History, Writing

Fortnight at Grey Towers

Pinchot interpretive sign and gatehouse
Gifford Pinchot is Milford’s most famous son. The gatehouse in the distance was my home for two weeks. (Lauren Danner photo)

Last weekend I returned home from a two-week stint as scholar-in-residence at Grey Towers, a beautiful French-style chateau in Milford, Pennsylvania, that is the ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot. Yes, that Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the United States Forest Service, and, as many interpretive signs there point out, a father of the American conservation movement.

Today, the Forest Service operates Grey Towers National Historic Site with assistance from the Grey Towers Heritage Association. The agency hosts training for Forest Service staff, many of whom relish the opportunity to come here, as well as conferences, tours, school programs, festivals, and other events.

The Forest Service invited me to stay and work on my North Cascades research, and for two weeks I worked in a circular office on the third floor of a magnificent stone tower. I was like Rapunzel, but with wifi.

Round office at Grey Towers
After working in this circular tower office for two weeks, returning to my desk-in-a-closet at home is going to be tough. (Lauren Danner photo)

Grey Towers was built by Gifford Pinchot’s father, James. It’s a 43-room Gilded Age pile of local bluestone and slate designed by Richard Morris Hunt, best known for designing the base of the Statue of Liberty. James Pinchot completed the home in 1886, and his family celebrated by eating its first meal there on August 11, Gifford’s twenty-first birthday.

Grey Towers National Historic Site
The second-floor window in this tower was Gifford Pinchot’s bedroom. (Lauren Danner photo)

The Pinchots had been important residents of Milford, Pennsylvania, for more than sixty years. Gifford’s grandfather, Cyrille Pinchot, came to the United States with his family in 1816, eventually settling in Milford, a town on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River that was a crossroads for goods and services between farms in the immediate region and ports in New York and Philadelphia.

Milford and Delaware River view
Milford is a one-traffic-light town these days, but its location on the Delaware River made it an important crossroads of goods and services in the 19th century. (Lauren Danner photo)

Cyrille Pinchot bought wooded land, logged it, and sold the lumber at ports along the Delaware River before reinvesting the profits in more wooded land. In this way, he was part of the rapacious and often profitable cycle of cut and run that eventually inspired his grandson Gifford to espouse a philosophy of sustainable resource use in the public interest.

When the railroad bypassed Milford for nearby Port Jervis, New York, in the late 1840s, Milford experienced the same kind of downturn familiar to anyone who has lived in a resource-dependent town.

James Pinchot
James Pinchot, father of Gifford Pinchot, built Grey Towers and gentrified Milford, PA (Wikipedia photo)

One of Cyrille’s five children, James, sought his future elsewhere. He moved to New York City, where he was successful in business and married into a wealthy family. Retiring soon after Gifford was born in 1865, James moved back home, and as historian Char Miller writes, “spent freely to refurbish Milford, thereby contributing to its economic transition from a fading entrepôt to a booming tourist mecca.” (entrepôt — / äntr∋‚pō/ — noun, a central place where goods are brought for distribution, such as a city or port. Hope that helps.)

Like his father, James bought land. But he focused on in-town real estate with the aim of beautifying the village to attract well-heeled tourists. Grey Towers was part of that plan. James Pinchot asked his good friend Richard Morris Hunt, whose “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, gave new meaning to the term, to design a country estate befitting the Pinchots’ status and wealth.

Grey Towers, Milford, PA
Grey Towers is situated on a rise above Milford. Trees selected by Gifford Pinchot have grown for nearly a century, softening what was once a cutover landscape and, even in winter, obscuring part of the house. (Lauren Danner photo)

Built atop a hill just outside town, Grey Towers is impressive. Its three namesake towers are 60 feet tall, and although the interior has changed since James Pinchot’s time, the gargantuan main hall retains its medieval gloominess. Heavy, dark, ornately carved furniture lines the entry where the Pinchots received guests. The house originally had 23 fireplaces. A bust of Lafayette, a pointed reminder of the family’s French heritage, looks down his nose from a high cubby in the east wall of the fortress-like stately home.

Main hall at Grey Towers
The main hall at Grey Towers. To give you an idea of the scale, those mounted animal heads at the far end are elk. If you’ve ever seen an elk, you know it’s the size of a horse. Look how tiny those heads appear. (Lauren Danner photo)

To ensure his family’s status in elegant society, James Pinchot gave generously to charitable causes. While still in his 30s, he was a founding patron of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and cultivated friendships with artists, musicians, and members of the cultural elite.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, a well-known artist in the Hudson River School of painting, was Gifford Pinchot’s namesake. In 1874, Sanford Robinson Gifford took a trip to the Pacific Northwest, where he sketched Mount Rainier and, when he returned home, completed two paintings of the mountain viewed from a perspective on Commencement Bay in Tacoma. One hangs in the Seattle Art Museum, and before I ever knew the relationship of the painter to Gifford Pinchot, I often made a point of stopping to view that painting when I visited the museum. It’s my favorite piece there. Now I look at it and think of the artist painting a landscape that his then nine-year-old namesake would come to know well, as the first chief of the Forest Service.

Sanford Robinson Gifford painting "Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma, Puget Sound"
Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1875 landscape, “Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma, Puget Sound,” hangs in the Seattle Art Museum. (Lauren Danner photo)

Back to Grey Towers. In 1864, James Pinchot married the daughter of a wealthy New York businessman and the following August, just months after the Civil War ended, she gave birth to their first son, Gifford. In 1900, James Pinchot helped fund the Yale School of Forestry and built a summer field campus at Grey Towers that operated from 1901 to 1926. Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and other famous foresters trained there.

Field forest above Grey Towers
James Pinchot planted a forest above Grey Towers where students from the Yale forestry summer field program studied trees. (Lauren Danner photo)

Practically from birth, Gifford Pinchot was raised to become a forester at a time such a career didn’t really exist. James Pinchot knew firsthand the environmental degradation and economic uncertainty caused by boom-and-bust cycles in timber and other natural resource industries. He and his wife, Mary, believed in working for the public good, a philosophy that young Gifford absorbed and applied throughout his career.

Grey Towers wasn’t built until Gifford Pinchot was in his early twenties, so he didn’t grow up here. He and his wife, Cornelia, made Grey Towers their primary residence in 1914, after his Forest Service career ended and as he began to pursue the Pennsylvania governorship, a post he held from 1923-27 and 1931-35. Cornelia instituted major changes to the home’s interior and to the landscaping.

European copper beech at Grey Towers
One of Gifford Pinchot’s European copper beeches. The forester would be impressed by how big they’ve grown. (Lauren Danner photo)

Gifford Pinchot chose which trees to plant on the grounds, and you can still see most of them, including his favorite, the European Copper Beech. He planted ten of these stately trees, saying that he wished he could be around in a hundred years to see them. Nine of the beeches still stand, including one behind the gatehouse where I stayed when not in my tower.

Gifford’s only child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, donated Grey Towers to the federal government in 1963. Just a few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at the dedication ceremony, and rumor has it he lived up to his reputation as a Casanova during his short stay there.

My stay was much less intriguing, but it was still all that I could have asked for. Grey Towers is a monument to conservation, science, learning, and public service, and, for two weeks, it was a wonderful place to work.

Forest Service fountain at Grey Towers
Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot added this fountain at Grey Towers. When the national historic site was dedicated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Forest Service badge was added. (Lauren Danner photo)

For more on the Pinchots, check out Char Miller’s Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, the source for the family background in this post. Miller, professor at Pomona College and a onetime Grey Towers scholar-in-residence himself, is an authority on Pinchot, the Forest Service, and public lands history.

3 thoughts on “Fortnight at Grey Towers

  1. Thanks for that bit of background on Pinchot. Sounds like a wonderful place to spend a couple of weeks!

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