A Brief History of Clermont

The fan-lighted doorway of Clermont affords one of the Hudson Valley’s most spectacular views, stretching across the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains. The history of the house itself is equally remarkable.

Clermont was built between 1740 and 1750, by Robert Livingston, Jr., on land acquired in 1686 by his father, just a dozen years after New Netherland finally became British New York.  A royal patent secured by Robert Livingston, Sr. granted him the privileges of a manor lord and 160,000 acres, stretching all the way from the Hudson River’s east bank to the border of present day Massachusetts.

In October 1777, the Revolutionary War arrived on Clermont’s doorstep via a British armada sailing upriver from New York City to provide support for General John Burgoyne’s army, whose march from Canada was foundering north of Albany. That same force had already stormed two forts in the Hudson Highlands and burned Kingston, the first capital of the new New York State. The next target was the riverfront seat of the rebel Livingstons.

Learning of the imminent danger, Margaret Beekman Livingston — the wealthy (in her own right) wife of Clermont’s owner — took action, after refusing the offer of protection from a wounded British soldier recuperating at Clermont. (She steadily declined aid from an enemy of her country.)

The British courtiously gave her time to vacate, which she did, with most of her prized possessions, before burning the house to the foundations. But she returned, and, calling in favors from the governor who she helped to elect, succeeded in rebuilding her grand house — in the middle of the Revolutionary War!

Margaret’s son, Robert, known as The Chancellor because of a state judicial position he held, is perhaps the most famous Livingston. He administered the oath of office to President George Washington, co-invented the steamboat with Robert Fulton, established the rights of a monopoly that lasted for decades and continued the line of Livingstons which lasted until Honoria (Livingston) McVitty gave the last of the Clermont lands to the state at her death in 2000.

Today the Clemont historic site encompasses 500 acres, down from the 13,000 two centuries ago. In the 1840s Andrew Jackson Dowing observed that Clermont was “the showplace of the last age,” noting that in the layout and practical uses of the grounds it as very much an eighteenth-century property — something succeeding generations showed little interest in changing.

In 1889 Charles Eliot, pioneering conservationist, wrote that although Clermont’s owners were often compelled to be away on business or public duties, “they always returned to Clermont as their one permanent home — so strong was their old English liking for country life and country leisure.”

Today, Clermont and its magnificent grounds are redolent with the marvelous history of the place, now available for all visitors to share.

This is a much-shortened excerpt from the new book “Clermont,” by Bruce Naramore and Reed Sparling, available through the Friends of Clermont, fofc@gtel.net.