Thursday, June 11, 2009

New York in the Old South

The Big House at Dixie Plantation was designed by John Russell Pope in 1936 as the centerpiece for Gerald and Eleanor Livingston’s extensive hunting preserve on the Georgia-Florida border. A pair of bronze dog statues guards the antebellum-styled facade.
Top of the Field: The Livingstons in Florida
by Augustus Mayhew

When Geraldine Livingston died in 1994, she placed Dixie Plantation, her aristocratic New York family’s North Florida 9,000-acre estate, in a conservation trust, making certain the wild-game and forestry preserve would never be developed or sold. Fifteen years later, the sizeable expanse and the John Russell Pope-designed house carry on the interests and traditions with the same high standards that Miss Livingston’s father, Gerald Moncrieffe Livingston, (1883-1950) began when he bought and developed the property almost a century ago.

Even though the Livingstons' ancestors played a fundamental part in New York's history, as well as the nation’s, and John Russell Pope’s notable works are celebrated architectural icons, the family’s Florida plantation remains relatively unknown, suspended in near obscurity. Secluded amidst oaks and pines atop one of the surrounding rustic landscape's highest points, the enormous main house was sited a quarter-mile south of the Georgia border, several miles down a private rutted bump-and-twist dusty road from the entrance marked only by a small sign on the Ashville Highway west of Monticello, Florida.
Ever the country gentleman, Gerald Livingston was a dedicated sportsman, seen above at Dixie Plantation. John Russell "Jack" Pope (1874 - 1937), the Great Academician, as TIME magazine called him. Photo, Library of Congress. Dixie Plantation was one of the architect's last residential commissions.
Surprisingly, despite the owner’s Blue-Book bloodline and the architect’s impressive portfolio, the state’s historical registers do not list the property among its landmarks. Instead, Pope’s only Florida commission is identified primarily with bird-dog fanciers and quail hunting connoisseurs. However significant, considering it is the state’s only link to the principal designer of the Jefferson Memorial, National Gallery of Art and the National Archives, the remote country-squire mansion is better-known by readers of Dog World than appreciated on the pages of style books and design magazines.

One explanation might be found in the book, "John Russell Pope: Architect of Empire," a Rizzoli publication adapted from author Steven Bedford's Ph.D. dissertation, where Bedford stated that during the sixty years from Pope's death until the publication of his book in 1998, research on the architect's work was thwarted because Mrs. Pope had taken all the office records and drawings, storing them at the family's New York and Newport houses where unfortunately they were lost to flood and circumstance. Thus, until Bedford's volume meticulously reconstructed Pope's career with guidance from the Juley Collection at the Smithsonian archives, the architect's work remained outside the public domain. "Besides the Monticello-Jefferson connection, the Livingstons might have selected Pope because of their appreciation for a neighboring Long Island property, Caumsett, the Marshall Field III estate in Lloyd Neck. Field was also a dog breeder; Mrs. Field was the first president of the American Labrador Retriever Club," said Bedford.
The two-story Greek Revival Ionic entrance portico was flanked by one-story wings laterally proportioned to the north and south. A distinctive horseshoe topiary highlights the circular entrance drive.
Yet, another reason might also be that for many years the plantation’s address was Quitman, Georgia. The property's Florida location has only been acknowledged since the family sold off a large part of its Georgia portion during the late 1980s and retained the Big House and 9,000 acres in Jefferson County, Florida. Even so, Georgia’s historians focus on Villa Ospo, a smaller Pope-designed cottage at the Jekyll Island Club, as representative of his work rather than the architect's larger, more substantive work that actually always has been located in Florida. Or possibly, the house has been overlooked because it is near Avalon Plantation, the 25,000-acre spread owned by Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the United States, and operated by his son, Beau Turner. Although the Livingstons are no match for the high-profiled media-savvy Turners and their immense landholdings, the family has a fascinating legacy and the house deserves an aesthetic appreciation. However conventional its appearance might be in Locust Valley or Maryland's hunt country, its palatial presence in Northwest Florida's Red Hills is unexpected, if not anomalous.

New York colonials go west ...
In 1887 Crawford Livingston acquired this three-story limestone residence at 432 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, designed by a Chicago architect, Otis Wheelock. Photo: Library of Congress
Unlike other tweed-and-silk stocking Long Island families who after the Civil War headed to Aiken, Thomasville or Jekyll Island for the winter, Gerald Livingston's family first went west before eventually becoming part of the Old South's stable-and-kennel set. A lineal descendant of Robert Livingston (c. 1654-1728), the 17th-century Scotsman bestowed an approximate 150,000-acre land grant and title, Lord of the Manor, the family’s presence as the wealthiest dynasty north of New York City was sealed by Robert Livingston’s marriage to Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer (c. 1656-1727), heir to the Schuyler and Van Rensselaer family fortunes. Even though the Livingstons were one of New York's prominent land barons, Gerald's father, Crawford Livingston II (1848-1925), left the splendor of Livingston Manor in 1870 with his share of the family inheritance, his father and uncle, Crawford I and William Alexander Livingston, had established a freight-and-express business that would later become known as the American Express Company, and settled in St. Paul, Minnesota.
L. to r.: Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer Livingston; 432 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Minn. Staircase, c. 1862. Although the Livingstons commissioned Cass Gilbert to design a Venetian Baroque house at 339 Summit Avenue that they never lived in, the family continued to live at 432 Summit Avenue. The house remained in the family until it was donated by Gerald's sister, Mary Livingston Griggs, to the local historical society. Photo: Library of Congress.
In St. Paul, Crawford II branched out from his New York banking and brokerage experience, playing a significant role in the nation’s westward expansion. He invested in several railroads and utility companies, becoming founder and president of St. Paul Gas & Light. A bank director, "Money broker," and an insurance executive, his occupation was listed in an 1880 census as, Gentleman; a decade later, his occupation was changed to, Capitalist. In 1882 the town of Livingston, Montana was named for him as a result of his investment with the Northern Pacific Railway. After his oldest son, Crawford III, died in 1904, the elder Livingston returned to New York and opened the C. Livingston Company, a brokerage and investment firm at 51 Exchange Place, reviving the family's name and establishing his only surviving son, Gerald, amidst New York's financial and social milieu.
The Northern Pacific Railway station in Livingston, Montana. The town was named for Crawford Livingston II. Photo, Library of Congress.
The Livingstons return to New York ...
Along with retrievers, hounds, setters, beagles, bassets and pointers, the Gerald Livingstons raised and trained dachshunds and poodles. They were avid collectors of animal prints and paintings, such as the Edmund Henry Osthaus (1858-1925) painting, pictured above.
While Crawford Livingston shuttled back-and-forth from St. Paul to New York during the next two decades, his son, Gerald, remained in New York. When his father died in 1925, Gerald shared his father’s $10 million estate, with his two sisters, Mary and Abbie Frances. With the Livingston investment business established, Gerald had married Eleanor Rodewald, settling into their Gilded Age Upper East Side townhouse and sharing a passion for the sporting life, becoming a presence at Nassau County dog shows and Piping Rock horse shows.

In 1919 Gerald and Eleanor Livingston bought Kilsyth Farm in Lloyd’s Neck for $125,000, quickly making it the center ring for hunting dog competitions. After the Livingston Company merged in 1934 with Abbott, Proctor and Paine, Gerald and Eleanor spent more time raising, training and showing their dogs, every January heading to their North Florida-Georgia plantation near Thomasville, where Gerald's father Crawford, earlier had become a member of Thomasville Country Club set. By the time the Livingstons retained John Russell Pope in 1936 to design their 14,000-square-foot house, other New York families had already built houses, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, in the nearby Thomasville-Tallahassee area, the John Hay Whitney at Greenwood Plantation, George F. Baker at Horseshoe Plantation, Melville Hanna at Pebble Hill Plantation and the John Phipps family’s Ayavalla Plantation, among them.
Located across from the main staircase at Dixie Plantation, the Livingston's first-floor trophy room is filled with silver cups, trophies and commemorative plates.
Pope in Florida ...
The colossal entrance portico leading to the reception hall that opens onto a view of the pinewoods overlooking a lake.
The name, John Russell Pope, evokes monumental classics and domestic landmarks, as well as Newport and the North Shore’s classiest country houses and the UES’s most unsullied Beaux-Arts townhouses. The architect’s distinguished family, political connections and his Beaux-Arts talents, as well as his marriage to Sadie Jones, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke Jones, assured him access to the Social Register’s top-drawer club crowd. Pope died in 1937, before the Florida house was built and before two of his most famous commissions, the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art were completed.
Modeled after Rome's Pantheon, the debate over the Jefferson Memorial's controversial design was not settled until after Pope’s death.
The National Gallery of Art, as seen in an early postcard.
Pope designed the Livingston’s picturesque plantation house with a U-shaped plan trimmed with the customary classical features found in his many posh country houses. In Bedford's book, "Architect of Empire," the author described the house as Pope's "most fluid and coherent work since the Henry White house in Washington, D.C., in 1925," although only a sketch of the Livingston's house and a brief paragraph are included. "If I recall, the Livingstons were first going to utilize limestone for their Florida house but then opted for brick," said Bedford.

Keeping with the monumentality and formality of their new house, and despite its more in-the-sticks setting, the Livingstons accessorized the Big House as if it were a Gold Coast mansion, importing 18th-century paneling and details attributed to the Adams brothers. Museum-quality paintings and tapestries covered the walls. Marble fireplaces were installed. And, although the Charles Dickens reading table, the Welsh huntboard and the Meissen china are now gone, the architect’s original beautifully-crafted details and perfectly-scaled rooms have been preserved.
The center entrance hall looking east, the living room and library to the right and the trophy room and dining room to the left. Beyond the iron doors, a lake built with "mule pans" that took three years to dredge.
The formal staircase at Dixie Plantation looking south towards the entrance hall framed by fluted pilasters.
The living room fireplace and framed overmantel. The library fireplace.
Decorative hand-painted tiles and mahogany reliefs memorialize the Livingston’s most-beloved dogs.
Mahogany reliefs of quail coveys are inset above the doorways in the library.
The view at the top of the staircase. The view from Geraldine Livingston's bedroom.
Above, a screened second-floor sun porch; below, a breezeway leading to the south wing of the house, as seen from the garden.
In a sun porch, a screened iron grille with the Livingston monogram bordered by a Greek key pattern. As seen from the garden, a pair of iron doors that open into the central entrance hall.
A view from the formal front gates that once opened onto the dramatic canopy of live oaks leading to the front of the Big House. The century-old live oaks were scattered around the plantation, transplanted and aligned in front of the house to create a staged entrance.
At sunset, a view of the oak-lined path from the front steps looking towards the gates at the foot of the hill.
According to AKC records, Gerald Livingston began breeding his champion Kilsyth basset hounds during the 1920s, importing stock from the British champion Walhampton Pack. Mr. Livingston was regarded as the "father of the American basset hound," a charter member of the Basset Hound Club of America founded in 1933. The same year, he was inducted as a member in the Continental Field Trial Club, elected president of the Continental Field Trials in 1935. Two years later, Livingston was instrumental in bringing the trials to Dixie Plantation, where they have been held for the past 74 years.

Life magazine cover, "Field Trial." 25 February 1946.
Between 1938 and 1942 Mr. Livingston was president of the Westminster Kennel Club. When a national field trial were held in Tennessee in 1950, the Livingstons’ pointer, Shore’s Brownie Doone, was crowned the nation’s top bird dog. American field trials upheld many British traditions, including "a strong appreciation for the field-proven bitch," according to a sporting expert. The dog fancier further concluded that females were faster and more efficient than males and "recent studies indicate that bitches in wolf packs may be superior to males in hunting pursuits and finesse."

Following Mr. Livingston's death in 1950, his wife, Eleanor, took over the plantation, managing its kennels as well as livestock herds of Santa Gertrudis and Jersey cows and Duroc hogs. Mrs. Livingston was known to be as skillful with a 12-gauge shotgun as she was with a butter knife. Across from the kennels were the stables, where the Livingstons housed their Tennessee Walking Horses, the breed of choice for field trials because of their gaits, stamina, and ability to keep up with the bird dogs. Along with the training of retrievers and pointers, Mrs. Livingston added yet another triumph to the Livingston legacy, her Ch. Tar Baby of Whitehall reached the heights of poodledom.

In 1988, after Mrs. Livingston died, her heirs sold off more than 5,000 acres of the Georgia portion of the plantation, holding on to more than 1,000 acres of the original tract in Brooks County, Georgia, as Dixie, LLC. The 9,000-acre Florida portion was kept by her daughter, Geraldine, who never married and shared her parent’s sporting interests, operating the plantation until she died in 1994. All three Livingstons were elected to the American Field Trial’s Hall of Fame: Eleanor in 1965, Gerald in 1995 and Geraldine in 1996.
A portrait of Geraldine Livingston as a child hangs above the dining room's marble fireplace.
Geraldine's bedcovers remain on the bed in her upstairs' bedroom.
Today the Geraldine C. M. Livingston Foundation continues the tradition of carefully breeding and training pointers for hunting and field trial competition, as well as hosting the Continental Field Trials every January. With family members serving on the foundation's board, it is also involved in the preservation and restoration of the Big House. Currently, the foundation is engaged in several conservation projects in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Suwannee River Water Management District.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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