Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vermont. The park preserves the site where Frederick Billings established a managed forest and a progressive dairy farm. The name honors Billings and the other owners of the property: George Perkins Marsh, Mary Montagu Billings French, Laurance Rockefeller, and Mary French Rockefeller. The Rockefellers transferred the property to the federal government in 1992. It is the only unit of the United States National Park System in Vermont (except for a portion of the Appalachian Trail).
Nestled among the rolling hills and pastures of eastern-central Vermont, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is the only national park to tell the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America. The boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s first conservationists, and later the home of Frederick Billings, the property was given to the American people by its most recent owners, Laurance S. and Mary F. Rockefeller.
The park seeks to put the idea of conservation stewardship into a modern context, interpreting the idea of place and the ways in which humans can balance natural resource conservation with the requirements of our twenty-first century world.
Charles Marsh, a prominent Vermont lawyer, built the core of the main house in 1805, as a fairly typical two-story five-bay Federal style house, and it is where he raised his family. His son George Perkins Marsh was born elsewhere in Woodstock in 1801, and grew up here before leaving for Dartmouth College when he was sixteen. The younger Marsh followed his father into both law and politics, winning election to Congress in 1834 as a Whig, and gaining appointment to diplomatic posts by Presidents John Tyler and Abraham Lincoln. Between the 1830s and 1860s he developed a philosophy of land stewardship which laid the foundation for the conservation movement in the United States with the 1864 publication of Man and Nature, or the Physical Geography as Modified by Human Behavior. This work, updated in 1874, gave a historical assessment of the decline of earlier societies because of a lack of stewardship, and made substantive calls for remedial actions to preserve the natural environment. Marsh died in 1882, never seeing his ideas fully realized.
The Marsh estate, then 246 acres (100 ha), was purchased in 1869 by Frederick H. Billings, a native of Royalton, Vermont who made a fortune as a lawyer dealing with land claims during the California Gold Rush, and was one of the founding partners of the Northern Pacific Railroad, serving as its president from 1873 to 1881. Between 1869 and 1881 Billings commissioned two significant enlargements and alterations to the house, the first adding a wing and a mansard roof, and the second, designed by Henry Hudson Holley, that fully transformed the building into the elaborate Queen Anne Victorian it is today. Billings established what he considered to be a model farm on the property, which is now the adjacent Billings Farm museum.
The next major owners of the property were Mary French Rockefeller (Billings’ granddaughter) and her husband Laurance Rockefeller. The latter, an influential conservation advisor to several United States presidents, donated the house and upland properties to the people of the United States in 1992, the year the park was established. The house and a surrounding 40 acres (16 ha) of land were designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1967 for their association with Marsh and Billings, and for the house’s architecture, which was judged a particularly fine and imposing example of Queen Anne architecture.
Nestled among the rolling hills and pastures of eastern-central Vermont, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is the only national park to tell the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America. The boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s first conservationists, and later the home of Frederick Billings, the property was given to the American people by its most recent owners, Laurance S. and Mary F. Rockefeller. The park was created by an Act of Congress and signed into law by President George Bush on August 26, 1992. Under law, the purposes of the park are as follows:
To interpret the history and evolution of conservation stewardship in America;
To recognize and interpret the contributions and birthplace of George Perkins Marsh, pioneering environmentalist, author of Man and Nature, statesman, lawyer, and linguist;
To recognize and interpret the contributions of Frederick Billings, conservationist, pioneer in reforestation and scientific farm management, lawyer, philanthropist, and railroad builder, who extended the principles of land management introduced by Marsh;
To preserve the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller mansion and its surrounding lands; and
To recognize the significant contributions of Julia Billings, Mary Billings French, Mary French Rockefeller, and Laurance Spelman Rockefeller in perpetuating the Marsh-Billings heritage.
Today, the park is a living symbol of three generations of conservationist thought and practice. It is also a repository for the histories of three quintessentially American families. Visitors can tour the mansion and gardens where these exceptional people lived and observed nature, and learn more about land stewardship and conservation by hiking in the managed forest and visiting the conservation stewardship exhibit at the Carriage Barn Visitor Center.
The park seeks to put the idea of conservation stewardship into a modern context, interpreting the idea of place and the ways in which humans can balance natural resource conservation with the requirements of our twenty-first century world. The Stewardship Institute (formerly Conservation Study Institute), established by the National Park Service to enhance leadership in conservation and facilitate stewardship partnerships in local communities, is also located at the park.
The park operates in partnership with The Woodstock Foundation, Inc. and the adjacent Billings Farm & Museum, a working dairy farm and a museum of agricultural and rural life. During Frederick Billings’ lifetime, the farm and forest properties were operated as parts of a single estate, and today visitors have the unique opportunity of experiencing both landscapes side-by-side. Park staff interpret the idea of conservation stewardship in a working landscape, emphasizing the residential and forested areas of the estate, while Farm & Museum interpreters present farming and rural Vermont life, all in the context of the legacy of forest and farm stewardship left by Frederick Billings.
Features and facilities
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is located just northwest of Woodstock village, on the west side of Vermont Route 12. Opposite it on the east side of the road stands the Billings Farm, a working farm and heritage museum also on land originally belonging to the Billingses. Parking for both properties is located on the east side of VT 12, and National Park Service staff attend visitors at both the farm’s visitor center, and one located on the park property. The area nearest the road is a landscaped area featuring the George Perkins Marsh Boyhood Home, the architectural centerpiece of the park and a National Historic Landmark. Although it was built in 1805, it underwent major alterations under Frederick Billings to achieve its present Late Victorian splendor. Visitors can take guided tours of the house (reservations recommended due to limited availability), which include displays of landscape paintings, including a significant collection of Hudson River School artists, highlighting the influence painting and photography had on the conservation movement. The gardens have also been restored.
Extending up the hillside to the west is a conservation landscape of more than 600 acres (240 ha), through which carriage roads and trails traverse a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. A pond is located near the center of the high valley, and there are several scenic viewpoints accessible from the trails. The property extends westward all the way to Prosper Road, where trailhead access is also provided to the western portions of the park.
The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion was originally constructed as a brick house in the Federal-style by Charles Marsh in 1805. It was purchased by Frederick Billings in 1869 and remodeled in the fashionable French Second Empire Style. Fifteen years later, Billings enlarged and remodeled the house in the Queen Anne Style. Billings’ granddaughter, Mary French Rockefeller, inherited the property in 1954. She and her husband, Laurance Rockefeller, adapted the home for modern living. Today the home remains the way the Rockefellers left it in 1997. Guided tours of the museum are offered daily from Memorial Day weekend through October.
The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion that graces a promontory overlooking Elm and River Streets was originally built in 1805 for the growing Marsh family. The Federal-style brick house was sold to Frederick Billings in 1869 and Billings subsequently undertook dramatic renovations.
The 1869 renovation, by Boston architect William Ralph Emerson, transformed the property into a fashionable Stick Style mansion. A mansard roof, pointed gable dormers, tall chimneys and a verandah were added and the trim was painted in two or more different colors.
In 1885, Billings hired the renowned architect and author Henry Hudson Holly to remodel the house in the newly-fashionable Queen Anne style. The mansard roof was removed and Holly added much ornamental brickwork. The third story and service wing were enlarged and the interiors were redecorated in lavish Victorian style. The Tiffany Glass Company of New York designed several stained glass windows and provided the wallpapers and fabrics for the newly-decorated home.
The Billings Mansion remained virtually unchanged until Laurance Spelman Rockefeller and Mary French Rockefeller inherited it in 1954. While the Rockefellers updated rooms and replaced many wallpapers, paints and upholsteries, the house remains an excellent example of the Queen Anne style.
In 1967, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, dedicated the house in a special ceremony, attesting to the care and sense of heritage with which Mary and Laurance Rockefeller preserved the property. In June of 1998, on the opening of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Mrs. Johnson returned to Woodstock to rededicate the house with a plaque honoring all three generations of conservationists who have lived on the site.
Grounds and Gardens
When Frederick Billings bought the Marsh property in 1869, he immediately hired Robert Morris Copeland to design the Mansion’s grounds. Copeland, a well-known Boston landscape architect, planned formal gardens encircling the house and a reconfigured front drive. He took down the white picket fence built by the Marsh family and created a much larger front lawn from former pasture land.
In keeping with the romanticism that prevailed in landscape design, Copeland created curving beds with natural lines. Billings also ordered the construction of two Adirondack-style summer houses, a Swiss cottage-style structure called a belvedere, greenhouses and a garden shed.
In 1899, Billings’ widow Julia Parmly Billings retained the services of Charles A. Platt, a celebrated landscape and structural architect who summered nearby in the Cornish Art Colony in Cornish, New Hampshire. Platt added garden seats and a fountain and may have designed the terrace gardens that still exist today. In 1902, Mrs. Billings hired Martha Brooks Hutcheson, one of the first female landscape architects in America, to redesign the approach to the house. Ten years later, Ellen Shipman, who was also connected with the Cornish Art Colony, redesigned the formal plantings near the Mansion.
When Laurance and Mary Rockefeller took over the property in 1954, they hired landscape architect Zenon Schreiber, who made extensive additions to the property, including a waterfall garden and rock gardens.
Today, the gardens at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park include an azalea and rhododendron garden, rock garden, cutting garden, a hemlock hedgerow, a dense stand of Norway spruce, and many other plantings, all expressing the many-layered design and development of the gardens and grounds through four generations of dedicated stewardship.
The Carriage Barn was built on the foundation of an earlier stable in 1895 to house the Billings Family horses, carriages and sleighs. It was designed by the nephew of Frederick and Julia Billings, Ehrick Kensett Rossiter, of Rossiter and Wright Architects. The building has been adapted by the National Park Service for use as the park’s headquarters and visitor center, with exhibits, a bookstore and a reading area.
The Belvedere Complex consists of the Belvedere, the Bowling Alley, the Garden Workshop, the Greenhouse, and the outdoor swimming pool. It was designed in the 1870s by Detlef Lienau, the architect best known for his introduction of the mansard roof to the United States. The two-story Belvedere, which means “beautiful view,” features a low-profile cruciform shape cross-gable roof with wide overhanging bracketed eaves, fanciful scrollwork detailing, and a second-story verandah reminiscent of a Swiss cottage.
In the 1950s, the Rockefellers hired architect Theodor Muller to renovate all the buildings on the property. Muller remodeled the Belvedere’s interior including the Bowling Alley, complete with a soda fountain, and added pool changing rooms. The last major change to the Belvedere Complex occurred in the early 1960s when the Rockefeller family had a fallout shelter constructed in the basement of the Belvedere, beneath the Bowling Alley. Designed by Muller during the height of the Cold War era, the shelters were intended to protect the family in the event of a nuclear war. Today, the Complex is virtually unchanged since the end of the Rockefeller era and is still furnished and decorated with the family’s belongings.
The U.S. Green Building Council awarded its highest rating for Leadership in Environment and Energy Design (LEED) to the new Forest Center at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Both the Forest Center, a classroom and meeting space and the adjacent 1876 Wood Barn, home to a new exhibit on the Forest, share the Platinum LEED certification. This partnership project of the National Park Service and The Woodstock Foundation was also recognized with a Designing and Building with FSC award presented by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible forest management. Both buildings used FSC certified wood from the Park’s historic forest, the oldest professionally managed woodland in North America. FSC certification encourages the highest standards of woodland management through credible, independent evaluation and verification of exemplary forestry practices.
Reflecting on the building’s beauty, efficiency and simplicity, (Retired) Park Superintendent Rolf Diamant describes the Center as “an example of thoughtful building practices and innovation enriched by human-scale design and hand-built quality.” Looking to the future, Woodstock Foundation President David Donath said, “We are very pleased to join with the National Park in creating a place for reflection, dialogue, and lifelong learning around forward-thinking stewardship.”
The Forest Center was designed by Steve Smith of Smith, Alvarez, Sienkiewycz Architects, Burlington, Vermont and built by H.P. Cummings, Woodsville, New Hampshire. Forestry services were provided by Redstart Forestry and Consulting, Corinth, Vermont, with additional work undertaken by Long View Forest Contracting of Westminster, Vermont.
The Bungalow, located on the hill adjacent to the Mansion, is a Craftsman-style building constructed in 1916-17. It was designed as a secluded retreat by Harold Van Buren Magonigle for Mary Montague Billings French, daughter of Frederick Billings. The Bungalow remained unchanged until 1959 when the daughter of Mrs. French, Mary French Rockefeller, commissioned architect Theodor Muller of New York to renovate the building. Muller added a simple but modern kitchen and furnished it with many of the decorative items Laurance Rockefeller inherited from his father’s estate in Seal Harbor, Maine. The inspiration for Muller’s design was a Japanese Shinto temple. The Bungalow contains Asian decorative elements and fine art and also houses artwork from the South Pacific and Africa.
The Woodbarn was built between 1875 and 1876 to accommodate Frederick Billings’ forestry operations. Timber products were processed in the adjoining yard then stored in the Woodbarn. The structure continued to be used for forestry until the 1950s. It was restored by the National Park Service in 2008 and adapted for storage of the park’s historic carriage collection. The Woodbarn also features an exhibit called, The Mount Tom Forest: A Legacy of Stewardship. It is open to the public daily from Memorial Day weekend through October.
We are excited to announce the completion of a permanent Artist in Residence studio at the park. The studio, in the rehabilitated Rockefeller Horse Shed, is off the grid with a vertically integrated 230 watt solar photovoltaic system. The project was designed by SAS Architects of Burlington, Vermont, the same firm who designed the Forest Center, the park’s Platinum LEED certified classroom and meeting space. Our partners, and the park’s previous artists-in-residence were consulted in the design process to address the needs of current and future artists at the park. The Horse Shed, designed by Theodor Muller and built in 1961, was originally constructed to house Mary Rockefeller’s horses.
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is the first national park to tell the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America. The three families associated with the site embody the early ideals of conservation stewardship in the United States. The museum collection consists primarily of nineteenth and twentieth century art and artifacts belonging to the Billings and Rockefeller families, and a few items associated with George Perkins Marsh. It is a diverse collection that includes household furnishings, fine arts, decorative arts and family mementos. Of particular importance are the landscape paintings by artists connected to the Hudson River School, because of the School’s association with the American conservation movement.
The fine art collection at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is one of the gems of the National Park Service. Of particular importance are the nature and landscape paintings by artists associated with the Hudson River School. The collection also includes folk art, modern art, portraits, and sculpture. There are over 500 works of art in the collection.
Historical Furnishings and Decorative Arts
The historical furnishings and decorative arts collection date primarily from the mid to late 19th century and feature a variety of distinctive decorative elements including furniture, silver, ceramics, and glass.
Textiles and Clothing
The textile collection consists of fabrics, clothing and accessories from around the world. Many of these items were collected by the Billings Family and the Rockefeller Family during their travels to places like India, China, Greece, Mexico and Japan.
Man and Nature: 150 Years of Environmental Conservation Legacy
“Marsh’s Man and Nature marked the inception of a truly modern way of looking at the world, of thinking about how people live in and reacted on the fabric of landscape they inhabit…Marsh showed how human culture acted in and reacted on a ramified web of plants and animals, soils and waters.” – David Lowenthal, Historian and author of George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation.
“The true importance of Marsh, Billings, and those who follow in their footsteps, goes beyond stewardship. Their work transcends maintenance. It involves new thought and new action to enhance and enrich…the past…We cannot rest on the achievements of the past. Rather each generation must not only be stewards, but activists, and enrichers.” – Laurance Rockefeller
The history of Marsh- Bilings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is not only the history of a special house and property and the families who lived there. Rather, the park reflects a rich continuum of social history and land stewardship practices that continues to evolve.
Hudson River School Paintings at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP
This exhibit showcases paintings in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park collections that tell the story of conservation history and land stewardship in America.
The works of art include some of America’s finest landscape painters and members of the Hudson River School. The paintings are of American and European landscapes. They are displayed in the Mansion, which was the boyhood home of George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s first conservationists. The property was later the home of Frederick and Julia Billings, who assembled the art collection. The property and collections were later given to the American people by Mary and Laurance S. Rockefeller.
Barbizon Paintings at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP
The private art collection of Frederick Billings was highly regarded in New York society during the 1880s. Among the many styles of paintings he collected were several landscapes by Barbizon painters. Barbizon, a village southeast of Paris, was the center of a landscape painting movement in the 19th century that is widely regarded as the precursor to French Impressionism. Like the Impressionists, Barbizon painters worked outdoors,seeking to capture seasonal changes and the effects of light. Many famous Impressionist painters trained with Barbizon artists, adapting their techniquesand principles to develop their own methods.
Laurance Rockefeller purchased five landscape paintings by Vermont artist, Arthur Jones, in the 1970s and 1980s. Jones is a native Vermonter from Dorset, Vermont. He is well known for his miniature Vermont landscapes and was one of the founders of the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, where he continues to exhibit his work, as he has done since 1948.
Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858)
Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858) is widely regarded to be one of the greatest masters of Ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodblock print. In the early 1830s, he was invited to join a delegation of officials from the Imperial Court on a journey to Kyoto, which inspired this series of prints titled, Kyoto Meisho, featuring famous places of Kyoto. This set was either a gift of family friend, Sho Nemoto, to the Billings Family, or perhaps purchased by them during their trip to Japan in 1898.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
The prints in this exhibit are the work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), considered the last great master of Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock print making. Ukiyo-e was a genre of Japanese art that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity coincided with the end of the feudal era and the rise of the more modern, industrialized Meiji era in Japan. Among Yoshitoshi’s finest work is his series, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, completed during the last years of his life. The series of one hundred prints depicts scenes from Japanese and Chinese history and mythology, with most of the images featuring a moon.
These watercolors were most likely purchased by the Billings Family in Burma during their 1898 trip to the Far East. On the back of the first painting (MABI 9309), Mrs. Billings wrote the title, “Duel on Elephants.” On the second painting (MABI9308), she wrote the title “Theebaw on his Elephant.” King Thibaw (sometimes spelled Theebaw) was the last king of Burma. He was exiled to India when the British deposed him in 1885, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park was awarded the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of a United States national park by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program in August 2005. This certification made Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller only the second United States federal land to receive such certification for sustainable forest management.