Italian Villas on the Maine Coast: Buonriposo

In 1905, Mr. & Mrs. Ernesto Fabbri, he the son of a Morgan partner, she a granddaughter of William Henry Vanderbilt, commissioned Grosvenor Atterbury, the architect of Forest Hills Gardens, to design their summer cottage on Eden Street in Bar Harbor.

Architectural rendering of Buonriposo, from Architectural League Yearbook, 1905

Although very large, the rambling stucco house, in a style that blended the Italian with Arts & Crafts, was a complete antithesis to the Fabbri’s enormous  and more characteristically Vanderbiltian  town house on Manhattan’s East 62nd St., a gift from Mrs. Fabbri’s mother, Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard.
 Ocean Front, Buonriposo, before 1917 

In 1906, the Fabbris decamped for Italy for  several years, where the influence of the simpler Italian Renaissance took hold in their tastes.   Upon their permanent return in 1914, the exuberant French palais on 62nd street was sold, and replaced in 1916 by a restrained and cerebral house on E. 95th St., designed jointly by Grosvenor Atterbury and Mr. Fabbri’s brother, Egisto, an amateur architect.

Buonriposo, as rebuilt in 1919

In 1918, the Bar Harbor cottage burned, and in 1919, it was replaced by another joint effort between Atterbury and Egisto Fabbri. The new house was more formal, and more elegant,  smaller without the third floor of its predecessor, more authentically Italian than the earlier version, and in style would not have been out of place at Cap d’Antibes. The formal gardens, with their tall arborvitae imitating European cypresses, were looser, and more European in sensibility, than many of the stiffly designed and maintained estates of the era.
Although no interior shots of Buonriposo have surfaced, it is said that the interiors were in the same simple, cool reserved style as those of the New York house.  Mrs. Fabbri, long since divorced from her husband, died in 1954.   Her daughter, Mrs. George McMurtry, who already owned a handsome Charleston colonial estate designed by Bradley Delahanty, further down Eden St.,  had no use for the property, and Buonriposo  was demolished in 1963.  For many years its site was marked by a high granite wall along Eden St., but that too has fallen victim to time.

Favorite Room, Favorite Wallpaper

One of the handsomest 18th century houses in Portsmouth, a town rich in handsome 18th century houses, is the Moffatt-Ladd house, built by Captain John Moffatt in 1763, and acquired from his descendants by the  Society of Colonial Dames, who have maintained and displayed it well ever since.
Moffatt built it on a rise across the street from his wharves on the Piscataqua River.    The mansion’s riches are many—superb family portraits by Blackburn, a rare and gorgeous set of Chinese Chippendale furniture, superb woodwork, and an intact 19th century terraced garden running uphill from the drawing room at the rear.

But, the star of the house is its entrance hall, one of the grandest to survive from colonial New England.  Rather than running through the center of the house in usual 18th century fashion, it occupies more than 1/4 of the first floor, allowing for an exceptionally broad two-run staircase, with superb carved details and a great arched window on the landing.  In the early 19th century, a scenic wallpaper, probably Dufour, depicting the Bay of Naples in grisaille was added.  The effect is tremendous, the harmony between the Georgian woodwork and the sweeping classical panoramic wallpaper unexpectedly fine.

The room has been famous since the first wave of interest in things Colonial hit.  It was photographed by E.E. Soderholtz for his pioneering book of early photos of New England houses, it was painted by Walter Gay, the expatriate artist better know for his associations with Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, and practically any book of early American architecture includes an image.   And so it should be, for it is a very beautiful room, with its shuttered side door leading to the counting house in the garden.
Curatorial changes have been made over the years.  While the interpretation of the interiors at Moffatt-Ladd is first rate, one feels a bit sad that the beautiful Colza lantern was removed, and I confess to being a bit sorry that the arts & crafts Stickley rugs, one of my favorite rug designs, in black and tan, a perfect complement to the paper, had to be removed, replaced by an oriental rug probably not a bit more authentic.
All this is minor aesthetic carping however.  If you’re in New England next summer, go see the room.

Modernism in Maine: Clara Fargo Thomas’s Fortune Rock

View of cantilvered living room wing at Fortune Rock (New York Times)

Only 7 miles and 10 years separate the gilded splendors of Wingwood House at Bar Harbor ( parts 1, 2, & 3) from this exciting house.  Both were built for wealthy women prominent in their respective worlds, both were designed by Philadelphia architects.  Both take inspiration from a Maine vernacular.  There the resemblance ends. Wingwood looks back to a romanticized past, Fortune Rock looks forward to an ideal future.  They provide interesting case study in the range of architectural aspirations.

 Fortune Rock from Somes Sound (photo from built in USA: 1932-1944 pub. by  Museum of Modern Art )

Fortune Rock was designed for Wells Fargo heiress Clara Fargo Thomas, who had achieved reknown as a muralist and scenic designer.  The architect was famous modernist George Howe, who had started his career with the firm of Mellor Meigs, and Howe, famous for their elegantly conceived, texturally rich houses in the Philadelphia area.  Construction of Fortune Rock started in 1937, making it contemporaneous with that more famous cantilevered house, Fallingwater.  The Thomas house sits long and low at the edge of a bluff, looking out to one of the most spectacular views on the entire east coast, Somes Sound, a fjord-like body of water that splits Mt. Desert Island in two.
Clara Fargo Thomas on the balcony (Down East)
The house is built of vernacular shapes and materials—clapboard, granite, gray shingles, all of which anchor it to its location.  The way these shapes are assembled is almost cubist, and the house’s defining feature, a spectacular living room cantilevered out above the sound, give the house its modernist credibility.  For the interior, veneered plywoods were used for all walls and shelving.  Exterior walls were stained gray, the underside of the eaves, and the ceilings were a gray blue that answered the sky.  In the spectacular living room, the lines between structure, nature, and outdoors and indoors were completely blurred.  On three sides, large sliding doors opened out, floor to ceiling, with only a railing at the sides.  The walls were mirrored, with a grid that echoed the panes of the windows, making for a seamless view of the outside. It was impossible to tell at first glance where one began and the other ended.
 Floor Plan and Site Plan (MOMA)

The original intention was that the house be the central building of a larger family compound, a vision never fully realized, although Mrs. Thomas’s architect son did build his own very interesting house sitting astride a small cove, looking across to his mother’s house in flight above the water.

Living room (Down East)
Living Room (New York Times)

A mural in the dining room/entrance hall was by Mrs. Thomas, showing the wreck of a ship owned by her husband’s ancester.  The wreck was off Fortune Rocks in southern Maine, giving the house its name.
Dining room, with Mrs. Thomas’s mural of the wreck of the Joseph B. Thomas (Down East)

In the 1980’s the house was purchased by a member of the Berwind family.  Nothing could be further from the splendors of his great uncle’s palace at Newport.  The Berwinds undertook a sympathetic restoration and re-decoration of the house, by then time-worn.  Missing was Clara Fargo Thomas’s spectacular mural from the dining room.

View from Dining Room (Down East)

 Personal Note:  I had dinner here in the 1970’s, when Norman Mailer was renting the house from the Thomas heirs.   I was in my early 20’s, and very shy in front of the pugnacious celebrity.  After all, he did punch Gore Vidal…..

Dining Room in 1939 (MOMA)

 For readers hoping for literary anecdotes, I remember very little: just that Mailer was very much as one would expect.  That he considered it an interesting cocktail hour entertainment/exhibition to hang his young sons by the arms over the balcony until they yelled (uncomfortable around heights, I could only think about what would happen if his grip slipped), that his children had ravishingly good manners, that the woman named Carol who was living with him was charming, and that he had just publlished Marilyn, and that after all other attempts had failed, he tried to engage me at table in a conversation about Pat Nixon  and how lovely she really was, to which I had very little to add.  How could I have?  I was too engaged by the house, taking in its amazing proportions, planes, and materials—and that view!- to concentrate on Norman Mailer.  Bad dinner guest, I admit, but I mean, really……Norman Mailer or an iconic modern house?  You tell me.

The color photographs of Fortune Rock are from a 1987 article in the New York Times.  Unfortunately, they were damaged in my files, and I was unable to straighten them for good scans.  But they show well how the house’s design holds up against contemporary work.

The view south down Somes Sound (Down East)

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.

Skylands Before Martha

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 wife, Edith Stebbins, had been a Seal Harbor summer girl.  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 overlooking most of creation

Most of creation from the terrace

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

Amazing Wallpaper: Zuber’s Decor Chinois

‘Decor Chinois’ by Zuber (Christies)
Wallpaper?  Sometimes I hate it, sometimes I love it.  Here’s an instance of the latter,  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….