Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Florham' Part 1

 Today begins an extensive journey through 'Florham', the Hamilton McKeon Twombly and Florence Adele Vanderbilt estate designed by McKim, Mead & White between 1894-1897 in Convent Station, New Jersey.  Landscaping was by Frederick Law Olmsted.  Florence was the fifth child of William Henry Vanderbilt and Twombly, a railroad and mining magnate, came from an old Boston family. 'Florham', which was hundreds of acres in size, had an extensive working farm behind the house with a dairy and stables also designed by MMW.  Twombly died in 1910 but widow Florence and daughter Ruth continued to reside there until the early 1950s.  These photos, which are only just the beginning, come courtesy of Old Grey Dog and were taken in December, 1935 by Johnston Stewart, a lawyer, organist and associate of the organist Archer Gibson who performed many times at 'Florham'.  Since 1958 the house has belonged to Fairleigh Dickinson University.  Click HERE to see 'Florham' on google earth and HERE on bing.


archibuff said...

While some may think this home a bit institutional looking, it is a wonderfully grand MM&W design with elegant interiors and has a very beautiful setting. Always found it amusing that although this was one of the most prestigious locations in NJ to construct ones country home, you had to somehow transverse the horror of that pesky little railroad cutting through your well manicured estate.

The Ancient said...

Without the New Jersey Central, I really doubt that there would have been quite so many rich men building houses in Plainfield, Morristown, etc.

And in the case of Florham, I'd imagine the railroad was a great help ferrying materials to the site.

P.S. The railroad had an affiliate, The New Jersey Land Improvement Company, which did extensive residential/commercial development around station stops.

The Down East Dilettante said...

One should:

1) Absolutely read Mrs. Twombley's grandson Shirley Burden's photo essay "The Vanderbilts in My Life"--a wonderful clear eyed look at his grandmother and family, with great pictures--far better and more poignant than the usual slobbering listing of Vanderbilt extravagances.

2) Absolutely not read 'Peggy & I', the really ghastly preening autobiography covering the same subjects by her other grandson, W.A.M. Burden.

3) Read WAM's granddaughter Wendy's (not always kind or accurate, but often amusing) memoir of the Twombley/Burden family, 'Dead End Gene Pool.

4) Check out this NYTimes article about WAM's astonishing house near here, about as far as one can get in every way from his grandmother's Florham and Vinland (although poor old WAM, who only had about three conversational subjects, would grow positively misty-eyed recounting his grandmother's retinue.


The Down East Dilettante said...

As to the quality of design: The garden facade is something less than the best of MM&W. Way less. The entrance facade, competent, but not great---the same composition appears to better effect in Fred's house at Hyde Park, itself reminiscent of a County Courthouse. Regarding the design of this house, Mead famously wrote McKim: "Twombly wants a house on the order of an English Country gentleman. I don't think he knows exactly what he means, and I am sure I don't..."

As to the 'elegance' of the place, Coco Chanel famously said (in a quote also often attributed to Diana Vreeland) "Elegance is refusal". Personally, I don't think Mrs. Twombley refused quite often enough.

All that said, Florham is wonderfully the apogee of something. I'm just not sure what. But in its heyday, undeniably a wonder to behold. All that unlimited money and limited imagination can buy.

The Down East Dilettante said...

The wonderful view from the roof reminded me of Olmsted's famous letter to Twombly about the landscape at Florham---and about the vastness of the project: "You have a sweep of landscape to an infinitely remote and perspectively obscure background, an appropriate and well-proportioned foreground and middle distance being perfectly within your control, as much so as if you owned the State of New Jersey...You have everything screened that is desirable to be screened. Everything within twenty miles is as much under your control, so far as concerns the fitness, propriety and becomingness of the situation, as if you had the free use of it. The grand landscape is yours and nobody can interfere with your possession of it".

What a difference 100 years makes.

The Ancient said...

Another example of how important the client can be, even with the greatest firm of the age.

(Who do you think spent more -- Twombly here or Morgan at Wheatly?)

archibuff said...

The view of the Jets training camp plus a hundred corporate offices in the area has really changed what had to be a beautiful environment at the end of the 19th century.

As to the other stuff........archibuff once again has to unfurl his "nit pickers" banner and post it here.

The Ancient said...

A few links to pictures of the building as it is now --










(Multiple exterior shots, including Rear and Carriage House.)

The Down East Dilettante said...

My social travels used to occasionally put me at the same table as the late Peter Sammartino, an unctuous sort who was the driving force behind both Fairleigh Dickinson and its acquisition of Florham. He was a most persuasive fundraiser, who had use of two large summer cottages up here that FDU had acquired at his behest as 'guest retreats'. After his death, both were quickly disposed of. He was an acquired taste---big, big ego. I think that Florham has received better care as a landmark than it did in his day.

The Down East Dilettante said...

The entrance hall is looking a lot handsomer than it did when I visited 20 years ago---much cleaned up. In old photos there is an enviable set of busts of roman emperors on pedestals, and the tapestries gave it great richness. Handsome chimney piece. Even on a slow day, MM&W were good.

Anonymous said...

What's going on in photos 6 & 7? Are the crating statuary?

The Ancient said...

Anon 7:50 --

In 6 the garden staff is covering the boxwoods to protect them from snowfall. I assume 7 reflects something similar with other plants.

If you don't do this, you run a real risk of severe damage in the event of a heavy snow. (An alternative is to send people from bush to bush with brooms to knock off the snow.)

Anonymous said...

Always loved this home

The university appears to be a great caretaker

Anonymous said...

Be sure to visit the Friends of Florham web pages at

Linda Carrington, Membership Chairman, Friends of Florham