It’s energizing to work in a circular tower office on the third floor of Grey Towers, Gifford Pinchot’s ancestral home. I arrived there with a must-do list and the determination to get it done during my two-week stay as scholar-in-residence. But even working under a deadline, Grey Towers beckoned. So most days I took a walk through the grounds or the mansion to soak up some history. Here’s some of what I saw.
I stayed in the every-bit-as-charming-as-it-sounds gatehouse. The house has been modernized, but my room was a converted porch right next to — and there is no other way to describe it — a babbling brook. The burbling sound lulled me to sleep each night.
Each morning I walked up the hill to the mansion, alternating between the curving driveway or a trail through the woods that goes past the Laurel Hill Cemetery, where the first generations of Pinchots, as well as other early settlers in the area, are buried.
All along the way, I passed trees selected by Gifford Pinchot for Grey Towers. The mansion was built on a cutover knoll above the town, but Pinchot wanted to see it wooded again even though he knew he would not live long enough to see the trees mature. The first chief of the Forest Service knew his trees. The estate features more than 30 kinds of trees, which visitors can learn about in a special brochure. Of course, most of the trees are bare during the winter, but their stark profiles enhance Grey Towers’s French Norman silhouette.
When Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot took up more-or-less permanent residence at Grey Towers in 1914, Cornelia oversaw extensive updates and renovations.
Many of the structures close to the main house were added under her watch, including the Bait Box. Built as a playhouse for the couple’s only child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, it’s named for the family’s love of fishing (inside the mansion, visitors can see photos of the Pinchots practicing casting on the front lawn). The long, narrow garden and water feature in front acts as a sort of hallway, drawing the eye to the building.
The Letter Box sits next to the entrance to the long garden leading to the Bait Box. When Pinchot was governor of Pennsylvania, his clerical staff worked in this building. Later, it housed many of his papers before they were archived in the Library of Congress. Although the Letter Box wasn’t open when I was there, pictures show a spiral staircase inside that connects the main floor to an interior balcony where the papers were stored. The floor is a mix of brick and bluestone, designed to mimic the exterior patios around the mansion.
The front door of the mansion is closed during winter, but its five-foot width fits the grand scale of the house. Interestingly, the door is more Arts-and-Crafts style and less French fortress, perhaps because the former is more welcoming.
During the two weeks I spent at Grey Towers, the weather ranged from frigid and sunny to frigid and snowy, so some days I wandered inside. One of my favorite places was Gifford’s bedroom. It’s full of artifacts from his life, including books, paintings, photographs, even a jacket I like to think he wore as a forester. The narrow single bed looks a bit small — he was a tall man — but I learned that whenever possible, Gifford preferred to sleep outdoors, so he would drag his mattress onto the sleeping porch outside his room.
A sitting room just outside is a peaceful place to sit and read for a while. I tried to work here once or twice, but ended up too distracted by the history and artifacts around me. The room also serves as a gallery for Grey Towers-inspired art by local artists.
Each floor has a large open area, with the towers are built at three corners (the fourth corner leads to the servants’ quarters, now staff offices). This childhood portrait of Pinchot, along with one of his sister Antoinette, hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years. Gifford’s father, James, was an early supporter of the museum. I find the angelic depiction rather endearing.
I also loved the library, one of the smaller rooms and one of the coziest, at least for a book-lover like me. The walls are hung with original political cartoons lambasting the conservation policies of Pinchot, President Theodore Roosevelt, or both. One of the staff members told me Pinchot loved these cartoons and collected them enthusiastically.
The library also houses the Forest Service tree. The brainchild of Grey Towers director Bill Dauer, a highly accomplished woodworker whose intarsia pieces are intricately lovely, the tree doesn’t celebrate a holiday.
Instead, it celebrates the national forests of the United States by displaying ornaments from each of them. Bill invites Forest Service staff who visit Grey Towers to bring an ornament from their local national forest to add to the tree. The result is a tree that celebrates forests and the people who work in them. I looked for my local national forests, but didn’t see them represented, an absence I plan to try to correct as I hike and camp in the Pacific Northwest this summer.
The main floor houses a large library, created when Cornelia decided that the separate men’s billards room and ladies’ parlor were outdated and unnecessary. Many of the books belonged to the Pinchots.
Gifford Pinchot had an office in a tower just off this grand room, which is filled with specimens and artifacts from his travels, including wooden snowshoes, a cattle skull, and two framed snakeskins.
I learned a lot wandering the mansion and grounds during the occasional writing break, and as you can see, it was anything but hardship duty working at Grey Towers for two weeks. I’m looking forward to returning someday, this time without a deadline.