Location: Milford, Pennsylvania
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Grey Towers is the ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot, father of modern forestry in the US, first Chief of the Forest Service, and twice Governor of Pennsylvania. The house was built using native stone and other local materials in the style of a French chateau to reflect the Pinchot’s family history. Built by James Pinchot in 1884, Grey Towers was where James retired after a successful career in the wallpaper industry. He was actually returning home to Milford where his family had a land and timber business that clearcut the native forests before moving on to new land. In addition to building the home on a hill overlooking the town, James Pinchot regretted the family legacy of cut and move that had left the surrounding hillsides barren. Since there were no forestry schools in the United States, he endowed the first graduate program in forestry at Yale University, which held there summer camps on the property from 1901-1926. Gifford Pinchot grew up with the same love and respect of the forests leading to his advocacy for the National Forests and his appointment as the first Chief of the Forest Service by President Theodore Roosevelt. He continued to use Grey Towers as a summer residence, but his growing political career increased its importance as a location to entertain political dignitaries. Originally the house consisted of 43 rooms with the main floor having a large entrance hall, dining room, billiard room, parlor, library, and sitting room. However, Gifford’s wife, Cornellia knew it had to be opened up to be more of a residence to entertain guests. Therefore, she combined the parlor and library into a larger library with piano for entertaining and combining the dining room and breakfast room into a large sitting room to display memorabilia and awards presented to Gifford. This of course meant there was no longer a dining room in the house. Instead guests would gather outside around the “water table” for meals. This is unique structure consisting of chairs around a large basin filled with water which guests would use to “pass” food contained in floating wooden bowls or plates. Other structures on the property include a swimming pool (which has been filled in to provide space for outside events), the “Bait Box” which is a stone playhouse for their children, the “Letter Box” which is a small stone building used for offices and conference room while Gifford served as Governor, an open-air amphitheater used every year for an ice cream social for the community, and a moat in front of the house.
1) The Visitor Center is a very small room off to the side of the main entrance to the house. From here you can obtain maps, information, and obtain tickets for the house tour. This site is an odd mix of the National Park Service, in the Department of the Interior, since it is a National Historic Site and the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, since Gifford Pinchot was the first Chief. It caused for a bit of confusion with their computer system which is designed for timber sales, not ticket sales. We have an Interagency Pass that covers the admission to all National Parks, but since they are also funded through the Forest Service, it only covered half of the admission price. Strange.
2) The grounds are spectacular. I obtained a brochure about the trees planted on the property, which also have tags on the trees, and we spent some time checking out all the different species that have planted. I was surprised to find so many exotic trees, since as a conservationist, I would expected Gifford Pinchot to plant only native species. They have one very interesting species from Europe – the European Copper Beach, for which leaves began as a copper color turning green from the bottom of the crown up to the top and then turning a reddish-copper color in the fall. Since we visited in early spring, the leaves were all a copper color which gave an interesting contrast to the greens of all the other trees.
3) The Bait Box is a small stone structure that was initially built as a playhouse for the children, but eventually became a tea house for entertaining. What a great idea and so much better than a wooden tree house that I grew up with. There is also a small reflecting pool leading to the structure that is wider at one end to give an interesting perspective of distance when looking at the Bait Box. In pictures it makes the Bait Box appear larger than it actually is.
4) The Letter Box is now used to show short films about the career of Gifford Pinchot and hold the archives for the family. Unfortunately, the DVD player was not working while we were there.
5) The tour of the house is very interesting. The entrance hall is enormous with a large fireplace and enough room to hold a dance. It is designed to impress guests and it certainly would do the job. The combination of the sitting room and library is interesting and gives the new room an odd shape. They even left the door into the library from the entrance hall visible from the hall even though it no longer opens. Finally, the combination of the dining room and breakfast room into the large sitting room is unique. Not only are there a number of awards and other memorabilia throughout the room, but the walls are actually paintings that they place on the wall within painted frames to make them look three dimensional. Certainly nothing I have ever seen before.
6) The most interesting feature has to be the water table. Imagine sitting around a small pool of water eating a meal and passing food back and forth by pushing a bowl or platter across the top of the water. Our guide told us a story about a 20 pound turkey that took a dive to the bottom of the table during a meal.
7) We also took the Forest Discovery hike up the hill to the site of the Yale Forestry Summer Camp. They have a canvas tent similar to ones they would have used that had a wooden floor and wooden cots for beds. Although there is nothing remaining today, they did have a classroom and dining hall/kitchen for their use as well.