LEHMAN TWP. — As a former student of Penn State Wilkes-Barre, my imagination would run wild picturing the grandeur of Hayfield House in the 1930s.
So, on March 24, I could not resist the opportunity to take the “Below Stairs at Hayfield: Women Servants” tour of the stately mansion, which now houses Penn State Wilkes-Barre faculty and administration offices.
The tour even peaked the interest of my husband Eric and teenage son Nick.
Megan Mac Gregor, acting head librarian and student engagement and outreach librarian at Nesbitt Library at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, led a group of nearly 40 people into Hayfield House.
A second tour with about 29 people was scheduled for later in the day.
Mac Gregor explained we were entering the home through the main entrance but, if we were servants, we would have to use a separate door off to the side on the servants’ wing of the house.
“We can’t go in that door because it leads into someone’s office now,” she said, adding many of the servants’ quarters were re-purposed as offices, although many of the home’s original characteristics remain intact.
Hayfield House was built by John and Bertha Conyngham during the Great Recession of the 1930s. The 50-room home cost over $1 million to build MacGregor said.
“How much is it valued now?” Nick asked.
“I did look that up,” Mac Gregor said, adding the property is valued at $18 million, adding the Conynghams were among Wilkes-Barre’s ultra-wealthy.
John was a president and director of several large corporations, director and vice president of Miners National Bank in Wilkes-Barre and had an interest in several coal companies. He was also one of the founding partners of the lavish Mount Washington Hotel, located near the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Bertha Robinson, daughter of John Norris Robinson and stepdaughter of financier J. Hood Wright, was considered one of the top eligible debutante before she married John Conyngham in 1895, Mac Gregor said.
Bertha’s fortune was reportedly larger than her husband’s, according to Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s historical records on the family.
“They were rich — beyond rich,” Mac Gregor said.
The couple completed Hayfield House construction in 1933 on a farm where John raised Clydesdales, Highland cattle and many other animals, she said.
The home was also used to entertain guests, so housework had to be completed without interrupting visitors.
The staff woke early in the morning to try and get as many chores completed before the family arose, she said.
The ornate moldings and fireplace give a glimpse of the home’s former splendor, as well as strike fear in anyone with an obsessive cleaning disorder.
The parlor’s wall to wall rug, which cost $30,000 at the time, had a design that matched the ceiling’s molding, Mac Gregor said.
The rug had to be rolled up and removed from the room for a proper cleaning, she said, stressing the chore was a rather large taste for two or three servants.
Mac Gregor lead the tour group into a room with a spiral staircase and a painting, depicting a picture of a typical servant in the 1930s.
“Servants in the 1930s were often first-generation female Americans, white, with no skills,” she said.
The Conyngham family employed eight servants, which included a butler, a driver, a cook, server, a lady’s maid and housekeeping staff, Mac Gregor said, noting pay records were mixed inside items left by the Conyngham family in the home. Pay records referenced staff by first names only, which made it impossible to track the individuals through the census, she said.
A quick peek into some of the former servant quarters revealed a bedroom large enough for a bed, a dresser and maybe a small table. In the basement, where the mail room is located, a larger area was designed for the family’s butler.
“There is a story where he stayed one night but rejected the living accommodations,” Mac Gregor said.
The butler opted to return to his Wilkes-Barre home nightly to be with his wife. At the time, servants were permitted to return home for the night instead of being on-call 24 hours a day.
The cook often was given a larger bedroom to help compensate for her abundant duties in the kitchen, Mac Gregor said.
The Conynghams had a phone system inside the home to ring servants to request services in a particular area, such as the atrium or Chinese Tea Room.
The house tour also featured the luxurious dressing rooms and bedroom of Bertha and John Conyngham. John’s library, off the couple’s personal sitting room, still has beautiful wood paneling built-in shelves and sliding stained glass windows.
The couple’s large bedroom is now a boardroom. Bertha’s dressing room, now the office of Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s Chancellor Dale Jones, still has French-inspired architecture, including curved wooden doors. Her private bathroom, which is also used as an office, still has the oval shaped bathtub.
The nearly 45-minute tour even showcased a three-room vault in the basement where the couple stored their furs, wine and silver.
John Conyngham died July 12, 1935, two years after the construction of Hayfield House was completed.
Bertha Conyngham split her time between New York and Hayfield House until her death in 1964.
The Conynghams’ descendants gave Hayfield House and its property to Penn State Wilkes-Barre.
Penn State Wilkes-Barre, established in 1919 in Wilkes-Barre, was leasing space in the city. The Lehman Township property was dedicated as Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s permanent home in 1968.
Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews.