Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
American Collectors

Montgomery Place, foyer

Mythologizing America’s relationship with its grand landscapes has gone a little too far. Coupled with an intense love affair with social history, both historical approaches diminish the importance that objects occupy in everyone’s life and practically erase all discussions of personal taste, style affinities, or prejudices. Not to mention Americans’ propensity for collecting luxury objects—would that make us less intelligent? Less of nature lovers? Less emancipated as a people who respect women’s position within society? My visit to Montgomery Place during this Labor Day weekend reminded me that these truisms still prevail in the way historical societies present their assets to the public.

Perched right above a stunning vista of the Hudson River and the Catskills, Montgomery Place (or rather Château de Montgomery according to its original owner Mrs. Janet Livingston Montgomery) looks like a late-blossoming geeky teenager: serious, focused, and hard-working inside—assiduously adorned, “wanna-be cool” on the outside. Montgomery Place, which began as a bare Federalist-style residence in 1805, turned into a French-looking elegant structure by the 1850s with the help of New York City based architect Alexander Jackson Davis, very well known for his Romantic approach to design and his favoring of the Neo-Greek and Neo-Classical styles.

This part of history has been very well recorded. So has the estate’s primary function as a farm (its orchards still delight the surrounding area) and the owners’ loving relationship with nature. The latter resulted in the first Nature Preservation Act in US history as well as in meticulously drawn and written botany records by one of the most recent owners, Violetta White Delafield. If that part excites you Gregory Long’s book on the Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley 1663-1915 (Rizzoli, 2004) will add a scholarly understanding of the area’s estates.

What I found shocking during the almost hour-long guided tour of the premises was the complete absence of any discussion related to the objects. A collection of important furniture and decorative objects, clearly in the French Empire Style (1800-1815 during the period of Napoleonic rule) have been kept in excellent condition by the generations that occupied the mansion over the years. Important American pieces complement the collection, as does a magnificent Austrian glass chandelier in a floral design that dominates the dining room. Important rugs, interesting china, two beautiful wooden knife boxes, decorative lamps, marble table, portrait busts and a dazzling array of objects testament to the family’s taste and affiliations are not mentioned, or catalogued. These objects reveal, in addition to their beauty, the family’s importance in foreign relations with France, its members’ involvement in American government, and their making history as primary instigators of the Louisiana Purchase. In other words, they provide material evidence to the meaning of life as defined by the individuals that comprised American aristocracy.

Isn’t the Historic Hudson Valley, a non-profit organization that owns Montgomery Place along with other properties, responsible for transmitting history as fully and accurately as possible? American intellect, sophistication and taste in the 19th century have given us important collections to cherish today, as is the case with the Frick Collection in New York City. Less driven by purity and more by quirkiness and personal taste, American collectors have compiled material culture that deserves careful and thorough study.

©Thomaï Serdari