HBO's 'Gilded Age' series showcases a pivotal time in Hudson Valley history

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Fans of HBO's "Downtown Abbey" are counting the days until the premiere of the new series from its creator Julian Fellowes launches on Jan. 24.

"The Gilded Age," a 9-episode series, encapsulates a period in American history when rampant fortunes made during the Industrial Revolution fueled lavish lifestyles, and created a schism between old money and new money.

Many of those "new money" fortunes were used to build lavish estates in the Hudson Valley. The 54-room Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, Jay Gould's Lyndhurst, and Staatsburgh, the 71-room Dutchess County country estate of the Mills family, are among the dozens of properties that lined the Hudson River from Yonkers to Albany.

Any could have been the setting for Fellowes' new series, which begins in 1882 with young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) moving from her Pennsylvania home to New York City after the death of her father to live with her old money aunts Agnes van Rhijn (portrayed by Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).

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Soon, a social war develops between Marian's aunt and her stupendously rich "new money" neighbors, a ruthless railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon). Guest stars on the series include Westchester's Audra McDonald and Rockland's Bill Irwin.

"I think we have a little of everything," said Executive Producer David Crockett. "We've got history, we've got Julian Fellowes, a large cast of great actors, good drama, good comedy and good laughs."

Viewers can expect the opulent settings, meticulously recreated period wardrobes, and drama that Fellowes is known for, and perhaps a glimpse of a familiar setting, or two.

The dining room at Lyndhurst. The mansion was home to Jay Gould, a Gilded Age financier. It is now a historic site.
The dining room at Lyndhurst. The mansion was home to Jay Gould, a Gilded Age financier. It is now a historic site.

What is 'The Gilded Age'?

The Gilded Age was a term coined by Mark Twain in his novel of the time, published in 1873, according to author Wayne Craven's "Gilded Age Mansions," (2000, W.W. Norton & Company).

During the period, estates lined the Hudson River, particularly in Irvington, which at the time was known as "Millionaire's Row," said Howard Zar, the Executive Director of Lyndhurst, which is now a National Trust Historic Site. Among the moneyed neighbors during the Gilded Age were Cyrus Field, the father of transatlantic cable, and Daniel Reid, known as the "Tin Plate King."

Farther north in Sleepy Hollow, William Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller, built a 204-room mansion on a thousand acres known as Rockwood Hall.

Lyndhurst Executive Director Howard Zar on the estate in Tarrytown.
Lyndhurst Executive Director Howard Zar on the estate in Tarrytown.

"The Gilded Age was about things being gilt, not gold," said Zar. "So it was really an ersatz sense of wealth that came during the Industrial Age, and those incredible fortunes made New York City the financial capitol of the world."

Eventually, the wealthy from the city began flooding up the Hudson Valley. "This was the area that directly pertained to the wealth of New York City, and once you get to that Gilded Age, it just accelerates," said Zar.

Lyndhurst's owner, Jay Gould, could certainly be the model for the ruthless tycoon George Russell. Gould was known as a robber baron who made his fortune in railroads. His riverfront estate featured a Gothic revival mansion, the largest private greenhouse in the country — where he grew orchids — and gardens modeled after European royal estates. Lyndhurst is now open to the public.

Today operated by New York State, the Mills family estate in Staatsburg is a popular tourist destination and part of the Staatsburgh State Historic Site.
Today operated by New York State, the Mills family estate in Staatsburg is a popular tourist destination and part of the Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

"Today, people love to see a concrete example of what it would be like to be so fabulously rich," said Pamela Malcolm, historic site manager of the Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Dutchess County, home to the 79-room Mills mansion, one of five homes once owned by the family.

"In the historic context, the Gilded Age is a period in which the country is growing exponentially in its geographic footprint, but people are also becoming wealthy through mining and the gold rush and suddenly had more money and clout and power than anyone ever had," she said.

Malcolm said the suddenly rich of the time were looking to define themselves and to do that, many, including the Mills, looked to the model of European aristocracy.

"They wanted to dress like them, live like them, travel and entertain like them, so when you look at this (Mills) mansion, you see they were very in love with British country homes of the time, and everything French, from the Louis XIV and Versailles-style furniture to the cuisine; the family had three French chefs." Staatsburgh, like Lyndhurst, is open for public tours.

Devil is in the details

Replicating this segment of New York City and the Hudson Valley of the late 19th century was not an easy feat, said Crockett, yet ensuring that the most minor details were accurate was paramount; everything from the costumes to the backgrounds.

Finding ideal shooting locations proved challenging.

"Unlike with 'Downton Abbey,' we are not in the U.K. — which has a longer history — we are in the U.S. and many of the places that were older were replaced," Crockett said. The estates once owned by Fields, Reid and William Rockefeller, for example, were long ago demolished.

The original intent was to film the series in Europe, but the cast was important and mostly U.S.-based, and, Crockett said, ultimately, "we wanted to make this a very American show, so we had to shoot here."

"Our location managers, Lauri Pitkis and Bob Shaw, looked virtually at every shootable house in New York, in the city and in the Hudson Valley," Crockett continued. "Then we planted a flag and just started choosing those that suited our story."

Yet, trying to find a suitable stand-in for the newly popular Fifth Avenue as it would have appeared in the late 1800s was impossible in 2021.

"The challenge was, how do you shoot the outside of these houses and plop down horses and dirt in 2021? So we had to build one long city block of 61st Street in a sound stage."

Many exteriors scenes were filmed Troy, New York, "where the march of time marched much more slowly than other places," Crockett said.

Crockett says the series is not meant to be an exact replica of the time, but an approximate copy, designed in the spirit of the age.

"We have two households to feature, the old money and the new money on 61st Street and Fifth Avenue," Crockett said. "It shows the excess and the over-the-top consumption of the age, but it goes into class divisions, wealth divisions, petty jealousies, and so on, which really are still present day problems."

That pull-and-push of old money vs. new money was definitely on display at Staatsburgh said Malcolm.

This 1909 portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills hangs in her boudoir at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.
This 1909 portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills hangs in her boudoir at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

Ruth Livingston had the old family pedigree. "The family played an illustrious role in the Revolution, for example, and they had a sterling family pedigree and then she married the nouveau riche Ogden Mills," Malcolm explained. "She had the name, but he had lot more money, ergo a house like this. She needed her husband's wealth to create it."

It's been widely reported that Julian Fellowes likes to base his fictional characters on real people and those who populated some of the opulent properties in the Hudson Valley would be ripe for fictionalization.

"One of Julian's things was always that, yes, the people put on costumes and you get into these fancy environments, but in the end, these were just people," Crockett said. "It may be the 1880s, but there are a lot of similarities to today, and throughout history: they have financial trouble; they are in the crowd, or they are not; they make money; they lose money; someone moves into the block that is different than them."

"The Gilded Age" airs at 9 p.m. on HBO. Crockett said a second season is already in development.

Experience The Gilded Age in the Hudson Valley:

The art gallery at Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst, once home to financier Jay Gould, is a National Historic Trust Site.
The art gallery at Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst, once home to financier Jay Gould, is a National Historic Trust Site.

Lyndhurst: The Gothic Revival Mansion and its landscaped grounds were the home of financier Jay Gould. Gould's daughter, Anna Gould, donated the property to the National Historic Trust in 1961. There are tours and events planned throughout the year and the grounds are open daily, although now closed for winter. Lyndhurst will reopen March 31. 35 South Broadway, Tarrytown. lyndhurst.org.

Visitors enjoy the grounds at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park on June 3, 2020.
Visitors enjoy the grounds at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park on June 3, 2020.

The Vanderbilt Mansion: This National Historic Site in Hyde Park is an impressive mansion, yet it was just a seasonal residence, one of a portfolio of homes the Vanderbilts owned in New York City, Bar Harbor, Newport, and the Adirondacks. The house, designed for Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt by McKim, Mead, & White contained exotic wood paneling, imported marble, lush velvets, French tapestries, and, as was the custom, antique building components salvaged from the great houses of Europe. Tours are available Thursday-Monday; reservations are required and tickets must be purchased in advance.4097 Albany Post Road

Hyde Park. For info and reservations, go to https://www.nps.gov/vama/index.htm

The Main Hall at Staatsburgh's Mills Mansion
The Main Hall at Staatsburgh's Mills Mansion

Staatsburgh State Historic Site: Staatsburgh was the country home of Ogden Mills and his wife, Ruth Livingston Mills. Mills' family made its fortune by investing in banks, railroads and mines. The couple's Beaux-Arts mansion of 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms was lavishly decorated, mostly in the styles of 17th and 18th-century France. Nearly 90% of its art and furnishings are original to the home. The Staatsburgh State Historic Site will open for tours on Jan. 21. Tours will be offered by advance reservation only Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.(last tour begins at 3 p.m. . To make a reservation, go to bookeo.com/StaatsburghSHS. 75 Mills Mansion Drive, Staatsburg.

Kykuit: Built by Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, and home to four generations of Rockefellers, the six-story stone Kykuit mansion is rather refined for a Gilded Age property but is known for its museum-quality art work and vast grounds which include the estate's "playhouse," with an indoor pool, and its own golf course. The property is part of Historic Hudson Valley and is closed for the season. Check /hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites for more information.

Glenview Mansion: Built in 1876, stockbroker John Bond Trevor spared no expense in constructing his 37-room Yonkers mansion, now part of the Hudson River Museum. It had indoor plumbing, gas illumination, and a coal burning furnace to heat it. Stone for its facade came from a Hastings-on-Hudson quarry. Glenview is open for tours, but closed through January. 511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers, Go to hrm.org for more info.

Untermyer Gardens: Although Samuel Untermyer's opulent Greystone mansion in Yonkers was demolished, the estate's magnificent gardens, which Untermyer termed "the finest in the world" are open to tour. Untermyer was the first lawyer to earn $1 million from a single case and he used his newfound wealth to construct what is today considered one of the finest walled Persian gardens in the world. 945 N. Broadway, Yonkers,untermyergardens.org

Karen Croke is the features editor for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com. Find my stories here. Reach me at kcroke1@lohud.com

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: 'The Gilded Age 'airs Jan. 24; HBO series mirrors Hudson Valley's past

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