The Gilded Age, Preserved: The Mansions of Somerset Hills

Blairsden, Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center—Mansion in May Designer Showhouse 2014. Photography courtesy of Turpin Real Estate, Inc

By Ilene Dube

In the decades following the Civil War, the United States experienced a period of tremendous economic growth. The railroad industry, mining, and finance gave new wealth to those who built them. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, J.P Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Flagler, and others—the robber barons—built the core of the American industrial economy, as well as the nonprofit sector through their generous philanthropy, on the backs of the working class.

The captains of industry spent lavishly on the accoutrements of the aristocratic life, including large country houses in one or more of the exclusive “colonies”: Newport, Rhode Island; Bar Harbor, Maine; Lenox, Massachusetts; the Main Line outside Philadelphia; the Hudson River Valley of New York; and the Somerset Hills of the Garden State.

The great country estates were, by design, examples of conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of leisure, a blatant statement of the owner’s social standing, according to historian W. Barry Thomson, co-author with the late John K. Turpin of New Jersey Country Houses: The Somerset Hills, Vol. 1 and 2. Some of the most prominent and influential architects and landscape designers were commissioned to create opulent estates in park-like settings.

Somerset Hills, in Somerset County, includes the towns of Bedminster, Basking Ridge/Bernards Township, Bernardsville, Far Hills, and Peapack-Gladstone. One of the crown jewels in the Mansions of Somerset Hills is Blairsden, considered one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States. Blairsden was designed by architects Carrère and Hastings, proteges of the McKim, Mead and White firm, who went off on their own to design Flagler hotels, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera House interior, New York’s Grand Army Plaza, and the Henry Clay Frick Mansion (today home to the Frick Collection), among many others.

Thomson, who frequently lectures on these country estates, grew up on the property adjoining Blairsden, named for C. Ledyard Blair, a prominent investment banker and ambitious entrepreneur who saw the beauty of the Somerset Hills and decided to build one of the largest estates in the region. Blair was a grandson of John Insley Blair, the mining and railroad baron who founded Blair Academy and was a significant donor to Princeton University (Blair Hall is named for him), C. Ledyard’s alma mater. The elder Blair was worth $70 million at his death, at age 97, in 1899.

Both grandfather and grandson founded the investment banking company Blair & Company. C. Ledyard also served as governor of the New York Stock Exchange, a director of Lackawanna Steel and the Green Bay & Western Railroad, and was both commodore and vice commodore of the New York Yacht Club. It took four years to build the 62,000-square-foot, 38-room Louis XIII-style estate.

Before construction, a mountain top had to be sheared off the site, making way for the man-made Ravine Lake, a rower’s paradise. Completed in 1903, 12 large busts of Roman emperors lined the 300-foot reflecting pool, which became home to swans Elsa and Lohengrin. The coach barn and stables cost $30,000 to build, and the barn had an elevator to the second floor.

A funicular was constructed up the steep incline behind the house to bring materials up the mountain. Blairsden had electrical service, elevators, a steel structure, concrete floors, and the latest heating and cooling technologies. Every Thursday, according to the Historical Society of the Somerset Hills, a “clock man” would come all the way from New York to wind all the clocks.

The main driveway was more than a mile long, and the entrance doors were made of bronze with one-inch thick plate glass windows each weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Each of the 25 fireplaces had a unique mantel.

To create the instant look of a mature landscape, 75 full-grown trees up to 60-feet tall were moved to the site by wagons pulled by teams of horses. More than 1,400 types of roses were planted in the garden. Blair and his wife, Florence Osborne Jennings, had four daughters, all of whom had wedding ceremonies or receptions at Blairsden, with private trains transporting guests from New York City.

Poor Little Peppina, starring United Artists cofounder and “America’s Sweetheart” actress/producer Mary Pickford, was filmed at Blairsden in 1915 (released in 1916). The movie depicts the outdoor grandeur and impeccable gardens of renowned landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf. Along with the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted (the “Father of American Landscape Architecture,” who designed New York’s Central and Prospect parks, among many others), Greenleaf worked on the James “Buck” Duke estate in Hillsborough (today, Duke Farms), and the Lincoln Memorial landscape in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Blairsden’s gardens, there were tennis courts, a boathouse, a squash court, horse trails, a horse track, and trap shooting range with its own lodge, and an indoor Turkish bath in the basement (“the plunge”).

But with all the lavish entertaining, it was just a country house. C. Ledyard Blair also commissioned Carrère and Hastings to design his New York townhouse at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. For his Bermuda estate, he commissioned the team to design a boathouse.

By November of 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped from 400 to 145. The stock market crash deeply impacted Blair and the entire Somerset Hills community.

Blair died at 82 in 1949, and a year later Blairsden and 50 acres of property were sold for an estimated $65,000 to the Sisters of St. John the Baptist, who renamed the property St. Josephs Villa and began operating it as a religious retreat.

That’s where Thomson comes in. His parents bought a section of the property for their home, and that’s where he grew up.

“There had been more than 500 acres in total,” he recollects. “Blair descendants and other private owners bought up the land.” Thomson remembers visiting the mansion when it was owned by the sisters when he was 4 or 5. “I remember walking down a central hallway holding my mother’s hand. The high ceilings and stone walls made a lasting impression—the sheer scale. As I grew older and became adventurous, I would clamber through the woods around the mansion. I was fascinated—how could you not be? It’s so impressive the way it sits on top of the hill with a lake.”

In the 1990s, when the Sisters of St. John the Baptist “were growing older and their ranks were dwindling,” recounts Thomson, they decided to sell Blairsden. A group of architects, landscape architects, architectural historians and others, spearheaded by Thomson, formed the nonprofit Blairsden Association with the intention of raising the funds necessary to acquire and restore the property and make it accessible to the public. Although more than $4 million in public and private funds were pledged to the Blairsden Association for the project, they were outbid in 2002 when the Sisters sold the property to the Foundation for Classical Architecture. Many hoped the Foundation would turn it into a museum. After some restoration work on the house and grounds, the Foundation sold the estate to a private owner in 2012 for $4.5 million. Present owner T. Eric Galloway is a New York developer and president of the Lantern Organization who has been described by one of his staff members as “a collector of buildings who prefers to stay out of the limelight.”

In 2014, the house was opened to the public for the first time for the biennial fundraiser of the Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center—the Mansion in May Designer Showhouse. More than 33,000 visitors viewed the home and gardens after decorators and designers did extensive work to patch up the disrepair.

Mansion in May 2017 at Alnwick Hall–The Abbey in Morris Township, NJ. Photography by Wing Wong/Memories TTL.

Alnwick Hall in Morristown is one of many elaborate houses that once stood along the stretch of Madison Avenue known as Millionaires’ Row. This survivor of the Gilded Age was built for Edward P. Meany (1854-1938), New Jersey judge advocate general and director of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, and his wife Rosaline. The architect was Percy Griffin, who also designed the Jefferson Davis Monument in Richmond, Virginia.

The Meanys based their 1904 home on the design of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England. From 1961 to 1984 the structure served as Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church. Until recently it was an office building known as The Abbey.

With leaded and stained glass windows galore, the Abbey returned to prominence as host of this year’s Mansions in May fundraiser for the Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center. Alnwick Hall was completely restored to its former grandeur by many area designers for the event, beautifying 41 rooms and many gardens. The ballroom alone, where the Meanys were said to entertain lavishly, could accommodate 200 people. Now that Mansions in May is over, the future of this landmark is in jeopardy. Plans for a townhouse complex are pending zoning commission review. A “Save the Abbey” campaign has been created to prevent it from being demolished.

Among the other Mansions of Somerset Hills is Stronghold, in Bernardsville.

Stronghold was designed by George B. Post, architect of the New York Stock Exchange, who purchased 104 acres on Bernardsville Mountain in 1871 with visions of replicating the rolling estates of English lords. Banker James Coleman Drayton bought a portion from Post, and hired him to build a stone villa featuring a four-story tower. The next owner added a classical semicircular terrace (the “Solarium”) with Corinthian columns and a staircase flanked by rhino statues. In 1940 it was turned into a girls’ boarding school, but by 1995 it had once again become a private residence. Built in 1886, the stone mansion was restored and renovated to blend its traditional grandeur with a modern spirit by fashion designer Marc Ecko, who bought it for $5 million in 2005 and pumped $23 million into it. Stronghold was listed for sale beginning in 2012 for $27 million—the New York Post headlined its story “Estate of Ecko a $$Wrecko.” Still on the market, Stronghold’s value is estimated by Zillow at $4 million.

Historic photo of Natirar, (below) Natirar restored. Photography courtesy of Eric Mower + Associates.

Natirar was created by Walter Graeme Ladd and his wife, Catherine Everit Macy Ladd, choosing the name based on the backward spelling of Raritan, the river that flows through the property. The estate includes 22 buildings, six wells, three bridges, three streams, a pond, woodlands, and the 33,000-square-foot mansion designed by Guy Lowell and Henry Hardenbergh, architects of New York’s Plaza and Waldorf hotels, the Dakota, Manhattan Courthouse, buildings on the Harvard University campus, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Catherine was an heiress to a whaling, oil, and shipping fortune; her father’s business partner was John D. Rockefeller. Ladd was an entrepreneur and attorney to Rockefeller. They married in 1883 and rented property in Bernardsville as they acquired small local farmsteads until their estate spread over 1,000 acres throughout Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills, and Bedminster.

Morocco’s King Hassan II bought the property from the Ladd Estate in 1983 but never permanently lived there. Somerset County bought Natirar in 2003 for $22 million and turned it into a park. The property features extensive areas of lawn and woodland, river access, and scenic views and contains historic farm buildings and various other residential structures and outbuildings dating from the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries.

The Mansions of Somerset Hills were built for another era. Do they have a place in the world today? “Some were torn down after World War II because they were too hard to maintain,” says Thomson. In addition to maintenance—they required an enormous staff of groundskeepers, housekeepers, stable groomsmen, and others—taxes were astronomical. If the house wasn’t razed in its entirety, wings might have been torn off. “Some of the buildings became schools or church-related,” says Thomson. “Stronghold became a private girls’ school but is now back in private ownership, just as with Blairsden. It’s interesting to see how they come full circle. And what is today the USGA Golf Museum in Bernards Township was built in 1919 for Thomas Frothingham as the Dogwood Estate.”

But living like a tycoon, surrounded by grandeur, never could assure happiness. According to the Historical Society website, after a failed suicide attempt, a divorce from his wife, and moving to Mexico to avoid bankruptcy prosecution, Frothingham died in Mexico.

 Thomson remains firmly committed to preservation. “These buildings reflect an important era of architectural, landscape, and cultural history, and reflect a different way of life,” he says. “They were built and designed by the most noted architects and landscape architects of the day. The architecture is culturally important to the history of the early 20th century. And environmentally it’s good that they remain intact and preserve open space.”