DAYS GONE BY
The Crumbling Mansion Ruled by the Gilded Age’s Most Ruthless Matriarch
Of all the storied homes lining the Hudson River, the Mills Mansion should be on the list of anybody fascinated by the time when Americans tried to create their own aristocracy.
On December 8, 1907, The New York Times ran a wedding announcement headlined:
GLADYS MILLS WEDS HENRY C. PHIPPS
Special Train Carries New York Guests to Staatsburg for Brilliant Ceremony
GIFTS VALUED AT $2,000,000
Bride’s Father-in-Law Presents Her with House in East 85th Street
Special to New York Times
The Dec. 7 wedding day was unseasonably warm and clear, mild enough to allow guests who had ridden the train up through the lower Hudson River valley to walk the short distance from the station to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. “The village streets became animated with handsomely gowned women and men in afternoon dress,” the Times reported. Among the names delighting the crowds: Astor, Vanderbilt (15 of them), Morgan, Harriman—all now faded into the historical tapestry of New York, recognizable merely as the names of streets, subway stops, brokerage firms, but not much more. So it is hard to imagine these people as people, and harder still to grasp the outsize scale on which they partied, married, and participated in what constituted living large in their day.
The Times headline sums up the over-the-top opulence (a “Special Train” just for the wedding guests, $2 million in gifts) and the condescending snobbery (“Villagers Entertained”). For more nuanced insight into how these families lived, gambled, and maintained three to five mansions apiece, read Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, which ostensibly takes place at Mills Mansion, where the wedding reception was held.
Or, visit the 65-room mansion that still crowns a sprawling landscape rolling down to the Hudson River, and cast your own Gilded Age party against the room-by-room tour. When the Livingston-Mills family donated the house to New York State 1938, they left everything exactly as it was, taking with them only the family china and any paperwork detailing what happened within its walls.
In 1890, Ruth Livingston Mills, Gladys’ mother, the doyenne of Gilded Age Staatsburg, inherited the Livingston Manor—a 3-story, 25-room estate on 334 acres overlooking the Hudson River. In 1896, McKim, Mead & White, high society’s go-to architectural firm, completed a year-long, $350,000 expansion of the Greek revival style mansion. Fourteen bathrooms, coal-powered electricity, central heat, and 23 obsolete fireplaces later, a stunning 65-room Beaux Arts style palace enveloped Livingston Manor and was christened Mills Mansion.
Beyond the recently restored gates initialled with RLM, a long driveway winds through trees and opens to a rolling green lawn where sits a gunite-crusted mansion not at all on par with the fantasy wedding reportage in the Times. The portico where guests would have entered in the home’s heyday has been restored to the gleaming white exterior that evokes the White House with its nearly identical placement of ionic columns, palladian windows, flat roof and the boxy add-ons—a northside library and the southside dining room. Today, tourists enter through the gift shop in the basement where bachelors and male guests once were quartered when Mrs. Ruth Mills was on a matchmaking tear. Entering through the back of the house highlights how majestically placed her inherited palace was. A double staircase—also with crust removed—off the back terrace heightens the panoramic view of the Hudson River with the jagged Catskills along the Horizon.
A maze of corridors outside the gift shop—where visiting males were quartered along with the servants and where the hotel-sized kitchen was housed—hardly qualifies as a restoration work in progress: chipped and fallen plaster expose old lathing at almost every turn. With the popularity of Downton Abbey, the mansion aspires to restore all floors, so the upstairs/downstairs stories can be imagined at Staatsburg. But, I cannot help to think the mansion will never be complete. Without state or private funding, the process will be piecemeal. At best, there will be a room-by-room restoration that ends where it began in perpetuity.
The fictitious Gus and Judy Trenor in The House of Mirth are thought to be based on Ogden and Ruth Mills. If that’s true, the Mills swam in a social pool often muddied by affairs and divorce, but they kept it from their doorstep. Judy Trenor is a socially ruthless woman but untainted by scandal, and so was Ruth Mills. When the Livingston Manor swelled to become Mills Mansion, there was clear objective. Ruth would be the only socialite boasting thoroughbreds enough—Ogden Mills owned stables in the U.S. and France—to stage elaborate month-long fox hunts with jack rabbits imported from Texas and 36 hounds.
There was no more important name than Livingston in New York society, and no other socialite in the area to compete with. In the fall of 1907, recently divorced Robert Winthrop Chanler, the brother of the lieutenant governor of New York, was an avid participant in the fox hunting hosted at Mills mansion—he brought the foxes. But he was long gone by the day of the wedding, where his ex was a guest. The Mills respected propriety above all. No consideration was paid, however, to the neighboring farmers who erected No Trespassing signs to save their bounty from the hounds, jack rabbits, foxes, and thoroughbreds traipsing through.
Bellomont, the house in Wharton’s novel, is also conspicuously similar to the Mills estate. Bellomont has a room described as“the only surviving portion of the old manor-house”—keenly similar to Mills Mansion, which is also a house within a house. She was loath to destroy the landmark to her prominent family. Instead, Ruth chose to make additions on both sides to remind people—as she did in so many ways—that she hailed from the nation’s political and historical elite. The original home had been built by her great-grandfather, New York’s third governor, Morgan Lewis, whose father, Francis Lewis, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
After the ceremony, wedding guests headed over to Mills Mansion, entering through the portico, and from there to the drawing room and library where the bridal party greeted their 200 guests.
At one end of the great library, a nine-foot portrait of Governor Lewis dwarfs the fireplace and takes up half the space to the ceiling—where, in Wharton’s story, “a few family portraits of lantern-jawed gentlemen in tie-wigs...hung.” Other family portraits adorn the library walls, but those are modest in size and probably only recognizable to gilded royals. On my tour, the docent said, “She’s showing right off while she’s socializing, and she repeats that in other rooms, like the Main Hall—you’ll see the whole line up of all her ancestors.”
The Mills library was used mostly for gambling. Serious money was made or lost at the bridge tables. On wedding day, the existing navy-on-ivory carpet would have been rolled up and the furniture removed to make room for a band and dancing. Mills Mansion did not have a ballroom. Ballrooms were confined to the New York City mansions along 5th Avenue, where society debutantes came out in the dead of winter. Against the backdrop of the library’s smart quartered-oak walls and burgundy draperies, only a fraction of wall space in the 50-foot room is devoted to built-in bookcases holding leather-bound volumes that were, à la Bellomont, “in fact never used for reading,” Gentlemen and ladies in layers of silk skirts twirled across the dance floor, possibly brushing the Benjamin Franklin bust that still sits there. A deck of cards sits on a green baize-covered card table.
Like all rooms on view at the Mills Estate, the library remains as it was when the family occupied the home and hosted America’s elite. As a whole, the library is remarkably intact, and only close inspection reveals cracks in the facade. Sunlight and temperature have faded and worn away the vibrancy of the curtains, and the book collection is now enclosed in glass to prevent further environmental deterioration. Preserving the contents of the rooms is the first order in conservation. The carpet and the upholstery are maintained and cleaned. The discovery of carpet beetles has been a blessing in disguise. New methods of preservation are developed in real time as challenges present themselves—the spray-it-with-gunite-so-it-doesn’t-decay era is over.
“Generally, because money is tight—when they do restore a room, they restore on an as-needed basis. If it looks okay, they’ll keep it a little bit longer, because it takes money to source back the fabrics,” the guide said. Gold embellishments along the plaster ceiling have worn beautifully as have the oak walls. It’s easy to transpose oneself into the room at the time when it was replete with laughter, gaming, and smoking on the terrace.
Some of the wealthiest Americans attending the wedding, e.g., J.P. Morgan, held down real jobs, but the majority filled their days managing their estates, or hunting and yachting. They were the idle rich, separated by several generations from ancestors who gripped the soil of America, got downright dirty, and founded financial dynasties. The Astors, for example, descended from John Jacob Astor, a fur trader (née drug dealer—he packed opium into the crates with pelts he exported to transport drugs to Canton, China, before deciding to ditch China and only deal to the British.) Later he and his descendants became “New York City’s landlords” because they owned so much of it—Astoria and Astor Place still bear the name.
Wedding guest and heir John J. Astor IV would have gotten name-checked twice, since he was not only an Astor but also the great-grandson of a Livingston, an equally venerable family (although he’s most famous for being presumed the richest man in the world when he went down with the Titanic in 1912). He also happened to be the son of Caroline "Lina" Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the Mrs. Astor, the very woman Mrs. Mills sought to unseat.
When it came to running New York City society, the women in America’s aristocracy were no less ruthless than their robber baron male counterparts. And, there isn’t much known about Ruth Livingston Mills. After all, she destroyed her records and left us a house. But, if you google “Ruth Livingston Mills gossip,” you’ll quickly realize you’d rather have the papers that were probably burned with dramatic flair in one of the fireplaces.
Lina Astor, The Mrs. Astor, grande dame of peak Gilded Age society, and Ward McAllister, her social secretary, were the indisputable gatekeepers of the "The Four Hundred"—the list of who’s who in high society for almost 30 years. In the early 1890s, Mrs. Astor entered two years of mourning following the death of her husband, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. That put her off her stride, and Ruth Mills smelled weakness. So, she embarked on a campaign to dethrone Mrs. Astor as queen of society. Who among them culled the 400 to the “Ultra-smart 150”? The Mrs. Astor’s very own cousin, Ruth Livingston Mills.
To help keep out the riffraff, i.e., new money, Ruth Mills joined forces with nine other grande dames (the Chicago Tribune called them a social "trust," since the men in their families were then infamously busy running the trusts that ran American commerce). She wondered publicly how one could even conceive of an upper crust that allowed in 400 names when only 20 families really mattered. Ward McAllister freaked out when the Times published the truncated list. “The so-called Four Hundred has not been cut down or dwindled to 150 names,” he said. “That list of names, you understand, printed on Sunday, did not come from me, don't you see. It is unauthorized, don’t you see. But it is accurate as far as it goes, you understand.” McAllister didn’t invalidate the 150, because he knew it came from Mrs. Livingston Mills.
Not a minute shy of the completion of Mills Mansion, Ruth started a whispering campaign about Mrs. Astor’s mental competence. It never came to much, except to fully illuminate Ruth Mills’ craving for position and power, because by the time Mrs. Astor died in 1908, the old notions about high society were already dying with her. Ruth ruled at Staatsburg until her death in 1920, but it was a hollow victory, as she watched her ancestral home became an ever-shrinking spot on the social map.
The Mrs. Astor was too ill to attend the wedding with her son. Good son that John was, and considerate friend that Ava was to her mother in law, they didn’t file for divorce until she had been dead a year. Divorce didn’t reflect well in society, and Lina steadfastly adhered to its rigid mores. Plus, mother and son lived on opposite sides of the same property, so there wasn’t really a way.
Standing in the mansion library, guest Alice Roosevelt Longworth would only have to look up at the ceiling to remember her bedroom upstairs, “The Alice Roosevelt Room,” where her closest friends, Gladys and Beatrice, slept. It is rumored to be the prettiest and largest of the Mills guest rooms, fitting for President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter. But the upper floors and guest rooms are now closed to the public. Ruth excluded Alice from the “Ultra-Smart 150.” Alice was so fashionably cool that the color of her icy azure dresses came to be known as “Alice Blue.” But she was wild. Her most scandalous escapade—up to that point at least—took place aboard a steamship en route from Nagasaki to Manila, when the president’s daughter jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool and then coaxed her future husband (and future Speaker of the House) Nicholas Longworth into the pool with her. Alice appeared on one of Mrs. Astor’s auxiliary lists called “List of the Rational, Ultra-fashionable Set in the provincial cities and towns.” She was, by the time of the wedding, a newlywed and RSVP’d to Gladys’ invitation as Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth.
A reputed playboy, Nicholas wasn’t on any list, but having married into “The Rational, Ultra-fashionable” provincial auxiliary list, he got close enough to the 400 to rub shoulders with other Washington insiders enjoying wedding festivities, including Vice President Levi P. Morton, who, having taken a Livingston bride, secured a spot on the hot 150.
Another family on no list whatsoever were the J. Pierpont Morgans, but who would quibble over their invite? Ruth would. But, breaking from her tradition of marrying only into her exclusive list of families that mattered, she married the nouveau riche Californian, Ogden Mills, a financier, who inherited about $17 million. The land that passed through the Livingstons to Ruth was part of a parcel of about a million acres extending East toward Massachusetts. So, she’s land and name. He’s cash. Who knows if she would have had the means to usurp Mrs. Astor’s role without his financial backing. Ogden would have been right to insist on Morgan’s presence, since in the panic of 1907, which had ended only a month before, Morgan had almost single handedly kept the U.S. financial sector from utter ruin, coughing up $21 million of his own money to keep things running smoothly. No way the Hero of Wall Street was going to be stricken from the guest list for the wedding.
The Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans wouldn’t have batted an eye at the $60,000 necklace Beatrice gave her sister as a wedding present. But Stanford White (who has his own scandals), the primary architect charged with the 1896 update and expansion, knew the mansion’s true purpose—a place for networking and matchmaking through dinners and dances. Ruth Mills was a consummate matchmaker, hitching young ladies to eligible men of prominent stature. And a wedding reception is as good a place as any to get working, especially after the newlyweds left by train at 3:30 p.m.. With Gladys married off, Ruth could get back to business as usual. “To-night,” the Times reported, “a large house party was entertained at the Mills home, and there was dancing.”
The gifts would be the envy of the debs. Nothing spoke to romance like jewelry, and such a display inspired women to find the men who could drape them in magnificent gems. Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart, had the same reaction at The Van Osburgh marriage. Although The House of Mirth is fiction, Wharton herself attended plenty of parties like the Mills wedding reception, and she fully understood that a woman’s jewelry served a double purpose, advertising her husband’s wealth even as it symbolized his appreciation for her.
“Lily's heart gave an envious throb as she caught the refraction of light from their surfaces—the milky gleam of perfectly matched pearls, the flash of rubies relieved against contrasting velvet, the intense blue rays of sapphires kindled into light by surrounding diamonds: all these precious tints enhanced and deepened by the varied art of their setting. The glow of the stones warmed Lily's veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolized the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting to her own jewel-like rareness.”
The Misses entered into the Main Hall where portraits of Mrs. Livingston’s ancestors still hang as visual cue to her importance in American history and politics. The Main Hall feels as if one is entering an English manor complete with deer head trophy and walls of quartered oak and parquet floors. But the house functioned more like a hotel than a home, down to the call buttons in each room to summon servants. Here guests were received and dispatched to their rooms. Trunks would be handled by a footman and taken for a ride on the—gasp!—luggage elevator. Unmarried girls stayed upstairs and unmarried males were quartered below stairs, where there was a billiard room for their enjoyment. The Main Hall is still a stunning piece of design that indeed makes you want to linger and loaf a little, so it’s disappointing to learn that those elegant-looking stairs are so rickety that visitors are forbidden to climb them. They are the only passage leading to the rooms where single women were quartered. No fooling around in the Mills Manse.
The layout of Mills Mansion creates a seamless flow for men and women to meet before adjourning to the dining room. Stanford White ripped the simple staircase from the wall of the original Livingston House, then removed an entire room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second to create the cascade effect down his newly designed staircase to the Main Hall. Because Ruth was adamant about maintaining her ancestral home as the core of the Staatsburg Estate, compromises had to be made, and the staircase blocks half of a window at the first landing, which would never have been an architectural choice had the mansion been built anew.
While the women dressed, the men went to the main floor to play cards. The schedule was straightforward and never deviated:
Breakfast: 9:30-11 a.m.
Lunch: 1:30 p.m.
Afternoon Tea: 5 p.m.
Dinner: 8-10:30 p.m.
Men lounged in club chairs playing cards at the precise hour of the day when female guests, begowned and bejeweled, would descend White’s magnificent stairs in pairs or foursomes, to be greeted by the bachelors Mrs. Mills had picked for each of them—just as Lily Bart had “lingered on the broad stairway, looking down onto the hall below, where the last card-players… were grouped near the fire.”
From the Main Hall, the procession of couples filed into the resplendent dining room with its green marble walls and white marble floors and gold plaster ornamented ceiling. Walking into the grand space suddenly feels very French. The ceilings are considerably higher and the blending of the ornate European with the staid English decor is the uniquely American Beaux-Arts design popularized in the Gilded Age that is seen throughout the tour. The dining room feels lonely set for an eight-course dinner, like the only attendees might be ghosts who are stuck in limbo, seeing the dining room for what it was, not is with chips falling from the ceiling plasterwork. The faux marble accent along the crown molding is peeling and the Italian marble walls are dull. The light through the window casts a drab pall over the moss green color scheme, and the drapery fabric is sagging and torn with frayed tassel tie backs. I did notice how well the caning on the backs of the chairs held up, and if it’s not the shadowy light of late afternoon filtered through dark window coverings, the emerald velvet seats cushions are still plush, even though they will never again witness eight-course menus created by three French chefs.
A docent gazed around the dining room with a bemused look and said, almost to herself, “It’s like they got up one day and walked out and never came back.”
Guests selected their name cards. In their private rooms, they had received a hand-drawn document with the pairings. Mrs. Mills spent hours deciding who sat with whom and why. On rare occasions when husbands and wives were in attendance, they were not privileged to share a room or eat together—another way to expand family networks. Or to spark an affair. Dinner was eight courses of food, four wines, and two glasses of water, and took two and a half hours. It was networking, or, as Lily says in The House of Mirth, “part of the business.”
A week at Mills Mansion required 21 dresses, ideally from Worths Paris, with a requisite three new dresses daily, one for each meal. Social mettle and wealth were demonstrated by how long one could sustain a wardrobe of such caliber and expense. Of course, Mrs. Mills had the previous year’s dresses on loan for those high in stature but low on funds. Along with her private papers, an enormous fire-proof safe held jewelry that girls borrowed to adorn their fair necks and delicate wrists.
That was Lily Bart’s lot—she was an orphaned heiress to a lost fortune, and quite used to the accoutrements of wealth. Eleven years after she came out to society, she no longer wanted to wear borrowed, hand-me-down couture. But that was the toll she paid for her dalliances at the estate.
Gambling at bridge in the library was a nightly event, and Lily cannot afford the losses accrued against the few wins. “For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe. “
After a miserable loss at cards, she returns to her guest quarters. She does not push the call button (another feature Bellomont shares with Mills Mansion, where each room is equipped with a call button for service).
Instead, Lily brushes her hair at the mirror and worries over the lines forming at the sides of her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of the cheek. "Oh, I must stop worrying!" she exclaims. "Unless it's the electric light——"
Electric lighting was thought to be vulgar, garish, and unflattering. The mention of electricity alone indicates that Bellomont is modeled after Mills Mansion, as it was the first upstate mansion to be outfitted with electrical wiring to illuminate the rooms.
The frivolity of the rich ne’er do wells in Cafe Society hadn’t yet swallowed those wealthy Gilded Age layabouts, but things were changing. Tradition was repetitive, and the fun of watching the try-hards in society mess up afternoon tea had lost its charm. Who cares whether or not a person’s wealth can be determined by the order in which the tea and milk are poured? (Milk first means you’re too poor to lose a porcelain teacup—scalding water can cause it to crack. Rich people go water-first and roll the dice on replacing a teacup.)
Mrs. Astor’s list did not last much longer than she did. The gated community that was high society at the turn of the last century was proving not only tedious but unable to sustain itself. As the old families grew and descendants multiplied, the fortunes dissipated, sometimes in just three or four generations (the only Vanderbilt heir anyone might recognize today is Anderson Cooper). So social arbiters like Mrs. Mills began enlarging the social circle out of necessity. The Mills-Phipps union that brought everybody to the mansion on that day was typical: she provided the ancestry and the land, and he supplied the ready cash. And his money was enough, enough at least to make people overlook the fact that he was from—shudder—Philadelphia.
There were more and more young ladies like Lily Bart (good name, no money) and men like Lily’s friend Selden (connected to high society but not born to it but with a good income and plenty of prospects). Selden’s ilk got invited to Mills Mansion for weekends, which was all the time the corporate lawyers and middle managers employed by Ogden Mills, Morgan, and the Vanderbilts could spare—these men did have to work for a living, after all. But if Ruth could marry off some of the well-born women with dwindling fortunes to men on the way up, then the pretense of American aristocracy might be maintained a little longer. It was a losing game—the very notion of high society pegged to ancestry was being watered down by the day, because in America money always talks louder than lineage—but it was the only hand she had to play.
Mills Mansion is a true time capsule—the family stopped showing up, so the house sat. The family kept the china and the paperwork detailing any scandals that may have happened in the mansion—fictional scandals we may only glimpse in The House of Mirth. Gladys couldn’t give the place away. Her children didn’t want it. So, in 1938, she deeded the mansion and 192 acres to New York State as a permanent memorial to her parents, Ogden and Ruth Mills. She set aside a trust for its care and maintenance.
Gladys’ bequest has long since dried up. Unlike the Vanderbilt mansion next door, which is part of the National Parks Service, Mills Mansion became a New York State Park that could only be funded to the degree that there were funds available to rehab it. (You can no longer gift your mansion to the state, unless they have permission to demolish it and do something else with the property.)
In the mansion’s zenith 30 men were charged with washing, cementing, and painting the building each year to keep the alabaster-look gleaming., and when the Mills were in house, there were 25 servants tending them. New York State cannot afford such a chronic upkeep.
When the money Gladys left was gone, and with little state funding available, a drastic preservation measure was taken some time in the ’70s. The exterior was sprayed with gunite—a rough and durable concrete sand mixture usually used to line swimming pools. While it does the job of preserving the facade, the gray substance is dingy and obscures much of the ornamental detail in Stanford White’s design. And it contains asbestos, so an abatement is required to remove it.
In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo designated $4.2 million dollars for exterior restoration to the portico and the southern exterior wall, as well as a full restoration of the stone wall at the entrance and repairs to the leaking roof, which had caused much interior damage, an unforeseen consequence to White’s design—he did not factor in snow accumulation on the flat roof and winds through the valley that eroded the structure. Structural repairs are less dazzling than returning the interiors to the gilded majesty that draws tourists. Nevertheless, before the decadent interiors can be restored, the damaged exterior, including the botched repair to the walls, must be fixed.
The state is only responsible for repairs to the exterior of the mansion. A group called Friends of Mills Mansion, founded in 1988, raises money to restore the interiors, a slow, room-by-room process that began with Ogden and Ruth Mills’s bedrooms. The upholstery and draperies in each room were sourced, where possible, to the original manufacturers. The damask used in Mr. Mills’s bedroom was made by Prelle in France. Other fabric replication was outsourced to Scalamandre, the high-end fabric and tapestry design firm that has served the White House, Monticello, and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, and is the only textile manufacturer with a loom large enough to weave the wide repeat on the silk rose damask used to upholster the furniture, walls, and draperies at Mills Mansion. (If you’re going to be true to the tastes of someone like Ruth Ogden Mills, you just can’t let seams be visible on the upholstered walls.)
Restoration efforts are no joke, and they don’t come cheap. But Mills Mansion has limited resources to commission the likes of Scalamandre and other restoration specialists. While restoration at the Staatsburg estate progresses slowly, no one is cutting corners. Restoration only begins once the Friends raise the money necessary to repair a given room or floor. There is no time frame for the restoration. When money becomes available, repairs proceed. In short, it takes as long as it takes. Gladys Livingston’s last living granddaughter contributed money to restore some of the silk velvet in the entry hall.
There is something sad about leaving the mansion. As I turn for a last look, Tanya Tucker sings “Delta Dawn” in my head: “Could you be a faded rose of days gone by / And did I hear you say he was meeting you here today / To take you to his mansion in the sky?”
It’s astounding how fast something can fall to ruin. Less than a century ago the mansion was deeded to the state. Now it feels like trees should have taken root in the foundation and grown through the ceiling. There’s a dystopian feel to what stands as an indomitable reminder of a time when people prided themselves on leisure and donned jewelry and couture to sit across from the same old people in a different mansion from season to season in an endless rotation, buoyed only by wealth and the vain hope that a quasi-European aristocracy might be achievable, even in a capitalist democracy.
A building on life support, a mausoleum containing the detritus of jewels and vases and the pale ghosts of the people who lived and worked there, Mills Mansion reminds visitors that an impenetrable social circuit is just another name for a prison whose rich denizens were so anxious and insecure about their place in the world that selling off daughters to the nouveau riche became an inescapable reality.