Whenever I pass this townhouse at 9 East 68th St. in Manhattan, I stop in my tracks, enchanted by the odd arrangement of the balustrade sitting on the columns of the facade, which are evocative of Palladio's Vicenza, yet break all the rules.  Despite its attention getting style, I've only recently  learned more about it and connected a few dots in the process. Sometimes these things are in the air:  two weeks ago, even as the facts were filtering into my consciousness, 'Daytonian in Manhattan' blogged about the house.  Then, as I began writing this post a week ago---before a Fairpoint 'upgrade' undid my internet service for three days, a friend, not knowing of my recent interest, rang to mention that he had been to a party that evening in one of the apartments that now occupy the house, and his surprise that the elegant rooms lacked original woodwork.  Well, for those who don't already know, here's the rest of the story---and the answer to Monday's quiz.
A photograph of the Bliss house under construction, 1907, underscores its inspiration from Palladian buildings in Vicenza (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)
Loggia del Capitano, Vicenza
Palazzo Schio
 The house was designed by Heins and LaFarge in 1907 for Jeanette Dwight Bliss, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant, and widow of George T. Bliss, the namesake son of  the partner of former Vice-President Levi P. Morton in the banking house of Morton, Bliss & Co.   Bliss Jr., who died of appendicitis in 1901, was a collector of  rare books, and his wife continued his collecting, in addition to her own fine collection of French decorative arts.  For her new house, Mrs. Bliss and her architects collected, in the manner of the day, an assortment of antique European interiors and architectural elements to provide the proper atmosphere for her collections.  Mrs. Bliss attended the 1906 sale of Stanford White's collections, including architectural elements, it is certain that some of her purchases were made there.

The dining room of Stanford White's New York townhouse, showing mantel sold at the sale of White's effects..
Stanford White's dining room mantel as used in the reception room of the Bliss house with 17th century French painted paneling (Courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

Catalog entry for dining room mantelpiece from the catalog of the Stanford White estate sale
One wonders where these doors are today
The music room occupied the entire frontage on the piano nobile, overlooking  East 68th  St.  an alley between  the Bliss House and the neighboring J.J. Emery-Anson house allowed two exposures a rare commodity in townhouse interiors.
Above one of the two fireplaces in the music room hung  a self -portrait of  Rose-Adelaide Ducreaux, attributed in the Bliss's time to Vigeé-le Brun
Among the glories of the house were a small boudoir originally designed by Pierre-Adrian Paris for the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a sixteenth century Neapolitan ceiling for the library, and early 18th century boiserie designed by Lasurrance for the music room of the medieval Hôtel de Sens in the Marais.

Boudoir from Hôtel de Crillon, as installed in the Bliss House (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

Two views of the library, with woodwork designed by C. Grant LaFarge, and 16th century Italian ceiling and antique Istrian  marble fireplace (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

The Bliss salon, with boiserie originally designed for the Hôtel de Sens (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)
Hôtel de Sens, Paris
Not all the interior decoration was antique.  Mrs. Bliss's architect, Christopher Grant LaFarge, was the son of the stained glass artist John LaFarge, who created the 'Welcome' window for the stair landing, with Mrs. Bliss's daughter, Susan posing for the central figure.
"Welcome" by John LaFarge (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Susan Dwight Bliss never married, and lived with her mother at East 68th Street. When they left town for the summer, they apparently preferred to lease, and they varied resorts from season to season, sometimes Newport, sometimes the Hamptons or the New Jersey shore, and sometimes here in Maine, at Bar Harbor, where their quarters ranged from 'Cornersmeet', a modest cottage on the Malvern Hotel grounds, to the more opulent surroundings of George Vanderbilt's 'Pointe d'Acadie' in 1910 (the Vanderbilts were economizing in Paris after financial reverses, all things being relative)  By 1912, they were in Seabright in New Jersey, and the New York times reported, with some consternation, that thier houseguest of the previous season, Count Eugene de Villa-Franca Soissons, a grandson of Prince Eugene of Savoy-Carignan, was 'noncommital' about reports that he was engaged to Susan Bliss, and speculated that his family did not approve of marriage to a commoner, no matter how rich.
17th century painted reception room from the Bliss house.  Location unknown
(Courtesy  of Bowdoin College Archives)
In 1924, Mrs. Bliss died, and Susan Dwight Bliss continued on at 9 East 68th, through the Depression and World War II, caring for and adding to her parent's collections, quietly supporting her many charities.

By 1945, it was thought that the age of the great town houses was over forever--the neighboring Marquand house by Richard Morris Hunt, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 68th St., had been demolished years before and replaced by an apartment house.  Many other houses in the neighborhood had fallen to institutional uses or been divided into apartments.  Rather than leave her house for an apartment, as many of her set had done, Susan Bliss decided to remain, but divided the house into several apartments, creating for herself in a 20 room duplex on the 3rd and 4th floors.   Her mother's grand interiors were gutted and dismantled, and Miss Bliss dispatched several of them to new homes.  

The Crillon boudoir, and many art objects, including the Harpsichord and self-portrait of Mme. Ducreaux, went around the corner to the Metropolitan Museum, where the boudoir is one of the delights of the Wrightsman Rooms .  
The Crillon Boudoir as installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decorated by Jansen  for the
The library paneling designed by Christopher Grant LaFarge, supporting the antique Italian ceiling, was offered, along with a collection of her father's books and fine bindings and light fixtures and furniture, to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  Bowdoin, although surprised---Miss Bliss had never before had direct involvement with the college--accepted the gift with alacrity.  Other portions of the rare book collection went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
As originally installed in Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin, the Bliss Library, with modifications designed by McKim, Mead & White, perfectly evoked the luxe of Gilded Age Manhattan, transplanted to the coast of Maine. (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

The library ceiling (Bowdoin)
The Bliss Room as it appears today.
Also to Bowdoin went the boiserie from l'Hotel de Sens, where it was installed in Harvey Dow Gibson Hall, also by McKim, Mead & White, which houses the music department.
A contemporary photograph of the music room is not available---it may be viewed here in a Quicktime movie on the Bowdoin website. (The modern bookcase on one wall is undeniably regrettable.)
Portrait of a Lady, attributed to Alonso Sanchez Coello
(Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss)
 And that, children, is the long answer to Monday's quiz question.  Congratulations to Anonymous, who answered it correctly (and in several hundred fewer words)
A Few Links:

For more about the Bliss House, click HERE.  More about the Bliss Room at Bowdoin, HERE .  For the complete set of Bliss House photographs in the Bowdoin Archives, several of which are reproduced here with permission, HERE.  For a plan of the piano nobile of the Bliss house, click HERE

PS.  As I continue to research for my book (Acanthus Press, early 2014, start saving your pennies), I keep passing the clothes of former owners of the houses, mostly in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum.  Here is one of Miss Bliss's boots, from that collection



There are so very many things I don't know.  I just found out another of those things this week (I should have been able to put it together years ago, as I was in possession of all the pieces of the puzzle, but sometimes the obvious eludes my Dilettantish brain).

What common thread do Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York share (aside from symmetrical facades?)

The answer is to be found in an upcoming post, if none of you sharp witted folk come up with it before then. There is no prize for correct answers to this quiz, aside from the satisfaction of being smarter than I am.



Few architects  had more impact on a region's built environment than Fred Savage, who practiced 100 years ago and more on Mt. Desert Island, and whose houses practically define the architecture of Northeast Harbor.   In the 1880's, he worked as a draftsman for Peabody & Stearns before setting up his own practice back home on Mt. Desert, and his early shingle style houses, large and small,  demonstrate that he learned the lessons of that office well.

The H.A.C. Taylor house at Newport
Peabody & Stearns were not the only firm who inspired him.  Savage clearly admired the work of McKim, Mead & White, arguably the most influential firm of their era.   In 1885, they designed one of the seminal houses of the era, the first great formal Colonial Revival house, for H.A.C. Taylor in Newport Rhode Island. Drawing inspiration from many early American sources, yet copying no house, it was a sensation, and was to inspire a generation of similar houses. Pictured below is just one random example, the home of a Mr. Parker  in Detroit, designed by Rogers & McFarlane, published in American Architect in 1897

Here in Maine, there are several spiritual design descendants of the Taylor house--among them is 'York Hall', built for  the Sewalls, owners of the Bath Iron Works shipbuilding firm.  Another great square 'Colonial' house, it has more than a whiff of both the Taylor house and the iconic 18th century home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge, itself one of the most copied of early American houses.

'York Hall', the Sewall mansion in Bath,  1897. (Photo via Swan Agency)

But  my favorites among the offspring of the Taylor house is 'The Yellow House' also known as 'Rock End Colonial', in Northeast Harbor.  It is a bijou homage to the Taylor house, designed by Savage in 1892 for his brother Herman as a rental cottage in the grounds of the family's Rock End hotel.  Its precise and formal form, a decorated square on a raised foundation and high pitched roof contrasts effectively with the shingled cottages that surround it.

'The Yellow House'
 Savage referenced many details of the Taylor house in 'The Yellow House', including the broken arch pediment of the central dormer of the garden front, and the 'Salem' portico of the entrance, but made themfinished work his  own, with a Palladian window in the highly decorated dormer opening onto the balcony of the portico.  The white trim contrasting with yellow clapboards perfectly reference a traditional old Maine color scheme, as on the Kavanaugh house below.

Kavanaugh House at Damariscotta, Maine, an early 19th century Federal, with many of the sorts of elements  (and traditional New England color scheme) that inspired the later revivalist houses above
In later years, the 'The Yellow House' achieved footnote in architectural history, when it was owned by portraitist Betsy Flagg (Mrs. John) Melcher, who occupied it for many summers with her mother, Mrs. Ernest Flagg, widow of the famed Beaux Arts architect whose own portfolio included the Singer Building, one of the early great skyscrapers.


DIRIGO. Back to the center.

The Maine State Flag, with the Great Seal adopted by the legislature in June 1820
The Downeast Dilettante's distinguished panel of editorial advisers have often and repeatedly recommended that he stay away from politics and stick to less incendiary topics, like Elsie deWolfe's refusal to visit Maine if she could possibly avoid it.  Mostly I heed their wisdom, but not today.  I am practically bursting with pride for my state--and my town--- after last night's elections.

The Maine State House at Augusta, designed by Charles Bulfinch.  Painted by Charles Codman in 1834  (Portland Museum of Art)
Maine's state motto is Dirigo---'I Lead', and  for many years conventional political wisdom was that 'As Maine goes, so goes the nation'.  Let's hope that's true.   After accidentally electing the nation's most embarrassing Governor a couple of years ago we learned our lesson (this is not even a partisan judgment on my part---the guy is embarrassing, and it was an accident, albeit of the train-wreck variety) and this time the Democrats got behind the most electable and moderate choice, Independent Angus King, to take over the admirable Olympia Snowe's Senate seat---by a wide margin.  Maine re-elected President Obama by a 16% margin.  And last, but definitely not least, the simply and clearly worded Ballot Question 1 "Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?" passed by a 5% margin---more than even supporters were expecting, and enough to guarantee that no recounts will be forthcoming.

2008 called and they want their sign back.  Mainers are known for their dry humor.  I spotted this cluster of campaign signs a few days ago while stopped at a traffic light on Broadway in Bangor.
At the local level here in our village, the statistics are even more impressive:  1760 of the 2206 registered voters turned out---65% for Obama, 55% for King, and a whopping 66% for Gay Marriage.  (The moment I knew that Question One was going to pass was last week.  My 84 year old mother, not by nature a progressive or liberal, asked me if I was going to vote yes.  I answered 'of course', and to my surprise she replied, "So am I.  It's time, and it's respect".  The sheer nastiness of the other side, combined with seeing several nieces and nephews in loving same-sex relationships combined to give her a new perspective).

I live a town that is by and large populated by the well-to-do and well educated.  But this is also Maine, and as the misery unleashed during the Bush years continues, so does rampant poverty.  As I came down the stairs from the voting booths, volunteers of the local food pantry, including the Reverend Betty Stookey (her husband Noel is better known as the Paul of 'Peter, Paul & Mary'), were collecting signatures on a petition to ask the town for financial support for their services.  For the first time, as we go into Winter, the food pantry's needs have outstripped its funding and they are asking for help.  Despite our veneer of affluence, jobs are scarce, skills are limited, and gas and fuel are high, leaving 20% of our population below the safety net.  Another of the volunteers told me how shocked and saddened she was to discover that this was going on just beneath our pretty surface---that she had had no idea before that it was so deep or so widespread.  One cannot help but reflect on the billions wasted on the recent election and feel a bit rueful.

The campaign for Question One was well funded and beautifully run.  It never went off message, and compared to the dishonest and inflammatory rhetoric of the opposition with the usual claptrap about the 'Homosexual Agenda' (they're going to convert our children!!) it was positively uplifting. I received a pre-recorded phone message from the opposition that was actually stunning in its willingness to play to the lowest common denominator    Major donors to the gay marriage campaign included Brad Pitt, and believe me, I'll make a point of seeing his next movie.  

Thank-you Maine.  I have hope for the nation again.

PS.  I did not lead in with Elsie deWolfe capriciously---she and her longtime partner, theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury, were perhaps the original femaie power couple--and despite the fashionable Ms. deWolfe's aversion to the wilds of Maine, Marbury enjoyed a summer home in Mt. Vernon near the Belgrade Lakes, about which more soon.
Elisabeth Marbury, in a portrait painted by WBE Ranken at her summer home in Mt. Vernon, Maine 
Sailor, hiker, and aesthete, Sturgis Haskins, a friend of 40 years standing,  one of the most remarkable  of the many remarkable people I've had the pleasure to know, was perhaps the father of the Gay Rights movement in Maine.  He died a few weeks ago, and I am sad, as I suspect are his hundreds of other friends, that he did not live to see this victory.  This post is in his memory.



Since the death of doyenne Brooke Astor, the longtime queen of New York Society, those who care about such things have wondered and discussed who might be her successor on the throne---or if  New York society could even be ruled again by just one person.  About all this I know little, sitting up here in Down East Maine, where paying the oil bills or the declining price of lobster worry one far more than who will preside over the leaderless elite of Manhattan.  

This wonderful photograph pictures neither Mrs. Astor nor her throne, but is a scene captured  at another end-of-era auction, the effects of Miss Julia Berwind at 'The Elms' in Newport Rhode Island.  The photograph is by Nancy Sirkis from her marvelous book 'Newport, Pleasures and Palaces' (Viking/Studio, 1963) 
An auction of Mrs. Astor's lesser effects was held three weeks ago at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York.  Her leftover possessions were typical  goods of a well placed lady of the second half of the 20th century---pretty and decorative, with a French accent. Several friends and acquaintances attended the auction, and depending on whom one asks, and what they hoped to buy, prices were either terribly high or terribly low.  My own observation is that the sale followed the current market---where style and eye appeal trump age or quality, or even provenance--- many of the pieces were chosen for her by Parish-Hadley.  I scratched my head at some of the prices---$5500 for a Metropolitan Museum reproduction of St. Gauden's iconic statue of Diana---available in the Met Gift shop for considerably less----down to a mere $15.00 for the Louis XV style Chaise Percée pictured below.

I was immediately reminded of another wonderful Sirkis photograph, of an elegant woman examining a chaise Percée in a bathroom at 'The Elms'.

And then, in a flash, it came to me.  Whoever paid that $15.00 for the chaise Percée now sits on Mrs. Astor's throne. All Hail.  Society need wonder no longer.



I rarely answer that question in the affirmative---there is just so danged much that I don't know.  For example, an ever informed friend of widespread interests  sent these photographs of a recently redecorated French commuter train, asking "Do you know this?", and indeed the answer was 'No---but Wow'

I've no doubt that all my design savvy readers and everyone else in the blogosphere already knew, but it had escaped me, and I'm enchanted at the juxtaposition.  How could anyone be bored or tired on this commute?  Take note, Amtrak, take note.

PS:  Speaking of those many things I don't know, it does little good even when I do know things.  For example, even though other friends had informed me ages ago that the recent anonymous 'Property of a Lady' sale at Stair Galleries in Hudson NY was actually the property of Brooke Astor, it never occurred to my summer-addled brain to mention it---until of course I read it in another blog, weeks later.  Oh well, you don't come to me for current events, I suspect.  Besides, I was far more interested in session 2 on Sautrday,  the contents of the late decorator Keith Irvine's house in Carmel New York.  Many of the items were more to my taste---wonderful neo-classical sculpture and bas relief galore.  The always delightful Mr. Irvine was a sometimes visitor to the Dilettante's shop, and in fact, when I last saw the dining room of that house published, it contained a set of grain painted chairs purchased from me.  For the catalog and sales results of the Astor/Irvine auctions, click HERE.

Meanwhile, back on the train: