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Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age

Gilded Rooms Smoking Parlors Set a Style of Their Own in America's Great Age of Palaces
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 3)

Naturally, Wharton and Codman go on to argue that such a marriage of form and function is quite possible. This seems to have been the concept that informed such rooms as the neo-Byzantine billiards parlor at The Breakers, which was built in 1895 in the style of a sixteenth-century Italian palace, from a Hunt design. The room was decorated by Tiffany and Baumgarten, with portraits, a formidable desk and a billiards table, and it had a high ceiling and lofty windows, by which ventilation could easily be achieved.

Miller points out that ventilation, ease of traffic circulation and lighting (achieved by high windows and bright exposures) were a preoccupation of the design of the period. Since price was no object, heating these cavernous areas was not an overriding concern.

It is probable that in some of the other great mansions that survive--like Oelrichs' Rosecliff (1902), designed by White; Berwind's The Elms (1901), designed by Horace Trumbauer; and William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House (1892), designed by Hunt--the library may have been used for the purpose of cigar smoking. At The Elms, an alabaster humidor remains as part of the furniture collection.

Year-round residences built closer to New York City along the Hudson River and on Long Island also employed the library or an office/den for cigar smoking. Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, New York, built in 1838 on the Hudson, is an example. The home was acquired in 1864 by George Merritt, a holder of a patent for railroad car springs. He would enlarge the building, using designs by the original architect, Alexander Jackson Davis.

The library, which had originally been a dining room, was enlarged, creating an inner sanctum out of the serving bay. Called the cabinet room, it is where Merritt most likely enjoyed his cigars, as well as his books. Furnishings included a large pierced-oak Gothic Revival armchair and a marble mantelpiece. Davis designed furniture that echoed the Gothic appoint-ments of the building's exterior. Furniture from the Herter Brothers can also be found there. The original library, on the second story, became an art gallery.

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.

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