The US has always been an oligarchy. When we use today’s eyes to look at Jefferson’s Monticello, it looks quaint and compact compared to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, but in its time it was as close to a palace as the US could get.
Building gigantic monuments to oneself and one’s comforts is a very parvenu sort of thing – I suppose it’s a way of marking the feeling of “I finally got here.” At least that may be the case for the head of a dynasty; for the inheritors of vast wealth it’s just “how I grew up” – it’s expected.
I found this article at The Daily Beast to be fascinating [db] – it’s about the Carrier/Mills mansion up in the Catskills of New York.
It has that neoclassical white house wanna be look, doesn’t it? Only it’s bigger. And it’s falling apart.
What fascinates the reporter at Daily Beast is that it appears as though everyone just sort of – left. There wasn’t a nuclear fallout cloud or anything like that; they appear to have gotten bored of the place and so they stopped going and let it sit there, completely furnished, as a sort of cultural archeology dig of American culture during the late golden age.
At one end of the great library, a nine-foot portrait of Governor Lewis dwarfs the fireplace and takes up half the space to the ceiling – where, in Wharton’s story, “a few family portraits of lantern-jawed gentlemen in tie-wigs…hung.” Other family portraits adorn the library walls, but those are modest in size and probably only recognizable to gilded royals. On my tour, the docent said, “She’s showing right off while she’s socializing, and she repeats that in other rooms, like the Main Hall – you’ll see the whole line up of all her ancestors.”
The idea of being proud of one’s ancestors has always struck me as silly. My dad used to say (of some people) “They didn’t choose their parents very well” which neatly encapsulates the contradiction: it’s not as if ones ancestors did much but contribute some DNA. It’s the money that makes the difference; the economic opportunity and privilege. But please don’t mention the 9-foot portrait to Donald Trump or he’ll need a 20-footer.
Like all rooms on view at the Mills Estate, the library remains as it was when the family occupied the home and hosted America’s elite. As a whole, the library is remarkably intact, and only close inspection reveals cracks in the facade. Sunlight and temperature have faded and worn away the vibrancy of the curtains, and the book collection is now enclosed in glass to prevent further environmental deterioration. Preserving the contents of the rooms is the first order in conservation. The carpet and the upholstery are maintained and cleaned. The discovery of carpet beetles has been a blessing in disguise. New methods of preservation are developed in real time as challenges present themselves – the spray-it-with-gunite-so-it-doesn’t-decay era is over.
In the era of the Trump clan, the “social graces” of the important New York set don’t seem much different from other moneyed and powerful:
To help keep out the riffraff, i.e., new money, Ruth Mills joined forces with nine other grande dames (the Chicago Tribune called them a social “trust,” since the men in their families were then infamously busy running the trusts that ran American commerce). She wondered publicly how one could even conceive of an upper crust that allowed in 400 names when only 20 families really mattered. Ward McAllister freaked out when the Times published the truncated list. “The so-called Four Hundred has not been cut down or dwindled to 150 names,” he said. “That list of names, you understand, printed on Sunday, did not come from me, don’t you see. It is unauthorized, don’t you see. But it is accurate as far as it goes, you understand.” McAllister didn’t invalidate the 150, because he knew it came from Mrs. Livingston Mills.
Tacky house, horrible people, lots of money spent. They used to shit all over eachother in The New York Times instead of Twitter. What do “class” and “taste” mean? We are raised to think of this building as beautiful – and it’s certainly opulent – but is that only because it is old and was very expensive? Will Trump Tower’s penthouse suite someday be a preservationists’ nightmare? Plus ça change.
“it was as close to a palace as the US could get” – The white house looks to me like a rather obvious disney-style mini-replica of Versailles or the Louvre. If you’ve spent as much time as I have wandering around the imperial detritus of Louis XIV and Napoleon, it’s hard not to see American attempts at imperial grandeur as pretty cheesy, really. My dad’s a historian, who’s specialty is pre/revolutionary France, and we spent a lot of summers in Paris while dad dug through the national archives. For me, that equated to a lot of time in the Louvre and Les Invalides. There are worse ways to spend a childhood; I am not complaining.
“Will Trump Tower’s penthouse suite someday be a preservationists’ nightmare?” – I hope that all they save is the toilet.