it Locust Grove.

III. Exterior House Architecture

In 1851, Morse enlisted a long time acquaintance, A. J. Davis, to help him turn the Georgian house that Morse felt was plain and uninteresting into something spectacular. On his first visit to Locust Grove, A. J. Davis suggested a Tuscan style villa that was popular at the time. Morse and Davis worked in unison to create a design that satisfied both of them. After nearly a year of construction, the newly remodeled house was completed, looking very different as Montgomery’s Georgian style house now formed the core with Morse’s construction a new shell around it. The Morse-Davis design created an Italian Tuscan villa that was very symmetrical and orderly. It was considered a beautiful design that was part of the overall picturesque landscape design. This is because the house had a definite architectural style rooted in classical design theory and blended into the landscape as another part of the overall design. The renovation of the Georgian style house took about one year to transform into an elaborate Tuscan villa. On the east side, facing the King’s Highway (Rt. 9), a porte cochere was added. A porte cochere is a covered entryway for carriages to drive through so people could enter the house under cover. This one has a set of stairs and a room above to add drama to the front of the house. The symmetry and grandeur continued onto the south side where a new vine-covered veranda was added with a set of grand stairs leading down into the terraced landscape below. The most striking element was added on the west side of the house as a tower which extended three stories into the air becoming one of the most prominent features of the house. On the riverside, the tower also featured huge bay windows that extended up two stories and to add even more interest, there are arch topped windows on all sides of the third floor. The exterior was completely changed in order to mimic a stone house with the traditional Italian villa details. This formed the centerpiece of Morse’s landscape above the bluff. Everything else would relate to the house and its symmetrical and geometrical design with the landscape playing off this design.

IV. Landscape

The immediate grounds around the house were perfect to continue the beautiful style of the house architecture because of its flat and park-like appearance and the lawn terraces. There were matching larch trees on either side of the porte cochere and between them the fountain was placed on the centerline of the house. The circular driveway was edged by neat sections of boxwood hedges. This gave the front of the house a formal and stately public appearance and a sense of great wealth and style. From the south side one would step down from the vine covered veranda to a staircase leading to a lawn terrace which was surrounded on either side by stairs which led to lower terraces all of which were geometric in design with the one immediately in front having grand flower beds carved into the lawn. There were matching urns that flanked the staircases. This led to a spectacular design and a sense of great elegance and grandeur.
On the west side of the house, the tower combined with the lawn terraces set an orderly geometric design which helped to frame the picturesque view of the Hudson River and the surrounding woodland. Elaborate flowerbeds were continued from the north and south sides with one particularly grand flowerbed centered to the tower. At a later date during Morse’s time, he added a glass greenhouse and conservatory to the coach house that was visible from the west side and had extensive screen plantings.
The agricultural activities that consisted of a kitchen garden and an orchard were located to the south and southeast which limited the agriculture above the bluff to ones that would purely relate to the design of the house landscape. Morse planted trees to shield the house from the road and agricultural activities with a gate leading from the public road to the house. There is evidence that Morse fixed up the old Livingston house and simplified it to fit in his new landscape plan. He also finished what Livingston and Montgomery had started by moving all the large scale farming activities to below the bluff which completed the transformation of the land above the bluff into ornately landscaped grounds.
Below the bluff, Morse maintained farm activities; however, these activities were no longer performed for profit but rather for the benefit of landscape design. He cleared trees to increase the view from above the bluff while at the same time planting and preserving other trees to increase screening and maintaining the natural look of the property. Although he thought the farm was an integral part of the landscape, he wanted to hide functional elements such as stone walls and other utilitarian features so that when one would look at the river from above, one would see a natural view of the river, the farmlands, the meadows, and the west river bank. He did this to add to the picturesque beauty of the property where above the bluff there was a refined landscape but surrounding it on all sides were the natural beauties of nature and the wilderness making the overall effect at Locust Grove one of great beauty because of the integration of all the design elements. This made the farm at Locust Grove during Morse’s time an ornamental farm where the farm, meadows, and other agricultural activities were purely there as landscape features, not unlike a flowerbed or an ornamental tree.

V. Locust Grove Today

In 1872 Samuel F. B. Morse died at the age of 81 in New York City. For the last twenty plus years of his life, he was constantly refining and working on the landscape at Locust Grove, excluding the few times when he was in Europe for an extended period. In a way, Locust Grove is Samuel Morse most lasting piece of work. The Morses kept Locust Grove in the family until the turn of the 20th century when they sold it to the Youngs, a wealthy socialite family of Poughkeepsie. The Youngs inherited a Locust Grove that had been a little neglected and in need of some maintenance. They kept the bones of the Morse landscape largely intact, though they simplified some of Morse’s more ornate features above the bluff and added an addition to the main house while still maintaining the Italian Tuscan style. The Youngs’ goal for Locust Grove was to maintain the heritage of the property especially from the Morse period. They began to collect different types of furniture and other household possessions with the intention of making a museum for themselves and eventually for the public. In 1963 the house and grounds were declared the first national historic site in the Hudson Valley. The Youngs’ daughter, Annette Innis Young, lived at Locust Grove for 80 years of her life. In this time she and her parents kept detailed documents about the events that were held at their home. This was in part because they realized the historical significance of their house and wanted to add to this by creating a personal museum with their collections combined with the heritage and the landscapes of Samuel F. B. Morse. In 1975 when Annette Innis Young died, she left behind a trust to maintain the house, which allowed it to become open to the public who could visit and study both the landscape and times of Morse and the unique collections of the Young family. This is the role that the present day Young-Morse Historic Site fulfills.