Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Big Old Houses: Inside Shelburne Farms

Inside Shelburne Farms
by John Foreman


"Thirty-two in house party ... Very jolly," reads the entry in Mrs. Webb's journal on a warm evening in July, 1905. Her son Watson, the future polo playing socialite (whose children called him 'lean and mean'), was 21. "Over 100 farmers came to lunch," she wrote. "All the men wrote their names in our register." Twenty-four houseguests stayed for the birthday boy's dinner in the marble dining hall at Shelburne. After that, all the young men retired to the annex, probably for more than anyone wanted to record.

A visit to Shelburne in 1905 could easily last weeks, depending on who you were and/or whom you were with. A single season's schedule of house parties in an establishment like the Webbs' included literally hundreds of people, those numbers swollen further by the many Vanderbilt cousins. Why does everyone remember Shelburne as such a blast? Because: they swanned around Lake Champlain on the Webb's 117' yacht whenever they wanted, played golf on Dr. Webb's private 18-hole links (now fields, alas), swam in his marble swimming pool (long ago filled), and in the winter visited NE-HA-SA-NE (pronounced 'nuh-HAH-snee'), Webb's Adirondack Great Camp at lakeside amidsts tens of thousands of private acres on the other side of Lake Champlain from Shelburne.
The old train station house that once served Nehasane Park was seen collapsing in the winter of 2012.
For years Dr. Webb had a death-defying (or so it looked) toboggan run erected at Ne-ha-sa-ne. If that looked imprudent you could always cross-country ski or snowshoe further into the wilderness than you really wanted, or laze away the nights and days surrounded by amusing people and professional servants.

What a contrast to my day above (lead image), on which an advance of wintry clouds has crept out of the Adirondacks and rolled across Lake Champlain. The irony here is that despite young Watson Webb's feudal sounding birthday party, not to mention his sister's Fredericka's immense society wedding at Shelburne 3 months later, his father's marriage was in profound crisis in 1905. Dr. Webb was also very nearly broke. One hundred and ten years later the Inn, despite being closed during the winter, is the largest single financial supporter of today's Shelburne Farms, which has become an educational non-profit dedicated to the "sustainable future.'
Shelburne was tripled in size before its original wooden skin was covered with brick and stucco. Plan numbers 5 (South Piazza) through 10 (Flower Room) and 19 (mislabeled Kitchen; it's a pantry) describe the footprint of the original house. A subsequent dining-, smoking- and guestroom wing angling off to the northwest was balanced by an enlarged kitchen and service wing, the latter an extension of the house's existing north-south axis. At its sociable peak, from about 1900 to Dr. Webb's death in 1926, Shelburne's 20-plus guestrooms and 22 quarters for live-in help, were occupied, on and off, all year long.

Here is the inevitable (though for some reason, I don't have one at Daheim) oak paneled anteroom, beyond which lies the so-called "Living Hall" beloved by American architects of the 1880s. Shelburne might not have been finished until 1899, but its aesthetics are rooted firmly in the 1880s. Robertson's Living Hall for the Webbs is indeed a virtual style sheet of 1880s scale and workmanship, and compelling evidence of the happy chance of having relatives who owned W. & J. Sloane, America's greatest purveyor of Gilded Age furniture and decor.
A small office (image above, door to the right of the fireplace) now serves as a singularly un-obvious desk and guest service area. Beyond it was the golf room, dedicated now to miscellaneous storage, with a door to the course itself, located just at the foot of the little bluff on which Shelburne itself sits.
Architect Robert Henderson Robertson (1849-1919) left Queen Anne in the dust as fashion and his career progressed. That said, the Webbs' house remains my favoriate Robertson work. It doesn't even matter that the exterior brick and stucco are only partly successful.

In the southeast corner of the Living Hall is the door to the library, one of the most appealing rooms I've ever seen. Things to note: divine vintage overstuffed furniture; a picture window from the 1890s; "big old house" green on the walls; and a valuable tutorial on how NOT to use too much gold leaf.
Glass doors on the south wall of the library lead to the piazza we visited last week. A door on the opposite of the hall leads to the Tea (a.k.a.'Colonial') Room.
I would guess the original dining room was on the site of the Colonial or Tea Room, and it probably looked very much like the Living Hall does today. The Tea Room, by contrast, has the air of later fashion, specifically the Colonial Revival that swept the nation in the 1890s. Number 8 on the plan is labeled Study, but I believe it started life as the breakfast room. Robertson maintained a close relationship with the Webbs throughout his life and died while their guest at Nehasane in 1919.
The Tea Room, plus assorted adjacent corridors, form in effect a ceremonial approach to the marble dining room. An iron and glass winter garden packed with palms used to ornament the dining room's east wall. It was disassembled at the time of the Second War, the iron donated to the war effort, the opening walled up. The boiler and all interior radiators and steam piping were torn out and donated to the government at the same time. In 1936 Shelburne Farms was left to the Webbs' four children upon the death of their mother. Although these children all had places on the property already, it fell to son Vanderbilt to take over the main house. I think he made his demolition plans quite soon afterward.
All the extreme northern end of the first floor, past a broad back stair, is the Billiard or Smoking Room, another departure, style-wise, from everything else we've seen so far. Some of the furniture is probably fake — I'm told that 70% of what's in the house today was here when the Webbs were — but fakes that look that good are worth as much to me as any original.
The original kitchen and pantries have actually survived, although not all of the latter. Number 14 on the plan is the kitchen, not the servant hall, and it is largely in original shape. An abundance of superfluous maids' rooms and storage pantries were lopped off the north end of this wing when the house was converted to an inn. Amazingly, this alteration has not, at least in my opinion, damaged Robertson's design in any way.
Time for a look upstairs.
At the south end of the second floor landing are the owners' bedrooms and Mrs. W's boudoir (bedroom doors at left in the image above). A long hall beginning on the north side of the landing leads (eventually) to twenty-something guestrooms on this and the floor above.
You have never heard of Soldiers' disease, I am relatively certain. It was a phenomenon of the Civil War and not much discussed in polite society. During that War, much grotesque suffering on the battlefield was alleviated by the indiscriminate use of morphine which, actually, had been around since the 1820s. It was the development of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-1850s that hurried it out of the lab and onto the battlefield. Dr. Webb was barely ten years old on the day Ft. Sumter was bombarded. He was a smart and worldly lad, however, whose interest in medicine would in time inevitably familiarize him with morphine, if not with its still unknown dangers. The name "Soldiers Disease" came from the shocking number of shambling, rag-covered Civil War vets crowding American urban sidewalks, panhandling and/or indulging in such petty crimes necessary to maintain often whopping morphine habits. The difference between these human wrecks and Dr. Webb boiled down to little more than good laundry and layers of hired protection. Absent those, Dr. Webb had become simply another junkie.

How did it happen? Answer: accumulated stress. In 1890, Webb, then president of the Vanderbilts' Wagner Palace Car Company, surveyed an Appalachian route to Montreal that would connect it to Vanderbilt lines in the south. Webb explored a new route, and even began buying land with his own money along the right-of-way. At this point, his in-laws cut him off at the knees by buying an existing line further east. Confronted with serious losses from land purchases, the humiliation of casual treatment by his wife's family, and a big project in which he believed, Webb decided to push ahead on his own. Between 1891 and 1892 he battled with trackside and boardroom saboteurs from the Delaware and Lakawana, others supposedly from the Vandrbilts themselves, hideous weather conditions in the mountains, catastrophic cost overuns, and a resulting plague of migraine headaches. In the face of the latter, Webb turned to morphine, and was never able to turn back.

High livers had checked into both Dr. and Mrs. Webb's bedrooms at the time of my last visit, so I'm forced to provide this most unsatisfactory vintage image of Mrs. Webb's bedrroom, and none at all of her husband's. Her boudoir, seen in the modern views below, is today a hotel room.
For a long time, no one seemed to notice that Dr. Webb was going to pieces. Such is the curse — and it's a big one — of having money: no one challenges you. The Shelburne Stud, started with such fanfare and investment, languished even before the main house was finished. At one point Webb offered his neighbors free stud service. I don't know for a fact that no one at all took him up on it, but I do know his crusty Vermont neighbors found the offer condescending and offensive, and that the stud ultimately withered from inattention. The horses were sold, the great barn relegated to incidental use, and that was that.

Webb's abandonment of a once cherished project paralleled an unexpected — and slightly creepy — change in his behavior. Specifically, he became inappropriately flirtatious with the many pretty girls who visited Shelburne — or New York, or his house in Palm Beach. Whereas his Adirondack railroad had succeeded, albeit at great peronal cost, Webb's business life was otherwise in shambles. Wagner had struggled with Pullman for decades over patents, but in 1899, it lost in court. Pullman swallowed Wagner whole and Webb was out of a job. Worse, he was deeper than ever into an eerie personal world that only occasionally crossed paths with that of his family. Meanwhile, his houses remained packed with guests who assumed the party wouldn't end.
More hall, to more bedrooms ...
How did Lila deal with this? Much as expected, with a combination of shame, bafflement and secrecy. Little was known about substance addiction at the time, and public opinion held that if you had any sort of a backbone, you could simply quit the stuff. By the end of the 1890s, Dr. Webb had largely defaulted on his role as Victorian paterfamilias. The stud, the farm, Nehasane, his properties elsewhere ... all decisions were now left to his wife. She did the best she could, given her background and business inexperience, but couldn't stop money from hemmoraging.

By 1905 Dr. Webb had institutionalized his own shadow staff at Shelburne. Directed by valet Tom MacIntee and secretary Graham Kerr (the man who got the morphine) Dr. Webb and his group were an eerily invisible feature to madcap house parties at Shelburne Farms. He was supposed to be there, but nobody ever saw him. Lila usually ate alone, unable to enjoy her husband's companionship, or advice, or comfort, or even his simple presence. With the exception of her brother Fred, who lent her money for old time's sake, Lila was alone.

An enormus playroom shares the third floor with more guestrooms.
When Lila Webb died ten years after her husband in 1936, the Nazis were on the march, the Depression was looking permanent, income taxes were leveling fortunes, and whether the Communists saved us or buried us didn't seem to have much impact on the future of Shelburne Farms. Lila's four children would have dumped it immediately, had they all not been in the long habit of visiting and, indeed, had each not kept kept a place of their own on the property. Vanderbilt Webb made plans to tear down the main house almost as soon as his mother died. Instead, for the next 40 years the family used Shelburne as a sort of grandly deteriorating Gilded Age summer camp.
Until his father's death in 1956, Van Webb's son Derick ran a very different kind of estate than the Shelburne Farms of his grandparents'. For one thing, the place broke even, the result of belatedly employed scientific farming methods, a backing off on maintenance (abandonment of the golf course saved a lot, as did the formal garden when it slipped into Lake Champlain), not to mention a different style of entertaining. Private railroad cars full of swanky social types were replaced by family parties that were part kid retreat, and part "life among the ruins," an experience, as some of us know, that is not entirely bad.

In 1967 a developer named Dan Kiley introduced a detailed demolition and subdivision plan to Derick Webb's assembled family. This audience might not literally have thrown Kiley out the door, but the decisions they made that night — to save Shelburne, no matter what — have led 35 years later to an established, foundation-owned, property that simultaneously keeps the past alive and champions a sensible ecology.

Shelburne Farms sponsors an active calendar of educational and volunteer programs, plus a lengthy schedule of activities related to dual mission of preservation and environmental protection. Webb decendants still live on the estate, but they are employees of a foundation today, not lords of the manor. The link, subtitled "Educating for a Sustainable Future," is www.shelburnefarms.org.
Postscript: I have it on the indisputable authority of J. Watson Webb Jr., son of "Lean & Mean," grandson of Dr. W, that on the morning of the latter's death, his three sons forced their way into his bedroom, insisted Tom MacIntee unlock the safe, pulled out all their father's morphine, threw it onto a pile of papers in the fireplace, and set it on fire.
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