Thursday, October 29, 2015

Big Old Houses: Outside Shelburne

Outside Shelburne
by John Foreman


What do I see in the face of this handsome middle aged man? Ease and privilege to be sure, but also something calculating and and the same time almost plaintive -- qualities that don't square with the assertive body language. (Will he squeeze that finger bloodless or simply pull if off?) The man in question is William Seward Webb (1851-1926), who met and eventually married Eliza (Lila) Osgood Vanderbilt (1860-1836), eighth youngest child of William Henry Vanderbit, the richest man in the world. Webb was 26, Lila 17 when they met.
What do these two pictures possibly have to do with today's post? Hang on; I'll explain. William Seward Webb, Seward to his friends, was the namesake of his godfather, Secretary of State under Lincoln, William Henry Seward — the man who pushed and fulminated until Uncle Sam finally bought "Seward's Ice Box," (a.k.a. Alaska).

Seward's grandfather, Samuel Blachley Webb.
William Seward Webb's wife, Eliza (Lila) Osgood Vanderbilt Webb.
Seward's grandfather, Gen. Samuel Blachley Webb, led the Minutemen up Bunker Hill. For heaven's sakes, he held the Bible for George Washington at Continental Hall in New York. Seward's father, besides being a prominent New York publisher, was Lincoln's Minister to Brazil. This meant, among other things, frequent foreign travel in a world not yet tamed by Carnival Cruise.

Maybe it was living amidst unapologetic third world poverty — not that you couldn't live next door to the same thing in the States — that convinced young Webb to take up doctoring. Somewhere around his tenth year of internship at St. Luke's Hospital he met Lila at a society dinner. They saw themselves across a crowded room, and it was "kismet."

Mr. Vanderbilt's first view of Seward Webb was another story. He hated him. How does a father shake hands with a handsome young man and immediately know that something is wrong? His surface objections were understandable. 19th century Doctors weren't rich and the profession wasn't prestigious. In 1878 Vanderbilt packed Webb off to a brokerage agency, where the young man survived credibly — or at least, uncomplainingly. About this same time, by a bad stroke of luck, Vanderbilt's late life child, Fred, then an 18-year-old sophomore at Yale, took up with his hot, 30-year-old Aunt Lulu Torrance who, to the family's collective shame and dismay, divorced her husband and married Fred. At which point, Mr. Vanderbilt forbade the mention of Seward Webb's name under his roof.

The lovers persisted. They wrote secret letters, delivered on a daily basis by Lila's sisters and Margaret's husband Elliott Fitch (a man never strong on judgment). Have you ever written a 100-page letter? Neither have I. Lila Vanderbit has. Many.

Not even William Henry Vanderbilt was able to resist indefinitely. In 1881, after three years of enforced separation, the lovebirds married (finally). Eventually, the ten-year trust expired and the Vanderbilt money was theirs too. If the question — besides building a honking big country estate — was what to do with it, Webb had the answer. He had determined in his mind on a contribution to America: Seward Webb would perfect the American horse — meaning he'd make those suspicious 4-footed relations in the images above into indistinguishable cousins.

Here's the house that Webb built, starting at the gate visitors don't used anymore since family members still live at this end of the estate. The main house is now an inn, surrounded by miles of scenic roads, heart stopping glimpses of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain through the trees, and square miles of mowed lawn.
Before Webb built Shelburne, he considered other projects. I'm glad he wound up where he did.
It almost didn't matter what you built with a view like this. Webb took baby steps at first, renting a house outside Shelburne, then having architect Robert H. Robertson (1849-1919) eventually design a soigne (and economical) wooden country house by the lakeside. The reason, for all of this slow contemplation, was simple: not enough money. You see, Commodore Vanderbilt had initially disinherited all of his children, save eldest son William. A celebrated will case dominated the American press for years, providing juicy personal details at breakfast tables for months. There was to be no repeat of that. William Henry Vanderbilt left every one of his 8 sons and daughters the same basic $10 million — except Lila's inheritance was tied up in a trust. For ten years! So Seward waited and when the ten years were up, he began to build.
Webb, courtesy of his father-in-law, was President of the Wagner Palace Car Co. Keeping an office in New York and a country house in Vermont (300 miles on today's interstates), is daunting now but a cinch a hundred years ago — at least, if you had a private railroad car. These luxurious proto-Lear jets were simply tacked onto trains going your way. They were not-so-little traveling apartments with everything a plutocrat could want. Put in a full Friday at work, rush to Grand Central, get on your car, grab a drink, a meal, go to sleep, and wake up refreshed in Vermont. Shelburne was a wooden house at first and from the few unsatisfactory photos I've seen of it, was a more successful composition. I suspect — and this is my own theory — that they covered the place with brick because it was too cold.
Shelburne survives — and flourishes — because Webb family descendants determined to preserve it. One of the smartest decisions they made revolved around converting the house into an inn. In point of fact, houses like Shelburne were built as private hotels, the only difference being the owners originally had to invite you. Today's Inn respects the envelope of the Robertson house, while at the same time removing twenty-two maids' rooms. How did they do it? By cleverly terminating the wing extending to the left in the image below, which used to go twice as far out. I'll bet few visitors would even guess it today.
The beautiful garden, which had fallen into the lake when I first visited Shelburne, has been restored.
One of my favorite rooms in America is the library/drawing room at Shelburne. Outside of it, at the southern end of the house, is a broad covered porch with comfortable chairs, views in every direction and buttons to push for whatever you want.
The Webbs also used to play golf on a private links, swan around Lake Champlain on a yacht called the Elfreda, chase foxes in the fall and ice boat and snow shoe in the winter. Here they are at an unaccustomed moment of rest.
In addition to a big house. Shelburne has three colossal Robertson designed barns, the largest dedicated to running an extensive crop and livestock operation. The other two, only slightly smaller, were built as part of Dr. Webb's horse plot.

America was still running on horsepower in 1890. Webb, who'd grown up on the back of a horse, was focused on the ways that breeding and training could be improved, instead of on the real future of transportation. Railways had depressed the quality of carriage horses and people like Webb were making do with shabby stock — or, at least that's what Webb considered it. His Vermont neighbors, by contrast, were proud of the Vermont Morgan horse, which had systematically carried the Civil War on its back.

The Farm Barn, restored not that many years ago, may be the most magnificent agricultural building built originally for private purposes in the United States
At the Breeding Barn, still in family hands, an American horse would be bred that was sturdy enough to drag the heaviest wagon, and elegant enough to arrive at the opera.
The Coach Barn, located within sight of the house, is another curiously sinuous R.H. Robertson building. His Shelburne work is all different, all interesting. In case we didn't know the horse era was over, the date above the door to the coach barn will remind us.
If you want to see the inside of Shelburne, you'll have to come back next week. It is wonderful, enormous, and there's no room to go through it now. As the 20th century progressed, Webb abandoned his horse experiment, and retreated unexpectedly from business, and from daily social life at Shelburne, not to mention his Adirondack Camp, or the family's house in New York, and became a phantom. The huge shoots and weeks' long house parties continued, but Dr. Webb was never in sight — always "unwell." When encountered, he was faultlessly polite, meticulously turned out, and inevitably within reach of his valet. Something was wrong.
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