Wednesday, August 01, 2012
New England is the site of the oldest surviving wood frame houses in the U.S. in Dedham and Swampscott, Massachusetts; both date from 1637 and are among no fewer than 57 seventeenth century wood buildings, mostly residences but also a couple of churches/meeting houses, that survive in Massachusetts alone.
We both love visiting historic buildings (including a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright) but when I saw the antiquity of HNE's holdings, I said "Great! I love old things" to which Fritz replied without missing a beat, "Which is why you love me!"
None of the original interiors remained in the house except for one small and very primitive room on the second floor that had been the original master bedroom. All other rooms had been updated by the Pierces and the Littles and are seen now as they were in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The continuity of the Little family's ownership meant that a great amount of their furniture from a couple of generations is on view. One interesting feature of the house was a number of windows of various sizes in interior walls, designed to convey light from rooms with exterior windows to staircases and landings deep in the interior. We spent a couple of hours touring the house all the way up to the massive attic. We then lunched at a well-known fish restaurant in town overlooking the water and then headed south to our second tour of the day.
If the Spencer-Pierce-Little farm was "the real thing," Beauport (Le Beau Port was explorer Samuel de Champlain's name for Gloucester harbor), which began construction in 1907 and was expanded for several decades, is a great piece of artifice that speaks to the styles, tastes and pretenses of the first half of the 20th century, along with a generous helping of social history.
Sleeper had a taste for orientalia and a gift for recreating the American colonial period which was very popular at the time. The 100th anniversary of the American Revolution and the ongoing efforts to define the meaning, date and appropriate menu for Thanksgiving had created a vogue for Puritan Style beginning in the late 19th century.
The harbor shore along Eastern Point Boulevard became a gathering place for a bohemian crowd made up of young, wealthy bachelors, and a couple of equally young, wealthy unmarried women, along with frequent visits from the more unconventional members of Boston society. Among the leaders along with Henry Sleeper was his friend A. (for Abram) Piatt Andrew who built a lavish, if more conventionally decorated home named Red Roof two doors down from Beauport. It did have one oddity: a peep hole in the floor above the living room that allowed Andrew to see what guests were doing on the sofa below. " Gossip had it that often all the guests were men, their pastimes peculiar," a statement heavy with code for young gay men feeling free to be themselves in a semi-isolated community they more or less controlled.
When our tour was over, I felt sufficiently comfortable speaking with the young man who had been our witty and very informative guide, about the frequent presence of Isabella Stewart Gardner (of continuing interest to Fritz and me after having written the libretto of an opera on her life) at Beauport and some of those "peculiar" pastimes. Brightening right up, he took us to the small but interesting gift shop and showed us an extraordinary photograph of Isabella delightedly leading A. Piatt Andrew and another young man, both on all fours, around the garden on dog leashes while Henry Sleeper looked on in amusement.
Henry Sleeper worked with him as the U.S. Representative of the Field Service and its chief fund raiser, crisscrossing the Atlantic with funds and supplies and working directly with the French military, for which France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.
At various times in his life, Andrew was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Director of the U.S. Mint, Economics Professor at Harvard, and Massachusetts' Representative to the U.S. House. He died full of honors in 1936. Henry Sleeper died in 1934; Beauport was declared a National Historic Landmark on 2003.
During the idiotic and hysterical danger warnings from the opponents of the repeal of DADT, it might have been interesting to have the courageous actions of these two gay men read into the Congressional Record and given the publicity they deserve.
Oregon researchers have found the remains of the oldest house in the West, a 9,500-year-old dwelling that is quite possibly the oldest house in the USA.
The structural remains were unearthed in central Oregon by construction workers enlarging a road into the Newberry National Volcanic Monument near Bend.
A team led by archaeologist Tom Connolly of the University of Oregon discovered not only the remains of the house but also a broad variety of tools, food remnants & other artifacts that paint the most comprehensive picture available of everyday life not long after humans first arrived on the continent.
There are two essential books about Isabella Stewart Gardner and her various circles:
Mrs. Jack by Louise Tharp, a chronological biography very well researched, and
The Art of Scandal by Douglas Shand-Tucci, the chronicler of the "bohemian" world of Boston. It's a bit of a mess at times, but always great social history and goes into detail about the Beauport-Red Roof axis on the shores of Gloucester harbor.
The Sleeper/Andrew story would make a wonderful film; imagine the sweep of their story. Where is an American Merchant/Ivory when we need them?
BUT as soon as his career was established, he had a genius for attracting holders of major fortunes from both the financial/industrial and Hollywood worlds, as his clients. Chief among them was Henry Francis du Pont who was constantly expanding his family's home, Winterthur in Delaware, "the premier museum of American decorative arts, with an unparalleled collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between about 1640 and 1860. The collection is displayed in the magnificent 175-room house, much as it was when the du Pont family lived here" (from the Winterthur site).
Among many others, he also worked for R.T. Vanderbilt and a gaggle of Hollywood stars. But he was also a very smart man, salvaging doors, windows, paneling, objects and fixtures from buildings that were abandoned or awaiting demolition for little or no money and transforming them into high-priced features for his clients' homes.
I cannot thank you enough for this sentence!
I have just been to Edith Wharton's The Mount in Lenox MA for about the 7th time. I first went when only the grounds were open. Nothing on the scale of the Sleeper house, but she also was an interesting woman, and her ideas about symatry made for some very interesting doorways, and lack thereof.