Flora Bernice Smith did not grow up like you or me. Born on November 2, 1897, she was the daughter of Flora Burns Smith and Lyman Cornelius Smith of Syracuse; her father made a fortune in firearms, banking, shipping, real estate and typewriters. The family name was eventually the “Smith” in Smith Corona.
The Smith family lived in grand style at 804 James Street in a 19-room mansion bought from Howard Ganson White, the owner of the Syracuse Standard newspaper. L.C. Smith called his home “Uarda” and spelled the name out in flowers in the front yard. [The name was taken from Georg Ebers’ Uarda: A Romance of Ancient Egypt (1877) in which the title character clutches a rose and says, “I am called Uarda – like this flower – and I love roses and the fresh air.”]
From the outside, the house was a turreted castle with stone work done by John C. Phillips, the most accomplished “stone placer” of the day. The windows were of stained glass.
The staff numbered 22. In the morning, as the family breakfasted, they received their mail in the beaks of silver birds.
In 1901, when a toddler, Flora cruised on the Great Lakes in the family yacht, the Venice, with its crew of six.
One of the home’s most famous gatherings was held in March of 1902, when Vajiravuda, crown prince of Siam, visited Syracuse. The mansion was trimmed with roses and mums; the guests, all men, listened to Oscar Kapp’s orchestra and sat down to a 30-plate luncheon. The menu included Lynhaven Bay oysters, Steinwein Bocksfeutel (a German white wine), clear green turtle soup, Amontillado (a Spanish sherry), a selection of celery, olives, cucumbers, radishes and almonds, filet of sole Madeleine, sweetbreads pique, French peas, stewed Maryland terrapin, a punch “surprise” served in a miniature brass coal pail, canvas back duck, Chambertin (a Pinot Noir of Burgundy), salad fantasie, biscuit tortoni, petits fours, liqueurs, bonbons, fruit, cigars and coffee. There was also ice cream in a little box surmounted by a white elephant, the symbol of the Siamese royal family.
[The Crown Prince was said to be a charming fellow, and eventually served as King of Siam (1910-1925). Oxford-educated, he not only ruled the nation but also made his contribution to literature, translating Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet into the Thai language, as well as the Hercule Poirot novels of Agatha Christie.]
In May of 1902, at the age of five, Flora christened a ship named for her father, the Lyman C. Smith, built for the United States Transportation company (of which Smith was president) for use on the Great Lakes. Family and friends traveled to Michigan in a special rail car for the occasion.
The Lyman C. Smith
In the summer of 1904, L.C. Smith suggested to his head gardener, Joseph Kenney, that a large floral elk would be just the thing for the front lawn of Uarda. The finished elk, of wood lath, wire, potting soil, moss and flowers, weighed 1,400 pounds and required 12 men to carry it from the hot house to the front lawn; the antlers had a five-foot spread.
In October, a conservatory was added by architects Gaggin & Gaggin, to include an ornate Turkish smoking room, an aquarium, and more space for rare plants. (Gaggin & Gaggin was the same firm used by Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt when he remodeled the interior of Roosevelt Hall.) The project was not without its difficulties; when an electrician and a steam-fitter tried to slide a steam pipe for the greenhouse under a transformer, they used metal crowbars for the lifting and were fatally electrocuted.
In November of 1904, no one was injured when Smith entertained 100 of the city’s most influential men with national and state election returns by direct wire from New York City. The newspaper reported:
“Chairs and settees were arranged for the comfort of the guests in the new conservatory, and the telegraph operator and announcers were located at the head of the steps leading from the Turkish smoking room into the greenhouses. Refreshments , consisting of coffee, sandwiches and cakes , were served and on a wide shelf stood huge pitchers of sweet cider, a dish pan full of crisp doughnuts, a tray of clay pipes and tobacco, and a bushel of red apples.”
In July of 1905, a chauffeur, Louis Clark, had his own brush with death, closing the doors of the automobile barn while using a gasoline lamp; fumes collected, ignited and raised the roof while bouncing Clark off a brick wall, giving him a concussion and “nervous prostration.” Also that year, the newspaper noted that, at Christmas, Flora gave a doll or handsome toy to every patient in the children’s ward of the Syracuse Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and that it was an annual tradition with her.
In 1906, L.C. Smith received four cases of rare orchids from India, and again had Gaggin & Gaggin design and build a greenhouse “equipped with every appliance for the cultivation of orchids.” The orchid house would connect with the rose and carnation houses already in existence.
Flora attended the private Goodyear-Burlingame School in Syracuse, but school never seems to have been an impediment to her travels. In 1903, she traveled to New York City with her mother. In 1905, the family motored in the Berkshires. In 1906, the family spent August on a rail journey across the United States, visiting Yellowstone Park, Seattle and the Canadian northwest. In 1907, her family went on a motor trip to New England. In 1908, she went to Florida with her parents and a maid. In June of 1909, the Smith family traveled via chauffeured auto to Toledo, then by yacht to Duluth; the chauffeur drove the car to Duluth and they spend five weeks touring the Great Lakes region. In 1910, Flora traveled to California and Mexico with her family, leaving in January for two months on the road. Stops included the Grand Canyon, Del Monte Lodge on the Monterey Peninsula, Santa Barbara and Coronado Beach in San Diego.
When at home, she studied the harp, and in 1909 she played “The Last Rose of Summer” at a concert presented by debutantes.
On November 5, 1910, L.C. Smith died following a stroke complicated by diabetes. He was just 60 years old, and left no will. He died, surrounded by family and physicians, as the clocks at Uarda struck 10 o’clock. In 1911, Flora received $1.3 million from her father’s estate, placed in trust. She also inherited a half interest in Uarda.
In April of 1911, Flora was in Atlantic City with her mother. In 1914, she spent six months in Seattle, where her brother, Burns Lyman Smith, had extensive real estate holdings, and she was probably on hand for the opening of the Smith Tower, the tallest skyscraper west of New York.
Seattle’s Smith Tower, under construction in 1913
In 1916, Flora was a chariot driver in the Delta Kappa sorority circus. In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, she was active in the Red Cross, filling bags for American soldiers serving in Europe; in 1918 she was Captain of the Red Cross Motor Division, footing the bill for the uniforms.
Flora Bernice Smith filling bags for American soldiers
In 1917, Flora’s brother bought the late Frederick Roosevelt’s estate, Roseleigh, on Genesee Street in Skaneateles, and began summering here with his wife and two daughters. At the time of his purchase, the newspaper noted:
“The house contains ten bedrooms, four baths, billiard parlors, dining room, den and living room, and has a fireplace in every room. There are also a boathouse and a garage on the lot. The property has a frontage of 231 feet on Genesee Street, a depth of 1,120 feet and a frontage of 310 feet on the lake. The grounds are landscaped and will be further improved.”
In 1920, Flora’s mother died. When the estate was settled, Flora had inherited the other half interest in Uarda as well as “property recently acquired in Skaneateles,” most probably the summer cottage on East Lake Road that she would eventually occupy, with its 1,000 feet of lake frontage.
However, owning a mansion in Syracuse and a summer home in Skaneateles did not dissuade Flora from traveling. In 1925, she was in Miami again, and also in Europe, where she was delayed in Strasbourg for two weeks by a traveling companion’s illness; she toured Spain and Italy on that trip as well.
In 1926, she hired Olmstead Brothers, the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., to landscape her Skaneateles property. She was probably familiar with their work as they had landscaped Burns Lyman Smith’s James Street estate in 1911. (Only one other estate in Skaneateles was landscaped by the Olmstead firm, that being “Lone Oak,” owned by C.D. Beebe, in 1907-1908.) To care for her Skaneateles grounds, Flora employed Joseph Henry Warner.
In 1928, Flora traveled to Havana and the West Indies, and in 1929 was in Europe for several months. About this time, without doubt to simplify things, she parted with a plot of land in Seattle for the consideration of $10. The transaction is interesting owing to covenants placed in the deed, including one (#4) which stipulated that no persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction be permitted to occupy any portion of the property unless they were servants of white occupants. This was apparently the done thing in Seattle at the time. But I’m not sure about covenant #3, which forbade the presence of chickens.
Regarding gardens and flowers, Flora was her father’s daughter. In the summer of 1928 she had her Uarda gardeners create a floral replica of The Spirit of St. Louis, to celebrate Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight across the Atlantic. The newspaper noted, “The floral plane occupies a prominent place in the massive front yard of the Smith home. For several weeks now it has been admired by motorists and pedestrians in James Street.”
Her prominence in society was such that even her gardeners received generous obituaries in the local press. In 1934, Edward Dudden was memorialized. Born in Somerset, England, he worked as a gardener and florist in Syracuse for 50 years. (His brother, Albert “Bert” Dudden, was the groundskeeper at the Skaneateles Country Club for 40 years. Bonny Dudden, a great-grand niece of both men, assures me that, even to this day, all Duddens have gardening DNA.)
In May of 1934, Flora won the Syracuse Garden Club’s “Queen of the Show” prize for her white lily flowering tulips. In 1937, gardener Fred Scharoun made the newspapers when Flora Smith’s “Queen of the Night,” a rare night-blooming cereus, burst into bloom in one of Uarda’s conservatories. Flora had a few friends in for the occasion, and they got to see an amazing 30 white blossoms opening after sunset. The plant, which L.C. Smith had acquired more than 30 years before, was something of a monster, growing up one side of the conservatory and across the glass roof. Scharoun had tended the plant for 26 years, and noted that it bloomed once every three or four years, and that the flowers would be gone by sunrise.
In 1938, in a more public display, Flora entered 50 square feet of orchids and exotic flowers at the New York State Fair. Another of Flora’s gardeners was Camiel Desmet, from Belgium; his previous employer was George Eastman of Rochester, the Kodak pioneer. The Smith’s cereus bloomed again for Desmet in 1941.
Flora was also an avid horsewoman, and won scads of ribbons – including eight blue ribbons in 1933 alone. One of her horses was a thoroughbred named Montagna, who won the 1936 Widener Handicap at Hialeah. And not surprisingly, she provided roses for the judges’ stand at the Horse Show.
When Burns Lyman Smith died in 1941, Flora inherited her brother’s Skaneateles estate on Genesee Street. For a time, she rented it out for the summers, but in 1952 she sold it to the Sisters of St. Francis, and it became the Stella Maris retreat center.
In 1956, she sold Uarda and moved to Skaneateles to live year-round, bringing her father’s collection of art and statuary with her. Her staff was international: Her cook was from Switzerland and spoke five languages. Her secretary/companion was from France. Her nurse was from Denmark.
There’s a wonderful story that she used to invite people to her Skaneateles home for parties, but not attend herself, sending notes down from the second floor, saying she hoped everyone was having a good time.
Flora Bernice Smith died in Skaneateles on January 20, 1966. Her fortune was estimated to be $4 million. She left her house and its contents, and half a million dollars tax-free to Bertha Harder, who had served her for 40 years as maid, personal secretary and friend. Flora also made provisions for her other employees, both past and present, including paying the taxes on each bequest.
When asked what she planned to do with her bequest, Mrs. Harder said, “We haven’t planned anything. It has all happened so suddenly.” Mrs. Harder later sold the estate and retired with her husband to the Virgin Islands.
Flora Bernice Smith’s estate, with its 1,000 feet of lakefront and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., was subdivided in 1974.