Advanced Engineering in a Grand Victorian Mansion

A restored mansion reveals some extremely advanced engineering for the Victorian period.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his short story, The Rich Boy.”  “They are different from you and me.”

Those of us who are not rich and wonder at just how different their lives were than our own, can catch glimpses of it in tours of elaborate mansions that were once the homes of the wealthy elite.Certainly, that’s a big draw for tourists to Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport’s primary claim to fame is that the rich made their summer mansions, which they sometimes rather coyly called “cottages,” there. That particular neighborhood was the place for the super rich and fashionable to see and be seen during  summer at the peak of the Gilded Age.

SEE ALSO: MILLION DOLLAR MANSIONS ARE SLIDING INTO THE SEA

But before fashion dictated that Newport was the place to be, summer homes were built, wherever rich people considered the area to be cool and desirable.

Interior view of conservatory
Source: Ariella Brown 

Grand plans

LeGrande Lockwood, one of only a handful of millionaires in the country at the start of the Civil War, and the first millionaire native of Norwalk, Connecticut, opted for his birthplace as the neighborhood in which he would build his summer home. It still stands there, though, not quite in its full glory, as a registered historic landmark called the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum.

The interior can be seen through a docent-led tour, which is limited to the first floor during the colder months due to the difficulty of heating the entire structure. The tour reveals interesting facets of the history of the house and its occupants, as well as details of its construction and design.

If Norwalk, Connecticut is not close enough to make it convenient for you to see the house in person, you can experience a kind of virtual mini-tour through this video:

The house’s appearance was largely inspired by the French chateaus that Lockwood had seen and admired on his trips to Europe to raise funds for the American Civil War. In fact, the mansion is considered one of the earliest examples of French Empire Style architecture in the United States.

While the architectural style was rooted in tradition, the features and comforts utilized the very latest in technology for the times. Construction began in 1865 and extended through 1868.

According to the tour guide, during that time, 150 men remained on the grounds working on the building. Many were skilled craftsmen who had been brought over from Europe specifically to construct Lockwood’s vision.

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In 1867, the New York Times anticipated that the mansion  “when completed, will stand with scarcely a rival in the United States,” as reported by the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum site. With impressive dimensions that add up to 44,000 square feet, Lockwood’s grand mansion was the largest private residence in the United States in that period.

Its cost was estimated to approach two million dollars. That would be equivalent to over 34 million in 2019 dollars, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator.  

In 1868, the Lockwood family moved into the house. But they would not get to enjoy it for long.

Advanced Engineering in a Grand Victorian Mansion
Source: Ariella Brown

LeGrande Lockwood died of pneumonia in 1872 when he was just 52 years old after losing all his wealth in the crash of the gold market. He put up the mansion as collateral for a loan, and his widow could not raise the sum she needed and lost the house for a small fraction of its value.

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Nevertheless, we do know how the house looked at the peak of its glory because in 1868, it was photographed inside and out, recording the rooms themselves, their furnishings, the exterior structure, and the grounds. There were even  stereoscopic views of it published.

Stereoscopic viewers were used during the 19th century and even into the 20th, to obtain a 3D view of something by having two images of something that are very close but taken from somewhat different angles. That was how the regular people got to see how the rich lived without their houses being open to the public.

 You can see a demonstration of how it worked in this video:

The mansion was the product of a man who wanted not just the best in luxury for his new summer home but the latest technology. As detailed in the top video, Mimi Findlay, a Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum trustee, described LeGrande Lockwood as similar to Bill Gates in his time, in terms of looking for and appreciating the latest engineering innovations.  

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Advanced Victorian engineering

So what did the most advanced engineering for homes offer in the late 1860s?

It includes some things you may expect from that time period, like gas lighting, plumbing that allows for both hot and cold water, flush toilets, and central heating powered by coal.

But it also includes some things you may not have anticipated.

Even when electricity was not set up for lighting, it was used for a burglar alarm. Most surprisingly -- and, possibly, the most important feature for a summer house -- this house had central air-conditioning, though it didn’t run on electricity.

Climate control: the good and the bad

The engineering for the air conditioning is particularly impressive. It is the product of planning and design from below-ground to the very top of the structure.

The house sits on top of three-foot deep granite foundation that contains  the original duct work for the home. It stored naturally cool air (due to being below ground) that was forced upward to cool the home.

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The skylights atop the two storey high center hall open up to suck up the warm air in the summer and pull up the cooler air through the venting system.

There were also vents used to carry forced hot air to heat the house. But making that work required one ton — that’s 2,000 pounds — of coal each day! So while the air-conditioning system was a marvel of efficiency, the heating system would be considered an environmental disaster today.

Advanced Engineering in a Grand Victorian Mansion
Source: Ariella Brown

Plumbing: pluses and minuses 

Some of the coal may have been used to heat the water that could run hot directly through to 40 sinks and six bathtubs in the mansion. To appreciate how luxurious that was for the day, you have to bear in mind that over 95 percent of homes at the time still didn’t have indoor plumbing.

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While it was still the norm to have outhouses, the Lockwood mansion had five toilets, including one for the servants. Servants lived pretty well in the house with private rooms with their own sink, though they did share the bathroom.

But as advanced as they were in terms of plumbing, one thing is still noticeably absent: a shower. Though the mechanism had already been invented, it only began to be adopted under the name “rain bath” in the 1880s and started to be advertised for regular home use in the early 20th century.

Another important advancement in plumbing that was not yet in use was the trap for the pipe carrying away waste from the flush toilet. That, the docent explained, was the reason why the toilet were surrounded by its own wooden walls even within a bathroom.

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Even in the most luxurious homes equipped with toilet bowls hand-painted to match the sink basins in the room, there was no counter to the sewer smells that would rise up in the absence of a trap. The best they could do was try to contain them.

Using electricity for alarms but not elevators

As you can see in a tour or in the video on top, the wooden floors on the second floor have wires around edges. They were what made the burglar alarm work, as the sound of an alarm would result from a break in the current from the wires that would be activated by opening  a window or door to the outside.

There were two control panels for the alarm: one placed in the panel of the dressing room of the master of the house, and another in the Servants’ Quarters.

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One thing you do learn on the tour is that a theft did occur while the Lockwoods lived in the house, though the alarm did not go off, leading them to suspect the thief was from within the household.

Advanced Engineering in a Grand Victorian Mansion
Source: Ariella Brown

The story is that Lockwood’s daughter had a friend over who did not have any jewels with her to put on when they joined the family in the dining room. As Miss Lockwood did not want this for her friend, she took her own off, and left them in her room rather than in the vault -- as she was supposed to do. When she returned, the jewels were gone.

Such burglar alarms were still relatively new and rare. In fact, Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, Norwalk, Connecticut, is identified as one of the case studies included in a review of what is called Domestic security : the Holmes burglar alarm telegraph, 1853-1876.

The Mathews family, which bought the house after the Lockwoods lost possession of it, added some more electric features. But what they failed to do was add an elevator. The reason this is somewhat surprising is that the last Mathew to remain in the house was an invalid who either had to be carried up and down the stairs or crammed into a dumb waiter.

The house still stands as a monument to the pinnacle of Victorian engineering and design. But the story behind it also attests to how swiftly fortunes can change.

We don't live as grandly today, but we do enjoy a lifestyle in which we take the comforts delivered by climate control, electricity, and plumbing for granted.

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