Gilded Age Gifts
Enjoying the legacy of thoughtful tycoons
Posted on November 1, 2018
The generosity of philanthropists is evident in many travel destinations, but nowhere more than in New England. While traveling here, I was struck by the contributions of 19th century captains of industry and their descendants. Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie are just some of the names associated with remarkable conservation and preservation projects in Vermont, Massachusetts, and beyond.
My first encounter was at Shelburne Farms, just outside of Burlington, Vermont, where Lila Vanderbilt Webb, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, committed her inheritance from her grandfather’s railroad fortunes to promoting land conservation and improved farming techniques. From 1886 to 1905, she and her husband, Seward Webb, amassed 3,800 acres of fertile valley land and, with the aid of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (Central Park), created a model country estate. Today, the nonprofit Shelburne Farms is a living classroom comprised of farm, field, and forest where children and adults learn about the natural and agricultural world. shelburnefarms.org
When we visited, my husband and I hiked up to a good view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. We also watched cheesemakers crafting their famous farmhouse cheddar, and we toured Lila and Seward’s beautiful mansion. The restored country home, opened in 1987 as The Inn at Shelburne Farms, offers 24 spacious rooms and four cottages. The Inn’s restaurant, one of Vermont’s premier farm-to-table establishments, serves produce from the property.
South of Burlington, in Woodstock, we discovered more examples of philanthropic generosity at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Here we learned about local resident Frederick Billings (yes, as in Billings, Montana), who made a fortune as a lawyer and real estate developer in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. When he returned to Vermont in 1861, he was saddened by the rampant deforestation that had taken place in his absence. He became our country’s first land conservationist when he bought a historic farm property and developed ecological methods for farming, timber harvest, and recreation.
In 1934, Billings’ granddaughter, Mary French, married Laurance Rockefeller, grandson of John D., the founder of Standard Oil. After she inherited the estate, the couple continued to develop it as a place where Vermonters could learn about best practices in farming and forestry. They donated the property to the National Park Service in 1992.
When we visited Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, we toured the historic mansion and gardens and took a short hike, but what I enjoyed most was the visitor center where I learned about the beginnings of American land conservation.
Woodstock is easily the most attractive small town in Vermont. I loved the leafy streets of beautifully maintained historic buildings — some brick Federalist style, others creamy-colored with dark green shutters, and even one fronted with grand Corinthian columns — and the gorgeous village green.
Woodstock has long been popular with tourists, and Laurance Rockefeller made the town even more attractive by building an exquisite hotel. The breathtaking Woodstock Inn & Resort includes an award-winning restaurant and luxurious guest rooms. The first ski lift in the U.S. was built here in 1933, and downhill and cross-country are still big draws. Other recreational options include hiking, horseback riding, fly fishing, biking, kayaking, tennis, swimming, and golf on a nearby Robert Trent Jones course. woodstockinn.com
As we explored New England, I learned that 19th century tycoons and their families rotated seasonally between their residences. Summers were spent at lakeside homes dubbed “great camps” in the Adirondacks. These compounds often consisted of a main house, guest houses, boat houses, and, of course, servants’ quarters. Some of these have become stunning hotels and resorts. I have great memories of staying at The Point, a log mansion built on Saranac Lake by William Avery Rockefeller. At this five-star “camp,” 11 guest rooms are located on 75 waterfront acres. I loved the rustic chic interiors, large stone fireplaces, and the quiet. On a dawn kayak around the lake, a handsome loon let me admire his beautiful plumage. thepointsaranac.com
In the fall, the families migrated to their mansions (called “cottages”) in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. My favorite place to stay in this area is Kemble Inn in the town of Lenox. The current owner has restored the 1866 mansion and added some tasteful modern touches. In the process, he’s created an ideal spot for destination weddings. Trinity Church and its famous Tiffany rose window are across the street. There’s a Canyon Ranch spa nearby. kembleinn.com
Lenox is best known for Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1936, Rosamund Brooks and her aunt Mary Aspinwall Tappan gifted Tanglewood, the Tappan family estate of 210 acres of lawns and meadows, to the symphony. Today, 350,000 visitors a year enjoy concerts here.
While I was introduced to Brooks and Tappan in the Berkshires, I first learned of American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s Gilded Age generosity while traveling in New Zealand. In Hokitika, a wide spot in the road on the west coast of the South Island, the grand stone library fronted with tall columns stands out from the town’s more modest structures. I was more than slightly embarrassed when the owner of the B&B I was staying in explained that it was one of 2,509 libraries built worldwide by Carnegie. She went on to say that he was passionate about establishing free public libraries to make a means of self-education available to everyone — and NZ got 18. Carnegie, once the richest man in the world, also donated the funds for Carnegie Hall in New York, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and many other notable endeavors.
In New England, I was awed by the generosity of Gilded Age philanthropists, and at home I’m very grateful for their modern day counterparts who continue to enhance our educational, medical, and performing arts facilities. Elizabeth Hansen
The Point: courtesy photography Woodstock Inn: courtesy photo Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller & Saranac Lake: photography courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS Trinity Church: courtesy photo Tanglewood Music Center: Photo courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra