Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age
Gilded Rooms Smoking Parlors Set a Style of Their Own in America's Great Age of Palaces
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98
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When railroad tycoon Jay Gould bought the property in 1880, he added a dock suitable for his 250-foot steamer yacht to avoid using the train service of the rival Vanderbilts. He did not use the cabinet room for smoking, as he was consumptive. Lyndhurst is now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Farther up the Hudson, in Hyde Park, is Frederick Vanderbilt's mansion, built in 1898. A magnificent example of the Beaux Arts style, it also overlooks the river, but the owner didn't require floating transportation to his home, as his family connection to the New York Central Railroad made it possible to have a station stop located directly behind his home. Inside the enormous building, Vanderbilt took his cigars either in the den just off the main hall or in the room where he kept his guns and hunting trophies. The motif was manly, with heavy wooden ornamentation. Among the celebrated guests to the mansion were his neighbor Franklin Roosevelt, various royalty, and Winston Churchill, who no doubt enjoyed a cigar or two in the den. For his own part, Vanderbilt left two humidors to the collection that has been run by the National Park Service since 1940. The service keeps a cigar in the den (not a Vanderbilt original) by way of indicating that it is probable that he always had smokes at hand.
The numerous Vanderbilt progeny put their architectural stamp on other regions of the country. Most remarkable is Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt's ambitious estate near Asheville, North Carolina. With 250 rooms it is believed to be the largest privately owned home in the United States. Everything from fruits, vegetables, wine, dairy products and grains to lumber, honey from beehives and wild game were among the bounty of Biltmore's 125,000 acres, which included Pisgah Forest when it opened in 1895. Once again, Hunt was engaged as the architect and Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York and the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., did the landscaping.
Unlike in Newport, the North Carolina retreat was informed by a male sensibility. An area called the Bachelor's Wing was set off from the first floor through a doorway from the banquet hall with a separate entrance through a porte cochere from the stable courtyard. The wing comprised a smoking room, with library, and a gun room and was adjacent to a billiards room, where ladies were welcome. Above the wing were rooms for unattached male guests.
Harry Keiner, the estate's archivist/historian, draws a picture of life at Biltmore as something like being, a grand hotel. The banquet hall sat 64, and the house could receive at least 30 overnight visitors. This meant employing a staff of 50 people. Vanderbilt, who had ties to the Teddy Roosevelt White House, hosted many politicians, so it is conceivable that high-level decisions were made over cigars.
Keiner believes that the usual routine was for gentlemen to retire to the smoking room until quite late at night, after the ladies had retired. He adds, however, that the Victorian boundaries between ladies and smoking had broken down somewhat by the end of the century and that upperclass women were known to smoke, although it's not clear if they smoked cigars or the new-fangled cigarettes that had recently begun to be produced in the area.
Keiner feels "a lot of bad information" is assumed about the social strictures of the day. But through examination of old photos historians are able to determine, for instance, that women came to the billiards room or fished in the estate's prodigious streams. "Times change," he notes.
Another misconception he points out about Gilded Age customs is the image of men dressed in elaborate smoking jackets and fezzes to take their cigars. "There is no evidence of the whole idea of smoking wardrobes," he says. The concept, he thinks, is one that lingers from British society. "Englishmen could affect some of the craziest notions, but they didn't translate well across the Atlantic." Those articles of clothing may have been used in the United States around the 1850s, as ways to protect clothes and hair from smoke.
Like Ruggles Morse, Henry Flagler went from building hotels to outfitting his own house in grand style, except in his case it was done with much more wherewithal. Flagler made his original fortune as a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil and later almost single-handedly opened up Florida as a tourist mecca. Along the way he built railroads to carry travelers all the way to Key West and erected the hotels in which they would sleep. In 1902, he finished his own accommodations, Whitehall, in Palm Beach, giving the house as a wedding present to his wife, Mary Lily Kenan. Designed by Carrère and Hastings, architect of the New York Public Library it is a Beaux Arts masterpiece and undoubtedly the state's grandest residence. It would turn Palm Beach into the society enclave that it is today.
It is evident from the decor of most of the building, with its French salon and Louis XVI stylings, that Mrs. Flagler's feminine touch held great sway, but once again the billiard room became a place for men to be men. There Flagler had installed not one, but three tables: one for three-cushion billiards, one for pocket pool and one for skittles. There is a large Caen stone fireplace, paintings applied directly to the walls, and a much darker sense overall than the rest of the house. He also had an Italian Renaissance library that was apparently his domain as well.
The tycoon may have had to stand his ground to retain those two enclaves. In a letter to one of his designers, he wrote:
"It has just occurred to me that I haven't a cuspadore [sic] for Whitehall. I wish you would order for me one for each of the offices, two for the billiard room and one for the library. Mrs. Flagler says she doesn't want one any where else in the house.'
Jessica Johnston, public affairs director of the Flagler Museum, which incorporates the house, explains that cuspidors were probably used to dispose of cigar ends as well as for chewing tobacco. She also relates that Flagler, a great aficionado himself, kept records of cigar transactions with Braguglia & Carreño, a New York tobacconist from whom he ordered perfectos at several hundred a clip.
Flagler's cigar retreat would be passed on to a niece, who sold it, and then a group of investors turned the estate into a hotel that ran until 1959, when the building was recovered as a museum. As the Gilded Age ran its course, most of the grander homes would, alas, suffer similar fates as income and inheritance taxes and the cost of maintaining servant staffs had their considerable impact. Henry James coined the term "white elephant" to describe just such unmaintainable jewels. Newport, which once had 50 comparable mansions, now has just a half dozen that are kept as residences. We can only take solace that some remain as museums where one can gaze upon the rooms where men once went to smoke fine cigars in a style that will probably never be enjoyed again.
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