The US has an abundance of landmarked residential buildings and historic house museums. Modest or grand, simple or complex, they embody some of the most characterful architecture and design of their respective eras. Here are Scott Bromley, Jerry Caldari, and Tim Button‘s favorite American historic houses; Bruce Bierman, Laura Bohn, and Barry Goralnick‘s picks follow next week.
SCOTT BROMLEY: For me, the ultimate New York City pied-à-terre is the landmarked jewel box on East 52nd Street that architect Philip Johnson completed in 1950 for philanthropist, collector, and future MoMA president, Blanchette Rockefeller. She needed a place to put up guests, to entertain, and to display a growing collection of contemporary art that her husband, John D. Rockefeller III, didn’t want in the couple’s Beekman Place apartment.
The Rockefeller Guest House, 242 East 52nd Street, New York City, designed by Philip Johnson in 1949-1950 and landmarked in 2000.
Johnson tore down an existing carriage house, keeping only its brick side walls, which he painted white to best set off the art. The new two-story building’s facade is solid brick on the ground floor and steel and glass on the second floor. The large, open living-and-dining area downstairs (with a guest bedroom and bath above) is separated from the master bedroom in back by a courtyard and small reflecting pool. (A kitchenette, once located in the living area, is now in the basement.) A less-is-more composition of brick, glass, and steel, the house looks a lot like the abstract art it’s meant to display.
The house has had several owners over the years. Johnson himself rented it in the 1970s, and in 2000, the year it was landmarked, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay sold it at a Christie’s auction for $11.1 million to cosmetics tycoon Ronald S. Lauder, himself an important collector and chairman of MoMA.
A rendering of the guest house’s brick, steel, and glass street facade, and the ground-floor plan, which is bisected by a courtyard and reflecting pool.
The living area in the 1950s, when Blanchette Rockefeller owned the house.
Looking from the master bedroom, across the courtyard with its reflecting pool and stepping stones, to the living area.
JERRY CALDARI: In 1944, Henry Miller visited Big Sur, California, at the time a remote, inaccessible paradise, and was awed by its “grandeur and eloquent silence.” Miller wrote to his friend, the painter Emil White, that he had ”discovered a place better than Mexico” where he wanted to make his home. White also moved to Big Sur, and during the next two decades the duo are credited—or blamed—for generating the first wave of tourism there and popularizing the region. (In fact, the completion of the Pacific Coast Highway in 1937 created the influx of visitors.)
The Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, California
Miller left Big Sur in 1960, but White stayed on. In 1981, a year after the novelist’s death, White turned his own rustic cabin into a shrine to his friend, which he called the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Set in a grassy clearing surrounded by redwoods, today the compound not only houses a trove of Miller’s papers but also serves as a non-profit bookshop and cultural and educational center. In summer, an outdoor screen is raised across the backdrop of mountain and conifers so movies can be shown under the stars. Benefit concerts have featured artists such as Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips, and Philip Glass.
If there’s a lovelier place to hear live music in California, I can’t imagine what it is. The slightly ramshackle cabin is a modest but excellent example of the region’s hand-built vernacular architecture—and an authentic player in the creation the Big Sur’s famously easy going bohemian lifestyle.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) in his own Big Sur cabin in the 1950s.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library bookshop
An outdoor screening, part of the Big Sur International Short Film Series, at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
TIM BUTTON: In a previous post, I wrote about one of my favorite historic house museums, the Mills Mansion at Staatsburgh in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The 1896 remodel and enlargement of a house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills—she was a Livingston, one of the region’s oldest and most distinguished families—it was designed by Stanford White of starchitects McKim, Mead & White, and is an outstanding example of the Gilded Age country estate. But the same year McKim, Mead & White were commissioned with what is in many ways an equally impressive specimen of the era’s chateau-on-the-Hudson style: the Vanderbilt Mansion in nearby Hyde Park.
The Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park in New York’s Hudson River Valley, designed in 1896 by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White.
Faced in gleaming Indiana limestone rather than the Mills Mansion’s white stucco, the fifty-four-room Neoclassical Beaux-Arts house (the only one ever built in the Hudson River Valley) was designed by Charles Follen McKim; Stanford White assisted McKim by serving as an antiques buyer for the project, whose interiors were variously executed between 1896 and 1899 by Herter Brothers, A.H. Davenport, Georges Glaenzer, and Ogden Codman, Jr.
The house belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Frederick William Vanderbilt, one of the lower-key branches of that formidable family of conspicuous consumers. But they were still not quite “established” enough for Eleanor Roosevelt, who as a representative of the old order of Hudson Valley families, characterized the Vanderbilt’s house as a “modern castle” lacking in historical significance compared with the neighboring Mills estate with its Livingston lineage. The former first lady was particularly critical of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s fussy, pretentious taste, writing in 1947 wrote that she “had a passion for bows and, with her own hands, used to decorate every bathroom with bows tied on everything in sight. . . . There are still on the tables some photographs of the kings and queens whom Mrs. Vanderbilt knew in Europe, for it was the era of kings and queens and knowing them made a few of us feel more important.”
Mrs. Roosevelt notwithstanding, the Vanderbilt Mansion’s potent combination of masterful architecture in an Arcadian landscape offers a compelling vision of how the American billionaire class spent it in the late 19th century.
Perfectly positioned on the right bank of the Hudson River, the Indiana limestone mansion stands on the site of a Greek Revival house that was razed when it proved too structurally unsound to expand.
Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom suite on the mansion’s second floor, was designed by Ogden Codman, Jr., co-author with Edith Wharton of The Decoration of Houses (1897), which became a classic of American interior design.
The peerless view of the Hudson River from the Vanderbilt Mansion’s superbly landscaped 300-acre park.