Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Colonel Robert J. Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York

Fig. 1  View of Saratoga Springs, New York, engraving by Laurent
Deroy after Jacques-GĂ©rard Milbert. Lithograph, c.1828-1829.
New York Public Library, New York, NY
Long before Saratoga Springs became in the nineteenth century a thriving and fashionable resort frequented by the wealthy who took advantage of the mineral waters produced by the many natural springs, the area was an unexplored and inaccessible wilderness familiar to only the Mohawk Indians.  Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indians in North America, was one of the first white men to venture into the densely wooded landscape to partake of the salubrious waters described by the Indians as “medicine spring.”  Regularly bothered by an old war wound and plagued by chronic gout, Sir William in 1767 braved the wilderness with a party of Indians in the hope that the seemingly magical waters would relieve him of his ailments.

Fig. 2  Congress Spring and three hotels, Saratoga
Springs, New York. Stereoview, c.1875. New York
Public Library, New York, NY
A small number of adventurous pioneers who were attracted by the mineral springs settled in the area in the 1770s and constructed crude dwellings that provided accommodation for travelers brave enough to venture into the undeveloped territory.  Others arrived after the Revolutionary War, including Gideon Putnam, the founder of the village of Saratoga Springs.  Putnam settled in the area in 1789 and established a successful lumber business.  After recognizing the potential of the mineral springs as a popular draw for tourists, he excavated and tubed several springs and then erected in 1802 a three-story frame tavern and boarding house, regarded as the earliest "hotel" in Saratoga Springs (fig. 1).  In the first half of the nineteenth century, other hotels appeared and many evolved into the grand and luxurious establishments for which Saratoga Springs  was renowned during the Victorian  years (fig. 2).
Fig  3. View of the Colonel Robert James Milligan House, Saratoga
Springs, New York. Oil on canvas, after 1856. Brooklyn Museum
of Art, Brooklyn, NY

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Saratoga Springs became one of the most fashionable resort towns in the United States, lumber entrepreneur Colonel Robert James Milligan (1799-1867) built his elegant new house at 102 Circular Street (fig. 3), just a few blocks away from Congress Spring Park.  A son of Captain James Milligan (1767-1826), Robert was born and raised at Milligan Hill, a tract of land located along the highway between Saratoga Springs and Schuylerville. His family settled in the area in the late eighteenth century. At a young age, Robert left the Milligan homestead and embarked on a career in the lumber industry.  His successful business extended into the wooded areas of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Fig. 4  John G. Taggart (American, 1820-1871),
Colonel Robert James Milligan, 1851-1852. Oil on
canvas. Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY

Fig. 5  John G. Taggart (American, 1820-1871), Mrs.
Robert James Milligan, 1851-1852. Oil on canvas.
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
On November 24, 1846, Robert J. Milligan (fig. 4) married Hannah S. Fletcher (1809-1881) of Kingsbury, New York (fig. 5).  They had five children, four of whom died in infancy.  Robert Fletcher Milligan (1855-1937) was the only child to survive into adulthood.

A number of impressive houses owned by prominent Saratoga families already lined Circular Street when Colonel Milligan began construction of his brick residence in 1854.  An early historian of Saratoga County described the houses along the main thoroughfares of Broadway, Phila Street, Washington Street and Circular Street as "models of architectural beauty, affording in their construction rare specimens of modern decorative art." Completed in 1856, Milligan's two-and-one-half-story Italianate house featured pedimented windows on the main facade, a frieze with brackets under the eaves, an entrance portico surmounted by a cresting of anthemia and palmettes and a cupola rising from the roof (fig. 3).  The house was designed and constructed by Hiram Owen, a carpenter and master builder who settled in Saratoga Springs in 1838. The Milligan residence was Owen's first important project.  He later superintended the construction of other significant buildings in Saratoga Springs, including Congress Hall.

The design reflected a certain degree of conservatism in its strictly symmetrical plan and facade, which harked back to the balance and symmetry characteristic of Greek Revival houses built in the 1830s and 1840s.  In the mid-nineteenth century, many builders followed the lead of architects who subscribed to the design principles associated with the recently introduced aesthetic of the picturesque, which emphasized asymmetry and irregular outlines. Also somewhat anachronistic from an architectural standpoint are the projecting center pavilion with pediment and Palladian-type window on the entrance front, elements typically associated with Georgian houses built a century earlier.

The plan of the first floor of the Milligan house consisted of a center entrance hall flanked on either side by two rooms.  The parlor and library stood on one side of the hall, the dining room and another room on the opposite side.  Extending from the back of the main part of the house was a small wing, or "ell," that contained the kitchen and other service areas.

In the Victorian era, the parlor was a formal room used for receiving visitors and entertaining guests while the library served as the family sitting room.  The parlor was typically larger and more elaborately decorated than the library.

In the late nineteenth century, the Milligans' parlor was photographed from the library, through the open pocket doors that separated the two rooms (fig. 6).  The view shows an interior that was furnished and decorated several decades earlier. It appears that the family did not update the room as the years passed and new decorating styles came into fashion.  Consequently, the image depicts the parlor much as it appeared in 1856 after completion of the decoration and furnishing.

Fig. 6  Parlor. Colonel Robert James Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph, c.1880-1900. Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
The objects visible in the photograph indicate that the Milligans observed the dictates of fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Rococo Revival style was prescribed for the decoration and furnishings of the parlor, the most important room in the home.  With its emphasis on voluptuous curves and delicate decoration of flowers and scrolling leaves, the Rococo Revival style had a lighthearted, feminine quality that perfectly suited the room where the lady of the house presided over visitors and guests.

Fig. 7  Parlor. Congress Hall, Saratoga Springs, New York.
Stereoview, c.1870. New York Public Library, New York, NY
In the middle of the nineteenth century, many upper- and middle-class American families took their cue for decorating the parlor from the well-appointed saloons in steamboats and parlors in hotels.  These public parlors featured wall-to-wall carpeting, elaborate window treatments consisting of lace undercurtains and main curtains of patterned silk or wool, and matched sets of furniture comprising sofas, armchairs and side chairs with attractive upholstery fabrics and trims.  The village of Saratoga Springs, which was rife with grand hotels containing modish public parlors, provided many models to guide the homeowner in the selection of tasteful parlor decorations and furnishings (fig. 7).

Hannah Milligan fortuitously saved the bills of sale for the furniture and decorations that she and her husband purchased for the parlor.  Consequently, the Milligan parlor is an extremely well-documented interior from the middle of the nineteenth century. The dates of the receipts indicate that the parlor was decorated and furnished 1855-1856.

In the view of the Milligan parlor can be seen the elegant suite of Rococo Revival carved rosewood furniture purchased by the family in 1856 from the cabinetmaking firm of Elijah Galusha, a prominent furniture maker active in Troy, New York, from 1828 to 1870.  The suite consists of a sofa, armchair, bergere, four side chairs and a center table.  The seating furniture appears to be upholstered in a silk damask, reportedly cherry red in color.

The matched set is supplemented by other chairs in different styles, including an Elizabethan Revival reception chair with needlework upholstery, seen on the left side of the room near the sofa, and a pair of delicate rosewood side chairs with turned spindles in the backs, one standing in front of the left pocket door and the other before a window on the right side of the parlor.  The two rosewood chairs were manufactured by the Troy cabinetmaking firm of Daniels and Hitchins.  The same firm also supplied to the Milligans a set of mahogany nesting tables most likely placed in the parlor and a rosewood child's chair that would have been used by Robert F. Milligan when he was a young boy.

While the carved marble Rococo Revival mantelpiece was obtained from the New York City firm of Murphy and Dimond, the elaborate wall-to-wall tapestry Wilton carpet was purchased in Albany from the "City Carpet Store" of John Van Gaasbeek. The carpet's bold Rococo Revival design, consisting of a dense mass of swirling leaves, flowers and scrolls, contrasted with the plain plaster walls painted a light color.  Not visible in the photograph is an elaborate Rococo Revival gilt overmantel mirror with molded gesso decoration of scrolls, leaves, and clusters of grapes made by the Albany firm of James Burton and Company, manufacturers and retailers of looking glasses.

The marble top of the center table is arranged with a stack of books as well as with a gas table lamp connected by means of an India rubber hose to the six-branch gas chandelier hanging above.  In the mid-nineteenth century, the center table served as the focal point of the parlor, drawing all other furniture within its sphere. As the Milligan parlor illustrates, sofas and other large pieces of furniture were placed along the perimeter of the room while chairs stood in the middle, encircling the center table.

The room does not appear to contain many decorative objects, although most likely the mantelpiece, which is out of view, was arranged with a combination of items including girandoles, vases and perhaps a mantel clock.

Close inspection of the photograph reveals that the windows are hung not only with lace curtains but also with window shades, described as "roller blinds" in the nineteenth century.  Most likely made of linen, the shades are either stenciled or printed with a decorative border.  The most costly window shades in the nineteenth century featured a combination of stenciled and free-hand painted decoration. A much less expensive alternative was "curtain papers," which were paper window shades with patterns printed by machine.  The absence of heavy window curtains implies that the photograph was taken during the summer months.  In the Victorian period, curtains made of silk or wool fabrics, with linings and interlinings, were removed for the summer to allow air to flow through open windows.  The lightweight lace curtains and roller blinds, which hung under the heavy main curtains for most of the year, were left in place during the warm season to provide privacy and to control the amount of sunlight that entered the room.  Each window frame is mounted at the top with a Rococo Revival gilt and silvered stamped sheet-brass window cornice purchased from  Kelly Brothers.

Paintings in gilt frames with molded gesso decoration are suspended from silk cords hung on exposed picture nails with decorative porcelain heads.  The framed pictures provide some visual relief from the monotony of the plain walls.

Fig. 8  Portrait of Robert Fletcher Milligan.
Photograph, c.1915. Brooklyn Museum of
Art, Brooklyn, NY
When Hannah Milligan died in 1881, fourteen years after the passing of her husband, her son Robert F. Milligan (fig. 8) became owner of the house. Three years earlier Robert married Georgianna Stewart (fig. 9). The couple had three children: Robert F. Milligan, Jr., who died in early childhood, Kate S. Milligan and Sarah F. Milligan. Robert was a leading citizen of Saratoga Springs, becoming mayor of the village in 1882 when he was only twenty-seven years of age. In 1901, he was appointed cashier of the First National Bank of Saratoga.  Both he and his wife Georgianna resided at 102 Circular Street until their deaths in the 1930s.

Fig. 9  Portrait of Georgianna Stewart
Milligan. Photograph, c.1895. Brooklyn
Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY

The last Milligan to occupy the house was Robert and Georgianna's daughter Sarah Milligan, who sold to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1940 the architectural elements and furnishings in the parlor and library.  The museum installed the Milligans' mid-nineteenth-century rooms in the American galleries, where they became part of a sequence of American historic interiors, or period rooms, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The parlor and library are still on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Sarah Milligan continued to live in the house until 1944, when she sold the property to a local doctor.  In the 1990s, the former Robert J. Milligan residence was fully restored and continues to stand proudly at the corner of Circular and Phila Streets.