Experience HBO's "The Gilded Age" at Lyndhurst
Lyndhurst is no stranger to film and television productions. Through the years, the historic site has hosted a variety of commercials, editorial shoots, films, and television productions on some part of the estate. It isn’t a surprise that the Gothic Revival mansion is the biggest draw, but recently other historic buildings and even the grounds have gotten their fair share of time on the silver screen as well. It might almost seem as if at one point or another, the entire Lyndhurst estate has been memorialized somewhere. You just need to know where to look.
When HBO’s new series The Gilded Age came calling in 2019—after persistent advocacy by staff to use our 19th-century mansion as a set—it was to Lyndhurst’s great excitement. We get police dramas, commercials, reality shows, and even the occasional period dramas, but nothing quite to the scale and glamour of a series exclusively about the American Gilded Age, a period that is a major part of Lyndhurst's own storied history.
Lyndhurst seemed an obvious fit, a house museum with history directly connected to that which the show planned to showcase. It would also be the biggest production Lyndhurst would ever host on its grounds, using three different locations, an army of professional crew and talent, and perhaps the best part: Gilded Age history coming alive again on the site. For the first time, instead of just talking about this history we would physically see it materialize before our eyes (and for the cameras and eventually viewers)—a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Preparing Lyndhurst for its Gilded Age Transformation
Lyndhurst hosted The Gilded Age over the course of five weeks in the spring of 2021, and with the entire property somehow coming into play, a lot of considerations had to be made, especially with the pandemic still in full swing. With all the moving parts and pieces, the biggest and most precious was preparing for all the filming that was to take place inside the mansion.
As stewards of the estate, Lyndhurst staff worked closely with the production team to determine what spaces were to be used, and then, of those spaces, what would stay and what would need to be removed and placed safely in storage. For a production about the Gilded Age, one would think many of the items, furniture, and decor at Lyndhurst would be left in place, which could be the case, but with an ensemble of characters and defining spaces for them, Lyndhurst needed to match who would be “living” there and protect objects that could not be handled or sat upon.
This process was done prior to the production’s arrival. Typically, we take the time to clean rooms of the mansion in the winter months, but this opportunity provided us with the ability to take some great care and attention to places we normally can’t. It takes four to five staff to roll up the carpet in the Art Gallery, so it doesn’t happen very often!
Perhaps the most difficult part of emptying the rooms of historic furniture and objects was finding places to store them. Productions take up much more room than people think; there’s the room where the action is taking place, then the ‘video village’ where all the onset crew stand out of sight with the executive crew and primary team watching the scene through monitors.
Then there is all the space where the equipment is stored, cables for electrical and lighting running through rooms from generators, props, and scenic items on standby ... and that is just for the shooting spaces and doesn’t include all the ‘holding’ for talent, extras, crew working in other locations, catering, etc. A large mansion suddenly becomes an exceedingly small space—something we very quickly learned.
But, Lyndhurst staff are a savvy sort and we were able to tackle it without issue.
Being a museum, more of our surfaces and spaces need to be protected from production than a typical house. We had to ensure that walls, trim, floors, and windows were appropriately protected. A team would come in and lay down these “protections” before the real work starts, this would include cardboard covering the floors and walls, special plastic sheeting on stairs, and blankets wrapped around furniture that could not be removed from rooms. Once this step happens, though the real magic starts to take place as the shooting spaces get ready to be transformed.
From Historic House to a Gilded Age Set
There are many different teams and departments on a television or film production. The first you’d usually meet on a long shoot would be the scenic department or the set dressers. These are the folks who deal with the backdrop of the scene, the parts you see during a show, but are not really paying attention to as you watch the characters. It’s thinking of the location as a character and how to make it look just the right way.
Lyndhurst has some wear and tear from its heavy use as a museum and just from being an 180-year-old historic house. The Gilded Age’s scenic department came in and fixed these things for us and truly made incredible cosmetic fixes to our rooms. Sometimes, as a museum with a limited budget, there are projects we just do not have the ability to take care of ourselves, and we appreciated the care and attention from such a great team of talented artists who truly made us shine.
Once the rooms were touched up to the level required by production, scenic moves on and set dressers come in with the furniture and decor for the scenes. This includes curtains, chairs, sofas, tables, rugs, and all the other items that will dress a room but are not handled by the actors. It was amazing to see our rooms transformed with different furniture and decorations.
Around the same time, the electrical department is moving around the house rigging lighting and running the power cables. Since we are a historic house, extra care is needed to affix lighting to any of our surfaces, and cables must be run with care. It is incredible how much light is needed to properly film a scene, and some of the equipment and tools that productions use is remarkably interesting to see. Where we see a room as a historic space, the crew sees the room as a lighting challenge.
Rooms have been emptied; scratches, scrapes, and peeling paint has been repaired; sets have been dressed; and lighting and electric have been installed. The last layer that takes place just before filming is the placement of plants, flower arrangements, and the useable props that actors may handle while acting out the scene, but only just before the shooting crew arrives with their gear to set up. Shooting crew brings with them all the equipment necessary for recording the scene: video monitors, sound monitors, as well as the crew exclusive to shooting; hair and make-up; script supervisors; prop masters; and an army of production assistants. Then it is the sound of heels on our wood floors, the swish of dresses and coats, teacups gently clinking into saucers; quiet on set, someone calls out the scene and take, and finally, action.
It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime and thrilling process to see Lyndhurst go from a museum to a living, breathing set for a historic period drama. What was once a static and frozen-in-time space becomes alive with the energy of people, clothing, and objects that so arduously reflect the very history that we as a museum strive to recollect for visitors. Hosting a production with such a high level of craftsmanship, professionalism, and attention to detail not only gives the staff at Lyndhurst the opportunity to experience living history, but allows us to share our historic buildings and amenities with everyone who will tune into the show. We couldn’t think of a better way to do it.
HBO’s The Gilded Age airs Monday January 24, 2022 at 9pm and is available to stream on HBO Max.
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