The Other Lincoln Family Home

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“Squirming & crawling about from place to place can do no good,” Abraham Lincoln once lectured a ne’er-do-well stepbrother ambitious to leave the family’s log cabin for greener pastures. Yet 10 years later, as President-elect, Lincoln admitted: “I hold the value of life is to improve one’s condition.”

Hildene’s gardens stretch deep and rich from the rear of the mansion.
 
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“Squirming & crawling about from place to place can do no good,” Abraham Lincoln once lectured a ne’er-do-well stepbrother ambitious to leave the family’s log cabin for greener pastures. Yet 10 years later, as President-elect, Lincoln admitted: “I hold the value of life is to improve one’s condition.”

Such conflicts never burdened Lincoln’s direct descendants. His sole surviving son, Robert T. Lincoln, recoiled with horror at the thought of preserving his father’s crude birthplace in Kentucky. When he grew wealthy enough to build a family home of his own, Robert constructed one of the most elegant summer mansions in New England.

Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont, reflected not where the Lincoln family came from but where he believed they deserved to end up. Robert actually took to calling his opulent new retreat his “ancestral home.”

He first visited the region as a Harvard student with his mother in the summer of 1863. Picturesque and cool Manchester offered gorgeous vistas, beautiful gardens, exclusive golf courses, and an elite crowd, all of which the socially ambitious Robert enjoyed.

In 1902 Robert, by then the president of the Pullman Company and a former Secretary of War and ambassador to Great Britain, purchased 412 choice acres on a promontory overlooking an expansive panorama of Battenkill Valley meadowland. There he built his spectacular 24-room Georgian Revival mansion—complete with a porte-cochère in front and formal gardens in back—and made a final, decisive break from his famous family’s hardscrabble past.

For the next 24 years of his long life, Robert and his family spent every summer at Hildene, typically traveling to Manchester from homes in Washington and Chicago in private railroad cars filled with trunks containing his father’s carefully guarded—and still not publicly released—papers. Each year he expanded his Hildene vacations until he was spending up to six months at a time there. He became president of the local country club, developed a cadre of wealthy friends, and conducted company business from a library and office adjacent to his ground-floor bedroom. Stubbornly private, almost reclusive, he made an exception to publicly welcome President William Howard Taft to the house as a gesture of support during the contentious White House campaign of 1912 (Robert hated Teddy Roosevelt, however much TR admired Abraham Lincoln). More typically, Robert hid his family photographs and the file of his mother’s controversial insanity trial inside a Hildene closet, where they remained undisturbed for nearly half a century.

With his wife, Mary, the daughter of an Iowa senator, Robert stocked Hildene with comfortable furniture inherited from his in-laws. But he also filled it with lavish signs of privilege too. A state-of-the-art “annunciator” bell system could summon servants to all points in the house; the dining room sparkled with elegant china. Robert also spent $11,500 to install an elaborate Aeolian player pipe organ whose 1,000 pipes sit atop the main stairway above the front hall and bought more than 200 rolls of music to entertain family and guests. Nearby he constructed an observatory.

After Robert’s death at Hildene at the age of 82, in 1926, his daughter Mary Lincoln Isham took up occupancy and redecorated. When she died in 1938, Robert’s granddaughter Mary Lincoln Beckwith became its permanent resident, until her death in 1975. Thereafter the dilapidated house might have been sold to eager developers and razed had not determined local residents saved the property, restored it, and converted it into a historic house museum and garden.

Today the again resplendent house displays family mementos—Abraham Lincoln’s personally ordered engraving of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a stovepipe hat, and a family Bible, along with Robert’s Harvard College yearbook, among other treasures—and offers guided public tours. The grounds welcome craft festivals, art shows, and community concerts and provide hiking and cross-country skiing trails. No Lincoln was ever married here, as far as historians know, but the terrace is today the scene of many weddings—for, as Hildene’s brochure demurely states, “the formal gardens, lawns and house are also available on occasion for private functions.”

Robert would likely have been horrified. But one suspects that his parents—the President and First Lady—renowned for their open-house parties in Springfield and thronged receptions in the White House, would have been happy to welcome the crowds. And yes, the earsplitting pipe organ still works. (For more information: 802-362-1788 or www.hildene.org .

—Harold Holzer