The Cottager: Butler lived in 'frosty isolation' at Linwood
Photo Gallery | The Cottager: Linwood
STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — Joseph Choate, the famed attorney who built Naumkeag, is often remembered by his colleagues and friends for his sense of humor and his witty banter. The same could not be said about his law partner, Charles E. Butler.
When writing a his memoirs, "A Happy Profession," Ellery Sedgwick, a former editor of "The Atlantic Monthly," wrote the following about Butler: "High above the long reaches of wandering river, stood Linwood. There in frosty isolation lived my Uncle Butler, ogre of my childhood ... In a child's ears at least, his humor had no mirth."
His descriptions of Linwood, the former estate of Charles E. Butler and Susan Ridley Sedgwick Butler, differ little from the picture he paints of his uncle. Linwood is "a cold, stone house, decorated with marble statuary, with marbleized wallpaper to set it off ..."
Ellery Sedgwick was not alone in his description of Uncle Butler, as other Sedgwicks described him as "arrogant, stern and just," in their writings.
The observations of Butler's nieces and nephews fit the image that Tom Daly, curator of education at the Norman Rockwell Museum, has of the man whose "cottage" now hosts the museum's administrative offices.
"Charles Butler is an interesting figure. He didn't go to law school to become a lawyer," Daly said. "When he was a young man in New York City, two lawyers [brothers David P. Hall and Preston Hall] invited him to join their law firm. One lawyer said if you join my office, you will get rich within a few years through real estate speculation. The other lawyer said if you join my office, you will become a lawyer with no opportunity for speculation."
Butler, 19, chose the later and went to work for Preston Hall. He eventually became a partner in the law firm, where he regularly worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week. Butler took over the firm when Hall retired in 1840 and would turn it into one of the most prestigious practices in New York City.
Four years prior to Hall's retirement, Butler married his first wife, Louisa Clinch, the daughter of a wealthy New York City merchant. She would die the day after the birth of their sixth child, leaving him with four daughters and two sons. (His daughter Helen would purchase 260 acres, including Monument Mountain, in 1899 and deed it to the Trustees of Reservations in memory of his eldest daughter, Rosalie.)
His second wife, Susan Ridley Sedgwick Butler, would introduce him to Stockbridge, where her family had deep roots. In 1858, at the age of 40, Butler retired from active practice and decided to build a house on 80 acres adjacent to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's farm in Stockbridge. (The retirement lasted a total of two years.)
"We believe Linwood was designed by Calvert Vaux," Daly said. "We haven't confirmed it, but we know that it was at least inspired by a Vaux design. It is very similar to Idlewild, the home of poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, a family friend."
Linwood was completed in 1859 and the family, which now included a seventh child would move in. The couple would have three children of their own: Charles, Henrietta and Robert. Henrietta would die in infancy, while Charles and Robert would die just months apart in April and June of 1866. A marble statue of the boys still marks their final resting spot in the Sedgwick Pie, the family graveyard at the back of the Stockbridge Cemetery.
Butler may not have been as beloved as Choate, whose house was built on the opposite hill, but his generosity did not go unnoticed in the hometown of his second wife's family. The town's records make note of several instances of Butler and another law partner, Charles Southmayd (who purchased Longfellow's farm and built his own mansion), paying out of pocket to fix a bridge or make road repairs. Their generosity often benefited their own needs as well.
"Butler even paid for a bridge to be built, to shorten his commute from the train station by at least a mile," Daly said, as we strolled toward the Housatonic River during a recent visit.
The bridge, which is known as Butler Bridge, still stands, although it can no longer bear the weight of a horse-drawn carriage or modern car.
"It's not unusual to see engineering students down there studying the bridge," he said.
According to the Historic American Engineering Records of the National Park Service, the bridge was designed and built by George S. Morison, "an engineer of international standing, famed for his long-span railroad bridges across the Missouri and Mississippi, and his pioneering use of steel in those structures." Morison was a close personal friend of Butler and Southmayd, having worked for their law firm for few years.
As we walk up the long, overgrown driveway that once brought visitors to the property, Linwood rises in the distance. It's unpolished marble exterior making it a subtle sight as it looms in the distance. Although two wooden porches were removed from the exterior, its original ice house and bath house still exist inside a walled courtyard in the back.
Although the upper floors are now offices, several rooms of the first floor retain their original appearance, altered only by the descendants that inherited the house prior to its sale to the museum by Josephine Musgrave, widow of Percy Musgrave Jr., in 1983. Astronaut F. Story Musgrave, whose mother was a descendent of Butler, grew up in the house.
"Only the double parlor, the library and the dining room would have been public," Daly said, pointing out a spot where a heavy door should be. "The rest of the house would have been for the family only."
The gothic revival-style house, which was one of the first summer cottages, may not be as grand as those that followed, but touches of the Gilded Age still sparkle in the details of its rooms. A vaulted ceiling, made entirely of gold leaf, still hovers overhead in the dining room and mother of pearl call buttons still peek out from hidden spots on the walls. Carefully patterned floors of hard wood and marble lead guests through the house, where walls are lined with books and an antique "bug box" contains the dust of once whole specimens.
And yet, there's an sense of stiffness in the details — as if every portion of the house was carefully planned and executed with precision, right down to its doorknobs with the face of an ancient god on them.
Linwood House is not open to the public for tours, but you can learn about its history and about the other historic buildings on the campus of the Norman Rockwell Museum, including the artist's Stockbridge Studio.
When: Thursdays in August, September and October, 2 p.m.
Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Glendale Road, Route 183, Stockbridge, Mass.
Cost: Free for members, or included with museum admission.
More information: Visit www.nrm.org, or call 413-298-4100.
To view a photo gallery of Linwood, visit photos.berkshireeagle.com.
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