High Style in the Gilded Age: Louisa Robb Livingston

Updated: Jun 22


 

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.

Robb House Park Avenue & 35th St.

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 Reverend William Stephen Rainsford

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 scandalou