Reflections, Travels

Cumberland Island – History meets modernity

Large areas of Cumberland Island were deeded to the National Parks Foundation by members or heirs of the Carnegie family in 1971. Other lands in private ownership were purchased with funds provided by the Mellon Foundation and Congress, and in 1972 Cumberland Island was designated a national seashore. A small number of property owners still own houses on the southern, western and northern regions of the island. Some have sold their property to the National Park Service (NPS), with an agreement that retains their ownership and full property rights during their lifetime. Eventually, this property will become part of the Cumberland Island park.

Part of the Carnegie property donated to the NPS was Plum Orchard. Built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son George and his new bride Margaret Thaw, the 22,000 sq ft classical revival mansion was designed by Peabody and Sterns of Boston and used only as a winter house.

Following George’s death in 1921, his widow left for Europe and remarried to a French count. The house was then occupied by George’s sister, Nancy Carnegie Johnston. Much of the original furniture was sold and furniture from the grander Dungeness 7.5 miles off the southern tip of the island was brought in.

In tribute to their Scottish roots, prominently located upon entering through the front doors across the grand foyer is an inglenook – a cozy chimney corner with seating next to the fireplace.

The herringbone flooring is made from the finest oak, two inches thick with no knots and pieced together without nails. In somewhat of an odd choice, the wallpaper – seem throughout the mansion – is painted burlap stenciled with golden stylized lions. Perhaps the burlap lends a rustic country air to this otherwise luxurious house.

Opulence continues in the adjourning ladies library on the left, decorated with Tiffany lotus flower silk wallpaper and a four-season Tiffany lamp with a set of four interchangeable lamp shades signifying Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.

The moose is a exact replacement for the one killed by Margaret on a hunting trip in Canada that had hung in the same place.

Proceeding across the hallway with bookshelves displaying the intriguing objects to be found on Cumberland Islands – the bookshelves had never held any books – one reaches the gentlemen’s gun room.

Devoid of guns now, the room nonetheless boosts an impressive collection of original decor fixtures from imposing taxidermy mounts to a pair of immaculate Tiffany lights evocative of loggerhead turtle shells on the outsides and oysters within.

Not pictured is a grand piano that the NPS actively encourages visitors to play on – to help keep it better in tune.

In similar fashion, the upstairs living quarters contains original clothing from the Carnegie family members who once lived here. As told by our tour guide, once a year, NPS employees and volunteers are allowed to select their favorite pieces to wear for the annual festivities held in the mansion.

Additionally, a few of the rooms have been retrofitted with modern amenities including air conditioning for volunteers to live in full time. In this, I was reminded of Kentuck Knob and Polymath Park, where historical preservation coexist in harmony with the act of “living”.  It seems to be a quite “modern” phenomena, this roping off of objects of significance to better conserve its historical importance. While I do believe there is value in maintaining places like Versailles, and Plum Orchard, as studies in human greed, achievements, and progress; this doesn’t mean these structures should sit empty only to be seen and admired but not used. As we all know, a house not lived in is much quicker to succumb to the damages of natural deterioration.  Why do we spend so much public resources to safeguard something that no one but researchers can have access to? Why not invest so that everyone can have a chance to experience history rather than simply glimpse at it?

In the case of Plum Orchard, it is interesting to note as well that as Cumberland Island was / is shaping into a national wilderness area, Sierra Club representative Bill Harlan once wrote “40,000 people come from across the country and across the globe to Cumberland because it is wild. . . . They visit Cumberland because they want to experience wilderness—not to see the mansion of Andrew Carnegie’s brother’s fifth son George, [a] mansion built less than a hundred years ago and of limited regional historical significance. The international significance of the Cumberland wilderness outweighs any historical value at Plum.” [Cumberland Island National Seashore – A History of Conservation Conflict]

On the opposing side, Georgia historic preservationist Gregory Paxton offers a different prescription: “There is more to Cumberland Island than wilderness. An indelible 5,000-year history of human habitation is written on the Island’s landscape, and the evidence is everywhere, from the Native American burial grounds and shell middens to the crumbling chimney pots and tabby ruins, from the circa-1870 freed slave settlements to the large estates with numerous outbuildings. These tangible traces of Georgia’s history need to be protected along with the areas that have grown wild around them.”

The dueling sentiments poses great food for thought – historical conservation versus wilderness preservation – which is of greater significance?

Going back to the tour of Plum Orchard, it is telling that in a time when indoor plumbing was barely heard of, each of the 14 rooms has its own bathroom complete with sink, toilet, bathtub and steam heated towel rack!

Anyone with a keen eye for detail will note also that aside from a handle for hot and cold water and a third for the shower head, there’s a forth for shampoo.

A door in the hallway opened to the other side of the house. Painted in Carnegie gold, this was the servant’s side.  Even the door knob on the two sides are different – the “family” side is of blown crystal, while the servant side is of cut glass – underneath appearances, penny pinching cut across all socio-economic classes.

From the servants side, one can descend down into the kitchens….

…which leads into the plating area where the food is tastefully placed on exquisite china.

If you are wondering why the high-end Tennessee marbled sink in this area…the windows look out to the patio, so guests could potentially peek into the room. It all goes back to appearances.

From here the food would be brought in through the door to the dining room, which is to the right of the main parlor and thus a full circle around the mansion.

Or so you’ld think, but there’s more!

The mansion also boosts a 9 foot deep swimming pool and an indoor squash tennis court.

Lucy Carnegie didn’t shy away either from the new technological wonders of the time and she had the money to pay for them to be installed on Cumberland Island. Plum Orchard was electrified with it own coal powered steam turbine and generator. At first Edison had tried extending a cable from Dungeness, but by the time it reached Plum Orchard, it was only able to power two light bulbs. An electrician lived onsite to ensure that the generator ran at all hours providing electricity; and subsequently had two gas generators installed to outwit his masters.

In addition, the mansion was equipped with a water-powered elevator built by Otiz, it’s own telephone line which could dial up all the Carnegie residences on the island and an ice maker.

Ice in that time was a show of wealth. Before electricity and the ability to make ice, Lucy Carnegie would send her clipper ship up to Maine every winter to carry back ice, which was stored in the ice house near Dungeness and ensure that there was ice year-round for all sorts of delectable frozen treats.

All good things come to and end. Lucy Carnegie before her death had taken various steps to forestall any acts of irresponsibility among her nine children and keep intact Cumberland Island and the family fortune. In 1912, she set up a complex trust consisting of two major parts. The first ordered that the Carnegie office building in Pittsburgh be rented and the income from this used to maintain the island estate for her heirs. Any residual annual income was to be distributed among the surviving children. The second part prevented those heirs from dividing or selling any island land until the death of her last child unless they unanimously agreed to do so. The trustees were to be the five oldest children or a bonded, professional trust officer.

Through the ensuing years, the whims of different Carnegie family members would lead to the construction of roads, gardens, a golf course and an airfield on the island. As industrialization moved forward and trust income dwindled, it became clear that no combination of economic activities on the island itself came close to offsetting the cost of maintaining the elaborate and aging infrastructure of the idyllic retreat.

Lucy’s last surviving child Florence Carnegie Perkins died on April 15, 1962. During the three years before Florence’s death, the family worked out a plan to divide the island among its five branches. Each branch could then further divide its land among its members.

Cumberland Island National Seashore – A History of Conservation Conflict offers great insight on the intrigue and entanglements surrounding the gradual acquisition by the NPS of the various parcels on Cumberland Island through donations, land sells with differing degrees of retained rights, and condemnations in the 1970s.

What I like to note though is that the world today is still in many ways a world shaped by the rich for their own playground. One of the parcels that remain in the Carnegie family is Greyfield. As stated on their website “The home was converted to an inn in 1962 by Margaret’s daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, and her family. The Carnegie family still oversees the Inn, which exudes the romance and luxury of a grand hotel with the hospitality and charm of a family home. Greyfield Inn’s private setting boasts 200-acres of unspoiled land spanning marshland on the west and ocean to the east. ” With nightly rates in the 500s, the Inn no doubt benefits greatly from the surrounding conservation efforts of the publicly funded NPS.

At nearby Stafford, though the estate has been formally donated, Lucy Carnegie Sprague Rice maintains  lifetime right of use to the estate along with driving rights on the beach and apparently the airfield as well. The small, private plane can be heard and seen occasionally flying above the island.

Perhaps summing it up best is Cumberland Island resident and Candler heir William C. Warren [of the northern, non-Carnegie part of the island] who wrote: “I believe a wilderness has, virtually, no roads, no houses, no airstrips, no docks, no permanent human habitation, no fences, etc., etc., and this cannot and will not happen in my lifetime or yours. As long as there are retained rights to be honored, there can be no true ‘wilderness’ or ‘potential wilderness’ as I define it. Time is on the ‘wilderness’ advocates[‘] side — it will be 80 years and they will have it all — until then they’ll have to put up with those that made all this possible.”

Indeed, those that made it possible, those who refused to gave up on their way of life and either made money selling the property to the government and/or negotiated retained rights, those whose names are and will be associated with their “generosity” in creation of this wilderness area. Sometimes the world can seem a tad unjust indeed.

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