Everybody always asks me, “Jeremy, given your half-baked socialist agenda and general dislike of all things British especially where their history with Ireland is concerned, why are you such a sucker for Downton Abbey and before that the various productions of Upstairs, Downstairs?”
Ok, nobody has ever asked me that. But it’s true, I am a dyed-in-the-wool, occasional tea-drinking, unapologetically obsessed fan of the genre. Yes, a visit to Highclere Castle is on my list, but in my defense so is the Trinity Test Site, the VLA, and EBRI-1, and numerous restaurants Anthony Bourdain ate at, and I’ve checked those off first, so I’m not that obsessed. Plus, to be completely forthright, my intention is to visit the fictitious “Duneagle Castle” (Inveraray Castle) of the Downton Abbey Christmas 2012 episode first.
The reason I retain a soft spot for these “great houses” and the costume dramas they inspire is the direct result of where I grew up. Yes, I was born in Brooklyn, but we moved to the north shore of Long Island when I was 5, and it was there I learned why the area was called the “Gold Coast.”
The Woolworth Estate, the du Pont estate, the estate of Marshall Field III and family, the Vanderbilt Mansion, the Frick summer house, the John S. Phipps estate, the Guggenheim family estate, and lastly Coe Hall of Planting Fields Arboretum; these were where I spent the majority of my elementary school field trips. And this is just a fragment of the “new money” royalty swarming all over the north shore of “the island” and the south shore of Long Island Sound along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts.
But it wasn’t until my senior year in high school I truly began to understand what these great houses represented in the larger societal context and I have a guy named Barry Binder to thank for that. I worked as a roadie/grunt/technician for his small lighting and sound rental company and on two occasions we were contracted to supply equipment for jazz concerts at Planting Fields Arboretum. The best part of the gig was we got to arrive very early for set up and stay late for strike and load-out. Twice, for nearly a full day, I had complete unfettered access to Coe Hall and I explored every nook and cranny I could find.
The house and grounds were now managed by the Planting Fields Foundation established by William Coe in 1952 in conjunction with the NY State Office of Parks and Recreation and Historic Preservation. The short version was nobody was living in the mansion and the place was pretty much exactly as the Coe family left it when they departed the mansion for the last time. For a Dungeons & Dragons playing high school nerd, Coe Hall was a true castle replete with hidden stairs, secret doors, and more rooms than one could count.
Without a doubt, my favorites were the kitchen, the main hall and gallery, and the servant’s quarters. The kitchen was massive with giant wood-burning ovens, huge central work tables topped with magnificent butcherblock, and copper pots of all shapes and sizes hanging from ceiling hooks. It didn’t occur to me at the time that there were no refrigerators and only one valve at the massive basin sink. I can’t help but think back to those pots… dozens of them… just hanging there.
The main hall was past the family dining room through a set of double doors that made the most magnificent horror movie sound when left to close on their own. The hall itself wasn’t huge and featured a beautiful fireplace bearing the soot of many, many years of use. Upstairs were the family and guest rooms some in need of repair. The house did have electricity, the wiring all exposed as much of the place was built of stone. Above the second level was the servant’s quarters reached by steep stairs located at either end of the building. The entire floor was painted a pale green throughout, walls, floors, ceilings. It spoke of efficiency and spartan functionality. The servant’s rooms were, I’ve since come to learn, quite large and well-lit by large dormer windows. There was no running water on the floor.
Anyway, I could go on and on, but it was that day, after hauling speakers and wires and microphones and racks of amps and our big mixing board, that I felt myself fortunate some dude with a big ego had made a pile of money—probably screwing other people—built this place, lived in it for a time, then as the world changed the family gave it to the state, and now I could explore it as if it were mine. What I took from the experience is that we are all just custodians in one way or another.
Anyway, by way of explanation, this is why I dig Downton Abbey.