The third season of Downton Abbey currently has its American audience on the edge of its seat and reaching for a box of tissues. The series that captured the hearts of millions of fans the world over revolves around the fictitious Crawley family as they struggle to hold onto their ancestral home in the early 20th century, even as their way of life becomes a thing of the past.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the program. The soapy upstairs/downstairs plot! The opulent (and historically accurate) costumes! The dramatic setting! It’s really no wonder that nearly 8 million people tune in every week.
But here is something really interesting – the popularity of the series has helped real life grande country houses in the UK that have been struggling to maintain their buildings and grounds by renewing public interest in them. And it has especially helped Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, whose history is maybe even more interesting than the scripted one now acted out in its halls.
The Decline of English Country Houses
The Crawley family struggle is one that played out at hundreds of real life grande country houses during the 20th century. Before World War I, the houses were the economic hub for the estates surrounding them, which provided income for their owners. That income allowed them to maintain their often quite large homes and gardens and staff. A dramatic acceleration of social and economic changes after World War I left many houses without incomes. Without an income, owners were unable to maintain the houses, grounds, or staff necessary to run them. As a result, hundreds of country houses were demolished after the war. The “lost houses” were often dismantled and sold for parts. (Kentucky’s own Spindletop Hall boasts a mantel from Trentham Hall in its library-click here for photo).Those that survived, did so by adapting. On Downton Abbey, the head of the Crawley family, Lord Grantham, married a wealthy American in order to bolster his already flagging fortunes before WWI. Other creative marriage proposals are later featured in the story line, as the Crawleys hope to land upon a scheme that will keep the house in the family after the heir apparent dies aboard the Titanic. (You have to love the historically accurate plot twists!) In real life, creative marriages were one way houses survived. They also survived by being sold, probably a gut wrenching decision considering the houses, in some cases, belonged to a family for centuries.
These days, surviving grande English country houses are mostly maintained by hosting conferences, weddings, and opening the doors to the public for tours (usually during designated times of the year, month or week). Like many house museums, country estates have suffered in recent years from lack of interest. Fewer and fewer tourists were buying tickets to see inside these ancestral homes – that is until Downton Abbey premiered. It has (to some extent) reversed that trend – people are interested again!
Can Downton Abbey Save Highclere Castle?
None have profited more than Highclere Castle, the estate at which the series is filmed.
Before the series, it earned a steady income through leasing out the grand rooms in the house for weddings at a base price £10,000. Since the series began, it has gained several more revenue streams.
It earns a fee from Downton Abbey’s production. Lady Carnarvon, current mistress of the house, published a best seller on the subject of the Real Downton Abbey last year. A home good lines inspired by the castle is in the works. There might be a Hollywood movie in the pipeline. And it now boasts upwards of 1200 visitors per day!
Unfortunately, the house costs over one million dollars a year in upkeep and is in need of some very expensive repairs, both to the house proper and to the gardens. The Carnarvons have considered selling small parcels of land at the edges of the estate for development in order to make the estimated £11 million in repairs.
The Real Downton Abbey – Truth Is Better Than Fiction
Highclere Castle is a house within a house within a house. Lady Carnarvon explained, ” It actually was built over the top of a Georgian house, which was built on top of an Elizabethan house, which was built on top of some old bishop’s palaces. The first building record I have here is 749 AD.” According to the Daily Mail, the grand fireplace in the saloon is in precisely the same spot that Bishop William of Wykeham used to sit in the 1300s!
The 5th Earl:The castle is most associated with the 5th Earl and his wife, Almina, who lived contemporaneously with the fictional Lord and Lady Grantham. Their story in some ways mirrors that of Downton Abbey (which may not be a surprise when you consider that series creator, Julian Fellowes, wrote Downton Abbey with Highclere Castle in mind).
Lord Carnarvon was land rich, but cash poor. Just as Lord Grantham admits to having married Cora, a wealthy American heiress, for her fortune in order to save Downton Abbey, Lord Carnarvon married the illegitimate heiress to the Rothschild fortune to support Highclere Castle. He also used her fortune to bankroll his hobby – Egyptology. He famously financed Howard Carter’s discovery of the spectacular Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
The 5th Earl died as a result of illness following a mosquito bite near the Nile River not long after the discovery of Tutenkahmen’s tomb – a fact that help bolster the legendary Curse of the Pharoahs. The current Lord Carnarvon has said that his great-grandfather’s dog Susie howled and died back at Highclere Castle in England the same time the 5th Earl died in Egypt.
While much of the 5th Earl’s collection of Egyptian artifacts was purchased by the MET, Lord Carnarvon said he discovered some items from the famous archeological adventure to Egypt remaining at Highclere Castle. Those pieces are now displayed in the old kitchens.
Lady Almina, the 5th Countess:
Only 19 when she married, Almina’s life changed in August 1914 when the First World War broke out. She immediately rolled up her sleeves, turned Highclere Castle into a hospital and began to admit patients coming back from the trenches. Lady Carnarovan said of the events, “She employed 30 of the best and prettiest nurses, apparently, dressed in beautiful uniforms. Her idea was that when a soldier came back from war, he would be put into beautiful sheets with proper pillowcases, have an amazing view, and be made whole in body and soul. Naturally, her father was the source of all cash, and he gave her a lot of money to start it all up. The first patients started arriving back in September. It was a tremendous operation, and there were normally 20 to 30 patients in the bedrooms here in the castle. … [Although Highclere Castle was returned to a family home after the war] The rest of her life centered around nursing, healing and hospitals.”
In Downton Abbey, the estate also played a role in WWI efforts. The fictional house was converted into a convalescent hospital. However, rather than champion the cause as Lady Almina had done, Lady Cora was a rather reluctant participant in the effort.
A few weeks ago I did a couple of posts about Spindletop Hall, the former mansion of oil heiress Pansy Yount (here, here, here and here). When the University of Kentucky bought the property in the 1960s, it converted the mansion into a club house. Most of the furniture, especially from the bedrooms, was no longer needed when the house was re-purposed. Some pieces were put into storage and others were removed from the house for use at other university properties.
The bedroom furniture that was designed for Pansy’s suite of rooms (sitting room, bedroom, dressing room and bathroom),was moved to Maxwell Place on UK’s campus, the home of the president of the university. In June of 2011, then President and Mrs. Lee Todd graciously allowed BGT deTours to tour both the public and private rooms of the house, including the bedroom that now boasts Pansy’s bedroom furniture.
Pansy’s suite of rooms was decorated in the French style of Louis XV and XVI. It featured beautifully detailed murals (many of which included the faces of Pansy and her daughter) hand-painted by an Italian artist who lived on-site during construction. The furniture meant for those rooms was hand-painted by the same artist.
Viewing images of the room and the furniture designed for it side by side makes it easy to imagine how luxurious and richly-detailed the suite was when Pansy lived at Spindletop. The overall effect is delicate, feminine, sophisticated and elegant.
Currently, the CEO of Spindletop is trying to collect pieces that were designed for the house so that they can be restored to the mansion. While the bed is probably a no-go for the club, it would be wonderful to see the vanity or chaise back in Pansy’s suite.
For more information about the history, architecture and interior design Spindletop Hall, check out its National Register of Historic Places nomination.
Yesterday, BGT deTours celebrated Halloween and Fire Safety month by touring the Old Episcopal Burying Ground and Lexington’s historic Fire Station #1. Check back next week for posts about these two Lexington treasures!
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news.
Architect Robert Verrier has helped to restore over 150 historic buildings using historic tax credits. In his post over at Preservation Nation, he discusses how historic preservation and tax credits boost the economy, encourage business, and are a savvy investment. Preservation can also buoy a community, revitalize neighborhoods, and it’s green! Be sure to check out his post to read more and to see examples of his beautiful work.
It seems like I’ve been talking a lot about public art here on Bricks + Mortar lately. Once I started thinking about its relationship to historic preservation, I just can’t stop. And I see it everywhere now. So I really loved this post over at heritagelandscapecreativity, which delves into the relationship between sculpture and archeology in Scotland. It highlights the piece, First Conundrum, based on geometrically refined neolithic Scottish stone spheres. The large scale replicas are as engaging as they are beautiful. Check it out! (See more photos here).
If you enjoyed this, this or this post about last month’s BGT deTour at Spindletop Hall, you should definitely pop over to the Kaintuckeean’s Flickr to see more photos from the behind the scenes tour!
The Saddlebred horses bred and trained at Spindletop Hall were award-winning. Rather than letting her trophies grow dusty on a shelf or stored away in the attic, Pansy Yount had them repurposed. The chandeliers that hung in her daughter Mildred’s sitting room and bedroom were made from large sterling silver trophies won by Pansy’s horses. They were damaged in a fire that gutted Mildred’s suite in the 1970s, but were carefully refurbished.
This is a continuation of deTour: Spindletop Hall. If you have checked out Part I, find it here!
Over the Top Interiors
In addition to the innovative use of materials and technology, Spindletop featured unique and opulent interiors. Each room was decorated with authentic and reproduction elements to reflect a different historical period. This interesting choice of interior design may have been inspired by the DuPont estate in Delaware, Winterthur.
Most of Spindletop’s original furniture was removed to accommodate the functions of the club (and some of it was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s). According to Marvel, they are slowly re-accumulating original pieces with the hope of returning them to their proper place. Except for the original custom hand-woven wall to wall rugs that were located in each room, and the suite that was gutted by fire, most of the house’s original interior details like hand molded plaster ceilings, murals, wood work, etc. are intact today. Deferred maintenance has caused water damage to moldings and paneling in some rooms, but management is working to fix these problems and repair any damage.
The grand entrance hall brought the Georgian Revival exterior inside. It features a mantel and molded ceiling in the Georgian style. A hand-woven carpet mimicked the pattern of the ceiling. Fret-work in the ceiling and walls of the ovular room were designed to carry the sound of the Kimball organ.
The library was decorated in the Tudor style and included a stone mantel salvaged from an English estate, a hammer-beam ceiling, Gothic oak paneling and Gothic arched windows and doors. The porter-cochere off the library was oriented to the setting sun. Every evening, the sun sets behind an ornate wrought iron window cut into the wall of the porter-cochere and through the library’s opened double doors. Scenes from the Disney film Secretariat were filmed in this room.
The 30×60 foot living room (the largest in Kentucky when constructed!) is Elizabethan. The walls are hand carved oak panels. The paneling is incomplete due to the untimely death of artisan. A Flemish Renaissance tapestry from the 16th century hides the missing panels. The ceiling was reproduced from an Elizabethan room in an English country house. The imported salvaged mantel is carved with the motto, “East, West, Home is Best.”
The French Powder Room had a marquetry floor, a French mirror and French furnishings. The draperies were Louis XV silk brocade and were made in Lyon. Paintings of French courtesans once decorated the walls.
The William and Mary Music Room has burled mahogany (or according to recent controversy, burled walnut) paneling and plaster moldings. The original draperies were a William and Mary design. The ceiling is decorated with plaster molding with a musical motif including harps. A climate controlled niche once stored a world-renowned collection of Stradivarius violins collected by Frank Yount for Mildred. The organ is located in the music room, as well as the Welte, which is housed within a hand-painted lacquer Chinoiserie cabinet.
The dining room is painted Adam green with gold leaf outlining the panels. The ceiling has a Georgian patter of scrolls and flowers. The motif was once mimicked by the design of the carpet. Currently, the oak floors are exposed. The circa 1770 mantel was imported from England. The dining room has a niche for the display of china and two automated swinging doors (with an electric eye! It and the doors still work! and, ahem, are quite startling if you don’t realize they are there…), which was another state-of-the art technology at Spindletop.
Many of the rooms feature murals painted by a resident artist (and rumored lover of Pansy) from Italy. Many of the paintings and custom textiles incorporate the image or initials of Pansy, Mildred, or Spindletop Hall.
The basement was used for casual entertainment as well as utilitarian purposes. It included the Saddlebred Lounge, a horse themed den. All of the original furnishings are still in the lounge. Currently, the art displayed was painted by Elizabeth Shatner, William Shatner’s wife. Before the installation of the elevator, a gentleman’s lounge with humidor, shoe shine, valet, etc was adjacent to the lounge. The New Orleans Ballroom, also off the lounge featured an octagonal wooden floor designed to keep you dancing without the slightest fatigue all night long. A butcher shop and climate controlled fur storage room were also in the basement.
And if that wasn’t enough- the grounds!
Despite the personal touches on textiles and in murals the house, the hobbies and personality of Mrs. Yount were most evident in the design of the grounds. She was an avid animal lover (a grooming room was located in the basement, along with accommodations for guests’ pets!), gardener and indulgent mother. The auxiliary buildings dotting the property reflect her interests. She was mocked for locating her private stable mere yards from the main house, but wanted them nearby for her daughter. Her kennels, which were also located near the main house, sported fashionable pagoda roofs and bordered her Japanese inspired garden. She also had several aviaries constructed near the kennels. She constructed a pool with a bath house and tennis courts.
But the most unusual landscape element for a mansion of its size and opulence is the eight feet tall chain link fence that surrounds the entire property. When Mr. Yount died, Mildred inherited half of her father’s estate making her one of the wealthiest children in the United States. Terrified of a kidnapping attempt (possibly because the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 was still fresh in her mind), Mrs. Yount had the security fence installed around the property.
Thank you to the BGT and to Mr. Marvel for such a thorough and wonderful tour! By the oohs and aahs from the crowd that gathered for the evening, I know they enjoyed this deTour as much as I did!