Category Archives: Design

It all Centers on the House

I am recovering from my second bad cold of the year, and have spent much time over the past few days watching television just like I did during my summer sickness. At that time, I made the dreadful mistake of watching Netflix’s The Last Czars (with dawning and intensifying horror) but this time I went for classic horror and watched a succession of Poe adaptations, perfect for this time of year. I really fell for the The Fall of the House of Usher and streamed every version I could access: the Vincent Price/ Roger Corman version from 1960, the 1950 British film directed (and produced, and shot) by Ivan Burnett, and two very avant-garde silent versions from 1928, a short film produced by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber in the US, and a longer French version directed by Jean Epstein entitled La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). Then I read the short story again, read critiques of both the films and the story, and chased down all of the illustrations of the HOUSE that I could find: I assure you I seldom do this much preparation for a blog post but I was in a full sick-bed-induced Usher fever!

House of Usher 1931

20191022_1816331931 Cheshire House edition with illustrations by Abner Epstein; 1950 British film version.

I can understand why this story has resonance with readers, filmmakers and illustrators; it’s enthralling on different levels, both in terms of its relationships and its setting. The central characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher (siblings in the original story and most film adaptations; spouses in Epstein’s film) are a very odd pair indeed and one could dwell on them for a while, but I agree with the appraisal of the narrator of the 1950 British film, who tells us that it all centers on the house. The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: it’s the end of the line and the end of the house and we readers and/or watchers witness the destruction of both, mirroring each other. I’m so fixated on houses that I often think of them as sentient, so it’s almost reassuring to see one depicted that way.

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screenshot_20191023-074149_chromeThe house exterior in the 1928 American film, the 1950 British Film, and the 1960 Roger Corman film; Jean Epstein’s 1928 film prefers to focus on its baronial interior.

As you can see, these are all Gothic/Victorian structures, characteristic of the haunted-house trope but not the decrepit old relics of Poe’s day: The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in 1839. When looking around for a spooky house, Poe, like Hawthorne, would probably have fixated on a seventeenth-century house, sometimes also called “medieval” here in America but never in Britain. There seems to be some consensus that the house which might have inspired Poe was the Hezekiah Usher House in Boston, built on Tremont Street in the 1680s by the namesake son of British America’s first bookseller. Hezekiah Jr. was also accused of witchcraft during the 1692 trials (of course–because there is always a Salem connection) but was apparently connected enough to avoid formal proceedings. When the Usher house was torn down around 1800, two skeletons were found in the basement, and that story might have caught Poe’s attention even though he never saw the house. And thus the haunted house trope is connected to another (or sub?) trope, someone/something is buried in the basement, in the story of The Fall of the House of Usher. It seems like a pretty straight line from Usher to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger (with many more titles in between) though I suppose the Castle of Otranto might have started the thread.

House of Usher Robert Swain Gifford 1884

Usher Collage

House of Usher poe-rackham-usher Arthur Rackham 1935

Grimly CollageThe House: illustrations by Robert Swain Gifford (1884); Daniel Walper (1922), Albert Dubout (1948), Arthur Rackham (1935) and Gris Grimly (2004).

artcont_1534959296Confronting a GEORGIAN haunted house: The Little Stranger (2018). Talk about a house-centered story! In both the film and the book, the house is a MAJOR character, even more so than in Usher. The juxtaposition of the airy (though decayed) Georgian and the “presence” heightens the tension, and you realize that possession has multiple meanings.


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

Beauport HNE

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


Traces of Half-Timbering

I was running along the ocean on Lynn Shore Drive when I became progressively 1) tired; and 2) bored so I stopped running and started walking, into the adjacent “Diamond District” of Lynn. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that, after a lifetime of living alongside it, I do take the ocean for granted, but I never, never grow tired of walking up and down streets lined with historic structures. I can never run on those streets, though, because there is too much to see, and the eclectic Victorian architecture of this neighborhood is particularly eye-catching. The Diamond District is large, encompassing nearly 700 buildings, so you need to break it up into sections or styles to be able to take in all in, and on this particular morning all I could see was ornamental half-timbering on the third stories of sprawling houses built in some composite “Victorian” style: are they Queen Anne, Stick, or some form of “English Revival”? I can never get all those late nineteenth-century categorizations straight! In my own mind I classify them as Tudor-Victorians, but that’s just because I like to assign the characteristics of “Tudor” to anything and everything.

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20190614_150050This last house tricked me: I turned the corner and thought I was seeing TWO houses ahead of me, but there was only one!

Well whatever style this is, it definitely dates from the 1880s and 1890s. I looked through some architectural catalogs in the vast Building Technology Heritage Library at the Internet Archive and the earliest example of half-timbered embellishment I could find was from the early 1880s, though I didn’t really conduct an exhaustive search. These homes are described simply as “modern” in contemporary texts, though the addition of the half-timbering detail also seems to have called for the addition of the adjectives “cozy” and “comfortable”. They are all cottages, of course, whether consisting of four rooms—or forty.

Cottage on a SIde Hill

Lynn CollageHalf-timbered cottages from William T. Comstock’s Cottages (1884) and Lambert’s Suburban Architecture (1894).


Historic Shops of Lisbon

My first and last purchases in Lisbon were books titled Historic Shops of Lisbon and Historical Shops in Lisbon and in between I tried to visit as many of the shops featured in these two books as possible: and then some. It was very clear to me that both the books and the shops referenced in their pages are part of movement focused on the preservation and promotion of Lisbon’s unique commercial culture. It wasn’t very difficult to surmise this as it was very clearly stated in Historical Shops, which was published under the auspices of the rculo das Lojas de Carácter e Tradição de Lisboa [Circle of Characterful and Traditional Shops of Lisbon], which is dedicated to supporting and encouraging “its member shops to ensure their own preservation and their present and future viability, by promoting their excellence and sustainability…..with the ultimate aim of preserving the rich cultural heritage and identity of the city of Lisbon.” Likewise, Historic Shops features a foreword by Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina explaining the origins and rationale for the Historic Shops Programme initiative, launched in 2015 to preserve and promote local commerce for both its economic and cultural benefits.

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Historical Shops features sketches by artists associated with Urban Sketchers, who have their own mission! Top illustration by Inês Ferreira, bottom by José Leal.

And so I went to a hat shop, a glove shop, a candle shop established in 1789, shops selling sewing notions and yarn, linen shops, jewelry stores, several wonderful flower shops including one selling seeds in both packets and striped open bags, book stores and pharmacies (Lisbon’s pharmacies seem like a culture unto themselves, and there is also a pharmaceutical museum), and shops selling coffee, tea, and all manner of tinned fish. Lots of pottery and fabric fish were in evidence too. These shops had different levels of “accessibility”: several did not allow photographs of their wares, a very unusual policy in this Instagram age.

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The pride of Portuguese craftsmanship extends to newer establishments as well, particularly A Vida Portuguesa and the beautiful collections of shops (+restaurant) in the Embaixada, an over-the-top 19th-century palace transformed into a shopping gallery. I think my perfect Lisbon shopping day would start in its neighborhood, the Principe Reale, where I would also visit Solar, an amazing museum-shop of antique Portuguese azulejos and pottery (no photographs there). Then I would descend down into the Chiado, where so many of the historic shops are located, then down to the water. That’s pretty much what I did on my last day in Lisbon, ending up, appropriately, at the Praça do Comércio (hitting the lovely Benamôr shop, which has been manufacturing beauty creams since 1925 almost along the way). By the end of the trip, I only had room for a few slim notebooks and tubes in my suitcase, but I’ll be better prepared in terms of both shopping and space the next time I’m in Lisbon.

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Shopping

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Solar, The Embaixada, A Vida Portuguesa, and Benamôr (+ a few shops whose names I don’t remember—shopping daze).


Really Rubbish Royal Relics

Sometimes, no all the time, I think that I’m devoting too much time to social media, but occasionally you find yourself in the middle of some very interesting exchanges. The other day a really funny thread about the sheer dreadfulness of English delftware coronation plates from the late Stuart era unravelled on Twitter, and I couldn’t help but jump in, as I had just seen this William & Mary plate in a Sotheby’s auction and I needed some context and “conversation”!

William and Mary Sotheby's 2

Oh no, poor William, and even poorer Mary, with so much exposed. Neither looks very happy–or dignified. These crude plates started to appear with the Restoration, when people apparently sought them as symbols of a revived and “colorful” monarchy after years of dour Cromwellian rule. Many of the images of King Charles II in his coronation robes appear naive but charming, but by the time his niece and nephew were crowned, it looks like aesthetic standards have deteriorated quite a bit—or perhaps the potteries could not keep up with demand. When we look at these items now, they look comical, rather than reverential. The curatorial contributors to our Twitter exchange labeled these plates “Really Rubbish 17th-century Royal Memorabilia” so I am following suit, but I can’t help but also notice a distinct differentiation of display by gender in these plates: after Queen Mary’s untimely death (from smallpox, at the age of 32 in 1694), King William is depicted in a more stately fashion alone, and after he is succeeded by (poor) Queen Anne, we once again see the return of extensive decolletage. Why such excessive immodesty?

Coronation Plate Collage

William and Mary Charger BM

William and Mary Winterthur

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Queen Anne V and A

Delftware Queen Anne Ashmolean

William and Mary Coronation plates, c. 1690-94 from (clockwise): Samuel Herrup Antiques; Sotheby’s; and the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum; Queen Mary does come off a bit better (or at least more covered up) in SOME of the coronation plates in which she and William are standing, but it varies, as these two examples from the British Museum and Winterthur illustrate (and occasionally he is handing her the orb, which is good). It’s hard to make Queen Anne look good, but I don’t understand why she has to display such extravagant cleavage in these delftware plates from the Victoria and Albert collections and the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University.


“Salem” Houses, 20th-century Style

There are two deep rabbit holes around which I must tread very, very carefully, or hours will be lost instantly: the Biodiversity Heritage and Building Technology Heritage digital libraries housed at the Internet Archive. One leads me through a never-ending cascade of flora and fauna; the other through the built environment–or prospective built environment, I should say, as many of its sources are building plans and catalogs. Just yesterday, when it started to snow and afternoon classes were cancelled, I thought to myself, let me just pop in there and see if I can find some inspiration for interior shutter knobs, and hours later I emerged with no knobs but lots of images of “Salem houses” instead. So here they are in chronological order: you will no doubt conclude, as I did, that “Salem” style loses its meaning over the twentieth century: the last house is from 1963, and it is difficult to see how it was inspired by Salem. Well, now that I’m looking at them altogether, it’s difficult to see how Salem was inspirational at all, except perhaps for a brief spell in the 1930s. House parts stick to their Salem inspiration, as there are plenty of mid-century “colonial” mantels, doors, and windows inspired by the craftsmen of “Old Salem”, but houses seem to break free of any connection to classical Salem influences: just look at the 1949 “Sam’l McIntire”! The concept of Salem seems to retain some currency throughout the century, but what it really means in terms of design or construction is anyone’s guess.

 

Salem Houses Herbert C. Chivers 1903 (2)

Salem Houses Aladdin 1915

Salem Houses 1915 collage

Salem Houses 1929 PicMonkey Image

Salem Houses 1933 PicMonkey Image

Salem Colonial 1933

Salem Houses 1936 Sears

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Sam McIntire 1949

Salem Houses 1954

Salem Houses Collier-Barnett Co._0029 1963

“Salem Cottage” from St. Louis architect Herbert Chivers’ Artistic Homes, 1903; Aladdin Houses, 1915; the first “Readi-cut” Salem model, 1915; a “bungalow with the pleasing lines of the Colonial type” in The Book of 100 Homes, 1929; the reproduction “Pequot House” was included in the Ladies Home Journal House Pattern Catalogue of 1933, the same year that “a Salem Colonial” was published in Samuel Glaser’s Designs for 60 small homes from $2,000 to $10,000 : showing how to build, buy and finance a small home; two Sears “Salem” houses from 1936 and 1940; The “Sam’l McIntire” from the Warm Morning Small Homes plan book for 1949; Bennett Homes, 1954; a Salem “rambler” from There’s a Miles Home in your Future” book from the Collier-Barnett Co., 1963.


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