Since Bard College acquired Montgomery Place in 2016, the former seat of one of the branches of the Livingston family has become the “salon” hosting public events. Famous names long associated with Montgomery Place include architect Alexander Jackson Davis and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, but now visitors will have opportunities to learn about a lesser-known steward of this magnificent site overlooking the Hudson River.
Part of what makes Alexander Gilson (1824-1889) remarkable is the fact that he was born into slavery. After being freed, he stayed on as head gardener, working closely with Cora Livingston Barton to develop Montgomery Place’s “pleasure gardens” during the Gilded Age redesign of the estate. Gilson eventually opened his own nursery business, and had a cultivar of ornamental plant that he had bred named after him: Achyranthes verschaffeltii, var. Gilsoni.
“Toward an Ethical Imagination: Gilsonfest” is a collaboration among Bard College, Historic Red Hook, the Dutchess County Historical Society and the Red Hook Quilters focusing on Alexander Gilson’s life. On Friday, May 24 at 11:30 a.m. at the Historic Red Hook Annex on Cherry Street in Red Hook, Gilsonfest continues with the opening of “Alexander Gilson: From Property to Property Owner.” It will include an exhibition by students in a Bard College class about Alexander Gilson, a quilting presentation by the Red Hook Quilters and a presentation on historic garden artifacts and plants. At 1 p.m. that same day, there will be a public signage dedication in honor of the life of Alexander Gilson at the Montgomery Place Visitor Center, followed by a gathering at the Montgomery Place Greenhouse toolroom.
Gardening continues to hold center stage on Friday, May 24 at 4 p.m. with a garden party in Montgomery Place’s Ellipse Garden, located in front of the Greenhouse. It will officially open an exhibition titled “The Gilded Garden: Historic Ornament in the Landscape at Montgomery Place,” which will spotlight the use of decorative garden ornaments and furniture, including cast iron, terra cotta and marble objects, alongside living plants.
The musical side of the Spring Series comes into play with concerts and lectures in May featuring music of the estate’s Gilded Age heyday. On Sunday, May 26 at 4 p.m. at the Montgomery Place North Porch, a concert by a saxophone quartet will pull together the Spring Series’ horticultural and musical themes with “The Gardener of Montgomery Place and the Composer of Newburgh, New York.” Downriver in Newburgh, Ulysses J. Alsdorf, whose grandfather was freed by the Manumission Act of New York State on July 4, 1827, had a life journey similar to Gilson’s. The Alsdorfs were prominent entrepreneurs, involved in everything from catering to dance schools. Ulysses J. Alsdorf’s music was used to celebrate the Newburgh portion of the 1909 Henry Hudson/Robert Fulton Celebration, when a steamboat traveled from Manhattan to Albany, stopping in Newburgh. Four of his compositions will be performed, along with works by Mohr, Kreutzer, Mayeur and Florio. The saxophonists include Christopher Brellochs, Eric Aweh, Joe North and Wayne Tice. Admission is free, and attendees are requested to bring their own lawn chairs and/or blankets.
The Spring Series concludes on Sunday, May 26 at 2 p.m. with the lecture “History of Memorial Day” by Myra Young Armstead, Lyford Paterson Edwards and Helen Gray Edwards professor of Historical Studies at Bard College. This will be presented at the Montgomery Place Coach House, followed by refreshments on the Mansion House north porch. For more information, visit https://bard.edu/montgomeryplace.