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Christmas at a Gilded Age Country House

From 1993 to 1997 I was Director of Education at the country house of Ogden Mills in Staatsburg, NY. This house is owned and operated by NYS Parks and Recreation (NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.)

Near Hyde Park Just Down The Road From The Vanderbilts and Roosevelts.

Ogden Mills father was a prominent banker in California during the Gold Rush. This was his son’s house in Staatsburg, NY in the Hudson Valley. This house was primarily their autumn house, their winter house was in NYC and summer house was in Newport, they also had a house in Paris, that house became General John J. Pershing’s headquarters during the war.

The house was designed by Stanford White of the famous McKim, Mead, and White architectural firm. and was. built in 1895. It looks like the White House which in this manifestation was also worked on by this firm. The house has 79 rooms. It had only five family bedrooms but they are the size of about five normal bedrooms put together. There were also 23 bedrooms just for the female staff of women who worked as maids, laundry women etc. Also had guest bedrooms, around 14 bathrooms, its own electric generating plant, a huge farm with champion cows and a barn so fabulous you could not believe it. The stall portion of the barn had a vaulted ceiling and was completely covered with white ceramic tiles from top to bottom. I was the Director of Education.. Part of my responsibility was to oversee all the Christmas decorations though I had no experience with this type of work. I am just a poor boy who grew up in the projects and worked my way up. Our Christmas open house started the day after Thanksgiving and lasted to January 2. During that time we would get thousands of people. It was a major attraction in the area. Also at that time, we would have two formal open houses at night. I had to train a whole group of high school drama club students to come on those nights and act as the millionaire guest of the Mills family. We also lined the driveway with candles. All the Christmas decorations were supposed to be accurate to the time and social standing of the occupants. During the year I did tons of research reading Ladies Home Journal from the 1890s, tons of NY Times and NY Daily Tribune etc., mostly at the NY State Library and Manuscript Collections. I finally found an article from the Gilded Age Period, around 1907, that actually depicted the rose trees on the dining room table along with the huge wreaths in the picture windows overlooking the Hudson River. I recreated the entire Dining Room from the description in this NY Daily Tribune article.

First Night Of Christmas Open House – From front gate is about 300 yards – we had candles lit all the way from gate to front door of the house.

Another view of the table. Ceilings are 18 feet high. The room is about  50 feet long with marble floors, marble walls with 18th-century tapestries. I believe the table was about 20 feet long and we didn’t have all the leaves in. All furniture is Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. All originally owned by the family and left in the house when given to the State of New York. in 1937 by a daughter of Mills, Gladys Phipps, wife of Henry Carnegie Phipps.

Christmas Table 1994 – I just finished It, set up my tripod and took this self-portrait

My masterpiece just before Victoria Magazine came To shoot for their featured article in the December issue – my memory is fuzzy on this but I am guessing they had to wait a year before it got into the magazine. I have misplaced my copy of the issue but you would have to see the Victoria spread to do it justice. When I find it I will scan it and add it here.

Christmas tree in Mrs. Mills sitting room. Ceilings are 18 feet so gives you an idea of tree size.
In the center hall staircase, we had a Christmas tree 28 feet high cut from the State Park where this house is located.


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