Photography by Alan Kolc | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.
The brick house, handsomely trimmed in brownstone, dates from 1866, one of six identical buildings in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. Situated a few streets away from Independence Hall, it was once the home of Brevet General Henry Harrison Bingham (1841-1912), a Congressional Medal of Honor laureate for his heroism at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 who subsequently served as Philadelphia’s postmaster and, from 1879, as United States congressman until his death. If General Bingham’s spirit were to visit again, he might feel quite at home. Indeed, he might be a bit envious, because in his day the rooms were probably not so resplendent nor as fascinating as they are now.
This magnificent dwelling does not just house a vast and varied collection but a complete environment for its two owners, whose keen eyes are matched by their engaging sense of history, romance, and design: Frederick LaValley, a trust and estates lawyer and John Whitenight, an artist, educator, and author. Not surprisingly, both have long been active in Philadelphia’s arts community, serving on the American Arts Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and as members of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Academy of Natural Sciences. In addition to his thirty-five-year membership in the Victorian Society, Whitenight also sits on the jury of the annual Philadelphia International Flower Show.
And as you tour the house, it becomes clear how closely these memberships are reflected in what is here. When acquired in 1984, the house was generally well-preserved. Since then LaValley and Whitenight have updated the wiring and plumbing, added air-conditioning, alarm systems, and further lighting. Moreover they replaced the existing mantelpieces-many of Pennsylvania slate-with finely carved marble mantels rescued from other Philadelphia houses.
If you park in the garage behind the house, you pass through a beautifully landscaped garden and enter one of the house’s many showpieces, the conservatory, added in 2000 (Fig. 4). Heated and air- conditioned by natural gas systems, it boasts an extraordinary collection of rare plants, among which are species philodendrons and anthuriums as well as rare species of New Guinea orchids of the bulbophyllum family. And in the midst of this orderly riot of greenery is a cast-iron fountain-aquarium of about 1875 by the J. W. Fiske Iron Works.
The conservatory leads to the dining room, a testament to the aesthetic movement from patterned ceiling to carpeted floor (Figs. 8, 9). Here, as throughout the house, the illumination is not as much electric as electrified-elaborate gas brackets and gasoliers with their original etched-glass shades send neo-gaslight dancing off surfaces of French-polished cabinetry, heavy gilded picture frames, carved ivory, sculpture in Parian porcelain, marble, and bronze, not to mention yards of tasseled velvet drapery and damask upholstery.
No decorative or curatorial note has been left unsounded in this welcoming refectory, bringing to mind the Linley Sambourne House in London and some of the rooms in Queen Victoria’s beloved Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and, of course, Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut, decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated Artists. The walls, papered in a William Morris pattern, are arrayed with a variety of objects, including plates in a familiar Gothic revival design by A. W. N. Pugin and several paintings of plants and hummingbirds, not by Martin Johnson Heade, as you might think at first glance, but by John Whitenight himself. Apart from the long walnut dining table, attributed to Allen and Brother of Philadelphia, a dominant piece of furniture here is a large walnut sideboard probably by Pottier and Stymus of New York inlaid with tiles by John Moyr Smith (see Fig. 1). On it stands a large glass dome enclosing a cathedral facade carved entirely of cut paper (Fig. 10), one of the house’s many glass domes. But more about them later.
The encyclopedic nature of the collections is due to the fact that the two men’s tastes harmonize so well. “I was dubbed the ‘Rococo Kid’ by an antiques dealer when I was seventeen,” Whitenight says. “I was painting his shop upstate, and all I did was talk about John Henry Belter and laminated rosewood.” He acquired his first Belter piece-an early Rosalie pattern side chair-in 1976, shortly after graduating from college.
LaValley’s taste evolved more slowly. Initially his interests lay in English and American furniture with a bent toward Empire. He was not “collecting per se” then, but furnishing a house with things that were aesthetically pleasing. Among his early acquisitions were neoclassical pieces by the Philadelphia cabinetmaker Joseph B. Barry. “But the more I studied the aesthetic movement and modern Gothic, the better I liked them,” he says. And so, during the 1990s the Barry pieces were sold to make room for many of the things presently in the house.
There are ten rooms above stairs, as well as a kitchen, pantry, and former servants’ common room below stairs. On the second floor is the former library, now called the Belter parlor for its Belter furnishings-an armchair and sofa in the Cornucopia pattern and an exceptionally rare Belter étagère, one of six known examples with bird carvings (see Fig. 12). The seating pieces are so robustly carved that it takes a moment to discover the well-hidden edges of their lamination. Floor-to-ceiling shelves flanking the fireplace display one part of the collection of more than two hundred glass parlor domes, Whitenight’s chief passion and the subject of his new book, Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, of his lectures, and of his website, underglassavictorianobsession.com.
Large or small, each dome protects its interior world of meticulous Victorian craftsmanship. Some house extraordinary arrangements of wax flowers or fruit or bird and flower arrangements in woolwork, silk, shellwork, cut paper, even seeds. One dome contains an arrangement of sailing ships in spun glass, another an intimate historical scene: Elizabeth I bestowing the Order of the Garter on the Earl of Essex, both figures with tinted wax heads and hands. “We bought this about twenty years ago from an antiques dealer on Cape Cod who had hand-carried it back from London,” Whitenight explains. “It had been deaccessioned by a children’s museum along with a complete collection of domes containing English monarchs from William the Conqueror to Victoria. And I still keep asking where the rest of that collection went.”
Other domes contain taxidermy: exotic birds naturalistically perched on branches. Elsewhere in the room a glazed carved oval fire screen is filled with an arrangement of stuffed birds (Fig. 11). “Most fire screens of this type are rectangular or square,” Whitenight says, “which makes this one of the most unusual pieces in the collection.” More important historically, however, it was made by Henry Ward, whose family constituted one of the most prominent taxidermy firms in London. “In the 1820s or 1830s, when Ward was a young taxidermist, he met John James Audubon, who invited him to join his expedition to Florida,” Whitenight explains. “Most people don’t realize that Audubon did not paint his birds from life but from taxidermy. And Ward helped preserve and wire the birds for Audubon to paint.” Although most of the domes have required some refreshing and cleaning, which Whitenight does himself, he reports that “more than ninety-nine percent of them are original to their contents.”
On the floor above the Belter parlor is the “Belter bedroom,” which contains a further collection of handiwork-needlework, woolwork, papier maché, hairwork (Figs. 14, 16). But the centerpiece here is the curvaceous bed patented by Belter in 1856. Its beautifully figured surfaces are formed of twenty-one layers of laminated rosewood bent by steam. Nearby is an associated Belter dresser, and the room’s chief rarity, a Belter armoire. “We only know of one other example, with two doors,” Whitenight says. “Ours has a single door.”
At the other end of the hall, presided over by an English neo-Gothic armoire possibly by Gillows of Lancaster, according to LaValley, is the “aesthetic bedroom,” where a wonderfully lively neo-Gothic walnut bed, possibly by Allen and Brother of Philadelphia, lies invitingly beneath the multicolor shades of an aesthetic movement gasolier (Figs. 13, 15). There are also several elaborately carved pieces of Cincinnati art furniture here, including a Canterbury, or music cabinet, with the name “Mozart” in uncial letters carved into the foliage. “I love these Cincinnati pieces,” Whitenight exclaims, “because as an art teacher I admire the fact that the firm’s art school taught women the craft of carving for cabinetry constructed by men.” To ensure that all this elaborate neo-Gothicism is not too overwhelming in its architectonic sobriety, a Wenzel Friedrich horn chair lends a Wild West touch.
Similarly, the “aesthetic parlor” down on the second floor is LaValley’s lair. Near the door is a marble sculpture of a sleeping child by William Henry Rinehart (1825-1874), whose marble Latona and Her Children, Apollo and Diana is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. As in the Belter parlor, red is the chief color here, and the aura cast by American pieces, some by Kimbel and Cabus, some Pottier and Stymus, some unattributed, evokes the era and American setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.
Over the sofa, Walter Mason Oddie’s 1852 painting The Susquehanna River, near Binghamton imparts a soft amber hue. An ebonized center table inlaid with amboyna wood and bone displays a grand-tour marble copy of the ancient group The Wrestlers in the Galleria degli Uffizi (see Fig. 18). Attributed to Bruce J. Talbert, the table was purchased from the eminent London dealer Paul Reeves. Between the windows is a cabinet filled with more than one hundred bird specimens that was made on the Isle of Jersey in 1855 and signed by cabinetmakers Jean Luce and J. Chapelle (Fig. 19).
In addition to other examples of natural history, this parlor contains choice automata, among them a large automaton of a young Renaissance nobleman playing a mandolin. Made in Paris about 1880 to 1885 by Leopold Lambert, it could represent either Méphistophélès in Charles Gounod’s Faust or Mozart’s Don Giovanni (both of whom famously serenade a lady this way). When wound, he strums his mandolin while, concealed in the base, the Swiss music box by Charles Reuge plays four tunes-none are from either opera, but one tune is definitely “Winterstürme” from Wagner’s Die Walkure. “I became interested in automata in 1990,” Whitenight says, “and acquired my first one in 1994.” Of the nine in the present collection, several are monkeys-this was the age of Darwin, after all. Among these is Le singe fumeur, the smoking monkey, made by Gustave Vichy of Paris, 1875 to 1885. Dressed as a pompous Directoire-era dandy, he contains no music box. But insert a lighted cigarette in his ivory holder, wind him up, and the monkey lifts his lorgnette to peer haughtily at onlookers while puffing on the cigarette and exhaling clouds of smoke through his mouth and nose.
As the final touch, LaValley draws attention to the “biggest of all their toys,” an 1861 Chickering and Sons upright piano, its polished marquetry, decorative copper plaques, and carvings redolent of President Lincoln’s day. But it is a Lincoln-era piano with an Obama-era twist: after having it lightly restored, Whitenight and LaValley sent it to a firm called QRS, which installed Pianomation, a computerized playing mechanism controlled by special CDs. Whitenight inserts a CD into a player concealed in an adjacent cabinet and the ivories begin to tickle themselves. The outward effect is just like that of an early twentieth-century player piano, except that instead of piano rolls, the controls are digital. “So,” Whitenight says as the music plays, “we come up here many nights, set the Chickering to play Stephen Foster, and suddenly the blood pressure goes down, the neck relaxes, and it’s like meditation.”
LaValley sums up the effect of the house by saying that “time has stopped for a short while here, and like Mark Twain, we feel our house is a living entity. We have a wonderful symbiosis with it. Though we are making plans for certain objects, who can tell what the future will bring after we are gone? Nevertheless, it has been a privilege to be the custodian of such wonderful things for our lifetimes.”