Stories behind a few of the most notable homes on the East Coast.
By Mildred Jailer-Chamberlain
There are houses, and then there are houses. Some are the cookie-cutter variety, while others incorporate customized features. And then there are the homes designed by noted American architects. Since the early days of the United States, homes in the latter category have set the trend for those to come. What’s more, they often have intriguing stories to tell.
All of the following homes are located on or near the East Coast, so the next time you travel in that region, consider stopping to see one or more of these original works of art.
A tour of Washington, D.C., will take you past many important buildings “” including the Stephen Decatur House Museum. It is one of only three remaining residences in the country designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Latrobe, often called the father of American architecture, was one of the designers of the U.S. Capitol and parts of the White House. He created the Decatur House, completed in 1818, for Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife, Susan.
This home’s style and grace are a reflection of Latrobe’s architectural philosophy, one that dovetailed with the ideals of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In designing the capital city of the United States, these two men attempted to assure its role as a symbol of American ideals. Thus, they looked to the forms derived from ancient Greek and Roman architecture, trusting that the democratic and republican philosophies from these governments would inspire the nation.
When Latrobe arrived in America from England in 1795, his skills and social graces quickly earned him the trust of the nation’s leaders. He was given the task of converting the American ideal into reality. He met the challenge by merging the forms used in classical design with concepts borrowed from French and British traditions.
The Decatur House is handsome, dashing, fearless, and patriotic, just like Stephen Decatur himself. In fact, Decatur’s choice of a politically well-liked architect and an advantageous location for his home “” one block north of the White House “” may have been a hint of his own political ambitions. Sadly, he and Susan lived in this home for only 14 months before he was killed in a duel.
After her husband’s death, Susan rented the home to foreign and American dignitaries. Secretaries of state Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston each used it as their Washington residence when they served their country. In 1836 Susan sold the home to pay off debts, and it was purchased by wealthy hotel and tavern owner John Gadsby. After Gadsby’s death in 1844, his wife rented the home to public officials. During the Civil War, the federal government used it to store uniforms and as a headquarters for the Union Army’s Subsistence Department.
In 1872 the Decatur House once again became owner-occupied when General Edward Beale of California moved there. Beale was a frontiersman, diplomat, entrepreneur, and the initiator of the Army’s Camel Corps in the Southwest deserts. He and his wife, Mary, remodeled the home to bring it up-to-date with Victorian times. Their son, Truxtun, an ambassador to Persia and Romania, and his wife, Marie, entertained there in style, hosting numerous parties. The home remained in the Beale family for 84 years. In 1956 Marie bequeathed it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The interior of the three-story, red brick town house has been restored to its early appearance. Docents lead visitors through eight rooms rich with furnishings, textiles, silver, ceramics, and artworks that recall the early Federal period. The free tours depart every 15 minutes past the hour and last 30 to 45 minutes. A museum shop and exhibit galleries are also on the premises.
The Stephen Decatur House Museum is at 748 Jackson Place N.W.; the visitor entrance is located at 1610 H. St. N.W. The museum and exhibit gallery are open Tuesday through Sunday; admission is free (donations accepted). For more information, phone (202) 842-0920, e-mail [email protected], or visit www.decaturhouse.org.
We turn now to Salem, Massachusetts, for our next architect’s home. The Gardner-Pingree House is preserved under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, a group of collections that together encompass more than 2.4 million artworks and cultural items. This 1804 home, designed by woodworker-architect Samuel McIntire, is one of 24 historic buildings in the Peabody Essex architecture collection.
It’s not surprising that John Gardner Jr. chose McIntire as the architect for his 1804 mansion. Gardner belonged to one of Salem’s oldest and most respected families, and all were Federalists, sympathetic to the party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. With money from the sale of their dry goods shop, John and his brother, Richard, began a wholesale import business that developed into a fleet of trading ships.
With his good standing in the community and newfound wealth, Gardner asked McIntire to create a home suitable to his status. A wood carver and architect, McIntire was proficient in the then-fashionable neoclassical style, and the three-story brick home was probably everything Gardner wanted it to be. Its five-bay faí§ade introduces harmony and balance, which continues throughout the interior.
Inside, the center hall leads to handsomely proportioned rooms that underscore classicism. Ionic columns carved with sprigs of bay frame the carved fireplace mantels. Scenes from the ancient past, including a striking painting of Cleopatra and the asp, adorn the walls. Motifs such as sheaves of wheat and oak leaves bedeck the chair rails and door frames. The furniture includes works made locally as well as pieces from around the world.
Unfortunately, Gardner’s wealth was fleeting. He and other businessmen of the time were burdened by international trade barriers, such as Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and the trade stoppages that occurred during the War of 1812. By 1815 Gardner was bankrupt. He was forced to sell his home and move his family into more modest quarters. The house was purchased in 1834 by David Pingree, who proved that Salem still could be a wealthy town despite its decline in international influence.
The Gardner-Pingree Mansion is located at 128 Essex St. in the Phillips Library Neighborhood, the center of the museum’s architectural collection. Guided tours of the home are offered as part of admission to the Peabody Essex Museum. An admission fee is charged. For more information, contact the museum at (866) 745-1876 or (978) 745-9500, or visit www.pem.org.
Also in Massachusetts, in the Boston bedroom community of Lincoln, is a home that is very different from the Gardner-Pingree residence.
The Gropius House combines the traditional elements of New England architecture “” wood, brick, and fieldstone “” with materials that were rarely used in homes of the early 1900s, such as glass block, acoustical plaster, and chrome, along with the latest technology in light fixtures.
Walter Gropius, a noted German architect and teacher, founded the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, and directed it for several years. He came to America to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and in 1938 completed this home for his family.
Few schools have had as much impact on art and design “” including illustration, textiles, furniture, architecture, and even type fonts “” as the Bauhaus. It existed from 1919 until 1933, when the Nazis forced the school to close. Its basic tenets were that beauty was not to be found in ornamentation, but in economy of form, expressive use of materials, and in using solutions that were suitable, economical, and practical “” and so, inherently elegant.
This modestly scaled home reflects a philosophy somewhat similar to that of noted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in that it was precisely planned to conform to its location, on a hill overlooking orchards and fields. A screened porch and terraces extend the living space outdoors. Large plate-glass windows frame the view, capture light in winter, and are shaded by overhangs in summer.
In keeping with the Bauhaus philosophy, Gropius planned every aspect of the house and its landscape for maximum efficiency and simplicity. Yet it has the warm, lived-in look of a family home. The designer put an exterior spiral staircase outside the study window so his daughter and her friends could come and go under supervision, but without formalities. The desk in the study has space for the architect and his wife to work side by side.
The home’s interior is in subdued whites, grays, and earth tones sparked by red highlights. Its furniture includes lightweight tubular steel chairs and tables that were made by Marcel Breuer, who also studied at the Bauhaus. A plywood laminated lounge chair, designed for a firm in England, is paired with a desk Gropius made for his office at the school. Works of art also fill the home. Everyday personal items are casually displayed, including clothing, correspondence, bathroom towels, and jewelry. In the kitchen, the pots, pans, and pot holders look ready for use.
The Gropius House is open year-round, Wednesday through Sunday from June 1 through October 15, and on Saturday and Sunday only from October 16 through May 31. Tours are offered on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; the cost is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $4 for children ages 5 to 12. The house is at 68 Baker Bridge Road in Lincoln; phone (781) 259-8098 or (617) 227-3956, or visit www.spnea.org.
Most people have heard of Newport, Rhode Island, and its enormous summer “cottages.” Actually, these were mansions built during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s, before income taxes took away a large percentage of the money earned by America’s wealthy. Back then, the “thing to do” was to have such a grand summer home, and Rosecliff was one of them.
Architect Stanford White was a partner of the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead, and White, which designed many structures in New York City and Long Island, as well as the Boston Public Library. Rosecliff is particularly interesting because of the colorful stories that surround both White and Rosecliff’s first owner.
This H-shaped extravaganza was modeled after the Grand Trianon (at the Palace of Versailles in France) “” a spot designed for outdoor entertaining, and thus perfect for summer retreats in Rhode Island. The white glazed terra cotta mansion, with a great circular fountain and countless rosebushes, was impressive and appropriate for the grandeur inside it.
The Rosecliff ballroom is 40 feet wide and 80 feet long “” reportedly the largest in town. It reflects 18th-century elegance, with carved and molded plasterwork surrounding a large central ceiling painting of clouds floating across a blue sky. The marble fireplace is topped by a painting depicting a country feast. The chandeliers are crafted of crystal and ormolu. A white pipe organ occupies the south end of the room. Gracefully arched French doors, which were opened during balls and parties, lead to a formal garden on the west and an oceanside terrace to the east.
Rosecliff’s owner, Theresa “Tessie” Fair Oelrichs, commissioned White to design the home in 1899, and it was completed in 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million. Tessie, heiress to a silver fortune, received $1 million as a wedding gift from her father, James Graham Fair. She once again added to her fortune after her mother died. Tessie possessed a wealth that few, even in her exclusive set, could match.
As the story goes, Tessie was so eager to entertain friends at her opulent home that she moved in two years before it was completed. The mansion’s unfinished state was disguised by giant banks of ferns, palms, and flowers supplied by area florists.
In the early 1920s a household accident blinded Tessie in one eye. Soon thereafter she suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to the home. Her niece, Blanche Oelrichs, wrote that Tessie spent her final years in the company of imaginary guests. She died in 1929.
As for White, his work was said to have epitomized the Gilded Age, when huge houses were set back on expansive, gated estates. He designed approximately 40 structures on Long Island, and was a favorite architect among the nouveaux riches.
White’s successful architectural career came to an abrupt end in 1906, when at age 54 he was murdered by Harry Thaw. Thaw was the millionaire husband of Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl with whom White had apparently had an affair. Ironically, the crime took place on the roof of Madison Square Garden in New York City “” a building White had designed. The murder and the subsequent trial of his killer evoked a scandal that rivals any seen today.
Incidentally, Rosecliff will look familiar to you if you are a film buff, for it has appeared in scenes of The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad, and High Society.
Rosecliff is open to the public from mid-April to mid-November. A tour of the home may be taken for $10 for adults and $4 for youth (ages 6 to 17), or as part of an area home tour package called the Gilded Age Experience ($31), which also includes four other marvelous mansions. For more information, contact the Preservation Society of Newport County at (401) 847-1000, e-mail [email protected], or visit www.newportmansions.org.
In the years since 1893 when 26-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright began an independent architectural practice, his name has become a household word. Wright is best known for his low-slung “Prairie Houses” and low-cost “Usonians” “” the latter were economically scaled dwellings that Wright proudly designed for folk who were not among the rich. Wright’s architectural philosophy brought him lasting fame; the forms and materials he used varied to accommodate different regional climates, but their interiors melded with the outdoors.
The Pope-Leighey House is a classic example of the Usonian homes Wright offered to people of moderate means as a response to the impersonal builder-designed homes that were springing up, cookie-cutter fashion, at that time. In 1940 Wright designed this house for a young newspaper editor named Loren B. Pope at a cost of $7,000. Today the home is open daily to the public. Those who explore the home will gain insight into Wright’s design and building secrets: how, for example, his homes seem to defy gravity, and how stone and cement as flooring manage to make the rooms feel warm and cozy.
A tour of the home illuminates Wright’s attention to detail, all the way down to the furniture he designed for specific spaces, and the engineering details that show how the house, which eschews a typical wood frame, stays together. The tour also explores how Wright integrated the interior with the exterior. Floor panels extend beyond doors, and banks of walls have windows offering unbroken views of the outdoors. “Cornerless” windows challenge the concept of the room as a four-sided box. Wright’s energy-saving engineering expertise also is showcased, as heat sources embedded in the floors warm the rooms. “Wright knew that if people’s feet were warm, their entire body would stay warm, and not require forced-air heat,” noted house curator Craig Tuminao. “And, as the Popes learned, it helps to keep the dog off the furniture.”
The Popes sold the Wright home to Robert and Marjorie Leighey in 1946 for $17,000. Shortly after Robert died in 1963, Marjorie was notified that the house would be demolished for the construction of Interstate 66. She appealed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and was able to donate the house in 1964 to the National Trust; however, the structure had to be moved.
In 1965 the entire building was dismantled and moved from East Falls Church, Virginia, to its current site on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Mount Vernon. Woodlawn Plantation includes a mansion built for a granddaughter of Martha Washington in the early 1800s.
The Pope-Leighey House and Woodlawn Plantation are 3 miles from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The house is open from March through December and closed in January and February, except for President’s Day, when a special admission fee of 99 cents applies. Regular admission is $7.50 for adults and $3 for students in grades from kindergarten through high school. A combination ticket for admission to both Pope-Leighey and Woodlawn Plantation is $13 for adults and $5 for students. For more information, phone (703) 780-4000 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.