The Wandering Eye: The Mills Mansion
Barely back from another research trip for their book on the great houses of Cuba, our intrepid blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney and his long-suffering spouse Hermes Mallea [Writer’s Note: Rather brutal editorializing, RI guys…], an architect, both of M (Group), have hit the historic house trail again.
Our Hudson River Valley estates tour continued last week at the Staatsburgh State Historic Site—the Mills Mansion. This was our first visit, which is dumb since it’s about 4 minutes from one of our ongoing projects in Rhinebeck. (Reminds me of an apartment we did opposite the Met Museum—during the course of two years, neither of us found the time to simply walk across the street for a quick art field trip. I guess that’s why they call it “work.” And very us…taking advantage of all New York City has to offer [not]).
Anyway, this house is grand and huge and much cooler than the Vanderbilt house down the road. Ruth Livingston grew up at Staatsburgh, an 1832 Greek Revival house on the Hudson. She married Ogden Mills (daddy Darius made a fortune in California—gold, silver, real estate, railroads), inherited her family house, and promptly hired McKim, Meade and White in 1895 to redo the place. She upped the ante from 25 rooms to 79—and the new 54 rooms were very splendid. Old-Money Livingston lineage, gigantic social aspirations, and a bottomless pit of money made for quite a house.
Staatsburgh is a marriage of early 19th-century and early 20th-century residential design. Twelve-foot ceilings in the original central section morph to 20 feet in the wings, and Stanford White’s talents in the space planning and transitions are evident throughout. The older rooms became parlors and intimate ante rooms to the amazing dining room and library in the new wings. Upstairs, bedrooms have the original Greek Revival moldings—you have to pity the poor architects who must have begged to knock the old place down and simply start over. “It’d be way cheaper, Mrs. Mills.” But the combo works, and I’m sure it gave Ruth pleasure to know her old digs (and old name) were alive and well somewhere under there.
While the Vanderbilt house was devoid of personality, the Mills house survives intact, stuff-wise. Lots of family portraits, bibelots, and original furniture and rugs that really give the visitor an idea of the house in its prime. The rugs blew me away. Huge Turkish oushaks everywhere. I am usually not impressed by historic house rugs - - either not my taste (Persians with medallions) or simply not there (too fragile and long gone…) But here, some rug dealer in 1896 was made very happy by the Mills order. Lots of beautiful rugs—every room (and bedroom) we saw had a winner.
My photos don’t do the house justice. For lack of a better excuse, I blame this on Hermes. He kept “borrowing” the camera and/or directing me to “Take that” or “Did you get that?”—he dammed up the flow of my creative juices. (I hear a knowing murmur from the peanut gallery, “That honeymoon is over.”). I’d recommend the virtual tours, but frankly, they’re not that great either.
One room I did capture on film was Mrs. Mills’ bedroom. Jeez… Belle Watling meets Dorothy Draper. I was speechless. (speaking of speechless—while spell-checking Belle Watling, I see that there is a teenage Belle Watling on Facebook!??! Who names their daughter after Hollywood’s most famous madam??? Someone in Puyallup, Washington, that’s who.) The dog is cute, right? Another internet Belle Watling.
Anyway—that red! Ca c’est quelque chose. And that little Marie Antoinette bed platform—what’s with that? Robber Baron consorts all had them. Me—the last thing I need in my bedroom is a 4” trip hazard (which reminds me—why was there a big schmear of yogurt and Grape Nuts in my bed this morning? Damn Ambien. Just imagine if I’d had a platform to maneuver, semi-conscious… disaster).
The dining room has marble walls (very Vatican), the best “fire dogs” I’ve seen in a while, and beautiful mahogany and giltwood mirrored doors that were used throughout the ‘new’ rooms.
And how about that pantry? With very official silver vault. In an adjacent hall is another safe, for family and guests to ‘check’ their jewels (access was then limited to the pre-dinner dressing hour and upon departure).
The grand exterior was covered with Shotcrete (spray on concrete stuff) at some point. Now the process is underway to restore the exterior, removing the concrete layer and returning to the white stucco. In this photo, the left side (southern façade) is restored to white stucco, the left side is the old grey gunite. It’ll be nicer white, no? Home-ier.
The combined Mills-Norrie State Parks total 988 acres and features trails and recreational stuff, including the Dinsmore Golf Course, whose original nine holes were prive and shared by three families. The entrance is handsome and restrained— neat but not gaudy. I’m a sucker for (good) gate eagles—not crazy about the Agway concrete ones.
During the course of the tour the (very nice) guide mentioned that the Mills had a Paris house (in addition to Newport, New York, and California). Interest piqued, a quick internet search came up with their Parisian address—73, rue de Varennes – the Hotel de Broglie! Damn—not exactly low profile. (FYI - I hate that name – no way I can pronounce it. ‘Neuilly’ throws me too). The portrait is the famous Countess Albert de Broglie by Ingres. #73 is now the Sultan of Brunei’s Parisian pied a terre. ‘Nough said…
Check out Staatsburgh—we enjoyed it.
The Reading List
For reading, I guess “In the Pink: Dorothy Draper, America’s Most Fabulous Decorator” should feature (just compare the cover to the Mills bedroom—I’m right, right?). There are some very daring and very over the top interiors. Mrs. Draper did the lobby at 770 Park and the rooms give me pleasure every time I walk through them—urns with up lights, black-and-white marble floors, a fountain with a draped nude.
It’s summer and there is no better ‘beach’ reading than The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton and her heroine Lily Bart shared with Ruth Mills the life experiences of turn-of-the-century American aristocracy. You’ll gain insight into that world, and you’ll get a real summer potboiler—perfect. And then wander up to Lenox to see The Mount.
Maybe pipe Yo-Yo Ma’s, Paris La Belle Epoque into the garden. He and Kathryn Stott perform a ‘medley’ of lush Continental music of the period.