Wednesday, August 01, 2012

 
A while ago Fritz gave me a really inspired gift given our shared interests: a dual membership in  Historic New England which describes itself as "the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional preservation organization in the country."  HistoricNewEngland.org   HNE owns, operates and preserves thirty six significant properties, including any out buildings and acreage, going back to the middle of the seventeenth century and as recently as the home of the famous Bauhaus-founding architect Walter Gropius that dates to 1938.

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!" 

A week after our return from Alaska, we treated Fritz's office manager to a day out for her birthday. The idea was to tour two of HNE's properties and have lunch in between.  The first site in Newbury, MA was the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm (seen above in winter), an impressive English country manor-style house begun in 1690 and added to twice in its history to serve the needs of the three families through whose hands it has passed.  It is not in any way the cramped, low-ceiling early colonial house that is often seen; the Spencers laid its rooms out to be large and comfortable in graceful proportions.  The Pierces added the wooden clapboard-clad wing to the left to provide a more healthful place to sleep and entertain as Mrs. Spencer worried that the all-masonry main house was a little damp.  The three ladies who made up the last generation of the Little family arranged for the house to go into a protected future as an educational and historic property.

In 1800, the Little family built an entirely new house as a wing onto the main building to house a family that would operate the farm.  Through the next century and a half, several generations of Littles maintained very cordial relations with the tenant farmer families, sometimes dining together, employing their children to babysit, and providing financial support for their children's education.  
   
The farm hosts a summer camp for children with emphasis on the arts and nature.  Roosters and hens walk free on the property and generally follow the children around.  There are also sheep and goats, so there's an extensive spinning/weaving/knitting program.  About half of the 200 acre property is rented to local farmers and corn seemed to be doing very well.  The farm is thus an integral part of the greater Newbury community in these and several other ways.

The great barn dates from 1775 and plays a large part in both the farm and the camp.

Here is 800 pounds of Oscar the pig, one of the many animals the MSPCA houses on the farm.  Many have been rescued by the Society from abusive situations and, like the roosters, are used to introduce children to farm animals, their needs and care.  Oscar has a habit of going AWOL; when you weigh 800 pounds, are strong and smart (pigs are VERY smart) you don't take fences all that seriously.

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.

The house occupies a rock ledge overlooking the harbor of Gloucester, MA and was the residence cum showroom of the man who was the first celebrity interior designer/decorator in the United States.

Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934) built the enigmatic building to display and market what he could do.  Clients were invited for dinner and tours; they could order wallpapers, window treatments, everything up to entire rooms to be recreated in their own homes based on Sleeper's creations.  It's enigmatic because as it was expanded, some rooms cut into others, some nightmare roof joins were created, the height and depth of stair treads change from staircase to staircase, and there are blind doors.  But others see more psychological meaning in Beauport's quirks: "'there are those who maintain that the house with its crooked passageways, doors leading to nowhere, secret staircases, dramatic surprises and shadowy recesses is Sleeper's most revealing statement about himself—a riddle with a different answer for everyone who tries to solve it,' write two experts on the house, Nancy Curtis and Richard C. Nylander.  Beauport may be a game of hide and seek: Look at me! No, look away! I'm gone. Know me/you can never know me. Admire me! Go away! Go home."  (From an article by preservationist Howard Mansfield).

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.

This is Beauport's Kitchen -- except that it isn't.  The house had a state of the art kitchen for its day but this one is like a stage set.  It's really the prelude to a dining room, with the long American-Jacobean style dining table and chairs occupying an alcove to the right. 

The Mariner's Room was used to display historical maps, charts, navigational artifacts and marine art.  Here and throughout the house, Sleeper used what we call architectural salvage with great skill and imagination.  This room and the one one below directly overlook the harbor and, by turning to the left, Boston in the distance.

One of Beauport's largest, brightest and lightest rooms is this dining room whose big window could be lowered into the wall below it to provide the effect of outdoor dining with sea breezes in the summer.  In addition to the long central table, a smaller one is set at the window looking outward. 

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.
I could not locate a copy of that fascinating picture on the web, but did at least find this badly reproduced photo of Isabella and six of the boys. Henry Davis Sleeper is second from the left; A. Piatt Andrew is at the far right.

Epilog: When World War I broke out, it was a long time before the U.S. joined in.  Many Americans went immediately to the aid of France, among them A. Piatt Andrew (above) who founded the American Field Service, an ambulance and mobile medical operation that saw frequent service on the battlefield.  Andrew served in France for four and a half years and was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government and the Distinguished Service Medal by the American Army.

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.

Comments:
Fascinating places and histories.
 
Fascinating, & now Mr, Sleeper is already of interest to me, along with Mrs. Gardener & her kinky games. I want to know more!

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.
 
Stephen--I love architecture and will try to find more about this story on the web.

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 Mariner's Room is gorgeous. All that woodwork.
 
I couldn't get past the pig - what a whopper !
 
Beauport is absolutely wonderful; both the photos and the story. What was the source of Sleeper's wealth? I imagine there must be some family wealth? It's hard to believe he built this home (and life) on design commissions, especially with the disruption of WWI and the beginning of the Great Depression.

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?
 
There isn't a lot of detailed info about Sleeper on the web beyond that he was born to a Boston family of means (his grandfather was one of the founders of Boston University where I did my undergraduate theater design studies--very appropriate!). There may well have been inherited money.

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.
 
"Gossip had it that often all the guests were men, their pastimes peculiar."
I cannot thank you enough for this sentence!
 
I'm putting Sleeper's house on my list of things to see in the near future. What a magnificent piece of architecture from the photo you posted.

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.
 
Great post. Thank you.
 
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