Inside the hidden lives of New York’s last aristocrats

Empires rise and fall, but landed gentry is forever


Given the news that New York’s housing slump has extended to the suburbs, it might behoove jittery homeowners to take the long view.

As inspiration, they can look to a recent book by photographer Pieter Estersohn, Life Along the Hudson, The Historic Country Estates of the Livingston Family, for insight into what might be the longest view in modern American history.

Robert Livingston, known as the Elder, emigrated to America in 1673, and used his wife’s connections and his own initiative to acquire a 162,248-acre (65,659.4ha) tract straddling the Hudson River, which they dubbed Livingston Manor.

There, he and his descendants lived in what Estersohn describes as a “semi-feudal state”. They founded the town of Livingston, New York, on a tiny portion of the estate.

By the time Robert’s granddaughter died, the family’s holdings had grown to at least 240,000 acres.

After that, Livingston descendants began to subdivide the family’s property (there was more than enough for everyone), intermarrying with old New England families and, on occasion, marrying into new money for good measure.

The result is more than a dozen mansions stretched along the Hudson Valley, all of which, in whatever way, originated from the single, original tract.

Today, many of the family’s houses have been sold off to outsiders; others remain, somewhat astonishingly, in the hands of direct Livingston descendants.

Beyond the faded splendours of the book, the real takeaway, for contemporary readers, is that fortunes might rise and fall, but land truly is forever. — Bloomberg

The Porch at Oak Hill

Built in 1793, the house hasn’t been out of the family in nine generations. It currently sits on 130 acres overlooking the Hudson River.

Its owners, a couple that married in 1997, are sixth cousins; both of their fathers were friends through their membership in the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America.

Given that the builder of the home, John Livingston, married his first cousin, that genealogical proximity is something of a family tradition.

Montgomery Place

Edward Livingston, a secretary of state for US President Andrew Jackson, inherited this house from his sister Janet, who’d built the estate in 1805.

In due course, he hosted his friend Louis Philippe of France during the deposed Bourbon king’s exile.

Livingston descendants continued to augment the property with ornamentation, houses and gardens.

It stayed in the family for nearly two centuries until, in 1986, owner John Dennis Delafield donated it to a historic trust, which then sold the house to nearby Bard College.

The Library at Rokeby

The same immediate family has owned the land on which Rokeby sits since 1688. The house’s current owner, John Winthrop (“Wint”) Aldrich, lives in the house full-time and wrote an introduction to the book.

Rokeby was built in 1811 by John Armstrong Jr, who was married to Alida Livingston. Armstrong, a US senator, travelled to France, where his portrait was painted by Jacques-Louis David and his wife was presented to Napoleon’s wife, brother and sisters. (Armstrong suffered politically in the War of 1812, as he was considered responsible for allowing the White House to be burned to the ground, the book asserts.)

Armstrong’s daughter married into the Astor family, assuring that the house would be tended through multiple generations.

Currently, the family uses the property for its cut-flower business and puppet-making workshop.

The Stairway at Steen Valetje

Built in 1851, the house was a gift from Livingston descendent William Backhouse Astor Sr to his daughter Laura when she married Franklin Hughes Delano (the great-uncle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in 1844.

The massive 17,000 sq ft brick mansion was sold out of the family in 1966. It remains a private home.

The Stairway at Wilderstein

This house was built by Thomas Holy Suckley, a descendant of Gilbert Livingston, in 1852. The house is built in a Queen Anne style, with a spectacular jumble of ornament, porches, turrets and colours.

The house, when it was completed, was maintained by 10 indoor servants and 12 outdoor servants, who worked on the property.

The interiors were designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany, a cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The last members of the family to live in the house were Suckley’s grandchildren.

Two “bachelor” brothers, Arthur and Robert, lived on separate floors and weren’t on speaking terms; their sister Margaret outlived them both. When she died in 1991, the house was turned into a historic site.

The Entrance to Ridgely

Constructed on the site of Robert Livingston’s apple orchards, the house, which was built in 1855, was a gift from Margaret Livingston Clarkson to her daughter Elizabeth.

Less than 10 years later, the house was sold, albeit within the family. It was purchased by William Hunt, whose wife, also named Elizabeth, was the granddaughter of Margaret and Robert L Livingston. It stayed in the family until 1946, when it was purchased by a group of Carmelite nuns.

The Dining Room at Staatsburgh

Multiple Livingston cousins intermarried, passing land back and forth to one another. Staatsburgh was built in 1895 by Ruth and Ogden Mills.

Ruth was a Livingston descendent; Ogden’s father made his money by selling hardware to gold miners, then founded his own bank.

Designed by Stanford White (who apparently charged US$350,000 or RM1.46 million for his services), the house covers 27,000 sq ft and bears a striking resemblance to the White House.

When the couple’s son died in 1937, his sister deeded the house and the property to the New York State.

The Reflecting Pool at Marienruh (main picture)

Along with a set of diamond earrings once sewn into Marie Antoinette’s corsage, Alice Astor’s mother gave her 99 acres in an area the family called Clifton Point. (Astor was a Livingston descendant.)

Once a house was built on the land in 1926, Astor and her new husband, Prince Serge Obolensky, used the place as a country estate and entertained lavishly right up to the point of their divorce in 1932.

Astor kept the house and married three more times. When she died in 1956 the house was sold out of the family. For the next half-century, it was used for commercial purposes until it was purchased by writer Andrew Solomon in 2006.

The Bedroom at the Astor Tea House

Designed during a disastrous marriage between Livingston descendant Vincent Astor and Mary Cushing, this house was built in 1946 on a hill overlooking the Hudson.

As their relationship crumbled, Cushing moved into the octagonal home before divorcing Astor in 1953.

Astor’s miniature steam engine originally ran across the tea house’s lawn. The home has been refurbished and expanded by present owner Robert Duffy, co-founder and deputy chairman of Marc Jacobs International.