Built in 1805 as a farmhouse the Marsh Billings Rockefeller House in Woodstock, Vermont, was the boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s early environmentalists and the author of Man and Nature (1864) the first documented work on the effects humans have on the environment.
In 1869 Frederick and Julia Billings purchased the house and the surrounding 550 acres. Although Billings, third generation Vermonter, made his fortune as president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, he was an ardent conservationist and avid admirer of Marsh’s theories.
Appalled at how the landscape in his native Vermont had been stripped of lumber he began a program of reforestation on his property. Billings lobbied Congress to protect America’s landscapes through the creation of a national park system. He planted thousands of Norway spruce, white pine, maple and European larch trees on his land and the surrounding mountains.
Billings was also a progressive farmer. With his manager George Aitken he developed a breed of prize-winning Jersey cattle on his 220 acre farm, what is now Billings Farm and Museum.
Mary French Rockefeller, the Billings’ granddaughter inherited the property in 1955. She and her husband Laurance Rockefeller were committed conservationists and continued stewardship of the house and land for thirty-eight years before turning them over to the National Park Service.
They founded the Woodstock Foundation that protects the farm and keeps it as an operating dairy farm and a living museum of Vermont’s agricultural past.
Shortly after purchasing the house Billings hired architect William Ralph Emerson to transform it from a single Federal style farmhouse into an elegant Stick Style mansion. Noted Boston landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland author of Country Life; A Handbook of Agriculture, Horticulture and Landscape Gardening designed the formal gardens in the English landscape style, curving driveways with trees set out singly or in small groups. To maintain the property’s natural look Copeland preserved the glacial borders along the lawn.
The existing fountain and benches were designed in 1899 by Charles A. Platt, member of the Cornish Art Colony started by Augustus Saint Gaudens in Cornish New Hampshire. In 1913 Ellen Biddle Shipman, one of the first female landscape architects and a colleague of Platt’s, redesigned the formal gardens bringing in perennial beds of bell flowers, delphiniums, bleeding hearts and ligularia varieties.
The Billings Farm and Museum has kept the kitchen garden as it was when planted in 1899 by the Aitkin family. Even to growing some of the same vegetables they would have planted; black seeded Simpson lettuce and yellow crook necked squash.
In 1885 architect Henry Hudson Holly gave the house the Queen Anne style it has today. The twenty eight rooms reflect classic Queen Anne features, rounded arches centered with keystones, dentil moldings, and oak woodwork and parquet floors. The wallpaper and furnishings are original to the Billings and Rockefeller families, 19th century Victorian blended with 1960’s contemporary.
Frederick and Julia Billings collected works by American landscape painters. The house has the largest private collection (twenty-four) of Hudson River School paintings in the country. The school’s founder, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and member artists such as Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) advocated for the preservation of America’s natural beauty.
National Park Service Ranger Tim Maguire describes the work of the Hudson River School painters this way; “Environmental paintings such as those done by the Hudson River School artists promoted protection of the American landscapes. Over a 50-year period 1825 to 1875 Hudson River School painters became the benchmark of American art. These painters believed that nature is the way you see God. They were advocates for the preservation of nature in America. There were three important keys to their paintings; pastoral, picturesque, sublime. Pastoral – tranquil, calming, physiological response, picturesque – English style, rugged, dark, deep forests, sublime – monument of nature, awesome, Yosemite and Niagara Falls.”
In the downstairs front hall is Thomas Cole’s Niagara Falls he captured the falls with the natural beauty that surrounded it in 1830. In the library Cole’s Tower by Moonlight (1838) depicts a couple picnicking against a backdrop of crumbling ruins and a coffin with a skeleton on top conveying the message that life and nature are short lived. Complementing it on the opposite wall is David Johnson’s Study, Harbor Island, Lake George, (1871) where Johnson has captured the brilliant details of the lake’s shoreline.
Bierstadt’s Cathedral Rock, Yosemite (1870) dominates the downstairs parlor. Three more of his works can be found in the library and study; Cliff House and Bay of San Francisco (1872) is a departure from his usual landscape scenes in that he painted the Cliff House enveloped in fog, The Matterhorn (1870) and Scenery in the Grand Tetons (late 1860’s) were purchased by Laurance Rockefeller.
In 1886 Frederick and Julia commissioned Tiffany and Company to design two stained glass windows to their specifications; a Merchant of Venice themed one for the parlor and another for the library Passing the Torch of Knowledge depicting hands passing a lighted torch that they felt symbolized their commitment to preservation.
The Billings’ and Rockefellers’ passion for land conservation is protected in the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park created by an act of Congress in 1992.