A Victorian family's vision. William Seward Webb builds his dream house
Shelburne, Vt. — William Seward Webb, doctor turned railroad baron, knew a good site when he saw one. Shelburne Point, with Lake Champlain shimmering westward toward the Adirondacks and the peaks of the Green Mountains jutting east, caught his eye when he first saw it in the early 1880s.
But Dr. Webb wasn't interested in subdividing; just the opposite, in fact. His dream was to consolidate all the small farms dotting that point of land into one huge estate -- not just a playground for the rich, but an agrarian experiment that could help revive the sagging fortunes of American agriculture.
Webb pursued that dream with unbridled energy and near-boundless resources, buying up land in the area until 4,000 acres had been amassed. He retained Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, to order and sculpt this vast holding, to be called Shelburne Farms. Gifford Pinchot, founder of American forestry, helped with the planning of woodlands.
Under Olmsted's direction, workmen ``put hills where there were no hills, forests where there were no forests,'' says Marnie Wolcott, a staffer with Shelburne Farms Resources, the nonprofit organization set up by the Webb family to manage the estate for educational and environmental purposes.
Fabulous buildings were carefully tucked into the meticulously planned landscape -- a five-story main barn with turrets, a massive clock tower, and a two-acre enclosed courtyard, a breeding barn large enough for games of indoor polo, and a steam-heated coach barn with space for more than 80 carriages.
Then there's the centerpiece -- a sprawling, 24-bedroom Queen Anne-style ``country house,'' then and now Vermont's largest residence. This became home to Webb, his wife (the former Lila Vanderbilt), and their four children. Reclining atop Saxton's Point, a nub of land that takes advantage of the lake and mountain views, the ``big house,'' as it was called, embodies the values of the dynamic Victorians who built it.
Like the more famous mansions in Newport, R.I., the Webb home sprang from America's extravagant Gilded Age of the 1880s and '90s. But ``compared to those mansions, this was considered a very humble house,'' says Miss Wolcott. She is director of the house and will play a major coordinating role in the current restoration, preparatory to the house's debut as an inn next spring.
Though huge, the Shelburne Farms house was not bedecked with priceless art and precious furnishings like other immense dwellings of its day. Its relative hominess probably reflected the concerns of its master and mistress. Lila Webb was ``an unusual woman for her time,'' observes Wolcott. ``She was very interested in agriculture, and with her husband planned the farm.''
Mrs. Webb had a lifelong passion for horticulture. The garden that spills down from the lawn toward the lake bluffs was her special project. She pondered different layouts and plantings from an airy first-floor study that looks out on the garden and still houses stacks of her reference books.
Like the doctor, she enjoyed hunting and driving teams of horses, but her favorite recreation may well have been golf, an appetite sated by a nine-hole links just a few steps away from the house. The course has long since gone to seed, a victim of fuel shortages during World War II (no gas for mowing).
Nearly every room in the house has its share of memorabilia and lush detail -- to the point of clutter, by current tastes. But to the Webbs and others of their era, such decor would have represented ``organized display rich with meaning, both personal and symbolic,'' notes Joe Sherman, author of ``The House at Shelburne Farms: The Story of One of America's Great Country Estates'' (Middlebury, Vt.: Paul S. Eriksson, Publisher).
But foresighted as Webb may have been in many ways, he clung to tradition in some areas. One of his pet projects on the farm was the breeding of a new ``hackney,'' a horse that would combine work abilities with ease of riding. This was to be a boon to the farmer of the day, but the endeavor was soon outmoded by the arrival of the tractor and the automobile, writes author Sherman.
In his book, Mr. Sherman chronicles the factors that led to the gradual decline of Shelburne Farms as the 20th century marched onward -- the loss of Webb's Wagner Palace Car Company through a legal battle with the competing Pullman company, the coming of the income tax, which crimped the great fortunes.
Eventually, in the late 1960s, the heirs had to confront the possibility of liquidating the estate, after years of barely keeping it alive. They decided, instead, to convert it to public service. In recent years, Shelburne Farms Resources has developed an ongoing program of environmental and agricultural education. Locals know the estate best as the setting of cultural events in the summer, such as the Vermont Mozart Festival. Actual farming goes on too: The cheddar cheese produced from the milk of Swiss Brown cattle here is prized by gourmets.
And soon, the ``big house'' will again be hosting visitors, almost as in the days when Dr. and Mrs. Webb entertained their New York socialite friends with a stroll through the gardens, a cruise in their steam yacht, and sumptuous fare in their glass-walled dining room.
Now, of course, guests will pay -- $100 a night, says Wolcott, with two meals included. Still, she says, it will be nice to have the pleasant old ``country house'' return to something like its original use.