Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, or, Strange Bedfellows..

In the years since her death in 1993, there have been attempts to deify Doris Duke as a style icon.  Colorful she may have been, but for me, that ultimate refinement of eye just wasn't there.  However, with all that lovely lolly, she did manage to pick up a few interesting things along the way.

---Like this bed, sold at the Christies auction of her effects at Duke Farms a few years back.  Wouldn't mind having that in my inventory.  But, we've got some serious scale problems going on with the other stuff around it....and wouldn't that chaise block the view of the fire in the Steuben glass framed fireplace?  Edit, edit, edit.



I finally got around to cleaning the desk.  Deep in the back of a drawer was a wrinkled file of clippings from the 80's.  Among them was a real estate brochure for Skylands, the Seal Harbor, Maine home of Martha Stewart, a couple of years before she purchased it.

View of Seal Harbor in the late 1920's.  The full bulk of the newly built Skylands can be seen at top left
The stories of Skylands are legion, and since most Martha followers can recite them as if liturgy----the  mile of pink crushed granite drives which are raked up, washed and stored every winter, the forest floors sprayed with buttermilk to encourage a mossy carpet, the superb craftsmanship, the heated drying cabinets for linens---the list goes on, and I won't bore the reader with yet another repetition.

Long story short:  The estate was developed for Edsel Ford, son of Henry.  The architect was Duncan Candler, a well connected society architect whose sister, Edith Candler Stebbins, had married into a leading Seal Harbor summer family.  Candler built up a fair summer practice in Seal Harbor, designing large, restrained and comfortable houses for  such other summer families as the Rockefellers, who occupied the next hill over from the Fords (future post).  Skylands is a severely geometric and horizontal house, gorgeously sited just below the brow of the hill, and appears to grow out of the very pink granite ledges on which it is built.  Despite it' academic qualities, it is as successful an example of a house growing organically from its site as any modernist effort.  The landscaping is by the brilliant Jens Jensen, who had also done the Ford's Michigan estate.  There is no lawn, and the subtle landscape he created, of boulders, and native plants, naturalness achieved at great expense, seems as inevitable as if Mother Nature herself had laid it out---a true example of the Capability Brown axiom "consult the genius of the place."  
Skylands in a 1930's postcard view
Oops.  I said I wouldn't go on, but born pedant that I am, I just can't help it.  Herewith, the pictures (sorry for the wrinkles) from the real estate brochure.   The house was at the time owned by the Leedes, who bought it from the Ford estate in the 1970's.  Though the house was not as lavishly burnished and maintained as in the Ford's day (hot and cold running staff helped), the Leedes' did regularly call in Mrs. Ford's old decorators, the Palm Beach firm of Jessup, Inc. to keep things up.  Although the Fords left their furnishings, they took the art, and the pallid framed pieces do not live up to the architecture. Very Wasp , very understated, slightly boring.  Now, of course, the joint is just plain jaw-dropping.  Everything perfectly maintained, the neglected landscape restored to perfection, and maintained beyond perfection.
Entrance Front
The paneled two story entrance hall leads into this living hall, with a fireplace carved of native pink granite.
The 30 x 50 living room
Dining room.
The superb terrace which overlooks most of creation
Most of creation, as seen from the terrace
Pergola Terrace off Living Room

The Playhouse, with squash court


Favorite Rooms: Moulin de Launoy

Sometimes, I do wander out of New England for material. Today we go to France, to the Moulin de Launoy.

The Library in Moulin de Launoy, 1948.

I first saw the picture above at the age of 12, in House & Gardens Second Book of Interior Decoration (yes, I was that sort of child, completely house obsessed). and it went through me like a lightening bolt.  Here was something fresh and stylish, a real jolt to a sensibility reared in the New England of hooked rugs, tiger maple furniture and sandwich glass lamps (not a bad look either, in the right hands---look what Henry Sleeper did with Beauport).  It was a new idea of France, for me without the gilt of Versailles.  It did not hurt either, that the photographs were by the great Andre Kertesz..
Bernard Boutet de Monvel with his portrait of Millicent Rogers

The presiding genius behind this room was Society portraitist Boutet de Monvel, obviously a man of more than  usual style (see a wonderful post about de Monvel's Palm Beach folly in last week's Aesthete's Lament)

 Another View of the Library
I find this room amazing, and timeless, with its offhand mix of good furniture against rough walls, with the tile floors, even some lathe showing in the ceiling.  Flowers are arranged casually in earthenware pots.  Pattern is kept to a minimum.  According to the article, the chalky walls have a barely perceptible pink-ish wash playing against the terra cotta tiles.  No curtains to  block the light. A few well chosen pieces of architectural salvage give distinction.   The wide mantel of the dining room is very fine.   Compare this mill to the contemporaneous, nearly hysterical chicof the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Moulin.  Here we have real style that answers to no one, completely  unself-conscious, and it puts to shame most modern efforts at this sort of interior.  The French have always excelled at this particular off-hand elegance---think Frederic Mechiche in his Provencal mode, for a modern comparison.

The photographs were originally published in an article in House & Garden in 1948, in one of the handsomest issues that lamented magazine ever published (Two more posts forthcoming from that amazing issue).  The cover photograph, of the de Monvel's entrance hall, is hauntingly lovely.

Moulin de Launoy, reflected in the mill race

Two views of the Garden, showing the same mix of refined and rustic as the house

The Salon

The Dining Room (forgive the curved line at the right, this is why I hate photographs split by a gutter.  Graphic designers should not be allowed to do this)

Mme. de Monvel's bedroom, elegant boiserie cut down to fit low ceiling space, to great effect.
Guest Room, with traditional Breton bed

Smalt II

The post about the smalt room at the Warner House in Portsmouth has gotten so much email response that I am posting a couple more photographs for your enjoyment.

Mark Drew applying smalt to wet paint in the Parlor Chamber of the Warner House, using a glitter gun (photograph from The Warner House, a Rich & Colorful History,  edited by Joyce Geary Volk).

The Parlor Chamber (Warner House, a Rich & Colorful History, photograph by Sandy Agrafiotis)

Warner House, Portsmouth, NH, built 1718



'Decor Chinois' by Zuber (Christies)

Wallpaper?  Sometimes I hate it, sometimes I love it.  Here's an instance of the latter instance,  a hand blocked wallpaper by the venerable firm of  Zuber & Cie, founded in 1797.  The pattern is 'Decor Chinois', originally created in 1832 in imitation of hand painted Chinese papers.  It was especially popular in the first quarter of the 20th century, and has been used by some of the great tastemakers of that era  It was an especially popular paper for Colonial Revival decors.

 'Decor Chinois' in competition with an Italian neo-classical mirror in Edith Wharton's Dining Room  at 884 Park Avenue in the late 19th century.
A charming use in the front hall of the Merrick House in Hallowell, Maine, built 1800, as featured in House Beautiful in the 1910's.  The caption gives 'Decor Chinois' the seal of approval.
Enlivening an otherwise heavy handed guest room at Otto Kahn's vast 'Oheka' at Cold Spring Harbor, c. 1920

 Romantically used in the second floor room of the tea house at Martha Codman Karolik's Berkeley Villa in Newport, RI.  The tea house is a 1920's copy by Fiske Kimball of the famous Derby summer house by Samuel McIntire.
  .....And perhaps the most brilliant use of the paper, in the Belfry Bedroom at Henry Davis Sleeper's 'Beauport' at Gloucester, MassachusettsNotice how perfectly positioned the motifs are in relation to the complicated architecture. (photograph by Samuel Chamberlain, from Beauport at Gloucester, the Most Fascinating House in America, Hastings House, 1951)

 The paper plays against the gardens below the windows, and forms a foil for the figured maple furniture and lively hooked rugs

The almost dizzying array of intersecting ceiling slopes in this room bring 'Decor Chinois' to life. (Chamberlain photograph)
Here the paper is seen in two other colorways, from A.L. Diamant Company, which has distributed  Zuber papers in America since 1885


Complaint Department: Annoying Book Designs, and The Troubles They Cause

This post by Blue Remembered Hills engendered an excellent discussion about book design a few weeks ago.  Today, I have a pet peeve to add to the list:

Having finished disposing of the usual Christmas trash, I am now moving about 700 books from one location to another in the house.  It is mostly a pleasurable task, coming across old favorites, appreciating the design of others, to say nothing of floor space freed up in the tiny sittng room that the books are leaving. .  There is however, a tiny blot on that happiness, and I am going voice another book design peeve to add to the list:  Books that are longer than they are high, particularly if they are published only in papercover.   It may be a lovely design conceit, especially if one is featuring very horizontal images, but most would be as well served if they were in a regular vertical format.  Why do they peeve me?  The coffee table books thus designed cannot be shelved in a regular depth shelf.  Nor, for that matter can some of the smaller ones (half folio and smaller).  The paperback volumse inevitably fan or warp open on the edge while shelved.  I've tried everything over the years---laying them flat (they still curl and warp), shelving them together, even if it puts them out of category (see laying flat) putting them between larger volumes (there's still always an inch that fans out), weighting them down with something ornamental (it doesn't really serve a book well to have a terra cotta architectural ornament resting on it), and the most drastic solution, giving them to the library book sale.  Additionally, the exposed edges get dirty (yes, the shelves do get dusted).   Wonderful custom slipcases would be the answer, but damn those taxes and new roofs.

A few of the offenders, favorites all.

Oh, and pet peeve #3:  I have quite a few paperback monographs, some without titles on the spine.  Give me a break.  It wouldn't take that much more ink.  Then I could locate them on the shelf easily. Duh.

There, that's off my chest.  Back to sorting books.

Hope you all had a happy holiday.  I did.  Good company, good food, good drink----the first two almost to happy excess, the latter in sensible moderation.


Favorite Rooms: Smalt

Yes, you read correctly.  Smalt.  Read on.

 Warner House (Beaupre Photo, Historic Portsmouth Website)
One of my favorite  houses is the McPhaedris-Warner house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, built by a merchant-privateer in 1718, and one of the earliest brick houses in New England.  A noble Georgian presence near the harbor, it has all the appearance of a fine townhouse in a small English city, and was the inspiration for many a good brick colonial revival house in the suburbs through the early 20th century.  Inside are handsome rooms, high and richly paneled.  The house remained in the hands of McPhaedris's descendants until the early 20th century, when the last of the family, Evelyn Sherburne, deeded the house and extraordinary contents to the Warner House Association, which has maintained it ever since.  The interiors have that romantic, rich flavor that only the accumulation of generations can give.  The hall has crude and enigmatic murals, the earliest in America to survive, with life size Native American chieftains flanking the huge arched window on the stair landing.  The dining room has interesting graining and marbleizing on the paneling.

The Warner House Association have been conscientious stewards of the property, maintaining it well.  In recent years, given the rich primary materials available, the curator, Joyce Geary Volk, clearly  a person both erudite and imaginative,  has restored different rooms to reflect varying periods of occupancy.  The drawing room is particularly evocative, restored to its Colonial Revival/ late Victorian appearance as Miss Sherburne had it.

But we'll return to all that in a future post.  Today's post is about smalt.  If anybody knows what smalt is, please raise your hand, but don't tell the others.  I didn't know smalt from s'mores until I saw this room. Continue reading.

An essential component of restoring an historic room is a chemical paint analysis, in which layers of paint are studied and broken down under a microscope to determine pigments used, to arrive at the colors for the desired period.  One of the early examples of this was the dining room at Mt. Vernon a couple of decades back, where it was found that verdigris in the pigment indicated an almost surreal shade of green originally covered the walls.

When a routine analysis was undertaken for the Parlor Chamber upstairs, a great surprise was in store.  One of the earliest layers of pigment was found to contain smalt.  For those who did not raise their hands, Smalt is ground cobalt blue glass.  It is most typically used in sign painting, to create the rough background surface one sees in older signs.  At the Warner house, the smalt was found to be of a particularly fine grain.  Although there were isolated instances of smalt being used for highlighting details of interior woodwork in England, this was the first time that researchers had encountered it in America, and the first time in an entire room.

The Parlor Chamber (photograph by Geoffrey Gross from Antiques & Fine Art)

With great excitement, the decision was made to restore the room to this appearance, and the hunt was on.  First, a smalt of the proper consistency had to be found.  Then, the painters had to find a way to properly adhere it to the paint.  A smalt-out was held, with many techniques tried.  The winner was----are you ready for this (pay attention, Martha Stewart)--- A glitter gun.  Another photo of the room may be found on Flickr

I recently visited the Warner house for the first time in years.  The tour was wonderful, given by an actress of talent playing Miss Sherburne, taking one through 'her' house and its history---lively, and not at all as corny as it sounds.  A giant improvement it is over the usual dry house tour given by well intentioned docents reading off long facts..

As we went up the stairs, and into this beautifully proportioned room, richly paneled, with its large deep windows of wavy glass looking out to the Portsmouth Harbor, I stopped breathing for a second.  It was like nothing I'd ever seen, and photographs cannot capture the ethereal effect; it has to be experienced  to fully appreciate it. The paneling had a low sort of luminescence, enhanced by the light from the river.  The color is difficult to pin down, sort of taupe/violet/mauve from the combination of a blueish green base shot with the cobalt smalt.  The already extraordinary effect was heightened by the reproduction of the original bed and curtain fabric, in a rich emerald green brocade.  It must be extraordinary by candlelight. The surprising combination of these colors and textures, with rich old San Domingo mahogany furniture, has to be seen to be believed.  Sometimes one sees something that challenges pre-conceived notions, and this is one of those instances.

Note to readers: Although this puts to shame  the gaudy and expensive paint effects various Park Avenue acquaintances have been allowing their decorators to smear over their walls for lo these many years, you should not try this at home.  Really, you shouldn't.  Unless of course, you have gorgeous 18th century paneled rooms that garner light from nearby water....


Proust Bite: Teatime at My Grandparent's.

My grandparents, a convivial couple, were of an era that would be at home to friends who might drop by in the late afternoon.  It was a rare day that there was not a visitor, or two, or three, who had wandered by at tea time for gossip and conversation.  Simple treats were always at the ready for these unannounced visitors.  One of the best were these wafer thin lace cookies, kept in an old fashioned tin to keep them dry and crisp

The bottoms of these cookies are very shiny from the caramelization of butter and sugar, and my grandfather loved to remind novice visitors to be sure to 'peel off the wax paper' before taking a bite, and derived almost sadistic enjoyment from watching the hapless souls try.

I've compared this recipe with others, and most lace cookies recipes seem to involve corn syrup.  These do not, and I think they're better for it, sugary and crisp.  They can also be tarted up with chopped nuts, dipped in chocolate (Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookies anyone?)

Lace Cookies:

Melt 1 Stick butter in saucepan
Add 1 Cup Sugar
        1 Cup rolled oats
        1/4 tsp. salt
        2 heaping tbs. flour
        1/4 tsp. baking powder
        1 tsp. vanilla or other flavoring
Mix well, and beat in:
        1 egg

Line cookie sheet with foil
Drop 1/2 tsp. of batter for each cookie
Bake 350 degrees for 7-10 minutes, watching carefully
Cool thoroughly on foil.  When cool, peel off foil.

Makes 3 dozen.


Thanks, Blue

Thanks to the Blue Remembered Hills for the kind mention yesterday.  It is more than flattering to have my favorite bloggers stop by.


Nina Fletcher Little, Decorative Arts Detective

It is snowing fiercely today, so I'm housebound, and torn between cleaning up a gigantic desk mess, or browsing through picture books, I've chosen the books, fully aware that I'll pay later, when the piles on the desk fall over on the floor, or they spontaneously combust.

The book that has most caught my attention this afternoon is an old favorite,  American Decorative Wall Painting, 1700-1850, by Nina Fletcher Little.  You may wonder how the Dilettante acquired his fascination for design sources.  Well, it was as a little lad, sitting inside on rainy days, alternately reading Nina Fletcher Little or the Hardy Boys----when my nose wasn't poked deep into the chic, lush photos of House & Gardens Second Book of Interior Decoration, but that's another post.

This groundbreaking study of early American interior decorative motifs, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weird,  brought the naive, sometimes ambitious,  early American attempts at European style decoration to the fore. She was a prodigious researcher and detective, and for 65 years was constantly scooping herself, discovering another obscure folk artist, finding the design source for an American building. tracing the allegorical history of a piece of a printed textile.  I cannot say it better than this bit of promotional copy for her posthumous collecting autobiography Little by Little :

NINA FLETCHER LITTLE spent over sixty years collecting and writing about New England antiques until her death in 1993. Her "special contribution was to bridge the worlds of American antiques and folk art, bringing the antiquarian's passion for the past to the study of folk art. She combined a keen appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of an object with a determination to discover everything possible about the historical and social context in which it was created -- who made it, when and where, how it was used and by whom. For her there was no contest between object and context: she honored both."
I always looked forward to her many magazine articles, amazed by her resourcefulness and intellect, her new discoveries, and her excellent narrative style, which kept the subject from being dry.  One shared her enthusiasm and sense of discovery, and from her writings, I learned a new way of considering objects and their place in the world, and developed my own curiosity about design sources.
With her husband, Bertram K. Little, for many years the Director of Historic New England , the organization formerly known as SPNEA, she formed an extraordinary and pioneering collection of New England Folk art.  The Littles displayed the collection at their summer home, Cogswell's Grantan impossibly romantic 18th c.

 Cogswell's Grant

New England farm hidden away at the edge of the marshes in Essex Massachusetts.  Although 'country' and 'folk art' are two words that can make my blood freeze when spoken of as interior decoration (all those painted goose cutouts, those herbal wreathes, those homespun checks...ugh), the Little's collection was something else, almost spiritual, as displayed in the timeworn old farmhouse.  At their deaths, both in 1990, The Littles left house, farm, and collection  to Historic New England.  Historic New England is also the steward of famous Beauport, a few miles down the road in Gloucester.  The two are well worth a summer road trip, to experience two highly personal presentation of the decorative arts of New England.
A bedroom in the Little's country house, Cogswell's Grant, with the 18th century grained and marbleized woodwork that sparked her interest in early wall decoration.

FOOTNOTE:  Here is one of my own 'eureka' moments.   This is a little painting that I can't live without.  It is a small primitive oil on canvas, very shabby, of a shipwreck, by some anonymous 1850's painter.  I  bought it at the age of 14, at a country auction I attended with my father at a run down Charles Addams-ish Victorian mansion in Hampden, Maine.   The auction was mostly the usual banal carved mahogany furniture and gold bordered china one would expect in railroad president's house.  Sitting outside on the unshaded lawn, getting the worst sunburn of my life on my knees, I watched the usual buffets and gilt mirrors go up, when suddenly, a very dirty stack of small paintings came down from the attic. They were mostly ho-hum Hudson River style landscapes.  This one was on the bottom, and it was love at first sight---the almost abstract composition, combined with sure brushstrokes, skillfully rendered dawn on the horizon, and vividly real storm colors.  For $11.00 the stack was mine.

I'd lived with the painting for 25 years, when, in the course of removing antiques I'd purchased from a house a mile from me, this tattered Currier & Ives appeared folded in a pile of papers in the attic.  Imagine my surprise.  I'd found the source of my painting.


Palladian Perfection, New England Style, Part 2: The Lady Pepperell House at Kittery Point Maine

 19th century photograph of the Lady Pepperell House, Kittery, Maine 
(NYPL / Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)

 General Sir William Pepperell (1696-1759), the hero of Louisburg, was the first American born baronet, and the richest man in what was then the Province of Maine.  He lived comfortably but unpretentiously in his family's commodious old house, built in 1682 near the shipyards and fish houses that helped fuel his fortune.

After his death, his widow, the former Mary Hirst, built a dower house a mile from the old mansion. This small, forthright mansion with its bold ionic pilasters on under a central pediment, is one of the loveliest houses in Maine.  The bracketed doorway features two intertwined dolphins.  On this basis, the house has often been attributed to Peter Harrison, the English architect of King's Chapel in Boston, and the Redwood Library in Newport, as have the Apthorp and Longfellow houses in Cambridge, which share similar compositions and details with the Pepperell House.

Elevation Drawing and Floor Plan of Lady Pepperell House (from Great Georgian Houses of America, published by the Architects's Emergency Committee, 1933)

The floor plan is a classic simple 18th century plan, center hall, front and back stairs, 2 rooms on each side.  The importance of the rooms is indicated by their relative size. The windows are large, and flood the house with light.  While some could quibble with individual details of the design----windows crowd the central pavilion, for example---the overall effect of the house, with its bold details casting high relief shadows, is stunning. 

Inside, the house features handsome simple rooms, beautiful cornices, deep windows with folding shutters and window seats. a staircase with twisted balusters, and simple paneled chimney breasts projecting into the rooms between windows to handsome effect.

Drawing Room, Lady Pepperell House, 1940's view.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller for Ladies Home Journal

After Lady Pepperell's death, the house went through various owners.  In the 1920's, noted architect John Mead Howells*, son of William Dean Howells, who summered down the road, undertook a restoration for the new owners, who were to use it as a summer residence.  He added a matching pair of ionic porches to the sides, a bit  fussy for the strong lines of the house.  The house was left to the Society for The Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now unfortunately renamed Historic New England in an attempt to be more relevant), who operated it as a house museum.  Under visited, and it's endowment fund too small, the house was sold to private buyers in the 1970's, with substantial deed protections.  A restoration of the interior was undertaken by the new owners, including reproduction of original wallpapers from surviving fragments.

Stoller photograph, LHJ

As for Lady Pepperell, her name lives on in a famous line of bed linens.

*Interesting side note:  Howells was a Beaux Arts trained architect.  In the early 20th century, he was a major figure in the revival of interest in early American architecture, publishing several influential books, including The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua, and Lost Examples of Colonial Architecture .  Howells must have felt some ambiguity about the porches he added to the Lady Pepperell House, as he included an early shot of the house in Lost Examples, with the caption noting that it showed the appearance of the house before porches were added.  In his professional career, Howells worked not in the colonial styles he did so much to popularize, but instead was a major figure in the modernist skyscraper movement.