Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin but his son built himself a mansion. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's only child to survive to adulthood, built the Georgian Revival home, called Hildene, as a seasonal dream home for his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, and their children.
But Hildene is no dusty museum. Located on 412 acres between two spectacular mountain ranges, the homestead offers a feeling of warmth, family and hospitality along with the history lessons.
The site is expecting a boost in interest thanks to the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the former president and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his son. The Hildene staff is looking forward to welcoming more visitors and teaching them about the place where Lincoln descendants lived until 1975, said Paula Maynard, press director and group tour leader.
"I've been telling people for eight years, which is when I first got here, that this movie was coming, and we'd get to tell this part of the story," Maynard says. "I think people stopped believing me. . . . But we expect visitation to grow from it, and it's been growing anyway between 8 and 10 percent annually."
One frequently asked question is what Hildene means. Maynard says the word combines phrases that mean "hill and valley with a stream," and that Robert Todd Lincoln apparently had the name in mind from the start of construction in 1903.
Visitors also are curious about the relationship between Robert Todd Lincoln and his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he had committed to a hospital for mental illness. Decades later, in a bedroom that served as his quarters when he suffered from arthritis, papers were found in a closet safe with medical documentation that validated his decision to hospitalize her. Before she died, the two were reconciled.
Before building Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln had served in Washington as secretary of war for President James Garfield and overseas as the United States' ambassador to Great Britain for President Benjamin Harrison.
But Lincoln apparently had wanted to live in Vermont for many years. His law partner, Edward Isham, was born in Bennington and bought a home in Manchester 15 years before Hildene was completed. After Lincoln became chairman of Pullman Co. in 1897, at the time one of the country's biggest companies, he could afford to build the house of his dreams.
Maynard says, however, that the Lincolns "were not lavish and always wanted simple elegance. The Lincolns' main social life was in Chicago. They lived there half the year and here half the year. When they came to Vermont, it was for the same reasons we do — for a getaway."
Music from the home's 1,000-pipe organ draws visitors in at the first step into the entry foyer. The parlor, which looks out onto a beautiful east-facing patio and garden with vistas of the Taconic and Green mountains, could easily be the gathering spot for a modern martini party, book club meeting or holiday meal. Like much of the 8,000-square-foot home, the room's traditional yet tasteful decor seems grand but not showy — very New England.
The walls, for example, were made to look like mahogany but were really made of poplar. "Robert was like his dad, he counted his pennies," Maynard said.
The kitchen includes the latest in 20th century gadgetry and is next to a lovely dining room with a table that could sit about 12 but no more for a formal meal. Across the hall was the servants' dining room, another comfortable room that would probably be the hub of the house if it were lived in now.
The tour also includes a look at the Victorian-style master suite, the guest room where President William Howard Taft stayed and an office with an early predecessor to the copying machine. A luxury Pullman Sunbeam travel train car sits along the winding driveway.
Also on the estate is an observatory with telescope, an agricultural center and many trails that can be used by day hikers, picnickers and, in the winter, snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Throughout the year there are programs on topics such as composting and butterfly gardens.
During the holiday season, the home is decorated as if it were Christmas Eve 1912. That was a year Robert Todd Lincoln was being heavily courted to run for president, said Maynard.
He chose to stay home.