Grey Towers: Where conservation grew up

Text | Erin Vanderberg

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The town of Milford, PA features buildings and grounds designed by some of the 19th century’s most celebrated architects, the preeminent example being Grey Towers National Historic Site. The structure was completed in 1886 as a leisure residence for James and Mary Pinchot and their three children, Gifford, Amos and Antoinette.
Today, the building and grounds are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and the Grey Towers Heritage Association offers daily tours during the summer season. For the history buff, it’s a glimpse of how the Pinchots, who would leave an indelible mark on both the 19th and 20th centuries, lived and entertained. For the architecture fan, it’s a showcase of local materials assembled and restored in the chateau style. For the green thumb, it’s an array of plants, trees and landscape design. And for the young, and young at heart, it’s a flight of fancy, a castle full of wonders.

Family history

James Pinchot (1831-1908) grew up in Milford, the third of five children of Cyrille and Eliza Cross Pinchot. James’ father Cyrille came from France with his parents in the early 1800s. Allegiants to Napoleon, the Pinchots fled France as war-weary political exiles, but as mercantilists, they came well-heeled and well-stocked. After three years of running a shop in New York City, they were able to purchase 400 hundred acres of farmland in Milford in 1819 and establish the Old French Store at the crossroads of the county seat. Young Cyrille first made his wealth in land speculation, then in timber, becoming Milford’s largest taxpayer by 1850.

While a young man, James Pinchot left Milford to strike out on his own in New York City and made a fortune selling wallpaper, window shades and curtains to the denizens, offices and hotels of an antebellum-era New York with his firm Partridge, Pinchot & Warren. Out of this professional network, James wooed and successfully courted the daughter of real estate developer Amos Eno, Mary Jane (1838-1914), whom he married in 1864. James and Mary did not settle into their own home until the ‘80s, living instead among various family residences, predominantly in New York City, summering in the Eno home in Simsbury, CT., and also abroad in Europe.

James retired in his 40s, but stayed an active member in a number of powerful New York organizations. He came to regret the environmentally-destructive laurels his family’s wealth rested on, particularly in lumbering, and spent his latter years fomenting a conservation movement. James was close friends and a patron to a number of the Hudson River School artists, who used landscapes to foster awareness of industrialization’s side effect on America’s wilderness, naming his eldest after artist Sanford Gifford.

Along came Gifford
From these roots came Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), whose well-connected and supportive parents encouraged him to turn his love of nature into a career path. His career began at Yale where he was a member of the Skull and Bones club. In those days, there were no forestry programs, so Gifford went abroad to study with foresters in England, Germany and France. He returned to the states eager to start working in forests, working at George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Gifford made a real splash at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with a brochure that showcased the importance of forest management through his work at the Biltmore Arboretum.

His foray into public life came in the mid-1890s. When Teddy Roosevelt was elected to the Vice-Presidency in 1898, later ascending to the Presidency after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, a potent partnership formed between Roosevelt and Pinchot. Gifford served on several commissions, most notably as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and became a trusted member of the President’s inner-circle. In 1900, the Yale School of Forestry opened, funded by a $150,000 endowment bestowed by the Pinchots, with a field study component at Grey Towers.

But Pinchot fell out of favor during Taft’s presidency, and lost his position. The ouster set Gifford on a political career path. He and his brother Amos, an attorney who would be a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, leant their support to Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign of 1912 and Gifford held the presidency of the National Conservation Association from 1910-1925, rallying for tougher antitrust laws and progressive social reform.

Pinchot’s political career was not without setbacks. He ran several unsuccessful campaigns for Senate, and he became disillusioned by the U.S. Forest Service, which he believed had lost its way kowtowing to the timber industry. But he found political success in state politics, first as the Pennsylvania Commissioner of Forestry in 1920, then as Governor in 1924 and again in 1930.

Pinchot didn’t marry until days after his 50th birthday in 1914, to the extraordinary Cornelia Elizabeth Bryce (1881-1960). She was a free spirit who often slept out of doors, and the eclectic and fascinating design aspects at Grey Towers owe much to her vision. One child was born of the marriage, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, who dedicated Grey Towers to the U.S. Forestry Service in 1963. Over the course of their family life together, they sailed to the South Pacific and traveled extensively, entertained lavishly at Grey Towers and enjoyed fishing and hunting.

Grey Towers construction
James Pinchot chose the acreage of Grey Towers for its majestic view overlooking Milford, the Delaware River, the Kittatinny ridge and rolling landscape, and its vicinity to the cascading waterfalls of Sawkill creek.

His friend Richard Morris Hunt, of Biltmore Estate fame, created the Norman-influenced design that included three 60-foot turrets modeled after the Marquis de Lafayette’s LaGrange castle, and for which Grey Towers is named. The manor was completed with over 40 rooms, over 20 fireplaces, using mostly local materials—hemlock from Lackawaxen, bluestone from Shohola, slate from Lafayette, NJ—and all local labor.

Gifford and Cornelia began spending summers in the main house, and as their political careers brought them to Pennsylvania, Grey Towers became their permanent residence. Cornelia, using mostly her own funds, took to overhauling Grey Towers, knocking down walls to allow in air and light, adding additional outbuildings like the Bait Box (her son’s playroom), the Letter Box (Gifford’s archive) and outdoor entertainment areas. One unique example of her touch (and a highlight of the Grey Towers tour) is the Finger Bowl, a stone table situated under a trellis with a pool at its center so that food could be served and passed by way of floating bowls. Cornelia was also a passionate gardener who added a new level of grandeur to the house through landscape design.

In 1963, under the management of the Forest Service and the Pinchot Institute, Grey Towers was one of the first sites to be declared a National Historic Landmark. The site stayed steadily open to the public over the course of the years, but without adequate funding or direction.

Starting in 1980, over $16 million in federal, state and private funds was raised to complete an extensive renovation of the site, which closed briefly for two years at the turn of the century, and opened again on August 11, 2011, Gifford Pinchot’s birthday.

Today, the main floor has been restored to its former glory and the second- and third-floors conference facilities have been modernized. Today’s tour includes the Great Hall, the sitting room, the library and a glimpse of Pinchot’s office as well as the gardens and grounds near the house. A film of a visit by President John F. Kennedy to Grey Towers can also be viewed.

Mansion tours run from Memorial Day through October 30 daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for youth and free for kids under 12.
The grounds with self-guided interpretative trails are open to the public year-round from sunup to sundown.
For more information visit or call 570-296-9630.

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