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Monday, June 09, 2014

Among the Astorbilts

From the Bookshelf Dept.: During one of the too-many years I spent living in Schenectady, I was an across-the-street neighbor of Robbe Pierce Stimson, whose interest in historic houses extended beyond merely living in one. A few years later, when I heard he’d co-authored a book about selected houses of the Vanderbilt era, I wrote this interview piece for the Schenectady Gazette.


“THEY WANTED A COFFEE-TABLE PICTURE BOOK about the Vanderbilt houses. We found we had a lot to say. It’s still a coffee-table book, but it’s already been chosen as a text in some architecture courses.”

"The Breakers," Newport, Rhode Island
Robbe Pierce Stimson sits on the small veranda of his Rexford home, examining a freshly-printed copy of his new book, “The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age,” the lavishly-illustrated story of a wealthy generation that left its mark on the world with a series of lavish houses that includes Newport’s “The Breakers,” the decaying “Elm Court” in Lenox, Mass., and what’s now the New Jersey campus of Fairleigh-Dickinson University.

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1887, he had more money in his estate than the Federal Government had in its reserves. His eldest son, William, inherited that fortune but was more egalitarian about passing it on: it was divided among his four sons and four daughters, each of whom was responsible for building at least one massive mansion.

“The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age,” co-authored with architectural historian John Foreman, profiles the thirteen houses they constructed, at the same time telling the story of this Vanderbilt generation. “They were a unique group of people,” says Stimson. “All the men were womanizers, which was typical of the era, but there was some surprising enlightenment, too. Alva Vanderbilt, for example, was one of the forerunners of the suffragette movement.

“What this book shows you is a group of siblings that made one of the greatest contributions to architecture and style in the western world. The Vanderbilts weren’t any kind of an American aristocracy, but they definitely were trend-setters who worked their way into American society during three significant generations.”

Generous family support helped the project, but not all reactions were enthusiastic. “We gave a talk at the Book Friends CafĂ© in Manhattan the other night and a man came up to us and identified himself as a descendent and told us the lecture was lame. He wanted us to talk more about the Vanderbilt family’s contributions to society. Otherwise, we got a lot of cooperation from family members, who seem pretty happy that John and I were the ones to tell that part of their story.”

Stimson worked as an environmental planner in the Schenectady area, where he helped develop the county’s bike trails and nature preserves. In the early 1980s he left to take a job restoring estates in the Rhinebeck area, an occupation that led to his book “Hudson River Villas.”

“That was a book of great pictures and little information,” he says. “Eighty percent of what I wrote was edited out to make room for photographs. Rizzoli, the publisher, asked me to make a wish list of what I’d like to do next. John Foreman is an old friend I’ve worked with before, and he and I came up with a few ideas. We suggested a book about Tuxedo Park, a book on country seats of England, an extension of 'Hudson River Villas’ about manors of the Hudson, and the Vanderbilt book.”

Rizzoli liked that last idea, “but the more we looked at it, the more we wanted to do a definitive piece about the family. We were nervous about dealing with Rizzoli, so we got an agent who negotiated the sale to St. Martin’s Press. Rizzoli went with someone else for a book with color pictures, and we went ahead with this highly-researched book.”

What was planned to be a year-long project stretched into four. “There was only so much advance money, so I decided to try to get some underwriting from foundations and not-for-profit groups. I’m not a university professor, so I don’t have the educational associations they like to see. They decided the project was outside the realm of the scholastic community, so I was denied funds. The irony is that the finished product is not only considered popular reading – it’s a Book-of-the-Month Club selection – but also is already being considered by universities as an architectural text.”

One of the points emphasized throughout the book is that large old houses can be restored and maintained through creative use of the estate’s resources, and Stimson puts that philosophy into practice as part of his work with Estates Technologies Group, a company that seeks to preserve such houses in the Hudson Valley, Connecticut and the Berkshires. “We stress renovation and adaptive use of the land,” he says.

Stimson bought and restored an old house in Rexford in 1988, in a neighborhood that had its own amusement park the first three decades of this century. “The trolley came out here,” he says, pointing out a broad, flat swath of grassy land. “There was a turnaround by an old cider mill. The train brought fair-goers out from Schenectady and returned with milk for the city from Saratoga County farms.” The house has a comfortable view of another river, which Stimson stares at while working on a modern computer that sits on an antique desk. “I may have to write a book about historic houses on the Mohawk next,” he says.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 30 May 1991

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