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country estates

Downton Abbey in America: 15 Places to Visit to Recapture the Drama

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Since most of us can’t pop over to England to wander about the halls and gardens of their great country estate, I thought I’d highlight a few of our homegown country houses that are just a car ride, or a plane trip, away. I have purposely omitted the Newport Mansions since they are a given.

Leland Stanford House

Sacramento, California

Leland Stanford Mansion – Stanford was one of the “Big Four,” which was the name given to the entrepreneurs behind bringing the Central Pacific Railroad to the West Coast. He was also briefly governor of California in the 1860s, and was later senator for the state. As one of the wealthiest men in California, he needed a home to reflect his standing, and his original 4,000-square-foot home was expanded to 19,000 square feet in 1871-72. (I once saw Arnold Schwarzenegger standing on its steps when he was Governor!)

Flagler Museum

Palm Beach, Florida

Whitehall (otherwise known as Henry Morrison Flagler Museum) – During the early 1900s, many wealthy Americans escaped the winter cold for Palm Beach, thus creating yet another colony of the super-rich. This was mostly at the instigation of Henry Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil, who was a key figure in the development of eastern Florida. Whitehall was built for Flagler’s third wife, and at three stories and with fifty-five rooms, was one of the largest winter homes in the area.

Biltmore House

Asheville, North Carolina

Biltmore – George Washington Vanderbilt II was quiet in comparison to his brothers, but he contributed to the Vanderbilt tradition of building grand homes all the same. Biltmore was seven years in the making, and not only employed a large number of people to clear the land and build George’s “little mountain escape,” but was designed to be self-sufficient like a real English country estate (with a poultry farm, dairy, etc).

Ventfort Hall

Lenox, Massachusetts

Ventfort Hall – This Jacobean-style mansion was built in the early 1890s for J.P. Morgan’s sister Sarah and her husband George Morgan. Situated in the heart of the Berkshires, then the place for an autumn retreat, it comprised of “50 rooms in a total of 28,000 square feet (2,600 m2) of living space, including 9 main bedrooms and 10 servant’s bedrooms, 7 bathrooms, and 17 fireplaces.”

Winterthur House

Winterthur, Delaware

Winterthur – Built by wealthy collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont in the spirit of European country homes, Henry opened his home to the public in 1951. The house has “175 period-room displays and approximately 85,000 objects,” of which “spans more than two centuries of American decorative arts” and a library that “includes more than 87,000 volumes and approximately 500,000 manuscripts and images, mostly related to American history, decorative arts, and architecture.”

Pittock Mansion

Portland, Oregon

Pittock Mansion – Built by Portland tycoon Henry Pittock in 1909, this French Renaissance-style “château” has 22 rooms on 46 acres and provides a panoramic view of Downtown Portland.

Jenison, Michigan

Husband-Hanchett-Tiffany House – The Jenison twins, Lucius and Luman, built their fortune in lumber. When the brothers died in 1899, Margaret Hubbard, their bookkeeper, used the legacy they left to her to build this two-story, ten bedroom mansion.

Kimberly Crest

Redlands, California

Kimberly Crest – Though the home is named after John Alfred Kimberly, a co-founder of Kimberly-Clark paper company, who purchased the home in 1905, it was actually built in 1897 for Mrs. Cornelia A. Hill, one of the pioneers of Redlands. Its near duplicate is The Magic Castle, a nightclub for magicians and magic enthusiasts, that was built in Hollywood in 1909. The most striking feature of Kimberley Crest is its 6 ¼ acre Italianate garden.

Springwood

Hyde Park, New York

Springwood – the birthplace and lifelong home of 32rd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Nemours Mansion

Wilmington, Delaware

Nemours – Another Du Pont home, this one a 300-acre classical French mansion and estate built in 1909-10 by Alfred I. du Pont. The garden, in the French formal style, is patterned after the gardens of Versailles surrounding the Petit Trianon, and is the largest of its kind in North America. Inside are rare French 18th century furniture, artworks ranging from 16th century religious works to early works by Americans Frederic Remington and Sidney Lawrence, and a rare Louis XVI musical clock, which plays four different tunes on a dulcimer and pipe organ.

Glessner House

Chicago, Illinois

Glessner House – Located on Prairie Avenue, the preeminent address for Chicago’s Gilded Age elite, Glessner House was built in the late 1880s for John and Frances Glessner. Glessner earned his wealth in farm machinery manufacturing, and his firm and four others merged to form International Harvester, which became the fourth largest corporation in the country. The home was built to include a courtyard, which let in copious amounts of natural light in all corners of the house, and this distinct design raised the eyebrows of Glessner’s more traditional neighbors.

Decatur House

Washington, D.C.

Decatur House – This house is unique in that the first floor is decorated in the style of its year of origin (1818) and the upper floor is decorated in the style of its heyday (early 1900s), and it has one of the few examples of slave quarters in an urban area. So the house focuses on both the changes made to its interiors over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and on lives of its African-American inhabitants.

Vaile Mansion

Independence, Missouri

Vaile Mansion – From the official website, which couldn’t describe it any better: “Built by Colonel and Mrs. Harvey Vaile in 1881. The 31 room mansion includes 9 marble fireplaces, spectacular painted ceilings, flushing toilets, a built-in 6,000 gallon water tank, and a 48,000 gallon wine cellar. This mansion is one of the best examples of Second Empire style architecture in the United States. David McCullough, author of TRUMAN was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his book. On page 51, McCullough describes the Vaile: ‘The Vaile house on North Liberty, the showiest house in Independence, was a towering stone-trimmed, red brick Victorian wedding cake, with thirty-one rooms and Carrara marble fireplaces. The Vaile stable had mahogany paneled stalls. There was a greenhouse and four full time gardeners. If Harvey Vaile, who made his money in “pure water” and contract mail delivery, was not the richest man in town, he certainly lived as though he were.'”

McFaddin-Ward House

Beaumont, Texas

McFaddin-Ward House – The McFaddins were wealthy Texan ranchers, and this 12,800-square-foot Beaux-Arts Colonial Revival style mansion was built for William P.H. McFaddin in 1905-06. Also built the around the same time was an equally large carriage house, which had a stable, hayloft, garage, gymnasium and servant’s quarters.

Victoria Mansion

Portland, Maine

Victoria Mansion – This brownstone Italianate villa was completed in 1860 as a summer home for hotelier Ruggles Sylvester Morse, who died in 1893. The house and its contents were then sold to Joseph Ralph Libby, a Portland merchant. Opulent and ostentatious as were most homes built by wealthy Americans during the 19th century, it also boasted the latest amenities, including wall-to-wall carpeting, central heating, gas lighting, and hot and cold running water.

Upstairs Downstairs in Gilded Age America

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housemaid

Millionaires of the Gilded Age looked to Europeans–or more specifically, the British–for cues on how to recreate the leisured life in America, copying them from the construction of country estates, to golf clubs, to social seasons, all the way down to the bottom of this lifestyle: domestic servants. Yet, save indentured servitude and slavery, American culture was built on the premise that there was no servant class.

Perhaps one reason why Americans invented and/or took to labor-saving devices with alacrity can be traced to the difficulty of hiring and retaining large numbers of domestic servants. A banker’s wife in Chicago could not expect to find cheap and willing labor like a banker’s wife in London, and so electric lights, central heating, vacuum cleaners, and up-to-date bathrooms were a must. However, immigration from the Old World provided a steady, if not completely reliable stream of would-be servants, and as testament to America’s geographical individuality, servant culture was not uniform or standard across the nation.

The first note of Americanism into the equation was the near absence of the word “servant”. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, advice columns and etiquette books wrangled over how to address the people who helped with the smooth running of one’s household, from “help” or “hand” to “staff”, to referring to a lady’s maid as “semptress” and a footman as “waiter”. William Randolph Hearst preferred to call his own maids, butler, chauffeur, etc his “staff” or “employees,” but ironically, the word “servant” was reintroduced into the homes of the wealthiest Americans by both their aggressive aping of English habits and the immigrants they employed (who were accustomed to being referred to as servants). These people, considered the very social elite, with their mansions in New York, their cottages in Newport, their 200 ft yachts, their country estates on Long Island or along the Hudson River, their camps in the Adirondacks, and their winter homes at Tuxedo Park or in the Berkshires, took the staffing of their residences to another level.

To facilitate the nouveau riche into their new setting, Mary Elizabeth Carter, a former housekeeper to the elite, published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy, where she stressed:

The loud and prolonged outcry against servants as a class unquestionably is due to inefficiency of the average mistress, past and present, quite as much as to servants’ lack of training. The latter is an outcome of the former, because the ranks of housekeepers are constantly being augmented by women and girls untaught and inexperienced in the management of well-ordered homes. They know neither how to do nor how to direct the work of their houses, and are, in consequence, ignorant of what should be required as a fair day’s service from each servant.

To tackle the thorny issue of the “Servant Question”, American housewives found two solutions: improve the conditions of their servants, and lighten the burden of work. Servants quarters in an American mansion were generous and attractive, and unlike in English households, were furnished with new furniture and linens (perhaps not the exquisite items owned by the lady of the house, but new and comfortable, nonetheless). New homes, such as Clarence Mackay’s Harbor Hill on Long Island, were planned with the housing of the staff in mind.

The Mackays employed twenty-five indoor staff, and many more outdoor staff, who were housed in their own wing of bedrooms. There were also upper servants’ and lower servants’ dining halls, a butler’s den, a housekeeper’s room, and a laundry room and sewing room set aside for their personal use. The construction of the American country house also lightened the workload for the staff, and the typical English country house feature of separate rooms for separate work and the long corridors separating the kitchen from the dining room (as the English abhorred the smell of cooking emanating from the kitchen), were abolished. This change–particularly the former–placed a greater emphasis on the kitchen that remains in American architecture to this day.

Truly easing the life of household and staff were electrical appliances. The English were slow to adopt labor-saving apparatuses until the servant shortages and high wages of post-WWI, but Americans were–the words of Clarence Cook–a nation “in love with machines and contrivance.” Gas ranges eliminated the arduous and dirty work of laying a fire in the old coal-burning ranges and the expense of coal, and they didn’t have to be lit all day. With electricity came the toaster, the vacuum cleaner, the coffee percolator, and the electric fan, all of which–including the telephone–were considered the “New Answer to the Servant Problem”.

The other issue plaguing upper class Americans was whom to hire. American racial prejudices and the differing waves of immigration played a part in just who you might find working in the kitchens of a city mansion or country estate. In the South, the long history of slavery held firm in the ethnic make-up of domestic staff, though the migration of Northerners to vacation spots in Florida or Georgia, or to Washington D.C., and the increasingly negative race relations of the 1900s, influenced the decline in African-American upper servants. Irish immigrants made up the majority of domestic staff in cities like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, but they were considered “dirty” and “lazy”, and many mistresses didn’t bother learning their names, instead calling all Irish housemaids “Bridgets” or “Biddys”.

German servants were common in Mid-West cities like Chicago and Denver, though an article in the New York Times characterized them as “admirable, clean, obliging, and wonderfully hard working, but they lack the finish of good English servants.” In the West, particularly in coastal cities like San Francisco, Sacramento, and Seattle, Chinese and Japanese servants were common, though their lives bore a similarity to African-American servants in the South. Other ethnic groups involved in domestic service were Norwegians, Poles, Italians, and Swedes, with the last being considered at the top of the totem pole, so to speak, due to the commonly held assumptions about their cleanliness, cheerfulness, and hardiness.

Despite the racial coding of domestic service, the downstairs segment of the household were better treated, better paid, and better housed than their British and European counterparts. The precepts of the “American Dream” urged the servants into greater mobility than just life in service, and the unique situation caused by immigration to the New World gave each ethnic group a sense of identity outside the bounds of class or occupation. The wealthy in America could imitate the Old World in leisure activities, society, fashion, and housing, but only up to a point, and after that point the notion that “all men are created equal” held fast.

Further Reading:
The American Country House by Clive Aslet
I Go to America: Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson by Joy K. Lintelman
Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House by Richard Guy Wilson
Biltmore Insider’s Tour
Servants in Gilded Age Newport
Chinese Servants in the North American West
Servants’ Room Virtual Tour – Flagler Museum
Hearst Castle
The Gilded Age Billionaires
Servants in Glessner House
Pittock Mansion
Nemours Mansion and Gardens