CONNECTIONS: A pillar, a house on the hill, a mystery

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By Tuesday, Apr 11 Life In the Berkshires  1 Comment
Wayne Yuan
Interior of St Paul's Chapel at Columbia University, designed by Newton Stokes, nephew of Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes and Caroline Phelps Stokes of Lenox, Massachusetts.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes, 1847 - 1927

Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes, 1847 – 1927

There is an element of mystery about history. Researchers seek answers in libraries; restorers uncover clues on construction sites.

When Charlie Schulze and Lucy Holland purchased Underledge, a Gilded Age cottage in Lenox, they thought they would spruce it up a bit. They ended by tearing parts of it down to the studs and rebuilding. In the process they uncovered a pillar with “1915” carved into it. If we discovered who carved it and why, would it uncover a good story?

After years of studying the cottages, it is easy to guess why it was carved. Although different architects designed Berkshire cottages for different millionaires, many were built by the same Lenox construction company: Clifford Brothers. As members of the Clifford Brothers crew built the cottages, they carved the year into a beam or pillar. Some also added their names. They were proud of their work. Underledge was built by the Clifford Brothers and it is not a stretch to imagine that one of them carved “1915” into a pillar as they built Underledge except for one thing: it was not built in 1915.

Underledge was built in 1888-89 for Joseph W. Burden, heir to the famous Burden Iron Works in Troy, New York. Joseph, his wife Harriette, and their three children were popular members of the Gilded Age colony for 15 years. In 1903, Burden died suddenly at the age of 51. His widow retained the house until 1914. That year she sold Underledge to Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes.

Like Schulze and Holland, Olivia did some major renovations in 1915 and her workmen carved the date of their work. Many placed Olivia in California and missed the Lenox connection. By wondering whodunit, the story of one of the most interesting women of the Gilded Age was discovered.

Olivia was born in 1847, one of the six children of James and Caroline Phelps Stokes. Caroline Phelps’ father was Anson Greene Phelps. He began his career by making saddles and branched out into banking, real estate, mining, ironworks, shipping, railroads and timber. Caroline married James B. Stokes who was not only wealthy in his own right, but who helped Phelps during the depression of 1837. Among James and Caroline’s six children were Olivia, Caroline (born 1854) and Anson Phelps Stokes, the man who built Shadowbrook.

The six Stokes children were wealthy. At 21 years old, each received $5,000 from their maternal grandfather (approximately $150,000 today) with this injunction: “Each of my said grandchildren shall consider the said bequest as a sacred deposit, committed to their trust, to be invested by each grandchild, and the income derived therefrom to be devoted to spread the gospel, and to promote the Redeemer’s kingdom on earth, hoping and trusting that the God of Heaven will give to each of them wisdom…and incline them to be faithful stewards, and transmit the same to their descendants, to be sacredly devoted to the same object.”

Phelps was a wise man. He ended his injunction with this: “I know this bequest is absolute and places the amount so given beyond my control; but my earnest hope is that my wish may be regarded as I leave it, an obligation binding simply on their integrity and honor.”

It made philanthropists of all six grandchildren.

Olivia and Caroline inherited from parents and both maternal and paternal grandparents. They were heiresses. For example, in 1909, one sister’s wealth was estimated at $800,000 (approximately $15,000,000 today). The sisters never married; instead they were inseparable. They traveled the world, floating down the Nile as well as exploring Africa. They socialized with kings and queens in western capitals. They toured the United States in their own private railway car. When they returned home, they began their philanthropic endeavors in earnest.

Newton Stokes, Anson’s son and the sisters’ nephew, wished to be an architect. He applied to design St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. The neophyte was competing against the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Newton won the contract. St. Paul’s became the first major building on the campus not designed by McKim, Mead and White. Was his work so far superior, or was the contribution to the university by his aunts so persuasive?

Caroline Phelps Stokes, 1854 -1909

Caroline Phelps Stokes, 1854 -1909

Newton was also interested in building tenements. Although “tenement” has a bad name today, the original idea was lauded as a way to provide safe sanitary housing for the poor. Again his aunts contributed to Newton’s effort.

Olivia and Caroline supported ex-slaves as they struggled for equality. Especially, they supported education of Blacks. Like her grandfather, Olivia sent a cautionary note to Booker T. Washington with her donation. He was to use the money for members of the Black community “as long as they are of good moral character.”

The sisters supported YMCA and YWCA, universities, libraries, family service organizations and more. When Caroline died in 1909 at age 55, Caroline’s estate of $800,000 (over $15,000,000 today) went to charity; the Negro Fund for the education of Negroes in America and Africa; tenement housing in New York City; North American Indians; needy white students in Northfield, Massachusetts; Indigent Women of New York City; the Tuskegee Institute; and the Phelps-Stokes Fund under the direction of Caroline’s siblings, nieces, and nephews.

The grandfather’s imperative ruled through the decades. The sisters had wanted a winter home in California in part to indulge their love of gardens. Without Caroline, Olivia returned east and purchased the cottage in Lenox. She redecorated, perhaps watched as the workmen carved the date. Olivia continued her philanthropy but, upon Caroline’s death, she shifted focus and concentrated some money on memorials to her sister. Olivia left Caroline Park – 16.8 acres between the sisters’ estate on Mariposa Drive and Sunset Drive – to the city of Redlands. She stipulated that “it remain in its natural state, with its native plants and annual wildflowers for children to enjoy”.

The materials explaining Caroline Park reads in part, “People would drive their carriages along the tops of the hills that look out on the mountains.”

Olivia lived comfortably until 1927. She wrote books. No wealthy amateur, she wrote beautifully, evoking the people and places of her life. She, too, left a sizable estate, endowing Caroline Park, and reinvesting in the Phelps Stokes fund.

Harriette Burden died in 1938, finally returning to Lenox to be buried beside her husband at the Church on the Hill.

A house on a hill, a date on a pillar, a story uncovered: you read a mystery to find out what happens next and history to find out what happened before.


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One Comment   Add Comment

  1. Selma says:

    Beautiful historical article. Read Lenox Library’s “A Pride of Palaces” Edwin Hale Lincoln’s photos of the Berkshire “cottages”. Photos recreated by Walter Scott of Stockbridge.

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