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Big Old Houses: A Palace on the Hudson
by John Foreman


In 1881, the son of the richest man in California married a Hudson Valley Livingston. The bride was a member of one of the most — if not the most — distinguished families in America. The groom was Ogden Mills (1855-1929), clubman, philanthropist, turfman, not exactly a society leader perhaps, but surely a pillar thereof, shown here well into his married life with the former Ruth Livingston. Mills' father, Darius Ogden Mills (1825-1910), had made a fortune from the Comstock Lode. It would be fun to imagine Mills senior as a cussin', drinkin' hardpan '49-er. However, he was nothing of the sort. D.O.Mills became rich by following the miners west and founding banks and railroads in their wake. When he returned to New York in 1880, his daughter married Whitelaw Reid, future Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and his son married a Livingston.

Ruth Livingston Mills.
The portrait to the right is of Ruth Livingston Mills (1855-1920), "Tiny" to her intimates, which couldn't have been a very large group. Society jokester, Harry Lehr, used to say Tiny Mills had reduced rudeness to a fine art. Her marriage to Ogden Mills was a domestic echo to that of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough.

The Livingston were no more impoverished than the Marlboroughs, but just as Vanderbilt lucre is said to have paid for central heating at Blenheim, so Mills cash transformed Ruth's inherited Greek Revival manse at Staatsburg, New York, into, well ... into a palace.

This is the house Ruth inherited in 1890 from her father, Maturin Livingon Jr. The photo doesn't do it credit. It was actually a charming Greek Revival country place of some scale built in 1832 on a bluff overlooking the Hudson. An earlier house had been destroyed by fire. Mrs. Mills' great-grandfather, Morgan Lewis, Quartermaster General of the northern Continental Army during the Revolution, bought the property in 1792. His wife's family (she was Chancellor Livingston's sister, Gertrude) had been landholders in the Hudson Valley since the 1600s.
It looks pretty different today, right? In point of fact, the old Livingston house still survives (albeit barely) within a gigantic Classical Revival cocoon designed in 1895 by McKim, Mead and White. Fred Vanderbilt's house down the road in Hyde Park was intended to be a similar super-enlargement job. However, the same architects convinced Vanderbilt that his old house was too decrepit to preserve. The experience of trying to integrate the Livingston manse into the the new Mills palace probably had something to do with this.
I'm a great one for starting at the beginning, so let's begin at the main gate. Well, more correctly these are the standards to which that gate was once attached. They still broadcast a big message on the Old Post Road about what lies beyond. Actually, this is now the exit from what is officially called the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills State Park. The approach to any great house is a critical component of its overall aesthetic effect, so dilapidation or no, this is where we'll start.
A bridge over something — even the old New York Central (now Metro-North) tracks — enhances the impression of entering someplace other-worldly.
There used to be stone gutters like these lining the drives where I live in Millbrook. Unfortunately, ours are buried under decades of rotting leaves and accumulated weeds. Unless regularly swept by hand, that's what happens. As of this writing, the gutters at Mills are about a week old. I hope the state can keep them up.
Here's the Mills house in its heyday in the late 1890s. It's considered by many to have been the model for Bellomont, the Trenor estate on the Hudson in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. Manpower-intensive touches, like sculpted shrubs in enormous tubs that must be dragged in and out of distant greenhouses, provide that vintage luxurious touch so missing in modern times.
Here's the house today, still looking quite grand ... at least at first blush.
They're working on it, which we'll get to in a moment. God bless New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for understanding that I wanted to see ALL sixty-five rooms and fourteen bathrooms ... and then actually showing them to me. It was a struggle to reduce the almost four hundred photos I took to a manageably bloggable number.
Now we're inside the front hall which, although you might not guess it, occupies half of the main block of the old house. The grand McKim Mead and White stairway is just for guests; family quarters are at the south end of the house, accessed by a separate stair.
Livingston portraits line the walls in the main hall. Many a millionaire back then decorated his mansion with family portraits — often of somebody else's family. Not Ruth Livingston Mills.
A door behind the stair leads to this delicious little breakfast room, whose bow front overlooking the river is part of the original 1832 house. The McKim Mead and White interior detailing is as rich as chocolate mousse and just as light. I'm not really sure this was a breakfast room, but that's how I'd have used it, in lieu of the grand main dining room next door.
Mills' architects demolished the one-story wings that flanked the original house and replaced them with grand two-story rectangular additions, each sitting atop a full basement. The original in-house staff numbered 24 souls. Male servants were billeted in basement quarters located beneath the original house, alongside pantries, sculleries, and servants' halls. Female servants' rooms were housed in an attic on top of the old house, and sandwiched between the two new wings. The dining room runs the width of the northern wing and overlooks the river.
Below the dining room is the kitchen. On the same floor as the dining room are a pantry, a gold reception room and the butler's room. On the second floor of this wing are rooms for married guests.
Given conditions in my own old house, I look with forgiving eyes on peeling paint and ripped curtains. The recently restored gold reception room at Mills, however, requires no excuses. I am told the bagpipe detail on the fireplace is an homage to the Livingston family's Scottish roots.
Every bit as interesting as the gilt and marble grand rooms are the incredibly well preserved back stair areas. This serving pantry, adjacent to the dining room, is connected by a dumb waiter to the kitchen below.
Clearly ahead of their time, the Mills bought bottled water by the case. An unused case of Vichy was here when the state took the property over in 1938.
This original footman's uniform has been hung in the pantry. "OM" on the gold button, naturally enough, stands for Ogden Mills.
Around the corner and down a hall is the butler's room, and near it, a stairway to the kitchen below.
For decades, the basement under the dining room and extending under the central section of the original house as well, was occupied by the Taconic Regional offices of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. These offices were vacated in order to make way for a major restoration effort which, when finished, will allow visitors a closeup look at the service areas of a great Edwardian house.
The woodwork looks remarkably preserved, but until recently it was hidden under five layers of paint. Volunteer female inmates from the Beacon Correctional Facility, participating in a work program with not-for-profit organizations, spent two years painstakingly removing it. The result is a source of pride for all concerned.
This was the servants' dining room. Those columns mark the line of the bowed wall in the breakfast room above. The leather swing doors to the kitchen are a nice period touch.
We're in the kitchen now, located directly under the dining room. The stove was fortunately boxed in by the Parks Department, as opposed to being gratuitously ripped out. I'm told people who worked in this room didn't even know it was there.
Outside the kitchen are wonderful tiled corridors, as well as the mother of all ice boxes.
We're taking the servants' stair back to the main floor, crossing the corridor past the gold room, and winding up in the southern corner of the dining room.
This view was taken from the salon. The dining room is at the other end of the red rugs. The main hall and breakfast room are in between. The salon was originally a pair of Greek Revival parlors that were combined and significantly reworked by McKim Mead and White. The bow front on the west wall originally balanced the bow on the breakfast room. Together they formed a distinctive feature of the 1832 exterior. The only things left around here from 1832, at least as far as I could tell, are the delicate marble fireplaces.
Just as the dining room is the principal space in the north wing, so the library is the main room in the southern wing. All three floors in this wing were devoted to the family. The rest of the house was almost a hotel appended to it. Behind the library on the main floor are Mr. and Mrs. Mills' bedrooms. The floor above contained their children's bedrooms. The floor below had quarters for bachelor guests (prime among them, Mr. Mills' father) and a billiard room. All three levels in the south wing are connected by a private family staircase.
Now we're standing beside those family stairs. The library is behind the wall on the right. The flaming red curtains in the distance are in Mrs. Mills' recently restored bedroom.
Mr. Mills' bedroom, which is a little more to my taste, is on the other side of a small foyer.
The 1895 bathroom between them — his and her master bathrooms were a domestic improvement still to come — is, in a word, fabulous.
In 1883, the Mills had twin daughters named Beatrice and Gladys (pronounced GLAY-dis). The next year they had a son named Ogden. Gladys married Henry Phipps and in the 1920s they became leading figures on the American turf. The famous Seabiscuit was an alum of the Phipps' Wheatley Stable on Long Island, as was Bold Ruler, sire of 1973 triple crown winner Secretariat. Gladys' sister Beatrice, who married the 8th Earl of Granard, was a racing woman too. In 1929, the season she inherited her father's French stable, she ranked as the richest purse winner on the French turf. Their brother Ogden was a Harvard law grad who went on to become the 50th United States Secretary of the Treasury. Their rooms as children were up these stairs
Now we're in the basement bachelors' quarters, the basement at this end of the house being totally above ground.
This is a vintage view of the billiard room. The light over the table is there, but the table itself seems to have gone missing. The view below was taken last week; the room is now a gift shop.
Mr. Mills Sr. stayed in this room when visiting. After his death in 1910, it was probably reserved for high value bachelors. Smaller rooms suited the younger or less important male singles. One bath served them all.
We're going to take the family stairs to the main floor, then cross the entrance hall and climb to the second floor on that grand staircase we saw when we came in.
This hall leads to guest suites that occupy the second floor of the original house. The open door on the right at the end of the hall leads to the family staircase, seen closer up in the second image below.
Much as I'd like to include all 65 rooms, the images below represent an edited sampling of bedrooms and baths in this part of the house.
These stairs lead to married guests' bedrooms on the second floor of the north wing. The higher ceilings in this wing required the extra steps.
Presumably married husbands would guard the honor of maids who lived atop this narrow stair. At least we hope so.
Not only was it Hotter'n Hades up here, it was a potential death trap in the event of a fire. Ergo, this almost invisible emergency hatch, which opens to reveal a ladder leading to the guest corridor below.
Here are my hosts, two ladies whose love of and enthusiasm for this fine old house is matched only by their encyclopaedic knowledge of it. Marilyn Holst on the left is the site's Chief Interpreter; Pam Malcolm on the right is the Historic Site Manager. They completely understood that I wanted to see EVERYTHING.
After Ogden Mills' death in 1929, the house passed to his son, Ogden Livingston Mills. Mills Jr. hardly ever came here, being more interested in local and national politics than the time consuming life of a country squire. He was a State Senator in 1914, fought in the First War, was a delegate to multiple Republican conventions, and lost the New York governorship to Al Smith in 1926. If there was one thing that annoyed him, it was FDR and the New Deal. In hopes of convincing Americans that Roosevelt was full of hooey, Mills wrote two acerbic political books, What of Tomorrow in 1935 and The Seventeen Million in 1937. Were he alive today, I suppose you'd call him a Tea Party Republican.
He must have been really annoyed in 1933 when the CCC — the Civilian Conservation Corps of New Deal days — opened a huge work camp for the formerly unemployed at the Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park, immediately south of the property. Perhaps that was why the autumn of 1934 was the first and only season Mills ever spent here. He died in 1937.
Here's the river facade of the 1832 house. Look closely and you can see the twin bow fronts beneath the columned porch. Now imagine the house with the porch removed, the low wings replaced by the huge McKim Mean and White additions, a new attic floor on the top, a sweeping double stair out front, and bingo, you've got the house today.
Mills Mansion is very much a work in progress. The Friends of Mills Mansion, a privately supported membership group, has so far raised $630,000 of the million dollars needed to restore the basement kitchen complex. Governor Cuomo's New York Works Fund is investing $4.2 million to repair the leaking roof and rebuild the rotting pediment over the front door. Beautiful driveway gutters are going in, and the walls on the Old Post Road will (hopefully) be repaired soon as well. At one point in the benighted past, well-intentioned administrators sprayed the exterior with gunite, giving the place an unfortunate batter-fried look. To date, only the south facade has been restored. Preserving a house like this is an ongoing battle, with the elements as much as the economy.
This is Gladys Mills Phipps in 1910, with her little boy, Ogden Phipps. In 1938 she donated her late brother's house and 192 acres to the people of New York as a memorial to their parents. Mills Mansion labors under the undeserved reputation as a sort of step-sister to the better known Vanderbilt mansion in nearby Hyde Park. I don't know why this should be, as it is just as magnificent and in some way much more interesting. The link is www.millsmansion.org.
The photos of Mr. + Mrs. Mills and their daughter, Gladys Phipps, the 1832 and 1890s views of the house, and the vintage interior of the billiard room are courtesy of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
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