High Style in the Gilded Age: Louisa Robb Livingston
Louisa Van Renssalaer Robb Livingston (1877-1960)
In light of her later reputation as a fierce defender of Old Guard ways, and a sharp critic of anyone not measuring up to her standards, it’s hard to believe that Louisa Robb Livingston was ever a child.
But she was. And what a childhood she must have had! In 1885, Louisa’s father, J.Hampden Robb, a Harvard-educated banker and cotton merchant with a distinguished career in public service, hired the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design the summer cottage known as The Dolphins on the west shore of Lake Agawam. Among the earliest of the lakeside cottages, it sets a high standard for what will soon be acknowledged as the most desirable neighborhood for summering in Southampton. Louisa’s mother, nee Cornelia Van Rennselaer Thayer, a woman with an unrivaled pedigree, adds luster to the family’s rank and Louisa’s aristocratic self-assurance is bred in the bone.
From the time she is around eight years old, Louisa is spending magical summers at The Dolphins where the final decades of the 19th century see the lake develop into a lively center of activity. Looking back later, one of Louisa’s contemporaries described bicycle paths running parallel to walking paths around the lake. She recalled that in the morning the lake was “a busy and gay sight as people rowed or sailed down to the beach for a swim.” And she remembered that at night, with lanterns lighting the way, small boats took people back and forth, visiting neighbors. On the Fourth of July a thrilling regatta was an annual event that brought out the whole village.
In New York, where the family resides when they’re not in Southampton, Louisa’s father is appointed to the prestigious post of Parks Commissioner in 1888 and hires McKim, Mead & White to design a residence for the family at 23 Park Avenue. Louisa is 14 when they move into the splendid Renaissance-inspired mansion, for which Stanford White is credited as the lead architect. With its five stories filled with “rare art and antiques,” it gets high praise in the press. One prominent architectural critic calls it “the most dignified structure in all the quarter of town, not a palace, but a fit dwelling house for a first-rate citizen.” And--he might have added--for his very privileged offspring.
In New York, Louisa must put aside the rustic pleasures of Southampton for a more formal introduction to life in the highest circles of New York City society--with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails. Barely past adolescence, she already stands out among her peers as a strong personality, and with her impressive lineage and irrepressible spirit, she is expected to marry well. Which she does.
St. George’s Episcopal Church Stuyvesant Square
On April 8, 1896, the altar at St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square is hedged with jonquils and flanked by tall palms at Louisa’s wedding to the rising young architect Goodhue Livingston. It is a social merger of the highest order linking two families descended from the old Dutch and Colonial aristocracy. Louisa, in white satin and lace studded with diamonds, approaches the altar on the arm of her father, preceded by six ushers and eight bridesmaids representing Gotham’s gilded youth.
The ceremony is performed at noon by the Reverend Dr. William S. Rainsford, the handsome, charismatic preacher hired by J.P. Morgan to lead his church, St. George’s, as rector. As Morgan’s close confidant, Rainsford has enormous prestige and enjoys the titan’s friendship and support. Their close bond ends only after some 30 years when the rector’s scandalous affair with a parishioner is revealed. Until then, Rainsford, a social activist on behalf of the poor, uses his pulpit to attack “the tyranny of wealth” in his city, while indulging his Gilded Age tastes in his personal life, orbiting the same social circle as the bride and groom, and spending summers in his Southampton cottage.
Livingston House 38 East 65th Street Built c. 1910
Louisa and Goodhue are immediately embraced by New York society after setting up housekeeping at 38 East 65th Street. The architectural firm Goodhue had formed with partner William Trowbridge in 1894 attracts a well-heeled clientele from the upper East Side and Wall Street and soon earns an enviable reputation for its commercial, public and institutional buildings, many in the Beaux Arts style. Louisa mixes easily with Goodhue’s many highly-placed clients who enjoy the Livingstons’ hospitality on 65th Street. At the same time, she is involved in a daunting array of civic and political activities herself, sought-after to join clean-city campaigns, hospital boards, charity organizations, and, eventually, Republican politics.
St. Regis Hotel & Lobby Letter Box c.1904
Meanwhile, Trowbridge & Livingston is coming of age as a firm at the same time that New York City is acquiring its great luxury hotels, which are replacing the modest inns and boarding houses of the past. Building giant luxury hotels becomes a competitive sport for some of the city’s wealthiest men and when Trowbridge & Livingston wins a competition to design John Jacob Astor IV’s “pleasure palace for the people,” which will command the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, the firm is poised to make its most glamorous contribution to the city’s changing streetscape. Opened in 1904, the St. Regis Hotel is breathtakingly hailed in the press not just for its architectural and technological brilliance, but for what one columnist characterized as its role in shaping “the face and style of New York.” These are good years for the Livingstons, now a family of four.
In the coming years, the firm’s very visible landmarks for which Goodhue will receive much of the credit, will include, among others, the B. Altman building, the Equitable Trust Building, the Bank of America Building, and, towards the end of his career, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. There will also be commissions from beyond New York’s borders, offering many opportunities for the Livingstons to hobnob with a national and international elite. A photographer spies them in 1890 with Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt at a Coaching Club event. The Vanderbilts will later divorce following a scandal involving Alfred’s alleged misbehavior with another woman aboard his private railroad car, Wayfarer. But in 1890 Elsie Vanderbilt is still happy to support Alfred, known as “the handsome Vanderbilt,” in his devotion to horses and the revival of the sport of coaching.
Coaching clubs are all the rage among the 19th-century elite. It’s a sport that doesn’t require a high degree of athleticism but does demand great skill. Spectators, dressed to the nines, attend events at which impeccably outfitted coaching enthusiasts sit atop their perfectly painted and polished four-in-hand coaches and, with ramrod posture and immense cool, manage to control the movements of the stunning team of horses out front. There are marathons, promenades and feats of speed and derring-do.
Southampton has its own devotees, including Henry Coe whose scrapbooks at the museum are testimony to his high international stature in the world of coaching. Southampton’s resident bohemian, Zella de Milhau--never one to cede ground to the men--is also known to drive a four-in-hand and to careen through the village at a hair-raising clip, scattering pedestrians and inspiring this bit of verse: “When Miss Zella Milau Drives her Tally-hau She takes her whip And hits ‘em a clip And makes the horses gau”
There was never any real doubt that Louisa and Goodhue would spend their summers in Southampton. They have many options for summer accommodations in the village and Louisa becomes a force in the summer colony society, of which she has been a part since childhood. Not much of a clubwoman, she does not look upon summer as a time to spend leisurely days with friends at one of the elite clubs that have sprouted in the now well-established resort. Instead, in 1901, she takes it upon herself, along with a small group of women, to found the Fresh Air Home for Crippled Children. It is their mission to share the benefits of sun and sea with city-bound, physically challenged children and the first year they rent a small building to accommodate 10 residents. The second year they rent a more suitable residence and make plans for a permanent facility, which will soon follow.
In 1912, now at the height of his career, Goodhue Livingston purchases 10 acres adjacent to Louisa’s childhood summer home, The Dolphins, and designs a magnificent Georgian Revival mansion for the family. Sited on the eastern part of the property, which runs from First Neck Lane to the Agawam shore, the handsome so-called cottage also commands a view of the ocean. There are stables, service buildings and gardens on beautifully landscaped grounds that include many old trees, inspiring the mansion’s name, “Old Trees.” Gardeners, maids, a butler and uncounted minions are required to maintain the estate where Louisa and Goodhue entertain the cream of international society, often mixing them with prominent local guests.
At this point, Louisa is well on her way to achieving the kind of social power in Southampton epitomized by THE Mrs. Astor, who ruled over New York City society in the Gilded Age. The Southampton summer colony had always had its arbiters of Old Guard etiquette and exclusion. They were, as writer John Corry described them, a self-appointed squadron of “elderly ladies of elegant breeding who were collectively known as ‘the Dreadnoughts.’” A less charitable view is found in a memoir left by Marietta Andrews, a student at the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, who recalled tedious afternoon teas at which the Dreadnoughts, who called themselves “patrons,“ presided. They were deadly affairs, she recalled, at which the women, overfed and badly dressed in bustling in silks, received the young artists. She might have been describing Sarah Redwood Parrish, the dominant influence on the life of her son, Southampton’s benefactor Samuel Longstreth Parrish, and a social force to reckon with.
Parrish’s mother had entered the social stream in Southampton after moving into the McKim, Mead & White house, White Fence, built for her on First Neck Lane in 1889. Samuel lived with her for a time, put his charm at her disposal when she entertained at teatime, and did not find a woman to equal her in his eyes until more than three decades after her death when he married for the first time at the age of 79.
Because of her role as Society’s gatekeeper in Southampton, Louisa is sometimes described as the last of the Dreadnoughts. But she has little in common with those boring old ladies and their tedious teas. Outspoken, she often shares her strong opinions with society columnists though it is considered unseemly for a woman of her rank to engage with the press. With advancing age, she has more and more to say and pundits of the social pages delight in her tart comments and pithy observations. So quotable is she that many of her pointed pronouncements live on in chronicles of Gilded Age society. Among those for whom she reserves her greatest scorn are those with money but neither taste nor restraint. Nothing offends her more than the ostentatious display of wealth, though she, of course, lives in the most luxurious surroundings. The difference, she would insist, is that hers are TASTEFUL surroundings. Southampton has footmen, she acknowledges at one point,but, she sniffs,“we’ve never had footmen in knee britches.” And though she can be kindly in exercising her power over which candidates will succeed in piercing the tight circle of Southampton society, no one who has nothing more than money and social ambition to commend them will get through the gate.
It isn’t until 1941 that Louisa is obliged to let the last of her tasteful footman go. “They had to go to war,” she explains, “and after it was over my butler said not to even try to get any more. There are very few of us left,” she says, repeating a perennial Old Guard lament. “We’ve opened the doors, you know,” she adds. “The rest are very dear and sweet and they are lovely people, but it isn’t the same thing at all.”
The Livingstons spend their summers at Old Trees for almost 40 years, a long reign for Southampton’s irrepressible Grande Dame of the Old Guard. She survives her husband by nearly 10 years, and when she dies in 1960 at the age of 83, Southampton mourns the loss of its queen.