High Style in the Gilded Age: Jeanette Ralston Chase Hoyt
A few weeks ago we started including the staff lectures in our blog posts as a means to digitally archive everything we produce in one easy place to find everything so in the coming weeks we are going to be posting here my High Style in the Gilded Age talks. If you missed these talks live and have not yet had a chance to watch the video or are just now hearing about them, now is the best time to check them out!
As the Research Center Manager at the museum, my role has been to choose and describe the high-profile women among Southampton’s summer colony--fashion trendsetters and occasional fashion rebels--who wore the clothes and were admired, envied and lavishly covered on the society pages of the New York and local press in the years between 1870 and 1930.
Throughout those six decades, as Southampton transitioned from quiet village to fashionable resort, stylish women who arrived for the summer were liberating themselves from their corseted, constricting garments.
Elaborate hats in the Gilded Age were bedecked with copious flowers, ribbons and feathers. Howland Collection Southampton, c. 1900
For years, women of the upper classes had been covering their bodies with up to 25 pounds of petticoats, bustles, hats and ankle-length skirts. Of the dozen women featured in the exhibit, all were wealthy but none sailed through life on a cloud of privilege. Amidst the social triumphs, some had more than their share of stress, strife and scandal.
JANETTE (NETTIE) RALSTON CHASE HOYT (1847-1925)
The High-Culture Bohemian
It is the arrival of the railroad in 1870 that precipitates Southampton’s ascent as a fashionable resort. You can see on this 1873 map that no one has yet built on the western shore of Lake Agawam.
It is only a few years after that, in 1875 or ‘76, that Nettie Hoyt spends her first summer in Southampton, boarding with her family in the home of William White on South Main Street.
Nettie was raised by her widowed father, the eminent Salmon P. Chase, a very imposing figure but one with a very familiar face; during his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln from 1861 to 1864, he put his face on the front of every dollar bill (and on the $10,000 bill as well). Not for nothing was he known as “Old Mister Greenbacks.”
Despite smoldering friction with Lincoln, no doubt arising from Chase’s loss of the Republican presidential nominations in 1860 and 1864 to Lincoln, the President nominates him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1864.
Chase holds that position until 1873, and no job could be better suited to his solid sense of his own superiority.
Nettie is on her father’s lap. Her older sister, Kate, the family beauty, stands at his left.
As a young girl, Nettie shows artistic talent as well as a quick intellect and marvelous energy. But her father is a strict taskmaster and gives most of his attention to Nettie’s half sister Kate, a celebrated beauty who is more pliant than the willful Nettie. Kate’s marriage to the wealthy William Sprague, who will later serve as governor of Rhode Island and is considered a prize catch, seems to guarantee that she will have a brilliant future in society--a false presumption as it turns out.
After weathering her difficult childhood, Nettie attends a progressive female seminary, is tutored in French, and travels abroad. During the winter of 1866-67, she studies painting in Dresden and in 1871 she and Wlliam Sprague Hoyt (cousin of her sister’s husband) are married in what The New York Tmes calls “one of the most brilliant weddings that ever occurred in Washington.” [Here, a typical wedding that year] The reception at the home of Nettie’s sister and husband, then Senator Sprague, is attended by president Grant and all the justices of the Supreme Court. Buoyed by family wealth and social prominence, the young Hoyts are immediately embraced by smart society.
Nettie and her children circa 1885. Beatrix, a future golf champion, is on her right; on her left is her son Edwin.
When the nationwide depression of 1873 takes a toll even among the privileged, the Hoyts remain popular and socially prominent. Obliged to supplement their income with their creativity and energy, which Nettie possesses in abundance, they see opportunity in Southampton’s soaring real estate values. In 1877, they purchase property on the western shore of Lake Agawam from Augustus Halsey and build a summer cottage.
The Hoyt house on Lake Agawam, which they call Windy Barn, is the talk of the town. Ever the innovators, the Hoyts defy tradition by fronting the house on the lake rather than the road, as tradition dictates. With a Dutch gambrel-roofed barn for inspiration, they design a building that, as historian William Pelletreau reports, “some call quaintly artistic, and others a monstrosity, but it is an object of interest as the first mansion erected in that locality.”
Lake Agawam which might have been renamed Sliver Lake if Nettie’s suggestion had been embraced – which it definitely was not.
Pelletreau also remarks that it was Nettie and not her husband who purchased the land, hinting perhaps at William Hoyt’s personal and financial difficulties rumored to include a drinking problem. He also suggests that the Hoyts are not popular among local residents. A much ridiculed attempt to rename what was then called Town Pond and instead call it Silver Lake is attributed to Nettie--providing ammunition for her critics. But despite any local disapproval of Hoyt unconventionality, Windy Barn becomes a lively gathering place for the Hoyts’ many friends and extended family, who find much to admire in the so-called monstrosity. Nettie has painted first-floor wall panels with lakeside scenes and covered the floors and ceilings with red paint, adding other decorative innovations. The couple introduces a bohemian flair to the village, which is on the brink of big changes, yet still considered a backwater by many. The library, the art museum and the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club are still two decades in the future and no hospital will exist in Southampton until 1909.
In 1885, the Hoyts create another stir when they sell the house on Lake Agawam to banker Charles Barney--for twice what they paid for it--and then become pioneer developers on Shinnecock Hills, acquiring acreage on which to build summer cottages to rent or sell. For themselves, they build a charming, curved arts-and-crafts house, already a curiosity even before they purchase an unused windmill on Windmill Lane and move it, at considerable expense, to their property on the Hills.
Indefatigable in her artistic and cultural activities, Nettie continues to paint, she illustrates popular children’s books and is active in numerous charitable organizations. Perhaps the biggest cultural boost Nettie gives to Southampton--her orchestration of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art--dovetails nicely with the couple’s promotion of real estate in the Hills.
With her wide social and artistic connections, Nettie is able to persuade the celebrated artist William Merritt Chase to come to Southampton and lead the school from 1892 to 1902. Popular among New York City’s society matrons, Nettie is able to enlist financial support for the school from the likes of Mrs. August Belmont, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie and Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt. Where there had been concern that East Hampton was dominating the region’s cultural life, Southampton could now boast a nationally recognized plein air art school.
Then, when Samuel Parrish, Southampton’s beloved benefactor, introduces the game of golf to Southampton with a few of his friends, Nettie becomes an influential advocate for female golfers at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. She manages to guarantee that the club will welcome women players and is instrumental in establishing a small course for women at the club, where her daughter Beatrix learns the game and goes on to win three women’s national championships.
For a while, things seem to go smoothly for the Hoyts and for their involvement in Shinnecock Hills real estate. Meanwhile, Nettie’s contributions to village life win many over, as this praise from the Mail and Express inewspaper illustrates in 1887: “The magic hand that has changed the waste into a well-known resort, and within whose limits there will be within a year or two at least from 50 to 100 cottages, is Mrs. William Hoyt…” (Mail and Express, August 1887)
And in 1889, the Sea-Side Times declares “The Credit of inventing Southampton should properly be given to Mrs. William S. Hoyt ,that original daughter of the late Chief Justice Chase, whom chance and a love for pure air and freedom first attracted to the Spot.” (The Sea-Side Times, July 21, 1889)
But the Hoyt marriage is a lopsided arrangement, with Nettie obliged to take the reins as her husband becomes increasingly irresponsible. By 1900 the marriage has collapsed and William is living in Puerto Rico where he dies in 1905 of unspecified but probably alcohol-related causes.
Oddly enough, Nettie’s beautiful sister Kate has also seen her “brilliant” marriage collapse amidst accusations that William Sprague is guilty of verbal abuse, uncontrollable spending habits, infidelity and alcoholism.
They are divorced in 1882 and Kate dies penniless in 1899.
Kate comes to a pitiful end, while Nettie moves on, not one to dwell on the past. Her contributions, however, are not forgotten by others, and in 1889, a wistful correspondent for the Sea-Side Times writes: “Ah, Those old days at Windy Barn--they set a pace for Southampton which has never been improved; they instituted a habit of free, fresh, joyous outdoor life which fashion and affectation have wrestled with in vain.” The Sea-Side Times, July 1889.
Nettie lives another 20 years after the death of her husband, years that are for the most part filled with her customary enthusiastic cultural pursuits. Around the time of William’s departure for Puerto Rico, she abandons Southampton, but later returns to build a small cottage on Peconic Bay where she occasionally summers until her death in 1925.