Back of the House and Beyond: The Millionaire’s Household, 1900–1942

Crane bathroom advertisement, Courtesy Hagley Museum & Library

Crane Bathroom advertisement, Courtesy Hagley Museum & Library

For a number of years, Maggie Lidz, Winterthur’s recently retired estate historian, and I have been working on a book that takes an in-depth look at the rarely explored spaces in large American houses and estates.  It has taken a bit longer than we hoped, including a detour to co-curate the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibition with Winterthur Director of Garden and Estate Chris Strand; but recently we completed the manuscript and assembled hundreds of images to illustrate the chapters. If all goes well, the book Back of the House and Beyond: The Millionaire’s Household, 1900–1942 will be published in 2016.

We are itching to share the material however, so in addition to a preview on October 15 for Winterthur Members, we wanted to give our blog readers a little inside scoop as well.

If you’re wondering what “back of the house” means and what the book comprises, I’d like to think it covers the areas that the wonderful architectural monographs and books on the great houses have left out—spaces such as kitchens, closets, bathrooms, and garages.  When looking at these other books and after hearing commentary from people who attended last year’s exhibition Costumes of Downton Abbey—in which we took the opportunity to explore the life of the du Ponts on an American estate in contrast to their fictional British counterparts—we realized that only part of the story was being told. People are fascinated by servant spaces and all the lesser-known elements that make up a large estate—ones like this garage and pigeon tower on the Clarence Mitchell estate in Montecito, California.

Courtesy Winterthur Library

Courtesy Winterthur Library

In many ways the book also evolved from our professional experiences at Winterthur, where we’ve tried to wrap our arms around all the nooks and crannies that a 175-room house has to offer with its countless outbuildings and, as it turns out, countless number of keys (516 to be exact). The master list of keys led us to the discovery of a fish closet, two flower-arranging rooms, and a room just for shining shoes!

While Winterthur is fascinating in and of itself, we also wanted the book to go beyond Winterthur. Deciding how far beyond was the sticky part. So we created a litmus test of sorts for what types of houses and estates we would research. It was a fairly simple test: did the house have a servant’s dining room? You can see an example of one in this Harbor Hill estate in Roslyn, New York.

Courtesy Winterthur Library

Courtesy Winterthur Library

So we started with the service spaces but found so much great material that we broadened our scope to include mechanical systems, sporting areas, and novelties, such as wet bars, private zoos, and breakfast rooms. We focused on the turn of the century—the last years of the Gilded Age up to World War II.  There were some surprising discoveries along the way, such as the large number of estates that were built during the Depression era for people who are analogous to today’s “1 percent.” And, there were some not-so-surprising discoveries, such as how these estates employed every new technology and convenience in that very American way, like this movie theater in a circa 1938 house.

Charles Messer Stowe Collection, Winterthur Library

Charles Messer Stowe Collection, Winterthur Library

Inside and outside of the house, from kitchens, laundries, and butler’s pantries to swimming pools, private sports centers, stables, and garages, these spaces tell a story of a rarefied life in places that operated like a luxury hotel or resort.

Exploring these often-overlooked spaces was fascinating and gave us the chance to “live like millionaires” from another era, even if it was only through the pages of a book. Don’t miss our Members-only lecture on October 15 for an in-depth preview of the book.

Blog post by Jeff Groff, Director of Interpretation and Estate Historian, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

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