My 15-year-old daughter and I share a voyeuristic passion for what goes on inside other people’s houses. We stare at them as we traverse the winding two-lane roads that are ubiquitous in the Mid-Hudson Valley, a rural area of New York state located about 90 miles north of Manhattan.
We speculate about the people living within the walls of sprawling colonials, Victorian homes and tiny bungalows, but also about the history of the houses, because the vast majority of them are old, particularly by American standards.
Many of the area’s homes range from 100 to over 300 years old. I promise that’s not an exaggeration. The town where we live, Kingston, NY, was founded in 1664. There is real history here and in the surrounding towns in neighboring Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan and Greene counties.
We muse, aloud, about generous wrap around porches with matching Adirondack rocking chairs or point out the decorative bird feeders that dot less-than-immaculate lawns — lawns that, like our own, contain a mixture of wild growth and cultivated areas punctuated by flowering shrubs or crabapple trees.
The best time to play this game is at night when glowing windows offer us a fleeting glimpse into people’s lives — the warmth of a scarlet couch, the curve of a dining room table, or the blue flicker of a TV in someone’s living room provide a kind of tenuous connection from our lives to theirs.
The thread of our conversation often leads back to our own home, which sits on an untidy half acre of property in a town that is not a town — Eddyville, NY, founded in 1879. Eddyville is in the county of Ulster and is part of the City of Kingston, but we’re located at the very outskirts of the city, a rural outpost without a town center. Our home is 115 years old, not all that old by area standards.
The decadence of the Gilded Age
My house is a colonial-style structure with a warren of bedrooms and hallways that don’t quite connect the way they should. That’s because half the house is an extension which was built in the mid 20th century. So, even the new parts of this house are quite old. I used to hate this house for its crooked floors and mismatched rooms. I wanted the perfect house where everything was modern and new, but this was the house we could afford.
My house, like many in my neighborhood, attempts to emulate the opulence of the area mansions built by robber barons, industrialists and wealthy politicians that flourished during the Gilded Age (the 1860s to the start of the 20th century.)
There are more than a dozen Gilded Age mansions within an hour’s drive of Eddyville, including the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt mansions in Hyde Park, the Clermont mansion in Germantown, the Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown and, my latest discovery, Mills Mansion in Staatsburg which is just 19 miles from my house, a mere 35 minute drive.
Even though these historic sites are close to home, gorgeous, and a great way to experience a living piece of history, I’ve never visited any of them — until this year when I spotted Mills Mansion from my favorite trail along the Hudson River. I didn’t know what it was, but my curiosity inspired me to investigate via some Google sleuthing.
Seeing the mansion’s white facade from the opposite side of the river fascinated me. In the above photo, you can just see the mansion’s rooftop terrace along with a couple of windows poking out above the trees. I wanted to know who could possibly live in a house like that (or, if not a house, then what was it?) so I Googled it one day after my morning walk.
A bit of history
Mills Mansion is a Beaux-Arts structure containing 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms (because you can’t have too many bathrooms).
It was built in 1832 by Morgan Lewis, the third Governor of New York State and his wife, Gertrude Livingston. The original house was a 25-room Greek revival structure, but it would be renovated later and become much larger.
Lewis’s great-granddaughter, Ruth Livingston Mills, inherited the home and property in 1890. According to the Friends of Mills Mansion website, Ruth and her husband, Ogden Mills, expanded the home so Ruth could entertain guests there in the fall (the foliage is breathtaking in upstate New York in October.)
In addition to all those rooms (and bathrooms!) the property sits on nearly two hundred acres of land that once included gardens, greenhouses, a dairy farm, and other structures which I assume were required to keep such a massive estate running smoothly. Now the land is mostly rolling lawn and wooded trails. There’s also a golf course (one of the oldest in the country). For me,the defining feature of the property is that it sits directly on the shores of the Hudson River.
A living time capsule
I’ve avoided visiting the local estates that dot the communities around me because they represent the vast disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age. I didn’t want to glorify that by ogling some rich person’s long-abandoned estate.
While Ruth entertained as many as 80 guests at Mills Mansion, poor immigrants and others were living in squalor in New York City’s crowded tenements which housed two-thirds of the city’s population at that time.
However, Mills Mansion is now a historic site and public park. It’s available for anyone to enjoy. There is a fee to tour the mansion itself, but use of the grounds — including parking — is free.
Ruth’s daughter Gladys donated the house and 192 acres of property to the State of New York in 1938, and subsequently donated the majority of the home’s contents in 1970. Walking through the home and grounds feels like you’ve been transported back in time.
A perfect family outing
I didn’t expect to be so inspired by my visit to Mills Mansion. It seemed like a nice way to spend an autumn afternoon during a peak foliage day. I was also very curious about finally getting a close look at the place.
So, on a sunny October afternoon, My daughter, my husband, and I drove the thirty-five minutes to Ruth Livingston Mills’ old home with a picnic lunch in tow. We parked in the wooded lot and walked along a paved road to some picnic tables by the river to eat our lunch.
After lunch, my daughter set up her portable easel beneath a massive beech tree so she could paint the mansion.
My husband and I explored some of the many paths on the property while my daughter painted. The mansion and grounds filled me with an odd nostalgia and an unexpected appreciation for the history of the place.
As I explored the property and studied the house, I couldn’t help wondering about Ruth Livingston Mills. Had she loved the sprawling lawn as much as my daughter did? Was there a favorite room that she liked to spend time in? Did she understand her great fortune in owning such a decadent home? History felt palpable at Mills Mansion. I liked that.
We visited the mansion twice more before all the leaves were gone. The place has a heaviness about it that is both familiar and sad. It fascinate me. It’s as if the mansion is waiting for its family to return, like it’s not quite ready to believe all the fun’s over.
The mansion helped me reflect on my home and with fresh eyes. It made me appreciate the comfort and warmth that comes with living in an old house. I’m looking forward to discovering more historic mansions in the coming months. There’s poetry in remembering the people who lived here before me and wondering about their stories.