At The Not So General Mills Mansion: A Gilded Age Holiday
Once upon a holiday, the Mills Mansion — now the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, near Rhinebeck, NY — was home to some of the most exclusive Christmas parties in the country. This Downton Abbey-styled household, flush with Gilded Age cash and helmed by ambitious socialite Ruth Livingston Mills (portrait below by Francois Glamony), employed an army of live-in servants to deck the halls of the Mills family’s 65-room Beaux-Arts “autumn home” majestically overlooking the Hudson River. (They owned four other residences, in Paris, New York City, San Francisco, and Newport, Rhode Island.) Back in the day, offers to visit were hard to come by, but for holiday season 2012 you’re invited.
All is remarkably as it was; Mrs. Mills’ daughter Gladys inherited the mansion in 1937 and promptly bequeathed it to the state, leaving the home surprisingly intact — furnishings, rugs, paintings, linens, draperies, all left as they’d been when the lifestyle was, as Edith Wharton describes it in The House of Mirth, “a hothouse of traditions and conventions.” (Some historians believe the Mills Mansion inspired the Bellomont estate in that tragic tale.) These days, staffers and volunteers spent the whole month of November festooning the cavernous rooms, luxurious balustrades, and marble tabletops with holiday ornamentation, and decorating several large Christmas trees. Running through December 31, the Gilded Age Christmas event allows tantalizing views into a bygone era of would-be royalty living it up during the Yuletide season. (Photo above right courtesy of Hudson Valley Parent.)
For several years, families with children ages 6 to 11 have enjoyed Staatsburgh State Historical Site’s annual Holiday Whodunit, an educational “history mystery,” every Sunday in December from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The 2012 history mystery features Alice Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s frisky daughter, who often visited the Mills Mansion, and who, during a visit, stayed in a room in which a Ming vase was found broken. While enjoying a guided tour, attendees encounter costumed interpreters from a century ago in each room – a footman, a maid, Miss Roosevelt herself and… a snake! The interpreters provide clues to the mystery, while also highlighting aspects of the Gilded Age, from manners to fin de siècle inventions.
In addition to the Holiday Whodunit, the site offers regular tours — led by skilled docents, no costumed interpreters — until December 30, Thursday through Sunday, from noon until 4 p.m. Additional Friday evening tours take place on December 14, 21, and 28, when the site stays open until 8 p.m., and nearby Staatsburg shops extend their hours.
However you plan it, the Mills Mansion is a must-see marvel of almost impossible-to-imagine wealth. When “old money” Ruth Livingston Mills inherited it in 1890, it was a 25-room Greek revival manse. After marrying Ogden Mills, son of one of America’s richest self-made men, Mrs. Mills — nicknamed “Tiny” — sought to dethrone Lady Astor as the “Queen of Society.” For this venture, party space and dozens of staff were essential. Mrs. Mills engaged architect Stanford White to enlarge her home by adding a magnificent portico and 40 more rooms, including a grand dining room and library with 18 foot ceilings. One of the first estates wired for electricity (powered by its own coal-fired mini-plant), it also boasted 14 bathrooms and 25 fireplaces. Much of this is on display in the comprehensive tours.
In recent years, the lady of the house’s bedroom has been lovingly restored; the rosy pink, chandelier’ed fantasia, with a marble fireplace and doll-sized canopy bed, looks ready for the diminutive, corseted grand dame to enter at any moment, trailed by a retinue of handlers. One Mills nephew remembers as a child exchanging and opening presents at intimate family gatherings in Tiny’s nearby boudoir, or office; a decorated tree has been placed there for the holidays.
Governor Cuomo’s New York Works Fund is currently restoring the gorgeous portico to its former glory, and Friends of Mills Mansion have initiated a capital campaign to restore the massive kitchen and servants’ quarters in the basement. According to site manager Pam Malcolm, “The goal is for visitors to see how the house really functioned. Now, when you go on the tour, you see what the guests would have seen and done, but we’re very excited to have the full Upstairs Downstairs/Downton Abbey experience.”
At present, visitors enter the mansion through the fabulous, festive gift shop, once the basement “billiard room” for bachelor guests. In this formerly exclusive space, a tribute to the over-the-top strivings of that long-ago age’s plutocracy, the Staatsburgh State Historic Site opens up the wealth of a Gilded Age Holiday to all.
—Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren
Staatsburgh State Historic Site
75 Mills Mansion 6 Road, Staatsburgh, NY
2012 Holiday Hours:
Thursday through Sunday from November 23 until December 30 from noon until 4pm.
Holiday Whodunit: Every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Special Friday evening hours: December 14, December 21, and December 28.
For information about other grand-mansion holiday events, check out our home page Instant Intelligence section.
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