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Wallpapers in a ‘Gilded Age’ Mansion, upstate New York

Mills Mansion, otherwise known as the Staatsburgh Historic Site, sits grandly confident on the top of a hill overlooking the Hudson River. When first seen on a chilly afternoon in late spring, when the sky is grey and the wind bitter, the house is imposing, if rather bleak. In its glory days, at the turn of the 20th century, Ruth Livingston-Mills, her husband Ogden Mills and their many guests brought warmth to the house.

Photo Elisa Rolle

Ruth Livingston was a member of a rich and socially prominent family who owned over a million acres (404,685 ha) of land in the Hudson Valley. In 1882 she married the equally affluent Ogden Mills. Of the couple’s five houses, Staatsburgh, which Ruth Mills inherited, was arguably the grandest of them all.

The original house, built in 1792, burned down in 1832 and was rebuilt in the Greek revival style popular in the 1830s. That 25-room house evidently wasn’t grand enough for the Mills, and in the 1890s the prestigious firm of architect-designers McKim, Mead & White were commissioned to recreate the house as a Beaux-Arts mansion, adding two wings and a third floor. The exterior was embellished with balustrades, pilasters and floral swags, and completed with a massive portico. The mansion boasted 75 rooms including 14 bathrooms, 23 fireplaces and some 750 gas lights.

Photo by the author

Detail of the front of Mills Mansion

The interior décor was lavish and ostentatious. In some of the most high-status rooms the walls were hung with Flemish tapestries, or, as in the dining-room, lined with richly veined marbles. Equally there is evidence that the Mills and their designers made significant use of wallpapers. A surviving photograph shows that initially the drawing-room was hung with a silk damask wallpaper. though when the room was redecorated c1910, this was replaced by a more restrained panelling, painted mint green.

Mrs Mills’ boudoir was decorated in rich red damask wallpaper, but after a fire broke out, probably in the late 1890s, the room had to be completely repaired and redecorated, with interior design firm Allard and Sons replacing the paper. As the room has been recently restored we can appreciate the lush and intimate space created by the original décor.

Photo Rolfmueller

Jules Allard et fils, Paris, who had an outstanding worldwide reputation designing interiors for an upper-class clientele, opened in New York City in 1885. Allard’s created sumptuous spaces for the rich and famous, including the Vanderbilts, and was one of the most sought-after interior designers of the period. Little surprise then that the Mills were amongst its clientele.

Photos Dr Maria Reynolds

Wallpaper (and detail) on the second floor of Mills Mansion

Courtesy of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, Staatsburg, NY, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Wallpapers have survived in the family quarters and the guest quarters in the second-floor wings of the house. Although no supporting documentation has yet come to light, their design and appearance suggest that they are 1890s, and it may well be that Allard’s also decorated these rooms.

Photos Dr Maria Reynolds

Wallpapers on the second floor of Mills Mansion

Courtesy of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, Staatsburg, NY, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Surface appeal, which lay at the heart of the Beaux-Arts aesthetic, is exemplified in Staatsburgh. In addition to the textiles, marbles and wallpapers that adorn the walls it is to be seen in all aspects of the contents of the house, in the 17th and 18th century French furniture, Persian rugs and carpets, the soft furnishings of silks, chintz and velvets, the painted ceilings and the gilded crown mouldings. When illuminated by the state-of-the-art gas lighting, every surface of the rooms and their contents must have glistened and shone.

Inevitably the aesthetic pretensions of the Gilded Age had its critics, none sharper than novelist Edith Wharton who declared the style to be ‘a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism’. None the less, the mansion did more than satisfy its owners’ brief, for as historian Conrad Hanson has remarked: ‘No other place in the Hudson Valley at that time could come close to competing in terms of scale or splendour with Ruth and Ogden’s new palace.’

Dianne Lawrence


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