The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion in Woodstock, Vermont, built in 1805 as a farmhouse, was the boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s first environmentalists and the author of Man and Nature (1864), the first documented work on the effects humans have on the environment.
In 1869, lawyer and real estate developer Frederick Billings and his wife Julia purchased the house and the surrounding 550 acres. Although Billings made his fortune as president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, he was an admirer of Marsh’s conservation theories. Appalled at how the landscape in his native Vermont had been stripped of timber, Billings began a program of reforestation on his own property and lobbied Congress to protect America’s landscapes through the creation of a national park system. Billings was also a progressive farmer who, along with his farm manager, George Aitkin, developed a breed of prize-winning Jersey cattle on his 200-acre dairy farm, now open to the public as Billings Farm.
In the early 1950s, the Billings’ granddaughter, Mary French Rockefeller, inherited the property. She and her husband, Laurance Rockefeller, were equally committed conservationists and continued stewardship of the land for forty years before turning it over to the National Park Service. In 1983, the Woodstock Foundation was formed to run the Billings farm and museum as an operating dairy farm and a living museum of Vermont’s rural past. Frederick and Julia Billings and Mary and Laurance Rockefeller’s passion for land conservation is protected in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, created by an Act of Congress in 1992. The Conservation Study Institute, established by the National Park Service to promote conservation and facilitate stewardship partnerships in communities, is also located at the park.
Shortly after he purchased the farmhouse in 1869 Frederick Billings hired architect William Ralph Emerson to transform it from a simple Federal style farmhouse into an elegant Stick Style mansion. He also hired the well-known Boston landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland, who designed the formal gardens surrounding the house. In 1885, Billings invited architect Henry Hudson Holly to bring the house up-to-date. Today the twenty-eight rooms in the house display classic Queen Anne features: rounded arches centered with keystones, dentil moldings, and oak woodwork and floors. The furniture throughout the house, original to the Billings-Rockefeller families, is nineteenth-century Victorian mixed with the Rockefeller’s 1960s era furnishings.
Frederick and Julia Billings were avid collectors. Their particular interest in American artists and American landscape paintings has resulted in the house having one of the largest private collections of Hudson River School paintings in the United States. These twenty-four works were appropriate choices for Billings and his wife, since among the aims of the school’s acknowledged founder Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and such artists as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and David Johnson (1827–1908), was a desire to promote an appreciation for the native landscape. Along with Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cole and his followers were advocates for the preservation of America’s natural beauty.
Entering the house through its downstairs hall the first painting to catch the eye is Thomas Cole’s Niagara Falls (1830). Opposite Cole’s idealized image of the falls, painted at a time when the area had become a tourist attraction, is David Johnson’s Study, Harbor Island, Lake George (1871). More paintings by Cole can be seen throughout the house. In the library, his Tower by Moonlight (ca.1838), showing a couple picnicking against a background of crumbling ruins and skeleton on a coffin, offers a reminder that life and nature are short-lived. Cole’s Tower and Waterfall (1838–1840) adorns a nearby bedroom.
The parlor is dominated by Albert Bierstadt’s Cathedral Rock, Yosemite depicting the towering rock against a backdrop of thunder clouds. On the opposite wall, the bright colors of Thomas Prichard Rossiter’s Venetian Gondoliers (1855) are a direct contrast to the darkness of Bierstadt’s work. In the library, Bierstadt’s Cliff House and Bay of San Francisco (1871–1872), in a departure from his landscape scenes, shows the roiling Pacific Ocean with the Cliff House Inn shrouded in fog. Two more Bierstadt’s in the study, The Matterhorn (ca. 1870) and Scenery in the Grand Tetons (late 1860s) were purchased by Laurance Rockefeller. John Frederick Kensett’s Sunset at Lake George (1872) hangs in the upstairs hall.
An excellent example of Victorian-style decoration can be seen in the parlor (Fig. 2) with its pressed Lincrusta wallpaper installed in 1886. That same year Tiffany and Company designed three stained glass windows to the Billings’ specifications; a wreath fanlight over the French doors on the third floor, a Merchant of Venice themed window in the parlor, and Passing the Torch of Knowledge in the library, depicting hands passing a lighted torch to symbolize the continued commitment to conservation.
A nineteenth-century Madonna and Child porcelain plaque designed by the Royal German Porcelain Factory in Berlin and the white marble bas relief of Julia Parmly Billings are two more striking features that complete the parlor. The bas relief was sculpted in 1910 by Herbert Adams (1858– 1945), a Vermonter and member of the Cornish, New Hampshire, artist colony begun by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In the upstairs hall, the etching Sailboats in Harbor (1888) was done by Stephen Parrish (1846–1938), father of Maxfield Parrish, another artist involved with the Cornish, New Hampshire, artist colony. The Rockefeller’s added to the mix by collecting oil paintings of Woodstock done in the 1980s by local artists.
Images are courtesy of the National Park Service
Fig. 1: The 1805 Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, Woodstock, Vermont.
Fig. 2: Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, 1870.
Oil on canvas.
Fig. 3: Parlor with Tiffany & Company stained glass window and Lincrusta pressed wallpaper.
Accommodations in and
around Woodstock, Vermont