Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 Elm City Assembly

Elm City Assembly

On Saturday, our English country dance group hosted its annual Elm City Assembly.  This year was our first in a new venue, which featured a gorgeous, spacious hall for dancing, a lovely picturesque staircase, and plenty of facilities to accommodate our 150 guests and their armfuls of garment bags full of formal wear.  We had dancers drive in from as far away as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York to attend the event, along with lots of fellow Connecticutians, and it was great fun reuniting and catching up with friends we've met at past balls.  We also were surprised and quite flattered to meet a blog reader; thanks so much for saying hi and for persuading me into that last dance!  :-)

Elm City Assembly
Our lovely new venue...

Elm City Assembly
...filled to the brim with dancers during the afternoon practice.

We attended our usual bi-monthly dance practice on Friday evening, and then were up early on Saturday to do some last-minute food shopping for the big event.  This year, Ashley and I volunteered to coordinate the refreshments for the afternoon practice and the evening assembly.  Although a LOT of work (much more than we anticipated!), we had fun laying everything out and making all of the treats look pretty and festive.  Thank you to everyone who donated something and helped to make the dessert spread so delightfully tasty!

Elm City Assembly
Ashley preparing the "secret recipe" punch.

Elm City Assembly
Our lovely volunteer offered to snap a picture of us with one of the
refreshment tables before it was carried out to be enjoyed.  Thank you so
much again for your help all night!

Our music this year was provided by several of the musicians from our incomparable ensemble from our Friday dances; many thanks to Margaret Ann, Phoebe, and Mark for gracing our evening with your talent.  You make us all feel so elegant!  Joanna Reiner, who called the afternoon practice and the evening ball, selected some fantastic dances, almost all of which were new to us.  From Playford originals to contemporary country dances set to traditional tunes, the repertoire was a perfect balance.  We even discovered a couple of new favorite dances this weekend, including "Interruptions," "Stepping Stones," and "Banish Misfortune."

Elm City Assembly
Dancing the night away!

Because the light was so low in the dance hall and throughout much of the building, many of our pictures unfortunately came out quite grainy and blurry.  Ashley did, however, manage to snatch a video of one of the last dances of the evening, "Stepping Stones," and if you listen closely, you can hear the (very!) old floor creaking.  The ballroom was on the second floor, with the dressing rooms beneath, and when you were downstairs during a dance, it sounded as if the ceiling was about to come crashing down around you, it was so loud!

Ashley didn't have a chance to finish her new silk gown for this event, so she wore her favorite brown chintz quarter-back gown.  For the very first time, however, I had my gown finished two weeks ahead of schedule - a definite achievement considering that last year, we were half an hour late for the ball because we were furiously finishing Ashley's blue/yellow sacque-back gown on our way out the door (literally!).  There's a Threaded Bliss post on my new gown forthcoming, but here's a sneak peak.  Stay tuned!

lavender silk anglaise
My new lavender silk anglaise.

Additional photos from the afternoon practice and the evening ball can be found in this event's flickr set.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

History in Hyde Park...NY, that is! (Part Two)

The second and third stops on my Hyde Park travels this past weekend were to two sites related to the first - and not quite as tangentially as you might think!  As I mentioned in the previous post, the Roosevelts were another prominent local family, and the closeness of their connections to the Vanderbilts is evident by the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opted to spend part of their honeymoon at Frederick Vanderbilt's mansion.  FDR is also responsible for the preservation of the Vanderbilt Hyde Park estate, as it was he who convinced Louise Vanderbilt's niece to donate the house and its contents to the federal government as a National Historic Site in 1940.

It seemed only natural, then, to make my next visit a stop at the FDR home, Presidential Library, and museum, just a couple of miles downriver from the Vanderbilt mansion.  Springwood was purchased by FDR's father, James, in 1867, and it was there that the future president was born in 1882.  When James died in 1900, he left the home and all the surrounding property not to one of his children (he had an older son by a first marriage) as one would expect, but to his second wife.  Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin's mother, apparently ruled the home with something of an iron fist and yielded little to her son, despite his increasingly prestigious political career.  When FDR married Eleanor, the couple moved into Springwood with Sara.  Their rapidly growing family - the couple had six children (though one died in infancy) - demanded a home larger than the small Italianate villa that was Franklin's childhood home, but Sara sought to dictate any changes to the house on her own terms.  Franklin favored the Dutch colonial style popular in the area and reflexive of its long, rich history; his mother desired a renovation that would recreate the house in a more stately, early-nineteenth-century English style.  Neither side would budge, so the result is the structure as it appears now, a charming compromise that combines Sara's vision at center, with FDR's fieldstone Dutch wings at the sides.

The front of Springwood, the home of FDR.  When the house was rebuilt
to accommodate FDR's growing family, the middle part was designed according
to his mother's tastes, while the Dutch colonial style admired by FDR was
integrated in the side wings at left and right.

The Park Ranger who led our tour was a wealth of information and anecdotes, and it was her insight that made the tour such a memorable experience.  She made sure to point out the presence of the 36th (or was it the 37th?  I can't remember!) television ever made, which sits in Sara's "snuggery" room.  FDR gifted it to his mother with the firm advice that she was not to invest in this new invention, as it showed little promise for the future.  FDR was also an avid collector of political cartoons, some of his favorites being those printed during the Revolutionary War that depict the struggles between American and British authorities.  When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the Roosevelts at Springwood before WWII, Eleanor suggested it might be best to remove the latter pieces from their prominent places on the walls of the front hall.  Roosevelt declined, curious to see how the royals would react.  As the story goes, upon arrival, the King immediately spied Roosevelt's Rev War cartoon collection and promptly went to take a look.  After reading every single one, the rest of the company standing by in silence, he thoughtfully turned to FDR and said, "It appears, sir, that you have some in your collection that I do not!"  Amongst their other notable accomplishments, the Roosevelts can also be credited with introducing the King and Queen to the hot dog, which was a favorite of FDR.  The Queen Mother, having never seen such a thing, had to ask FDR to explain the proper way to consume it!

One side of the house, as viewed from the back.  I love all of the different angles.

The house's back facade, currently undergoing renovations.

On the same property is also FDR's Presidential Library and Museum, which I unfortunately didn't have the time to see on this visit but will most certainly return to explore in the near future.  This was the very first presidential library, and the only one ever to be built by a president while he was still in office.  FDR dedicated part of the Springwood estate to the construction of the library, which he publicly opened himself in 1941 and promptly donated to the federal government.  Some of its many treasures include FDR's White House Oval Office desk and the original copy of the message he delivered to Congress on December 7, 1941, the corrections to which were made in his own hand (you can view a .pdf image of it online!).

The final resting place of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt (did you know
her first name was Anna?), in the rose garden at Springwood.

My final stop on my Hyde Park venture was to Val-Kill, to pay homage to one of the our country's most influential and beloved First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt.  FDR was (and forevermore will be) the only president ever elected to four terms in office, and his wife is the only first lady ever to be honored by having one of her private homes designed a National Historic Site under the protection of the NPS.  Val-Kill ("val" being short for "valley" and "kill" being old Dutch for a river) was created in 1924-5 as a retreat for the Roosevelts and two close family friends who loved the quiet beauty of the setting and valued it as a escape from FDR's political work and associates.  A Dutch colonial cottage was built on the property, which was supplemented in 1926 by a larger building that became the home of "Val-Kill Industries."  This was an experimental project begun by Eleanor and three friends; they wanted to teach local farmers the handicraft and manufacturing skills that would enable them to support themselves when their incomes from farming were insufficient.

Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's final residence.

When the small factory was obliged to close because of the Great Depression in 1936, Eleanor transformed the larger building into a home for herself and her secretary, a retreat where she could escape from the daily pressures of being "the First Lady of the World."  There, she lived simply, proud to use and display the furniture and other household items created by the former Val-Kill Industries.  When FDR died in 1945, Val-Kill became her permanent residence and remained so until her death in 1962.  Through its unpretentious rooms passed some of the world's greatest figures, from John F. Kennedy to Khrushchev to Marshal Tito, each of whom came to consult with the former first lady and seek her advice and wisdom.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief little whirlwind history tour of Hyde Park, NY!  I've touched on only the tiniest bit of the incredibly deep history of this area, so I'm very much looking forward to returning at some point to discover more.  Don't forget to mark the next National Parks entrance-free days on your calendar!

Additional photos can be found on this visit's flickr set.

Monday, January 16, 2012

History in Hyde Park...NY, that is! (Part One)

This holiday weekend, the National Park Service waived entrance fees to each of their 397 historic sites and park properties.  I decided this was the perfect opportunity to take in some history closer to home, so despite the cold (it was all of 9* when I left yesterday morning, with a wind chill of  -5*), I headed towards Hyde Park, NY to explore its three very unique National Historic Sites that sit on the banks of the beautiful Hudson River.  Here are some interesting tidbits from the first stop.

A winter view across the Hudson River Valley, from the Vanderbilt riverfront
property.  I'd love to go back in a warmer season to see it all alive, green, and leafy.

Vanderbilt Mansion (originally called "Hyde Park" before the town itself assumed that name) was the home of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt, who acquired the stunning riverfront property in 1895.  Although only a seasonal home (summers and winters were spent either in NYC, Newport, or abroad), the couple had a smaller 16-room "cottage" Pavilion built to accommodate them during the construction of their Charles Follin McKim mansion, which was finally completed in 1898.  Once the main house was finished, that original Pavilion became the bachelor's quarters during house parties; only married couples and single ladies were permitted to sleep within the mansion itself.  Back then, to be considered genuinely married in the eyes of strictly regulated turn-of-the-century society, a union had to be more than a month old.  So in 1905, when the young Franklin D. Roosevelt and his new bride Eleanor visited the Vanderbilts during their honeymoon only a couple of weeks after their wedding, the future president was obliged to stay in the bachelor's Pavilion, while his new wife stayed in the main house.  How's that for a honeymoon?!

An eastern view of the house, with the river behind.

The interior of the house is stunning, a wealth of Beaux Arts Gilded Age detail, antique European furniture, and (of course) lots and lots of marble. I spent the entire time feeling tortured by not being able to take pictures, every room was so incredible. As "new money" (Frederick was only the grandson of the great, self-made Cornelius Vanderbilt), the couple felt the need visually to establish and assert their superior social status as part of the richest family dynasty in the country (apparently, his father amassed a fortune that exceeded the coffers of the federal government). The house is thus rich in "royal" symbolism, with a de Medici crest on display in the massive and imposing entry foyer and a crown literally crowning the bed amongst the dark, European opulence of Frederick's room. Louise's bedroom is said to have been designed with specific reference to Marie Antoinette's own at Versailles, its gilded French rococo walls echoing an earlier era of similar decadence. And if that wasn't enough to convince the world that the Vanderbilt family had officially "arrived," one of the favorite past times of the Hyde Park locals was the gather on the mansion's lawns at dusk to marvel at the sight of the house being illuminated at night. It was the first home in the area to have electricity, the Vanderbilts beating their Roosevelt neighbors by almost twenty years.

The southern facade.

One of the most fascinating stories surrounding this monument to a bygone era is the tale of how it came to be part of the National Park Service.  When Frederick Vanderbilt died in 1938, the house and all of the property went to his wife's niece.  Uninterested in maintaining the property and unable to sell it (despite rock-bottom pricing - at one point she reportedly was willing to take as little as $250,000 for it) because of the country's weak financial situation, the niece was convinced - by none other than FDR himself - to donate 211 acres, the house, and nearly all of its original contents, to the federal government to be preserved as a memorial of both a family and a unique moment in a uniquely American time.  This means that the house is almost literally a time machine, with virtually nothing having been changed since it was built and first decorated over a century ago.

The western facade which faces the river.  This is the view boaters traveling the
Hudson would see, mounted regally atop the River's high banks.

The tour of the house is fantastic because it gives access to all but the third floor.  The entirety of the first and second floors are open to the public, and we were even taken into the basement (down the windy staff stairs!) to view the servants' hall, kitchens, and living quarters of the male house staff.  Rarely do historic house tours bother to restore, much less show off, original staff areas, so this was an extra special surprise and a very Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey moment!

There are numerous other Vanderbilt homes across the country that are also open to public tours, though this is the only one owned and operated by the NPS.  Newport, RI, which we've visited numerous times and highly recommend, has two Vanderbilt mansions from the same Gilded Age period, run by the Newport Preservation Society.  The Breakers, a National Historic Landmark and arguably the most famous of the Newport Mansions, was built by Frederick's eldest brother, Cornelius II.  Just down the road is Marble House, recently made famous by its numerous film appearances, but originally the home of William Vanderbilt, another brother of Frederick and Cornelius II.

If you've missed your opportunity to take advantage of this weekend's special fee waivers, the NPS still has fourteen more fee-free days this year!  Make plans and get out to enjoy some history, and let them know how valuable we think our historic sites are!

Additional photos can be found on this visit's flickr set.

Up next: stops two and three of my Hyde Park adventure!