Thursday, June 25, 2015

What I Noticed First Were The Peonies.

What I noticed first were the Peonies....
....a row of them – twenty or more – along the edge of the curved portion of the path that led off into the woods from the “West House” of the Warwick Conference and Retreat Center in the eponymous New York town.   Mars and I were staying there for the “Historic Mansions on the Hudson” Road Scholar program – eight stately homes in half as many days – plus food (lots), beverage (likewise), a few lectures, and a morning of music from the Gilded Age.  (Road Scholar is “the not-for-profit leader in educational travel since 1975, offers 5,500 educational tours in all 50 states and 150 countries.”)


The Conference Center was built in the 1920s by ATT as a training facility-vacation spot for their switchboard operators. Now it is owned and operated by the Reformed Church (aka Dutch Reformed Church), which our Coordinator (and semi-retired Reverend) Ken said is the oldest denomination in the U.S.A. having come with the Hollanders when they colonized the New World in the 1600s.  And, based upon the number of DRC places of worship that we passed by on our trip, it is at least one of the dominant denominations in that part of New York state.


 Mars and I live in Wethersfield CT – the oldest incorporated town in our state – established in 1634 by “Ten Adventurers” (and British businessmen) from the Massachusetts Colony.  We were however preceded, less formally, by the town of Windsor, which had an encampment of British soldiers (1633) set up in a slow response to a Dutch trading post in nearby Hartford which was established ten years earlier – “on the north side of Little River, now known as the Park River (

Then in 1636, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, arrived overland from Cambridge to establish an English colony in Hartford, and, according to local historian Ellsworth Grant, “the Dutch were too few and English multiplied too fast for the struggle to be equal, and the Hollanders finally sailed downriver for good in 1654.”

That section of Hartford is still known as “Dutch Point” and street names such as Huyshope Avenue, Van Dyke Avenue, Van Block Avenue, Hendrixsen Avenue and Vredendale Avenue coexist with other more English names in the town’s south end.  And the focal point of the city’s Riverfront – “Adriaen’s Landing” – is named after Adriaen Block who sailed 15 miles up the Connecticut River in 1614 aboard the Onrust, the first ship built in America.

According to my research however the Reformed Church, although likely to have accompanied the Hartford Hollanders, seems to have left not a trace in Central Connecticut.  This is personally disappointing since I am working to capture histories of churches in the Wethersfield area for the Wethersfield Historical Society website and was hoping that this denomination (non-standard by Colonial Congregational standards) had left a nearby footprint.

One of the best parts of our Road Scholar trips is always our fellow travelers – and this one was no exception.  In a group of 37 – the largest we have experienced – Mars and I were the most local with the others coming from Texas, Kentucky, Colorado, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Oregon, Maryland, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Ohio, Virginia, Oregon and Ontario.

Every day before breakfast several of us gathered to communally read through the morning papers (WSJ, NY Times, USA Today, and New Jersey Ledger) and share friendly pop-culture and political commentary.  The meal seating (6 to a table) also encouraged mingling.  As a result of these opportunities, Mars and I were able to spend time with just about all of our fellow scholars.

Most of the mansions in the Hudson Valley area were built during the so-called “Gilded Age” – the time of “Social Darwinism” and laissez-faire economics, and the “Robber Barons” – who were the subject of our opening lecture by a history Professor from nearby Marist College.


Robber Baron was“…a derogatory term applied to some wealthy and powerful 19th-century American businessmen… who used what were considered to be exploitative practices to amass their wealth. These practices included exerting control over national resources, accruing high levels of government influence, paying extremely low wages, squashing competition by acquiring competitors in order to create monopolies and eventually raise prices, and schemes to sell stock at inflated prices.” (Wikipedia)

Or from a different perspective Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, et al. were hardworking, entrepreneurial geniuses who used initiative, determination, and a lack of rules and regulations to overcame the unfamiliar and unexpected and create America’s Industrial Dynasty – with perhaps the help of a bribe or two and lots of intimidation.   In other words, good Social Darwinists.

We also had two photo presentations by Tom – a semi-professional photographer who has been taking pictures of the area’s mansions and historic houses for over fifty years. He has donated thousands of these images to local historical society’s and preservation groups and allowed them to be published in several books about the area. If every town had a Tom the historical world would be a much better place.


We were bused each day to the mansions.  And we toured, in chronological order: Boscobel (moved from Albany to Garrison NY, and rebuilt on this site with funding by Reader’s Digest heiress Lila Wallace); LocustGrove, Samuel Morse’s Italianate summer retreat in Poughkeepsie designed by A.J. Davis (remember that name); Wilderstein in Rhinebeck, NY (Italianate transformed into Queen Anne by three generations of the Suckley family – one of the daughters a “close friend” of FDR and gifter of his famous Scotty dog Fala); Mills Mansion in Staatsburg NY, the 79-room Gilded Age mansion of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills and his socially ambitious wife Ruth; the VanderbiltMansion in Hyde park, NY (the spring and fall “get away” home of Frederic and Louise Vanderbilt); Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Springwood Mansion and Presidential Library in Hyde park, NY – actually his mother’s place – where the former president and Eleanor are buried; Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, NY (the Gothic Revival mansion of railroad magnate Jay Gould); and Kykuit in Tarrytown (the estate of Rockefellers from John D. through Nelson with a museum-sized, museum-quality modern art collection and a nine hole reversible golf course).


The story of each site was presented clearly and entertainingly by knowledgeable guides, and the details made perfect sense to me at the time.  But now in my mind they are an overlapping collage of Italian marble, indoor plaster walls painstakingly painted to emulate that limestone exterior, Black Forest furniture, Tiffany windows installed by “the glassmaker” who happened to live next door, Gothic architecture, Beaux Arts, faux this and faux that – which probably makes the overall effect even more impressive.

Mars’ favorite mansion was Lyndhurst because of its unusual Gothic Revival design.  The architect  (A.J. Davis – Samuel Morse’s draftsman) also designed the furniture in the same Gothic style for the family of the original builder, New York City Mayor William Paulding, and it was passed on to and used by the subsequent owners (merchant George Merritt, and railroad tycoon Jay Gould.)  The furnishings were, by the nature of the design and the wishes of the owners, unconventionally shaped – for example the dining room table is an octagon so that no one was the “head” of the table.  Lyndhurst's rooms are fewer and more modest in size than those of the other mansions we visited.  The hallways are narrow with small and sharply arched windows, which along with the vaulted and ornamented ceilings create a mood that Wikipedia describes as “gloomy, somber, and highly romantic”. The house, its belongings, and its ambience were donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Gould's daughter Anna in 1961. 

Lyndhurst has been the set for several movies including House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), both based on the famous gothic television soap opera Dark Shadows.

My top choice was Rockefeller’s Kykuit because, in spite of the great expanse of its property, terraced gardens, golf course, and 20th century indoor and outdoor art collection – the place seemed lived in.  This feeling of familiarity was brought to life by the anecdotes of our guide Laura – the daughter of one of the family’s woodworkers who grew up on the estate and personally knew all of the family from “JDR”, to “Mister Junior”, to Nelson and his children.


I also was emotionally moved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Springwood Mansion and Presidential Library for the memories of history that occurred in that very place just before my time on earth began.  However what impressed me most was the one non-FDR item on the property.  Several rooms of the library are devoted to gifts that President Roosevelt received from “the people” – which he personally liked to display as a means of saying thank you.  At the entry to that section is a display labeled “Gifts to President Obama”.  And under that sign is just one object – a photograph of the 2014 NCAA Champion University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team visiting the Mr. Obama at the oval office.  It was their ninth national championship.  In 2015 they won their tenth.  Mars and I are both 1965 graduates of UConn.  At that time UConn women’s basketball didn’t exist.  Now they are the preeminent team in an ever-growing sport.  Talent, good coaching, practice and Title 9 work.  The state of Connecticut loves our UConn Women, and we all are proud to bathe in their reflected glory.  “Go Huskies!” 

But the one thing that remains clearest in my mind is the Peonies.

Every mansion garden had them – beds and beds of them. They outline the large area within which FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial plots lie. And Mars and I have them at home – well one anyway.

When we purchased our house in 1977 there were three well-established bushes – each in its own little Peony bed spaced about six feet apart along our northern border.  Having been raised in rented apartments with no incidents of yard work or garden care in my personal history, these three shrubs were the biggest surprise of my virgin spring of landscaping.

I tend only to notice things that I am familiar with, when I am expecting to see them, and when they are in the place that I assume they will be.  Take away any one of these three variables and my odds of recognition decrease proportionally.  Remove all three and I am somewhat south of zero percent probability.

Such was the case with the Peonies.  I can still recall that “WTF!” moment when, totally unaware of its existence, I passed my brand-new Sears Craftsman mower next to the showy pink flower – and, for the first time, saw it.  Then a few moments later an equally flamboyant white one appeared, followed, several minutes more, by another one.  I restrained myself from shutting off the cutting machine and rushing in to tell Mars.  But as soon as I finished I ran in to the house and excitedly announced my discovery.  She did not seem to be surprised – neither by my revelation nor by my near state of shock. Apparently she had noticed them in their very early, pre-flowering state shortly after we saw the property and for some reason failed to explicitly point them out to me.

Since then I have always been in awe of them – the flowers that is.  I had been in awe of Mars long before then.

For years thereafter I took great pride in my newfound horticultural treasures – even though I had nothing to do with their success other than not running them over when I cut the lawn.  And during that time I also became an actual gardener – with a landscape design style that I would call Lightly Regulated Laissez Faire.  We let no garden space go unfilled but we actively manage all of that space to ensure that each plant has enough room to do its own thing.  It is kind of a horticultural version of what used to be called Rockefeller Republicans.

Several annums ago all three of the Peonies began to look bedraggled and pretty much had stopped blooming.  With great regret I dug them up.  Then, in spite of the fact that I had read these plants do not like to be put in a new place, but in accord with my LRLF gardening philosophy I transplanted a pink one to another flowerbed following directions that I found online.   There, in spite some pretty intense competition for food, space and light from neighboring sedum and daisies – it launched a remarkable comeback.  The shrub was having its finest showing ever just before we left for our Hudson Valley junket – and still was when we returned five days later.


So what did I learn on this educational travel trip?

As F Scott Fitzgerald should have observed,  "Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  For one thing they have more Peonies



Paeonia Paranoia

Sudden thunderstorms;
sodden, sagging Peonies;
saddened gardeners.