The descendant of Scottish immigrants, C. (Clinton) Ledyard Blair’s great-great grandfather, John Blair, arrived in America in 1730, and was a veteran of the American Revolution, but the families rise to wealth began with his grandfather, New Jersey native, John Insley Blair, who started with a single general store in Butt’s Bridge, NJ (later renamed Blairstown in his honor) and went on to amass a fortune in railroads and mining, which at the time of his death had a reported net worth equivalent to around $43 billion in today’s dollars. After his graduation from Princeton in 1890, C. Ledyard joined his grandfather and his father, Dewitt Clinton Blair, in founding the New York investment firm of Blair & Company, and would later go on to serve on the board of governors of the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1897, despite admonitions from their friends that Peapack-Gladstone was too remote from New York City, C. Ledyard and his wife, Florence (née Osborne Jennings), began piecing together nearly 500 acres of farmland and wooded tracts to establish their country estate. They selected the highest peak on the property, a spectacular location that offered a commanding view across the reflective waters of Ravine Lake and the countryside beyond, as the site for what would be their primary residence - Blairsden.
To design and construct their home, they commissioned the influential architectural firm of Carrère & Hastings, whose work includes the Frick Mansion in New York, and the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue. Thomas Hastings and John Merven Carrére were proponents of the Beaux-Arts style, a formal, heavily decorative architectural style associated with École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was a prevalent French design style in the late 1800s, and popularized in the U.S. around 1900.
Built between 1898 and 1903, the estate was a marvel of planning and engineering. Before construction could even begin, the crest of the mountain selected as the building site had to be shorn off and leveled; an epic task even by today’s standards. A miniature, funicular, inclined railway was constructed to haul building materials available up the wooded slope, and many of the latest state-of-the-art technologies were included in the home’s construction and design, such as full electrical service, elevators, a steel super structure, and poured concrete floors.
The Blairs spared no expense in the fashioning of their thirty-eight-room home, which featured 14-foot ceilings wreathed in elaborate plaster molding, walnut, oak, and mahogany woodwork and paneling, and twenty-five fireplaces with individually detailed mantels. A tree-lined, mile-long driveway wound up the hilltop, passing along a 300-foot, rectangular reflecting pool, flanked by busts of Roman Emperors, and towering maples. Guests entered the main house through two, massive carved outer doors and two inner doors constructed of one-inch thick plate glass framed by brass and weighing more than one-thousand pounds each. They swing open to a long hall with carved, French limestone walls, and a curving double stairway illuminated by a sterling silver and bronze chandelier. Lavish details such as tooled leather-covered walls in the billiard room, and a dining room ceiling inset with French and Italian oil paintings were common throughout the residence.
Carrère and Hastings collaborated with landscape architect, James Leal Greenleaf to create a formal Italianate landscape at Blairsden. The centerpiece of the design was the formation of a dramatic “axial allée” created by the use of a rampe douce, or “pleasant incline,” which led from the terrace, down the steep hillside towards the lake below. The landscaped acres around Blairsden also included a rose garden, a brick and lattice summer pavilion, “wisteria crowned arbors,” and a walled garden behind the main house. Scores of mature trees were used in the landscape design which, according to newspaper and other accounts, were lugged up the mountain from the surrounding countryside by horse and wagon. In their book, In the Somerset Hills: The Landed Gentry, William A. Schleicher and Susan J. Winter write that “Teams of twenty-two horses were used to move the trees, with giant balls of earth, to the estate. The weight of these trees collapsed many of the county’s wooden bridges, which had to be replaced by Mr. Blair.”
C. Ledyard and Florence were accomplished equestrians and they pursued the quintessential country experience on a grand scale at Blairsden. Family and guests enjoyed lavish entertainment, and pursued the sporting life along miles of bridle paths and coaching roads, on the tennis and squash courts, in the “plunge” pool, lake, and Turkish bath, or out at the trap shoot and shooting lodge. But for all its grandeur, Blairsden was, in essence, a family home.
The Blairs raised four daughters at Blairsden and as William Barry Thomson, writes “having four active children under the roof lent an air of informality. After horseback riding, the Blair girls and their friends were allowed to lounge in the living room, still dressed in their muddy gear. Their mother Florence, was full of fun and arranged costume, birthday, and Fourth of July parties, Easter egg hunts, and Christmas plays. Christmas parties included a jolly Santa Claus emerging from one of the large chimneys to delight the children.” All four daughters also had wedding ceremonies or receptions at Blairsden, with private trains transporting guests from the city.
From its precipice above Ravine Lake, Blairsden is a monumental reminder of a golden age in our history, when men like C. Ledyard Blair and other captains of finance and industry, literally transformed the landscape of the Somerset Hills, adding their own unique and colorful chapter to New Jersey’s cultural heritage.
Circa 1897-1900 photo of 14 horses hauling trees on the farm at Blairsden.
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