Category Archives: PRESERVATION

Home Study: Our Favorite American Landmarked Residences and Historic House Museums, Part I

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 BromleyJerry 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.

Philip Johnson, Rockefeller Guest House (1949-1950), 242 East 52nd Street, New York, NY, exterior

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.

Philip Johnson, Rockefeller Guest House (1949-1950), 242 East 52nd Street, New York, NY, plan and street facade rendering

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.

Philip Johnson, Rockefeller Guest House (1949-1950), 242 East 52nd Street, New York, NY, interior

The living area in the 1950s, when Blanchette Rockefeller owned the house.

Philip Johnson, Rockefeller Guest House (1949-1950), 242 East 52nd Street, New York, NY, courtyard

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.)

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, CA, exterior

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 in Big Sur, CA, in the 1950s

Henry Miller (1891-1980) in his own Big Sur cabin in the 1950s.

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, CA, bookshop interior

The Henry Miller Memorial Library bookshop

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, CA, outdoor movie screening

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, Hyde Park, New York, eastern facade

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.

Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York, northern facade

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. 

Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York, Mrs Vanderbilt's Bedroom

 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 view of the Hudson River from the Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York

The peerless view of the Hudson River from the Vanderbilt Mansion’s superbly landscaped 300-acre park.

 

To the Manor Born: Bruce Bierman Visits Some of England’s Greatest Country Houses

In September, my husband, William Secord, and I spent a very Downton Abbey week in England touring some of the great country houses. Here are some highlights, beginning with Burghley House in Lincolnshire.

Burghley House

Burghley House, Lincolnshire

Generally considered the finest Elizabethan House in England, Burghley House was built in the 16th Century by William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord High Treasurer. The main part of the house has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. There are more than 80 lesser rooms and numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms, and service areas. The lead roof extends to three quarters of an acre. The historic parkland was laid out by Capability Brown.

Burghley House, The George Rooms, bedroom

The bedroom in the suite known as the George Rooms at Burghley House.

Chatsworth House, North Derbyshire

Chatsworth House, North Derbyshire

Chatsworth is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family. Begun in 1553, the house architecture and collection have been evolving for five centuries. The house has over 30 rooms to explore, from the magnificent Painted Hall, to the family-used chapel, regal State Rooms, newly restored Sketch Galleries and beautiful Sculpture Gallery. Chatsworth has one of Europe’s most significant art collections, which is being continually added to.

Painted Hall at Chatsworth House

The Painted Hall, Chatsworth House 

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For the Birds: Laura Bohn Welcomes the Bucks County Audubon Society’s Annual Barn Tour

This weekend, July 13–15, marks the 13th annual Bucks County Audubon Society barn tour, which features some of the region’s most historic and interesting examples of barn architecture, ranging from a 1700s log barn to a modern renovation (mine!). This year the event takes on a new dimension as it launches The Art of the Barn, an art show and sale featuring popular local artists, each of whom gets one of the barns in which to exhibit and sell their work (25 per cent of the sale proceeds will be donated to the Bucks County Audubon Society).  It will be a great weekend—I hope you’ll join the tour and attend the other events if you’re in the neighborhood.

Bucks County Audubon Society Art of the Barn flyer July 2012

Our barn, which is near Bedminster, is included on the tour as a good example of the adaptive reuse of a historic barn.   A Pennsylvania Standard Forebay barn, it’s primarily stone. By limiting the changes to the replacement of the original frame forebay wall with glass panels, we maintained the essential footprint and general appearance of the structure.  It is preserved through the Bedminster Regional Land Conservancy.


Laura Bohn’s repurposed historic Pennsylvania Standard Forebay barn, which is part of this year’s annual Bucks County Audubon Society barn tour, July 13–15.