An American Treasure
The History of Blairsden
Designed and constructed between 1897 and 1903, with later alterations, Blairsden was the magnificent country home of the family of C. Ledyard Blair, a New York financier, sportsman and commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Blair was a grandson of self-made multimillionaire, philanthropist and Princeton University trustee and benefactor John Insley Blair, who made his fortune in mining and building much of America's railroad system.
Hailed as a feat of design, engineering and state-of-the-art technology, Blairsden is one of the finest examples of Beaux-arts architecture in the United States, a remarkable fusion of architecture and landscape design. It is a masterpiece of the renowned and influential New York architecture firm of Carrère and Hastings, which also designed the iconic New York Public Library and the Frick mansion, now museum, in New York; the original United States Senate and House office buildings in Washington; as well as commercial buildings, libraries, academic structures, churches, and theaters in America and beyond. The firm was also noted for its country and urban residences for many prominent American families, including the du Ponts, Flaglers, Harrimans, Aldriches and Sloanes.
The Gardens and Grounds
Blairsden's gardens and grounds were the collaborative vision of Carrère and Hastings and landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf. Trained as a civil engineer before turning to landscape design, Greenleaf got his first important landscape commission in the late 1890s working with the Olmsted Brothers firm in transforming James B. Duke's vast acreage in Hillsborough Township into a park-like estate. Later, as a member of the National Commission of Fine Arts, Greenleaf was instrumental in the landscape designs for the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the United States military cemeteries established in Europe after World War I. In addition to Blairsden, Greenleaf's landscape work in the Somerset Hills enhanced the Upton Pyne, Pennbrook, and Wendover estates.
At Blairsden, Carrère and Hastings and Greenleaf created a formal Italianate hillside landscape. From the top, a stone and brick rampe douce led down from the main terrace to the orangerie below, with its arched French doors. From there, parallel rows of steps, separated by flowering plants and a gurgling rill of water, led further downhill to a pool and fountain, beyond which were four long sections of ramps paved with small blue and white stones set in a symmetrical mosaic pattern. Lined on both sides by trimmed privet hedges, lawn and tall native red cedars, the whole design formed a dramatic axial allée running from the house down the steep hillside toward Ravine Lake.
The twenty formally landscaped acres around the house also included a large rose garden with pools overlooked by a brick and lattice summer pavilion, an intimate walled garden with fountain adjacent to the main house, wisteria-crowned arbors overlooking the lake, and extensive waterworks including pools, fountains, cascades, and water jets. To create the instant look of a mature landscape, more than seventy-five full-grown trees up to sixty feet tall were moved to the site by wagons pulled by teams of sixteen horses.
The Blair Family
C. Ledyard Blair built Blairsden as a grand country retreat for his family and as the quintessential estate for lavish entertaining. Guests enjoyed elaborate parties, luxurious guest rooms, miles of bridle paths and coaching roads, tennis courts, an indoor squash court, "plunge" pool and Turkish bath, acres of formal terraced gardens with extensive waterworks, a hilltop belvedere with fireplace for cooler days, and swimming and boating on Ravine Lake at the foot of the hill.
Blair and his wife, Florence Osborne Jennings, had four daughters, all of whom had wedding ceremonies or receptions at Blairsden, with private trains transporting guests from New York City. Members of New York's elite Coaching Club and Ladies' Four-in-Hand Driving Club made several visits to the estate, often on Blair's handsome road coach, the "Defiance," pulled by a team of four matched horses.
Ledyard Blair occupied Blairsden until his death, in 1949. The 500-acre estate was then divided up, with the mansion sold to the Sisters of St. John the Baptist, who operated it as a retreat center. In 2002 the home returned to private ownership.
Today, visitors approach Blairsden on a mile-long private drive that winds its way through formal as well as farm elements of the original estate up to the hilltop, where the mansion and terraces afford an expansive view over Ravine Lake to the countryside beyond. Approaching the home's impressive carved limestone entrance façade, guests pass along a 300-foot-long reflecting pool lined by busts of the first twelve Roman Caesars and sheltered by large maple trees.
Entrance to the mansion is through tall, carved outer wooden doors and heavy bronze-framed inner doors lined with thick plate glass. Once inside, the view is down a long cross hall with walls of carved French limestone, off of which are located the home's principal rooms and an elegant curving limestone double stairway complemented by a sterling silver and bronze chandelier. The house features 14-foot ceilings with elaborate plaster moldings and pilasters; paneling of walnut, oak and mahogany; more than two dozen fireplaces, each adorned with uniquely detailed mantels of wood, marble or carved limestone; and tooled leather-covered walls in the billiard room.
Blairsden History courtesy of W. Barry Thomson,
co-author of the two-volume work,
New Jersey Country Houses: The Somerset Hills
Color rendering of Blairsden: Courtesy of Country Life, A Magazine for the
Home-maker in the Country, Volume XXXV, 1919, Doubleday, Page & Company.
Portrait of C. Ledyard Blair: Courtesy of an anonymous lender.
Gardens and Grounds: Courtesy of a Blair Family descendant.
Hillside Landscape: Courtesy of an anonymous lender.
C. Ledyard Blair with daughters: Courtesy of New Jersey Country Houses, The Somerset Hills, volume 1, by John K. Turpin and W. Barry Thomson, 2004, Mountain Colony Press.
Bust of Caesar: Courtesy of Prudence Pigott.
Front Entrance: Courtesy of Scott Seibold.