Restoring Wethersfield’s Splendor in Millbrook, N.Y.

 

Chauncey Devereux Stillman was a Renaissance man: commodore of the New York Yacht Club, accomplished horseman, gentleman farmer, philanthropist, and art collector. A trained architect and landscape designer, he created Wethersfield, his magnificent estate in Millbrook, New York, where for decades he was a generous host to countless visitors.

Stillman came to Millbrook in 1937. He began assembling his 1,200 acres from former dairy farms and chose the highest point on the property for his house to take advantage of the spectacular views. When he died in 1989, he left Wethersfield to the Homeland Foundation hoping they would maintain it as it was in his time. Unfortunately, the property was neglected, and until recently, went unloved and unappreciated. Now a new board, the Wethersfield Foundation, with Stillman’s grandson Peter Budnik as president, has given it a new lease on life. 

Board member and Stillman’s granddaughter Tara Shafer remembers summers at Wethersfield, riding with her brother every morning, “and in the afternoon we went in the carriage with Grandfather, which we thought was absolutely normal.” Of the board’s decision to sell several paintings in order to raise funds, she says, “My grandfather loved art and he loved to share it with other people. I like the idea of pictures from the house going around the world.” And thanks to modern techniques, it is impossible to tell the reproductions that hang in their place from the originals.

Douglas Dewey, Wethersfield’s executive director, says, “Mr. Stillman exemplified a life that wasn’t just a life of privilege but a life with a responsibility to keep beauty alive in tomorrow’s world.” To that end, board member Farnham Collins invited 14 people to meet in the carriage house last year and decide how they might reconnect the property to Millbrook in a way “that would be uniquely and specifically Wethersfield.” 

After, Marion de Vogel wrote a proposal that became the Friends of Wethersfield, with each “Friend” hosting a dinner in the house for people they felt might become supporters. Having learned from his former butler how Stillman entertained, they served his favorite dishes including the Somerset Club’s cucumber soup and his own recipe for rice pudding.

“The Friends role is to supplement the activities of the Foundation and is unrelated to the endowment, which is solely responsible for the operating costs of the property,” de Vogel explains. “What we’re doing is what Mr. Stillman might have done himself.”

One of the Friends’ first projects was replacing the ancient beech tree on the south lawn. Long before the invention of the tree-spade, Stillman had it dug up and persuaded his cousin, Governor Rockefeller, to close the Taconic so it could be trucked up from Westchester. By last year, lightning and age had taken their toll and the Friends replaced it with another enormous beech. 

The Friends are also raising funds to restore Pietro Annigoni’s frescoes in the Gloriette—the only frescoes by the artist in this country and the first ones he ever painted. The theme is humanism, and the setting is Wethersfield with birds and animals native to the area and the Catskills in the background; Annigoni painted Stillman in one panel as a joke but Stillman was amused and decided to leave it.

The Friends have held a number of events to re-introduce Wethersfield to Millbrook. The property is open to the public three days a week during the summer, and some non-profits that Stillman particularly supported can hold events there. Community Day in August attracted far more people than expected. There have been several concerts in the drawing room. In September the American Driving Society came for three days of coaching, and in October the opening meet of the Millbrook Foxhounds was held at Wethersfield with the hunt breakfast in a tent by the house.

“What I love about the Friends is that it allows members of the community to participate in Wethersfield,” Shafer says. “Grandfather loved to have people visit, so in a sense Wethersfield should be treated as a community asset. We members of the family are enormously gratified to see the interest in it.” 

Budnik is also grateful “to the Millbrook community for rallying around the property and my grandfather’s vision for the place, for providing a warm welcome to the new regime and putting the old days behind us. That Wethersfield now has a bright future is very important to us all. The place is a spot of beauty and peace, and I hope that it is treasured for generations to come.” —Carola Lott