Mr. Burden, a financier, aviation consultant and former ambassador to Belgium (not to be confused with Perle Mesta, who had curlier hair), was a major collector of modern art, one of the early movers and shakers in MOMA, eventually becoming president of its board. His background was a stately one—‘over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house we go’ meant Florham, the vast country house of his grandparents, the Hamilton McKown Twomblys, now the Madison campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey
The ever intrepid architecture hound JCB spotted this article first, in the formerly un-navigable, now blessedly revamped New York Times ‘T Magazine’ online. For those of you who missed the article, click HERE, and head straight over to check out one of the most astonishing houses up in this part of Maine. It is the Wm. A.M. Burden summer home in nearby Northeast Harbor, a joint collaboration between Wallace Harrison and Isamu Noguchi. Harrison, often referred to as the Rockefeller family architect, had a summer home in the area, and had also designed the spectacular and much less disciplined Nelson Rockefeller house in nearby Seal Harbor.
The Burden House at Northeast Harbor (photo by Anthony Cotsifas, New York Time)
I first saw the Burden house when sailing by thirty odd years ago, a startling and seductive contrast to its stately shingled and turreted neighbors along the Mt. Desert shore. I remember for a moment weighing the idea of jumping ship and swimming to shore for a closer look. If you’ve ever swum in eastern Maine waters, you’d understand just how gobsmacked I was by this house. Sailboats, sadly, do not have brakes for moments like this, and in an instant we were round the point and the house had disappeared behind the trees, the Dilettante looking back longingly. Actually, I think I did for a second drop the jib sheet I was supposed to be tending.
Later, I was lucky enough to see the original house, where one of the most amazing sights was a boomerang dining table by Noguchi. My own six degrees of separation to the story in the Times is that a client was renting the house when it burned, having to flee in the night.
Isamu Noguchi Table for Wm. A.M. Burden, laminated beechwood, 1948 (Noguchi Museum)
Mrs. Twombly was the former Florence Vanderbilt, the longest lived and last surviving of Commodore Vanderbilt’s well housed grandchildren. By all accounts she was a formal and humorless woman. Her siblings put up such iconic houses as Biltmore, the Breakers, and Marble house. Mrs. Twombly’s contributions to the family building spree included a Warren & Wetmore town house on the corner north of the Frick on 5th Avenue, Vinland, a vast Romanesque mausoleum of a house in Newport, and Florham, loosely based on Hampton Court palace, and despite its over 100 rooms, not exactly the best of McKim Mead & White’s designs. Even great architects have bad days. In a private letter one of the firm’s partners, William Rutherford Mead, wrote: “Twombly wants a house on the order of an English Country gentleman. I don’t think he knows exactly what he means, and I am sure I don’t…” Apparently, Twombly’s grandson had no such doubts about what he wanted—a comfortable, modern sculpture for living.
And the point is, lest I seem to have wandered too far, is that it’s a long way from the Barberini tapestried marble halls of Florham and summer mansions in Newport to the sinuous curves of the Burden house on the rugged shores of Northeast Harbor. Every action has a reaction, and what a terrific (under)statement Burden made with his house.
As long as you’re in ‘T’ Magazine—and btw, how pathetic an attempt at hipness by the Times is that name? ‘T’ Magazine, ‘W’ Hotel—I guess the T stands for Trying Too Hard), check out the article about martinis. It brings home what some of we martini drinkers already know as gospel–that a proper martini is really cold gin, shaken with a drop of Vermouth, one small olive, not on a toothpick, served ice cold, straight up in a small stemmed glass.