Remembering World War I… from the site of Mansion in May

This year’s centennial of World War I is sure to bring many retrospectives of the War to End All Wars.

One of the quirkier tales involves C. Ledyard Blair, the financial tycoon who built Blairsden. The spectacular Gilded Age estate in the Somerset Hills will be featured in the Mansion in May fundraiser for Morristown Medical Center.

Staircase at Blairsden, scene of the 2014 Mansion in May fundraiser. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Staircase at Blairsden, scene of the 2014 Mansion in May fundraiser. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Blair’s granddad, John Insley Blair, was a 19th century railroad baron and benefactor of Princeton University; adjusted for inflation, his estimated $43 billion fortune would make him the 21st richest American ever, according to a 2007 book.

When someone asked the Blair scion how he differed from his grandson, he replied: “I wasn’t born with a rich grandfather. He was,” recounts historian W. Barry Thomson, author of The Somerset Hills.

C. Ledyard Blair’s special talent was spending that family fortune, according to Barry.

Give him credit for good taste.  He hired Carrère and Hastings–designers of the New York Public Library, the Frick mansion in New York, the U.S. Senate and House office buildings and mansions in Newport, R.I.–and landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf, renowned for the Lincoln Memorial and European cemeteries for U.S. soldiers killed in World War I.

They lopped off a hilltop in Peapack-Gladstone to create a 62,000-square-foot Louis XIV Chậteau-style mansion overlooking 600 rolling acres that included farms and man-made Ravine Lake.  Numbers only hint at the elegance of this place, which was remarkable even for a region dotted with palatial retreats.

“This was special,” said Barry. “Blairsden is one of the pre-eminent examples of the Country House era. This estate was an incredible fusion of house, grounds, and the the siting of the house. It had an incredible rural-yet-tailored look.”

A new owner is renovating Blairsden. Please click icon below for captions.

The private lane to the five-floor mansion winds for a mile, past English-manor style stone walls, terraced gardens, busts of Julius Caesar and other icons from Antiquity, and a 300-foot reflecting pool.

C. Ledyard Blair. Photo courtesy of a Blair descendant.

C. Ledyard Blair. Blairstown, NJ, was named for his grandfather, who also founded Blair Academy. Photo courtesy of a Blair descendant.

Some 1,400 varieties of roses spruced up the grounds. Springtime was perfumed by fragrant linden trees. Sixteen-horse teams hauled maples and boxwoods bought and uprooted from other properties; the weight of these loads “broke every bridge in Somerset County,” said Morris Plains resident Valerie Marr, history chairwoman for Mansion in May.

Completed in 1903, the mansion boasts a carved limestone facade, 31 bedrooms, 20 fireplaces with ornate gargoyles carved in marble, 14-foot ceilings, two elevators, and a double-spiral staircase. Turkish baths and squash- and tennis courts once existed in the basement.

Blair, a Princeton graduate, owned homes in Newport and Bermuda. But Blairsden was his favorite, and all four of his daughters had lavish weddings there, Valerie said.

(In the 1980s, when the estate was owned by an order of nuns, it cost $10,000 a month to heat the mansion, Barry noted.)

In the mist, Blairsden reminds realtor Michele Hill of the classic movie 'Rebecca.' Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In the mist, Blairsden reminds realtor Michele Hill of the classic movie ‘Rebecca.’ Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Blairsden was sufficiently grand for America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, whose 1915 film Little Peppina was filmed there to help Americans briefly forget about the escalating war in Europe.

One of C. Ledyard Blair’s favorite pastimes was coaching. As in horse-drawn coaches, a hobby akin to modern sports car clubs.  Blair and his wealthy pals would make the day-long journey from Manhattan to Blairsden in coaches. Each four-horse team would be changed four times along the way, Barry said.

Blair also was commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Which brings us, at last, to our World War I story.

Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart, filmed 'Little Peppina' at Blairsden in 1915.

Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, filmed ‘Little Peppina’ at Blairsden in 1915.

As Barry tells it, Blair was on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie, a German-flagged passenger steamship en route to England, when the ship received word that war had broken out.

The ship had gold bullion and other treasure stowed below decks, and the liner’s captain was not keen on seeing it confiscated by the British.

Returning to neutral America seemed like a good idea. But British warships were sure to line the routes to New York and Boston.

“So Blair said, ‘Let’s go to Bar Harbor,’” Barry said.

And then the financier helped the captain navigate to that Maine playground of the rich and famous, where the Blairs had a summer home.

Footnotes: While it’s unclear what became of the gold bullion, Barry said, the German liner was confiscated and served as a transport ship for Allied troops. It survived a torpedo hit in 1918.

Blair sold his own 254-foot steam yacht, Diana, for military use in 1917. It passed from the Russians to the French, eventually serving the French military governor of Morocco, according to Barry. Diana was sunk in the Mediterranean during World War II.

MORE ABOUT MANSION IN MAY

TICKETS FOR MANSION IN MAY

Blairsden will be open for public tours every day in May 2014.

Tickets are $40 online starting on Feb. 1; admission goes to $50 in May.

The Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center has featured a different Mansion in May every two or three years since 1974.

These events have raised more than $8 million for the hospital.

Proceeds this year will fund expansion of the pediatric intensive care unit, and a new autism center.

More than 1,000 volunteers participate in Mansion in May.

A new owner who plans to restore Blairsden to its former glory will move in this summer.

More than 50 area designers will decorate rooms for Mansion in May.

 

The Kronprinzessin Cecilie at Bar Harbor, Me., where C. Ledyard Blair navigated it at the outbreak of World War I. Photo: Wikipedia.org

The Kronprinzessin Cecilie at Bar Harbor, Me., where C. Ledyard Blair navigated it at the outbreak of World War I. Photo: Wikipedia.org

 

 

 

 



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