The Mansion at FDU

Since its founding in 1982, most of Opera at Florham performances have been held in residence at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ, located just four miles from the center of Morristown and a few blocks from the Convent Station train station. Our events take place in Lenfell Hall, the former music room of the Mansion located in the center of campus. This 125-year-old Gilded Age masterpiece includes winding staircases, large hand-carved marble fireplaces, high ceilings, and classic paintings, making it an elegant and relaxing setting for operatic events.

 

The story of the Mansion-Florham, the centerpiece of the Florham-Madison Campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, youngest of the three campuses, began over 125 years ago. The name given to the estate by its original owners is a combination of both their first names: Florence and Hamilton Twombly.  The estate’s owners were Heiress Florence Adele Vanderbilt, favored granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, renowned as one of the richest tycoons in America and her husband financier Hamilton McKown Twombly, a member of an old New England family.  The exclusive atmosphere of Millionaires Row and the rural charm of the Morris County countryside appealed to them. They married in 1877 and had four children, three daughters and one son.          

Landscape and Architecture

In 1890 the couple purchased 1,200 acres to fulfill their dream of a fancied English-style country mansion in a stately park setting. Florham, one of the America’s finest Gilded Age homes was the result. The foremost landscape architect of the 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, was commissioned to transform about 150 acres into a park of lawn, terraces and formal gardens with fountain behind The Mansion and the Italian Gardens with pergolas and parterre alongside the Mansion. In 1894 they commissioned the renowned architectural New York firm of McKim, Mead with their partner, the flamboyant Stanford White, the architects of many neo-Gothic and Renaissance structures in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to design The Mansion.  

 

The Mansion’s brick trimmed with Indiana limestone originally contained 110-rooms, 23 bathrooms and many fireplaces, was completed in 1897. Its Georgian Revival design, inspired by the Christopher Wren’s wing of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, was sited to overlook the 150 acre park and nearby valley.  Most of its interior decorations (such as staircases, columns, floors and fireplaces) are in Italian Carrara marble, by Italian immigrant craftsmen (600). Thomas Edison, a friend of Hamilton, designed the heating system. At the turn of the 20th century, The Mansion, centerpiece of the park, was one of the great houses of America with the grounds laid out like those of an English country estate, employing 125 servants including groundskeepers with 25 living in The Mansion.  

Vanderbilt Twombly

The Twombly’s resided at Florham during the spring and early Fall, spending the summer in their other homes in Newport, Rhode Island, and the winter in New York City. The greater part of this estate, over 900 acres behind the Mansion, was developed into a working farm and 18 hole mini golf course. The Farm where Hamilton raised a world-renowned herd of Guernsey cattle, extended across what is now Park Avenue and where currently the Exxon Research Center, BASF headquarters and the New Jersey Jets’ Training Park are located. The town of Florham Park took its name from the estate.  

In its early years, The Mansion-Florham was the epitome of architectural splendor and the undisputed center of Morris County’s social life of not less than 200 millionaires - the Golden age of the Great Gatsby era in which the Twombly’s represented wealth and power.

 

Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, passing in 1952 at the age of 98, was acknowledged by social commentators as the uncrowned dowager queen of American society. She held America’s last court for three quarters of a century, considering herself the real Mrs. Vanderbilt, and, as such, reigned as grande dame of the family. She upheld the Vanderbilt legacy through two World Wars and two depressions. Her death was noted as the last great lady of New York’s old Four Hundred, and the final passing of the Old Order. Hamilton had died much earlier in 1910 at age 60, grief stricken shortly after deaths of his only son in 1906 and a daughter in 1896.

 

In 1953 the splendor of Florham and its Vanderbilt mystique ended. The Twombly home and lavish contents were sold at public auction in 1955 when the unmarried daughter died.  

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Fairleigh Dickinson Campus

Florham Park solidified its reputation as a college town when Fairleigh Dickinson University purchased 187 acres in 1958, including the splendid Mansion and related buildings; the academic campus opened that fall. The College at Florham bridges the towns of Florham Park and Madison. In the Images of America series, historian John Cunningham refers to the Mansion as “the most opulent ‘old main’ in higher education history.”  FDU has replicated its historical architectural designs in its newer added facilities carefully sited to preserve specimen trees and original vistas of The Mansion. 

The Mansion’s magnificence faded and the current 100 rooms and its outer buildings were converted to academic purposes to meet today’s University needs. The Mansion’s first floor houses the administrative offices of the president, provost and other deans. The Great Hall with marble ionic columns capped in gold leaf on marble tiled floor remains. The chestnut-paneled Hartman Lounge (former billiard room), Sullivan Lounge (family breakfast room) and Lenfell Hall, centerpiece of The Mansion (ballroom and drawing room) are now used for meetings and special events. The second floor contains classrooms, lounges and other formal meeting rooms. The Basement, which contained the main kitchen, food storage and servants’ lounge, now has administrative offices. The Outbuildings included an Orangerie (now the Monninger Center with Library and auditorium), greenhouses, gate lodge at the Main Gate (Credit Union), and Carriage House (Science Building) are alive for University activity.  

Recognition of the historical significance of The Mansion began with its restoration starting in 1994 and continues to the present by the organization Friends of Florham in conjunction with the University. Lenfell Hall was renovated in 1999. The Great Hall of the grand McKim interior was restored in 2001 to reflect its former elegance and offers a striking “first impression” of the mansion and university. In 2004, family paintings were cleaned and rehung in Lenfell Hall. In 2012, the Hartman Lounge's mahogany-paneled walls and moldings were enhanced with new blue and red draperies, Chippendale-style sofas and Persian-style carpet. The herringbone floors, an element in McKim, Mead and White’s work, were left partially uncovered. Their drawings were re-matted in navy and mounted on the walls, calling attention to the history of the room. The Italian Garden on the side of the Mansion was restored in 1998.