Thursday, April 26, 2012

'Florham' Part 3

 The third installment of photos of 'Florham', the Hamilton McKeon and Florence Adele Vanderbilt Twombly estate designed by McKim, Mead & White between 1894-1897 in Convent Station, New Jersey.  These photos were taken by Johnston Stewart on 'Decoration Day', May 30th, 1939.  Click HERE and HERE for more on 'Florham'.  Photos courtesy of Old Grey Dog.


The Down East Dilettante said...

The kitchen garden is ready to plant. Soon the gardeners would be going off to war, and one guesses that even Mrs. Twombley had Victory gardens planted, but for now all is peaceful. Not much more than a dozen years later, Florham is over. In his book, Shirley Burden shows amazing photographs of the end---his mother in the great hall, thanking the staff for their years of service, packing crates all around.

The second photo shows the institutional quality of the place. In the fifth, one guesses that the fine columns at the head of the allee are probably part of the plunder that Stanford White kept on hand for clients---which raises the question of the hall fireplace surround and overmantel---McKim Mead & White's own work, or does it include antique parts, like the bas relief panel? It seems I once read the answer somewhere, but cannot remember.

The last 'aha' question that these wonderful, still, photographs raise is if Johnson Stewart left behind a collection of such photos of all the country houses he at which he visited or played?

The Down East Dilettante said...

Mrs. Twombley spending a quiet evening at home playing backgammon, a tapestry screen and fur stole to ward of the drafts of her vast drawing room, several pounds of serious jewels weighing down her neck:

Obituary of the Twombly chef, last living student of Escoffier. Amusing to note that he first worked for Henry Clay Frick, then moved across 71st St. to work for Mrs. Twombly:

The immodest Peter Sammartino tells in his autobiography of buying Florham for Fairleigh Dickinson, and his coincidental connection to M. Donon.

Zach L. said...

Old Grey Dog knew Chef Donon...I hope he shares some memories!

I will have to post the wonderful photo he sent me of Chef Donon on the steamer Amerika with the Frick family in April 1912 taken the week after the Titanic sank.

The Ancient said...!


Ruth was an alcoholic, and died of injuries sustained in a fall down the steps at the Paris Ritz.

Twombley's family in Boston thought he had "married down." His smart investments increased the family's wealth, and sustained their lifestyle in the 1950s.

Most members of the staff were required to look away when one of the Twombleys walked -- or even drove -- by.

Their French chef was paid $25,000 a year. At home, he had his own chef.

The rail siding was used to deliver guests from Manhattan to the five big parties held in the Spring and Fall.

Florence Twombley was no fun at all.

The Ancient said...

One last take-away from that video --

Olmsted was so annoyed by Twombly's interventions in the design process that he walked away and refused to have anything more to do with him. The balance of the project was completed by Olmsted's staff.

This may explain the Victorian mediocrity of the garden design -- it's just what Twombly wanted.

The Down East Dilettante said...

"Florence Twombly was no fun at all".


I see her daughter, Mrs. Burden's, estate at Mt. Kisco is for sale for 26,000,000. No Florham, it:

Personally, I still wonder what Florham might have been if CPH Gilbert's lost design had been built instead of McKim Mead & White's....

The Down East Dilettante said...

re the very pedestrian terrace designs at Florham: Ancient, but of course!! When one looks at the superb quality of Omsted's formal designs at Biltmore, this makes much more sense as explanaton for the wild divergence. (Also, let us not forget Twombly's famous scolding letter, as George Vanderbilt's business manager, to Olmsted, excorciating him for 'allowing' Vanderbilt to spend so much money.

The Ancient said...

In that video, some old codger deep in his "anecdotage" deprecates MM&W relative to Warren and Wetmore, which did Ruth Twombly's Playhouse.

Re Biltmore: I would imagine GV's siblings were very annoyed that he'd more or less gone broke. (I can't remember just what it was that they did to allow him to finish the house.)

The Ancient said...

As for the Burden estate -- and apropos of our conversation yesterday -- note this bit in the real estate ad:

"Investment potential in a 2 acre zone."

archibuff said...

"Personally, I still wonder what Florham might have been if CPH Gilbert's lost design had been built instead of McKim Mead & White's"

If only? If only? What a glorious sight it would be.

Yet today, once again, Archibuff feels the need to climb the rear terrace stairs past the mediocre Victorian flower garden, oddly observes only the backs of the dozen or so gardeners working there and plants two posts in the very pedestrian looking rose garden terrace. He streches his new, bolder, longer and larger "Nit Pickers" banner across the institutional garden facade. Standing back, his job complete, he walks to the front of Florham to admire the magnificent view of the estate.

Zach L. said...


I recently discovered a little treasure trove of unseen Gilbert commissions on LI and NYC...stay tuned because I think you will thoroughly enjoy them.

archibuff said...


OH YES!!!!!!!!!!!! Bring it on...

Although you might want to break the news to DED so he can self-medicate to relieve the upset stomach he will have for 2 weeks straight.

Old Grey Dog said...

Share memories of Joseph Donon . . . Old Grey Dog would say that Mr. Donon told him that he did not claim income taxes on $25,000 a year. However, there are other ways to reward him ! Envelopes could come to him containing cash, or securities ! "Remember chef, the taxes on this has already been paid." That "$25,000 a year" story came from Lucius Beebe, who, as part of the Escoffier group in New York, heard Mr. Donon give a general invitation to "Come to Newport for the fishing on my boat next summer!" Beebe came, to Donon's surprise, and then he returned to New York to write a story for his Society column. When Mr. Donon heard about it, from Miss Twombly, she told him not to issue a denial. Beebe later apologized to the chef saying, "Don't take it personally.
It's just a business with me!"
Bottom line, yes, the IRS called him in for an audit . . . but nothing was found amiss with his official records.

Old Grey Dog said...

Oh, and 'Ancient', Mr. Donon did not "have his own chef" . . . that, too, was part of the Beebe baloney. Before he built his own year-round home on Easton's Point, across from "Vinland", the Twombly summer estate, the chef rented a house on Atlantic Avenue, in Newport, for the summers. His household included his wife, Charlotte and sister-in-law Estelle Blaudin, a black cocker spaniel named "Charbon" ( French, for coal ) and a French woman who did the housework. Charlotte Donon did the cooking at home, 'cept when they were entertaining guests from the French colony in New York who would come down for a few days when the chef wasn't needed. On those occasions Joseph Donon would do the cooking at home. So, a word to the wise . . . don't believe everything you read in the newspapers !

The Ancient said...

OGD --

Lucius Beebee not altogether truthful? I am shocked, just shocked, I tell you.

(In the video clip I was summarizing above, the emeritus English professor that FDU dragged in for that account of Florham's history didn't strike me as someone who knew very much first hand, apart from some interesting anecdotes about the Italian laborers who worked for 75 cents a day preparing the site and the grounds.)

Anonymous said...

What did Ruth have to drink about?

In the 1980s, I made a special trip to FDU to see pictures of what the interior looked like when the Twomblys lived there. Why are there so few interior shots? All they had were a few measly pictures on the wall.


The Ancient said...

What did Ruth have to drink about?

I'll put down her mother as my opening bid.

The Ancient said...

Lorra --

Zach has quite a few pictures of the interior. Some of them may show up over the next few days.

Another thing mentioned in the video is that FDU has little or no idea what happened to house's contents after that auction in the Fifties. (Some of the Barberini tapestries made for Louis XIII *may* be in a museum in San Diego.)

Brigid N. Burke said...

If you want to know more about the Florham house contents, I've just posted a brochure created by the Friends of Florham to the FDU Digital Archive. You can view it directly here:

(If the link doesn't work for you, go to, and browse the Vanderbilt Twombly Collection).

In addition, I'm putting up about 70 more photos in the next month, and by August there should be a full archive of employee cards kept on each of the employees at the Twombly Estate.

The FDU Digital Archive is continually updated as I receive more material, so do check it periodically.

Thanks--Brigid Burke, Digital Projects Librarian, FDU.