Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More stately mansions, O my checkbook

This is the southwest show front of Montauk, which has been lording it over the little Fayette County town of Clermont since 1875.

Iowa has its mansions, too; and three are favorites of mine. My photos of the one I especially like --- and the only one I’ve bothered to take pictures of myself --- are beginning to fade, which explains the wonky color. I need to get back to Clermont to visit (and photograph) again.

Admiring a mansion doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to live in the beast --- nor signify approval of many of the motives that went into its building. But it’s still possible to admire the care involved in conception and construction and afterwards lament the quality of the current crop of show-offs, where cash is rarely combined with taste, art and consummate craftsmanship.

Terrace Hill looked this way when it was built in Des Moines during the 1860s and still does --- exactly. Our governor now lives in the attic.

At the top of heap in Iowa for sheer in-your-face exuberant and conspicuous 19th century consumption is Terrace Hill, the magnificent 1866-69 Second Empire B.F. Allen/Hubbell family home along Grand Avenue just west of downtown in Des Moines.

Terrace Hill now is the Iowa governor’s mansion (the governor and his family live in the attic). The Hubbell family, trying to decide what to do with B.F. Allen’s mansion bought at fire-sale prices but just too much to either live in or maintain a century later, gave it to the state in 1971. You can read more about Terrace Hill here.

Here's Salisbury House, built by face cream south of Grand in Des Moines during the 1920s.

The second, also in Des Moines, is Salisbury House, built 1923-28 south of Grand and a little farther west by Carl and Edith Weeks. Weeks was a cut-rate William Randolph Hearst, enriched by face cream, who raided England for fragments of buildings that he incorporated into this pseudo-tudor extravaganza. The Weeks couldn’t afford to keep it, however, the Iowa State Education Association eventually got tired of maintaining it and finally, in 1999, in was acquired for $4 million by the Salisbury House Foundation, which continues to operate it as an attraction. Read more about Salisbury House here.

I have fond memories of Salisbury House because when I was a kid and the ISEA owned it, it was a regular stop on school trips to Des Moines. If you happened to arrive at a time when no one was working, the guide would fire up the player pipe organ housed in a chamber off the common room with pipes extending from basement to attic. That monster shook the building when in full cry, which was why it was played rarely.

Here is Montauk's southeast front.

The third, grand enough though unpretentious by comparison, is Montauk, the home of Iowa’s twelfth governor, William Larrabee, which has been lording it over the Turkey River-valley town of Clermont in northeast Iowa since 1875.

And the view to the southwest out across Clermont and the Turkey River valley.

Montauk dates from a time when Iowans toyed briefly with the idea that one or two grand families in one or two grand houses should be given pride of place, and taken seriously, in their communities. Chariton had the ill-fated Mallorys and their Ilion, for example.

Clermont, very much at the feet of the Larrabees, was and is one of the best surviving examples of how that might have worked.

The northwest front of Montauk. The water tower gives it an institutional look, but was a highly practical source of pressurized running water for the house.

The Larrabees were not, however, an especially pretentious family --- and the house reflects that, especially inside. Gov. Larrabee actually is reported to have told the architect, who had some what grander aspirations, to tone it down --- this is Iowa, for heaven’s sake.

Most of the interior walls are white, rather than gilded; there are no curtains to speak of (shutters that fold into window recesses served to control sunlight and provide privacy); and the furniture (still largely intact) is relatively simple. The most elaborate decorations are hand-painted friezes in some of the rooms executed by one of the Larrabee daughters

Montauk did, however, have all the high-tech conveniences of the time --- central steam heat, bathrooms and running hot and cold water to marble sinks in all the bedrooms, for example.

A spacious music room with dining room and kitchen behind it are to the left of the central hall; a sitting room, library and other rooms to the right. The music room and the sitting room have fireplaces, but both were more decorative than necessary.

I shamelessly stole these interior photos of the (from top to bottom) Montauk music room, sitting room and library from the city of Clermont's informative Web site. If you want to read more about Montauk and Clermont go to that Web site here or to another site, this one maintained by the Larrabee family, which is located here.

Behind the house, a huddle of unmatched domestic buildings and a water tower supported the main house. A stable was a little farther away. The governor loved trees --- and planted thousands of them on Montauk’s bluff. He also had a thing for statues and several of those are scattered around the grounds and the town below.

And here's Montauk from the back (northeast).

Anna Larrabee, who never married, lived in the old house until she died in 1965. She was a well-trained and skillful musician. The grand piano in the music room was hers and, down in Clermont, Papa installed a vast Kimball pipe organ in the modest Union Sunday School building (where the Larrabees attended church) for Anna to play --- which she did, for 60 years.

Once some years ago I happened to be the only tourist in town on a weekday and the guide and I had some fun playing that big old organ, which since has been fully restored and is used now and then for concerts.

After Anna’s death, the surviving Larrabees opened Montauk themselves to the public, but in 1976 turned it over to the state, which continues to operate it as an historic site. The state also owns and operates the Union Sunday School building and the Larrabee Museum downtown --- once the Larrabee bank.

The Larrabees also gave Clermont lock, stock and barrel one of the state’s finest school buildings. It is now owned by the city and houses city hall, the library, a museum and community center.

Clermont also is the home of the Episcopal Church of the Saviour, built with two others (one in Providence, Rhode Island, and the other in San Gabriel, Calif.) by Frances Dyer Vinton, of Providence, as a memorial to her children. Clermont was chosen because she thought it the geographical center of the United States and was following the biblical injunction, “Thy praise shall ring from shore to shore.”

This is a wonderful, simple little church virtually unchanged since it was built and I’ve enjoyed visiting it, too. Quite recently, Our Saviours lurched into the 21st century by adding running water and restrooms.

Clermont (and Montauk) are wonderful places to visit, but plan on spending a day there. And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss “God’s Acre” Cemetery. In life, the Larrabees may have been unpretentious, but death  loosed their inhibitions. The family tombstones are wonders to behold.

Clermont is located in northeast Iowa’s Fayette County. Drive east on U.S. Highway 18 from West Union or south from Postville to get there. You'll love it. I promise.

1 comment:

Lynne said...

I enjoyed reading this article very much. The richness of your pictures and the descriptions of the building and the families that built them is very beautiful. Thanks for all your articles about this beautiful state of Iowa that so many know little about, but are eager to learn (me being one of them)