Provenance, Taste, Moving Houses, and the Sad Tale of a Beautiful Wallpaper

After 25 years in the antiques trade, many beautiful pieces have crossed my path. Most arrive having long since lost their stories, but occasionally a piece comes through with a history, a provenance, intact to enhances its beauty. This romantic wallpaper screen is such a piece.

The wallpaper was part of a set hand painted in the late 18th century by an anonymous artist, and originally used in a chateau in France. The sweeping panorama depicts a nautical theme, with fishermen tending their nets on shore, and ships plying the sea in the distance. The colors are rich and saturated, age having only deepened the intensity.  Eventually the set found its way to America, where because of its large scale, it was divided into two sets. One half was purchased by collector Electra Havemeyer Webb, who hung it in one of the early houses she had moved to her husband's family land to form the Shelburne Museum, intending to evoke a fantasy of a rich sea captain retired to the very un-nautical environs of Vermont.

 A panel from the set may be seen at the left in this 1960's view  of the parlor in Vermont House at Shelburne Museum

The other set was purchased in 1948 by Mrs. Ambrose Cramer, the daughter of Arthur Meeker, head of the Armour meat packing concern in Chicago, and sister of writer Arthur Meeker Jr. She and her architect husband, who had worked in David Adler's office, after many years living abroad, had purchased an attractive Greek Revival sea captain's house in Rockport village, which they then moved to a lovely setting on the harbor, reworking the floor plan completely to create an elegant summer house, while maintaining the integrity of the exterior. Of elegant and cosmopolitan tastes, the Cramers filled their house with soigné possessions from their European life---Italian and French neoclassical furniture and faiences, an 18th century Bossi work mantel in green and white---and the wallpaper murals in the dining room, their painted European bays and shores echoing the Maine waters just outside the windows.

Mary Meeker Cramer in the dining room of her house in Rockport, Maine, c. 1984. The screen can be seen in the left background. The table and sideboard are set with a lovely set of 18th century del Vecchio faience purchased by the Cramers on their honeymoon. (Photograph by Arnold Newman from Town & Country by way of Smilla4blogs) PS. the wall is not curved---it is the curvature of the magazine page. One of the Dilettante's pet peeves is photos across the binding gutter in books or magazines. Pay attention book designers!

The Cramers gave the house a polish that it had previously never aspired to. Proud of their lovely creation, they placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately a National Register listing has few teeth, and after Mrs. Cramer's death, the contents went up at auction, including the screen, separated from its paper in the dining room, luckily, as things transpired. The house was sold to a tycoon on whom the scale and subtleties of the old Hanson House were lost. Down came the house, and up went the predictable gargantuan and overwrought McMansion by the sea. A salvage dealer from Rockland saved the mantels (only to shatter the Bossi work mantel from careless handling), the porch columns, some doors, the 18th century chandeliers---and the dining room paper. Age had taken a toll on the paper's condition, and careless handling exacerbated the situation. The salvage dealer also suffered from a mighty case of hubris, and became so convinced of the paper's value that he rejected all estimates from the major auction houses, even while the paper continued to deteriorate, and after a break up, it apparently went to auction in upstate New York, and failing to sell, back to his ex-girlfriend's barn. At the auction I bought everything I could of the Cramer's lovely things---the screen graced the shop for only a couple of days before heading to a new home on Cape Cod.

(Moving houses and equipping dining rooms with scenic papers were both favorite pastimes of Rockport summer residents. Click here for another example. And for a link to a real estate video about another Cramer farmhouse renovation, with yet another dining room with scenic paper, click here.)

The Hanson house, as originally built before remodeling by Ambrose Cramer (Historic American Buildings Survey)

The house as remodelled by Ambrose Cramer for himself, after moving it to a shorefront setting in Rockport (HABS)
The original floorplan, with a tiny curved staircase immediately inside the front door (HABS)

The floorplan as remodeled by the Cramers, with a hall running straight through to the ocean front, and a large drawing room in one wing, and the dining room with the wallpaper in the left wing (HABS)

Ambrose Cramer was the very model of a gentleman architect. He grew up in a grand house built for his industrialist father in Lake Forest, married an heiress, and combined a distinguished manner with superb taste. In Maine he became a major force in the historic preservation movement.  He cut his professional teeth in the office of the great David Adler, and worked on several of Adler's greatest commissions, including the Cape Dutch house in Lake Forest for the Richard Bentleys. In 1929, Cramer designed one of his most famous works, in a more literal translation of the Cape Dutch style, Constantia, a winter home for his parents-in-law in Montecito California.

Constantia, the Montecito house designed by Cramer for his in-laws, the Arthur Meekers 


Elegance is Refusal

'Elegance is Refusal' has long been one of my favorite quotes---first uttered by Coco Chanel, later appropriated by Diana Vreeland, I repeated it often through the last two decades of excess, as I saw too many buildings and landscapes, perfect in themselves, altered and renovated beyond reason by people who simply could not resist the human temptation to 'improve'---add a bit of shrubbery here, add a great room there---for whatever reasons: to mark something with an manufactured idea of comfort and status. Restraint, suitability and understatement have been sadly missing from the dialogue.

These photos are from a real estate website. They are of a simple saltwater farm, long used as a summer residence, on exclusive North Haven Island off the mid-Maine coast. The house honors a fast-disappearing and classic vision of Maine, spare and ascetic, as I grew to love it, and as it guided and marked my own aesthetic growing up. The property seems a bargain---for $1,875,000 one gets "A classically beautiful saltwater farm in a desirable location on North Haven's eastern shore, this property encompasses over 90 acres with woods, meadows, and 580± feet of waterfront with a wonderful wide pebble beach. Approached via a private lane, the historic three-bedroom Cape sits amidst open fields in a pastoral and secluded setting with long views to the northeast, offering the charm and simplicity of a historic island farmhouse. The shorefront on East Penobscot Bay offers spectacular views of the islands, and there is an excellent potential building site near the shore."

It it not far fetched, as such properties have gone in recent years, to suppose that the new owner will either renovate the farmhouse---which I like to imagine with curtainless windows, painted floors and simple scrubbed furniture, sea glass collected from the beach laid out on windowsills to catch the light---adding the usual overscaled, over-windowed 'barn' room with super-kitchen, or perhaps build a new cottage, no doubt in a painfully overworked shingle style reproduction on the 'excellent potential building site near the shore'.

My family has a tiny cottage on the beach on a peninsula near here. The peninsula was pure magic in the summer. The landscape was entirely made up of such farms, lovingly and simply kept, some by summer families, some still hardscrabble farmed by the families who had long owned them....old stone walls, meadows to the ocean, hedgerows of steeplebush and fragrant wild roses constituted the landscape. One by one these breathtaking properties are being broken up for smaller summer properties. The formula almost never varies: a section of field or wood is leveled, a driveway with gateposts is built, a square of lawn is created, and a very suburban house is plopped in the middle, usually landscaped within an inch of its life. In short, a landscape that once evoked the best of Maine now increasingly evokes Scarsdale.

Don't get me wrong--I am far from against change. Nor am I even against grandeur, in its place--quite the opposite---I'm as happy as the next architectural tourist to visit Newport and imagine myself for a few minutes the grandson of robber barons rather than farmers and sea captains. No, what I'm against is banality, insensitivity, and pretension and cheapness. As I've said in a previous rant on the subject, If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It.

And maybe I'll be proven wrong---maybe this place will be purchased by some artistic soul who loves and understands it just as it is. And maybe Sarah Palin will go back to Alaska.

Pictures from Landvest.com


I am currently unable to upload pictures from the new version of Blogger editor. The 'help' section, of course, is an oxymoron. Anybody else?


How to Ship a Chair

As I believe in professional discretion, no names will be mentioned in this post.  Naturally the Dilettante would never be indiscreet.  Never.  Not Ever.  Not moi. Nope. Any resemblance in this tale to persons living or dead is almost coincidental.

One crisp autumn Sunday several years ago, I was doing some catch-up work at my store--putting plants away for winter, touchng up paint, gathering trash to take to the dump.  Although suitably dressed for the tasks, I was not so much dressed for polite company---plaid shorts and a striped shirt with no colors in common, workboots, polar fleece vest.   The style could best be described as Village People raid Jerry Lewis' closet   Although at that time of year, on that day, I could reasonably expect no one would see me, the unthinkable happened.   Up to the town dock pulled a Hinckley picnic boat captained by a famous life style maven who has a house on a nearby island (a boat savvy friend, who happened to see the arrival, icily mentioned that she had 'backed up to the dock').

Soon, I was uttering 'oh shit' to myself as her well dressed assistant appeared to ask if I could be open.  "Sure" I thought, "just let me go home, shave, and get out of the clown costume first?".   Soon the maven appeared, hale and hearty as always, followed by a tall and glamorous guy with vigorously cared for skin and a perfect haircut (the fates are always unkind---the contrast between my appearance and his at that moment was somewhat greater than the intellectual gap between Sarah Palin and Noam Chomsky.  Behind them were two very tiny women, both dressed against the cold---a trip across open ocean to our village on even a sunny October day would be chilly for even the heartiest among us. Their tininess was emphasized by the contrast with both the gentleman, and the lifestyle guru herself, a full sized gurl, nearly as large as I am.

Although no introductions were made (the lifestyle guru's manners can be famously missing on occasion), it soon became apparent that the tall guy was a famous action star, who had gotten his start in show business years before on a TV show about a homespun doctor and his young assistant--sort of 'Doctor Knows Best'.   Suddenly, like a crack of lightening, it occurred to the Dilettante that one of the tiny women must be his wife, one of the most famous singer/actresses of our age, who had only two or three days before completed her 47th or 103rd farewell concert in Las Vegas--I've lost track---and that the other tiny woman was her close friend, a famous fashion designer.

After a time, the famous couple, both very nice, she very shy, decided to buy a late 18th century Winsor sack-back side chair.   Inevitably the question of shipping came up.   I was proposing two simple options when the lifestyle guru, who has built an empire on better ways to do things (hers), shot down my suggestion of Fedex-ing the chair in a large box (I refuse to use UPS.  Ever.), and said, 'oh don't be silly---we'll take it back on the boat, and the next time one of my Suburbans  is going to New York (despite her frequent mentions of her hybrid Prius on air, the guru is actually a one-woman energy crisis, with a fleet of huge ozone burning vehicles), I'll have it dropped off and you can take it back on your plane".   The star hastened to say that she actually lacked her own plane, but instead merely used one of the Gulf Western jets.  The lifestyle maven then started a conversation about the convenience of having one's own jet, which I was sadly unable to join  (Like it wasn't already enough that they'd caught me dressed like Bozo on a bad hair day?)...

And thus, the chair got to California, by boat, car, lackey and plane.  Silly me.  I was just going to put it in a box and FedEx it....

So the moral of this story, faithful readers, is that for people who need people to deliver a chair,  having a private jet is very useful, and they are the luckiest people in the world.  So I'm not being funny, girl....and that's a good thing.


Intermission: Summer, the end is near

Of course, the Hamptons like to think that they have the worst summer highway gridlock in America, but I can assure you that the Maine Coast, with its charming little one-street villages, built for the traffic of another era, gives the glitzy Long Island resorts some ozone burning competition, with insanely large SUV's spewing fumes while moving at 15mph. A car in a line that dares attempt a left turn can back up fifty cars behind it.

In the summer, no sane resident of Maine goes near Route 1 in the mid-coast region with special attention given to avoiding the otherwise charming stretch through downtown Wiscasset, the traffic clogger to beat all others along Maine's 3, 478 miles of coastline.  We locals  know the scenic shortcuts  but don't think we're going to tell any of you Flatlanders where they are.  One of the chief causes of these backups of giant out of state SUVs  is the legendary lobster roll palace, 'Red's Eats' at the edge of town.   Lines of 50-100 can be found at almost any hour of day, waiting for the famous road food.

7:52 PM, Red's Eats, as tourists never see it.  No line, no waiting.  And the most cheerful staff imaginable.

On the Friday evening before Labor Day, with the peak tourist season gone, and the crowds lessened, I decided to brave the highway home from Bath, rather than up to Augusta on the interstate or a trip through the winding backroads at twilight, and here, at 7:30, is the scene of calm that I found, unthinkable just a week before.

The Menu.  As the summer began, so it ended, with a crab roll

8:20 PM....the outside deck of Red's, looking to a traffic free Main Street, for the first time in nearly 3 months.  The peace was broken only by the unruly children of clueless parents at the next table.

 8:22 PM.   The pace quickens as the after dinner crowd arrives for ice cream cones

10:15 PM, the Dilettante is home, having made it safely through both Camden and Wiscasset, the two hell holes of summer traffic congestion.  For the New York Time's take on Wiscasset's summer traffic congestion and more pictures, Click Here

For all those who have inquired, I am happy to quote Mark Twain---the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.   Another eating post to follow, and then we're back to houses and gardens...so many unfinished posts, so little time.