Speaking of Chairs---An Old Friend Reappears

The family antiques business has been going for 45 years, and I have been running it for 25 years now, a temporary gig until I figure out what I want to be when I grow up.  We've been in business long enough that we are beginning to see things we sold years ago coming back into the marketplace.

I discovered an old friend back on the market this evening as I was surfing the auction news over at the always entertaining Homer's Odd, Isn't He.  I realized with a frisson that the Weschler's auction that he was reviewing was  the estate of a beloved long time customer of our shop, a founder of the Washington Antiques Show who died last year at 103.  She was a marvelous woman who had  been a client of the fashionable decorator Mrs. Joseph Weller, who did many of Georgetown's best houses in the middle of the last century (and was the mother of another well-known decorator, Nancy Pierrepont).  The client had a marvelous eye, and the innate knack for placement that was so characteristic of certain ladies of that era.  I recognized a few things that I'd sold her, including this wonderful Regency chair with its swoon inducing painting of Turban clad figures sitting in a landscape,  I'd chased the chair for awhile.  It had been love from the moment I saw that delicious little painting on the back. The eight or nine of you who regularly visit this blog may even remember that I have a slight chair problem.  This one had belonged to friends who inherited it from their grandmother, who had owned a grand estate outside Albany (the chair can be seen in a photograph of the music room of that house in an article in Magazine Antiques, December 1967, should anyone care).

I remember the sale well.   I had brought the chair into the shop, absolutely delighted with it, and it was immediately spotted by my most tiresome customer, a surgeon's wife who summered in a nearby town whose collective denizens are considered by most of us in the pretty things business to be collectively the most annoying customers in the area.  Funny how different communities can take on different personalities.  At any rate, she put the chair on hold, as was her wont.  She then called too many times to beg a better price (for the record, the 1987 price was $325.00).  I turned a cold heart to her pleas, and she finally agreed to take it, but would not be in for several days to pay for it and pick it up (of course), blah blah blah, etc.  Then as was his wont, her husband--like his wife, a pain in the ass (in those gawd awful red trousers with a red gin nose to match)---told her she could absolutely not have the chair.  This was a typical transaction for this customer---hold, whine, renege.  Consider the foregoing to be the Dilettante's Dish on How NOT to be a Favored Customer.  Then, as this drama was winding to its inevitable tiresome conclusion, the favored customer came in, took one look at the chair, said she must have it, could I please put it in the car right now, and her man would bring the check by this afternoon.   And off it went, and the check was delivered by the faithful servant within the hour.  And now, here it is, 22 years later, back on the market.  Think, the dear lady was 81 when she bought it, still taking joy in the pursuit of beauty.  I'm tempted to call Weschler's and leave a bid.....I'm sentimental that way.

Also up at the sale is this Creil transfer ware tray and 4 matching pot de cremes.  I purchased them, along with many other pieces of Creil, my favorite china, at the estate sale of one Mary Meeker Cramer, a Chicago meat packing heiress, whose architect husband Ambrose had been an associate of the great David Adler.  The Cramers had just the sort of taste one would expect of associates of David Adler.  Stylish.  I'd love to see that sale come by again---but enough about the past.

The chair is not the only old item that I recognize going up at auction this week----a pair of swagged tables from the 30's, pictured in this post a few days ago, which I sold to another delightful customer a few years ago, are going up at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries this week.


Moving Houses: Spite House

 Spite House elevation (HABS)

For almost the entire 400 years since the White Anglo Saxon Protestants took New England from its rightful owners, its houses have been restless and on the move.  The first settlers were constantly moving buildings.  During the Revolution residents of Castine, Maine who preferred the rule of a mad king took their houses apart, loaded them on boats, and removed houses and selves to St. Andrews in New Brunswick.  In 1845, Elizabeth Prince Peabody described a house moving she witnessed in Danvers, Massachusetts. "The building came along slowly, drawn by yokes of oxen. Every yoke had a driver beside it with goads, hurrying them with a 'Hush-whoa'. It seemed as though there were 20 or 40 yoke of oxen."

House moving in Newburyport Massachusetts. (Historic New England)

In our Maine village, a number of early buildings are not in their original locations.  My own house, a small cape style farmhouse built in 1814, became redundant when the family that owned it hired noted architect William Ralph Emerson to design a new house in 1895.  Finding my house too good for tear down (I've since expensively had reason to question their judgment call), they simply lifted it up, put it on logs, hooked it up to some oxen, and rolled it downhill about a thousand feet, and here I sit, in a draft, typing this post.  I love the stories of these restless houses, and in the next few weeks will tell the tales of four of the best.
Phippsburg, Maine, in the late 19th century.  The two McCobb houses are at the center of the picture

Coastal dwellers and boatmen looking out to sea in mid-coast Maine in 1925 might well have rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the surprising sight of a tall stately house floating by on the horizon.  This is the story of what they saw:
Spite House en route (Down East Magazine, uncredited, August 1960)

The 1806 Thomas McCobb house in Phippsburg, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, was known locally as 'the spite house'.   It is a particularly elegant Federal style house, with details taken from Asher Benjamin, an octagonal cupola, and carved swags above the first floor windows.  The local legend was that Captain Thomas McCobb built it to spite his mother and stepbrother, who, with manipulation, had inherited the family homestead across the road, until then the finest house in the region.
Spite House is loaded onto the barge at Phippsburg (Down East)

Spite house remained on its knoll, overshadowing the older house, until discovered by Donald Dodge of Philadelphia.  Smitten, he negotiated a purchase, and arrangements were made to move the house to his ocean front site on Deadman's Point up the coast. The Dresser Company of Portland was hired, the house was loaded on greased skids, rolled downhill and loaded onto a New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad barge captained by John Snow, and the house was taken 85 miles by sea to its new location overlooking Penobscot Bay.  Mr. Dodge wished the house to be moved without damage to plaster or chimneys, and over 2,000 feet of lumber was used to brace  the structure for safe transport. Adding to the load were several tons of granite, including the original doorsteps and foundation coping.  Upon arrival at its new site, the process was reversed, the house was loaded back on skids, and horses drew it to the new foundations awaiting it.
Spite House in its new location, greatly enlarged by three wings (Down East)

While Spite House, as it was dubbed, may have been the grandest house in Phippsburg a hundred years before, its 8 rooms were hardly adequate for the needs of a wealthy family and their staff as a summer home in the age of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The venerable Philadelphia firm of Tilden, Register, and Pepper, headed by Marmaduke Tilden, were brought in for a 'restoration' and enlargement of the house, giving it a glamorous 'past' that probably far exceeded the original.
The formality of the grisaille scenic wallpaper in the hall was offset by painted wooden floors and colorful early American hooked rugs (Cervin Robinson photograph, HABS)
The curving main stairway was reversed, a back stair removed, and the hall extended through the house, that the ocean might be seen from the front door.  Wings were added to the sides with large living and dining rooms, a gun room, ladies reception room, dressing rooms, bathrooms,, and an extensive service wing with the usual assortment of kitchens, pantries and servants rooms.  For more old material, an 18th century house in Harpswell was purchased and demolished for woodwork for several rooms, including a paneled breakfast room.  Mr. Dodge was a connoisseur of singular and bold taste, and he furnished the house fearlessly in the best Colonial Revival idiom of the day.
 The parlor (Ezra Stoller Photograph, Ladies Home Journal)

Woodwork was carefully glazed to appear antiqued.  Fragments of original wallpapers were reproduced in their original bright colors.  One room was papered in an orange swag pattern paper, supplied by decorator Nancy McClelland, an expert on early papers, who is thought to have had much to do with the decor of the house,  with orange and green drapery to match.  Painted floors and bright hooked rugs contrasted with the elegant furnishings.
 The Dining Room (Stoller, LHJ)
The new dining room, with woodwork copied from the similar Kavanaugh house in Damariscotta Mills, was particularly fearless.  It featured a scenic wallpaper, Les Incas by Dufour, in blues with accents of red and orange, and the carpet was a Brussels woven in blues and oranges, for which Mr. Dodge had the original factory re-opened.  Each room, as at Henry Davis Sleeper's Beauport, had collections of accessories chosen for their color impact and light reflection.
Garden off dining room (HABS)

Outside, Mr. Dodge surrounded the house with elaborate, maintenance intensive 'colonial' style gardens designed by Edmund March Wheelwright, a Boston architect who summered on a nearby island.  An elaborate picket fence and entrance courtyard created a suitably elegant and charming approach.
Living Room, Added in 1926
Mr.Dodge intended to leave his beloved creation to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, but the gift was declined for lack of endowment.  The family retained the house, and shorn now of two of its wings, it remains a private house.


Even Elsie de Wolfe Had Bad Hair Days

And here's one of them, from House & Garden for November, 1917 in the Long Island house of Ormond Smith.  The chic Godmother of Interior Decoration, who brought light and trellis to American interiors, is here seen in a moment of overstuffed, overwrought, and over furnished frenzy.  And what's with the matchy-matchy going on with the light fixtures, rugs and little table in foreground all borrowing from the elegant trellis frieze.  I'd be voting this one off Top Design in the first round.


Diary of a Mad Antique Dealer

It's Antiques Week, and though sometimes I fire up the trusty steed and hightail it for the Armory, this year I must stay in Maine.

Darling Reggie, I mean,  Reggie Darling, requested more photos of the shop from time to time, and herewith I amuse you with some of the junque that passes through.  His exact request included the comment that it gave such good insight into my fevered mind.....oh dear...be careful what you wish for....

I loved this 1840's American Gothic Revival pier table, probably Boston, with a wonderful gold and black marble top.  The 18th century French pier mirror, much like the one over the mantel in the Duck Creek dining room, belonged to the late Society decorator Nancy Pierrepont

I should have kept the plaster column lamp.  I really should have.  You can't really see it, but the amusing little print to the left is an 18th century French fashion print, done during the balloon craze of the late century, of a woman with a high hairdo done up to resemble the Montgolfier balloon.  The print leaning on the chair, a rare English print showing a fencing match before the Prince Regent, featuring a cross-dressing swordsman.  Oh those English!
 Okay, here's the key to my taste:  if it's painted, pale, and slightly classical, then I'm a goner, gotta have it.

 As I said, if its off white, classical...guess I'm just an old fashioned boy.  I was going to keep this, but a nice friend of JCB passed through and away it went.  At least it went to a good home.  Looking for all the world like a Roman Emperor, it's actually Daniel Webster. 

And how about this? Had to be seen to be believed.  And it was a pair.  TWO of them 

Duck Creek: The Exterior

In yesterday's post about Duck Creek, I mentioned that madness was setting in because I could not find my exterior photos of that lovely house, not yet digitized,  lost somewhere in paper form somewhere amidst the cluttered file drawers.

 The Garden Front c. 1960

Architect James Shearron, of Bories & Shearron, designers of elegant small houses themselves, heard my cry of pain, and kindly sent along a wonderful group of pictures from his own files, thus saving my sanity for another round of blogging.

Two view of the garden front as originally built, spare and elegant

The pictures were also a revelation, for as much as I have admired Duck Creek, over the years, I did not know that the house had originally been  designed differently from its present center pavilion form.  The earlier form, elegant in idea, somewhat betrayed its origins as a salvaged post office, on the entrance front.  The garden front was long and restrained, elegantly punctuated by five French windows. Handsome urns were placed unusually and attractively on the parapet, above the windows themselves, rather than the more academic placing above the spaces between.   Addition of a central flat roofed dormer gave the house more the air of a folly or garden pavilion.  The three paterae above the central windows, a keystone above the central window only, and the brackets flanking and tying the dormer to the roof, are just the right amount of decoration in this perfectly scaled composition.

The entrance front as originally built.  I'm afraid I must admit that in this view I have no trouble imagining cars parked diagonally in front as their owners pick up the mail.

There was one more surprise in the photos that Mr. Shearron sent:  Mr. Knudsen's own bedroom, completely leaving the 18th century behind for a modernist style.  Interestingly, in this particular case, the furnishings appear more dated than the 18th century artifacts that furnish the rest of the rooms.

The master bedroom

I love many types of houses, from vernacular Maine farmhouses to graceful French chateaux to modernist glass boxes, but I have a special fondness for this type of house, relatively small, but designed with the the spacious intent of a larger house.  One sees it in all types of architecture---an elegant New England farmhouse, a story and a half high, yet with the Adamesque fan door of a mansion; a small French pavillion built around a central room with the airs of a large chateau; or Philip Johnson's perfect, elegant Glass House.  The would-be palace builders who cluttered up the landscape and suburbs over the last decade would have done well to heed the lessons of these small elegant mansions.  Duck Creek is perhaps not a masterpiece, but it is masterful.


Favorite Rooms: Duck Creek

This was going to be a 'Houses I Dream About' post, but I have driven myself half mad trying to find the exterior photos that I know I have of this exquisite house to no avail, so we will consider the interiors instead.

Arvid Knudsen, a Norwegian born antiquarian of exceptional taste, built Duck Creek at the edge of a salt marsh in Old Lyme Connecticut in 1940.  The house passed from Knudsen to his friend, connoisseur and dealer, J.A. Lloyd Hyde, who was one of Henry Francis DuPont's chief advisors at Winterthur, supplying him with much of the Chinese Export materials there.  The house is a testament to the power of architectural salvage.  Knudsen bought the New London post office, then being demolished, and had the materials trucked to Old Lyme, where he incorporated them into an elegant small  Adamesque pavilion.  The house had few rooms, followed a rigid classical aesthetic, and depended on the quality of its furnishings and proportions for effect.

The lovely drawing room was of a pure Swedish neoclassical bent, with plenty of air and light, contrasting grandeur and simplicity, with pale blue walls, white painted Louis XVI furniture, and sheer ruffled curtains at the windows, the better to reflect light on the antique parquet floors.  The doors were flush, and there were virtually no moldings to interrupt the smooth background, highlighting the elegant shapes within.

This is really about two favorite rooms, for I cannot pick between the airy drawing room, and the dining room...but, I think we'll go with the dining room.  Painted a pale French gray, with tall french windows, the room was decorated with some of the gentlemen's salvage, and what salvage it was---fluted corinthian pilasters saved from the white drawing room at Winterthur when it was redecorated by Henry Dupont as a period Empire parlor, and green satin taffeta curtains from the Misses Hewitt of Cooper-Hewitt fame, that remind one of nothing so much as a Charles James ballgown.  A tasty set of green painted chairs upholstered in an unexpected taupe leather compliment the curtains, and an enviable silver pagoda centers the table.  The floor is salvaged white marble, not highly polished or veined.  Between the windows is a collection of the Dilettante's favorite china, Creil faience, with restrained classical and architectural scenes on a cream ground.  The brass trumpet chandelier is almost modernist in its restraint.  I want to go to a dinner party in this room...

The White Drawing Room at Winterthur in the 1930's, showing the pilasters that were later salvaged for the Duck Creek dining room

Photographs of Duck Creek by Taylor & Dull, Magazine Antiques, December 1957
Photograph of Yellow Drawing Room at Winterthur from Christies, DuPont sale.


Houses I Dream About: Baroque Rococo on the Hudson

My thoughts have wandered out of New England again, over the border into New York and down the Hudson to this  fantasy house, straight out  of a Rex Whistler painting.
 Is it Vogue Regency?  Baroque?  Rococo?   The curvy beauty was designed by John Churchill in the early 1940's for Vincent Astor's first wife, Helen Dinsmore Huntington, later Mrs. Lytle Hull, on her ancestral acres at Staatsburg,.  It replaced a Second Empire manor built for her grandfather in the mid 19th century.  John Churchill is an architect about whom I know very little, and would love to know more.  This theatrical house, filled with light, curves and seduces,  literally embraces its site.
The new house, designed by architect John Churchill
The Entrance Front.  I'd do something about the overgrown plantings...something tight and architectural required here.
 First Floor Plan
Helen Huntington Hull in a portrait by Bernard Boutet de Monvel.  Note the wonderful mantel, with agrarian motifs. (AD)
The interior architecture was as downplayed as the exterior was fantastic.  Simple woodwork, huge windows opening onto the lawns, and elegant mantels were foils for her elegantly furnished interiors. A serpentine staircase seems downright modern in effect.
Drawing Room in Mrs. Hull's era (AD)
Drawing Room, Present Day
Mrs. Hull was a leading music patron, and weekends at The Locust saw many of the leading figures in the arts and society gathered.
The gentlemen play croquet before dinner
Louis Armstrong and Grace Kelly in the Library

The Library Fireplace (AD)
 Dining Room set for a party (AD)
Dining Room, present day view.  Notice the lovely triple hung windows allowing direct access to lawn
After Mrs. Hull's death in 1978, The Locusts passed through several owners, including Penthouse Magazine magnate Bob Guccione. The house survived remarkably well, with only the addition off the drawing room of one of those damnable Machin 'Gothick' conservatories that everyone had to have a decade ago, all wrong for this house, and an especially ill considered swimming pool on the front lawn.
The sight of it causes this blogger pain---someone didn't pay attention to the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' rule---poorly placed, out of sync and out of scale with the house, which had been designed to open to a sweeping lawn and the river views beyond.  If a pool in that location was absolutely required, close your eyes for a moment, and consider how much better it would have been as an oval, with larger scaled paving, and perhaps a darker surface, instead of the tropical turquoise?  Or perhaps shaping the terrace around it into  baroque scrolls?  But what do I know? I'm only a dilettante.  At least it isn't an infinity pool.
Main stair, present day view

The house is now owned by hotelier Andre Balazs, and has been re-imagined as an events venue and small hotel.

ADDENDUM:  Since posting this earlier today, I happened across a terrific post about pools, all of them well designed and placed, on the Limestone and Boxwoods blog.


Way Down East: The Two Windswepts

There are two Windswepts.  One is a best selling 1953 novel by Mary Ellen Chase, about a several generations of a family living in a remote house by the sea in Down East Maine.  The other is her summer home, a remote house by the sea in Down East Maine.

Born in Blue Hill in 1887, Chase is considered one of the heirs to the literary tradition of Sarah Orne Jewett, and indeed is one of the best of the Maine novelists.  She puchased Windswept, located near the end of the world between wild blueberry barrens and the ocean on Petit Manan Point at Steuben, Maine in 1940, and there wrote nine of her books.  Built in the 1920's, the simple cottage is classic Maine, low, shingled, with simple shutters, and many small paned windows to let in the light from the sea.  A big living room with fieldstone fireplace anchors two wings, one with kitchen, the other with bedrooms, forming a sheltered courtyard at the entrance.

When Windswept was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nomination read: 
She is considered by many literary critiques to be second only to Sarah Orne Jewett in her ability to capture the history and particular atmosphere of the coast of Maine and its people.  The isolated cottage provided Ms. Chase with the tranquility and isolation she needed to write, and in turn it also provided the inspiration for the setting of ‘Windswept’ (1941), her best-selling novel about immigration and integration in old settled Maine communities.”

“It is to the credit of the property owners since Ms. Chase that much of her former possessions, including furniture and books, and all the solitary ambiance of Windswept has been retained and preserved since her departure.”
Driftwood on mantel at Windswept 

Chase had to give up Windswept in 1956.  It went through several owners, who cherished the connection,  and the simple aesthetic of the place, before going on the market a couple of years ago.  The new owners did not desire any of Chase's furnishings or mementos, and last week, there was an auction, sparsely attended, and the accumulations of seventy years were sold, including a handwritten notebook about the house, written by Chase for the new owners when she sold the house.  It was a sad reflection of Chase's fallen literary status that even this manuscript failed to excite spirited bidding.  This writer, whose great-grandmother was a friend of Chase's,  purchased a round chair table, probably destined to be my new kitchen table,  and the piece of driftwood from above the living room mantel, where Chase's nephew remembered that she loved to always have a fire going in all weathers, for the pleasant scent.
 Windswept sold for 1.2 million, with 7.5 acres and 1100 feet of shorefront bordered by a preserve.  Imagine the same property in Montauk....

(Below), the final page of Chase's Windswept journal, wishing the new owners the same happiness she had experienced there.