There Was an Actual Jones Family Behind 'Keeping Up With the Joneses'

This photo of Wyndclyffe is one of several from a collection that the Library of Congress makes available. Just click on the Historic American Buildings Survey credit to see more. Historic American Buildings Survey

The grand American castle that may have inspired the super rich to "keep up with the Joneses" has become a crumbling ruin that sold for a measly $120,000 at auction in September.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" is that colloquial saying that comes to life when neighbors and frenemies engage in one-upmanship, purchasing status items both small (name-brand clothing) and large (vacation houses) to outdo the other. In fact, the latter variety is reportedly how the saying began.


There was an actual Jones family who built a 7,690-square-foot mansion in Rhinebeck, New York, a summer vacation spot for well-heeled, wealthy families from New York City. Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones commissioned the formidable brick-and-slate structure in 1853 after purchasing 80 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River. She was related to two prominent New York families that included the Astors, a prosperous American industrialist family, on one side and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton on the other.

Jones' red-brick vacation home, called Wyndclyffe, was one of the preeminent examples of Norman Romanesque architecture, a style popularized in 11th- and 12th-century France and England. It featured arches and towers, and an asymmetrical style that resulted in formidable angles. Notably, it was the grandest house along the river, sporting 24 rooms with ornate finishes like Tiffany skylights. It also had sweeping grounds with tennis courts, and boat and carriage houses. The mansion was so ostentatious that it is believed to have single-handedly prompted a building boom. Wealthy neighbors expanded and remodeled their homes to "keep up with the Joneses."

The trend continued through the 1920s, but the Great Depression changed the focus from one-upmanship to more pedestrian pursuits, like getting enough to eat. 

Wyndclyffe's recent sale brings to light the struggle the various successive owners have had to keep the mega-sized mansion in good repair. Long Island-based Maltz Auctions sold the property, and you can find more details on their site as well.  The estate has shrunk from 80 acres to 2.5 acres, and significant parts of the home's structure have fallen in, leaving massive piles of bricks and debris. The once well-tended shrubbery has turned wild and overgrown the grounds. What would the Joneses think of that?