The Hidden Magic of Henry Davis Sleeper’s Beauport

Howard Mansfield

Howard Mansfield Furniture & Decorative Arts

December 2009 | Beauport, with its labyrinth of small rooms, layers of objects, and false doors, is a playhouse and a place that exists as a dream. The small rooms change shape, lead one to another without a quickly understood plan or even a simple hallway. There are doors, windows, paneling, tables, chairs, and art taken from long-gone houses, different parts of the remembered past assembled in an altogether new way. Beauport is a dream that a house might have if it dreamed.
Also known as the Sleeper-McCann House, Beauport is open as a museum. There are thousands of house museums, but this one in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is unlike any other. It is not surreal or scary, but at once cozy, mysterious, and fluid: secret panels open up; the harbor is right outside the window. The house itself seems to be rocking on the sea. Each room shows the interior designer at play, mixing, as a dream mixes, parts of history. Walking through, one catches hints of a deeper psychological message: the closet-sized writing nook, the small bedrooms tucked under the eaves, the unexpected windows. Beauport is a place of concealment and vistas.

We do not expect house museums to show a sense of humor. We expect shrines and serious stories. Beauport is about whim, and behind it all there is the mischievous hide-and-seek of the house’s creator, Henry Davis Sleeper (see Fig. 3). He was a bachelor who, with a local architect, designed the summer cottage in 1907 to share with his widowed mother. Eastern Point in Gloucester was home to a number of these “cottages”—shingle style houses that were small mountain ranges of gables and dormers, houses swelling with porches. When Sleeper moved in, his cottage had twenty-six rooms. He named it Beauport, after the explorer Samuel de Champlain’s praise of the deep, protected Gloucester Harbor in 1606. Beauport would grow to nearly forty rooms.

Sleeper entered into the life of things as if he knew their secrets. There are some ten thousand objects in the house. Each room was designed as a stage set; the objects, touched by his gift, perform. He took an antique Connecticut River valley doorway, once a grand entrance, and moved it into his central hall. He filled the doorway with shelves of blown and pressed amber glass, lit  from behind by sunlight bouncing off a mirror (see Fig. 4). The color is brilliant. This is a door that is no longer a door, with a window that is no longer a window. It is a proscenium arch for a drama about glass.

He loved glass of all kinds—blown, pressed, bulls-eye, opalescent—and deployed it as a painter uses color: red, green, brown, amethyst, amber, and in one instance, cobalt blue. He loved doors—narrow doors, parts of doors, doors used as paneling, and panels forming hidden doors.

Sleeper pushed his rooms right to the harbor’s edge and rolled down the window: you have put to sea without leaving the house. The Golden Step Room is a white and pale green dining room, dazzling with light off the water (see Fig. 5). A long table faces the harbor; the entire wall is a window that slides down into the wall. Everything about the room emphasizes the horizon.

Sleeper also created snug places, like his round, two-story library where there is room for only one reading chair and a small desk facing a window. Always the showman, he also had a trick: the window curtains, which he found in an antiques shop, are wooden, carved and painted so well you have to do two double takes. And he created rooms as brash as a grand opera, as in the joyously colorful China Trade Room, hung with hand-painted eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper (Fig. 10).

Beauport made Sleeper famous. He was hired to decorate other houses, and he entertained and influenced many wealthy and famous guests. In the 1930s his endorsement was featured in a Chase and Sanborn Coffee advertisement. (He appeared with Gary Cooper, Alexander Woollcott, and Richard Haliburton as “surprisingly domestic well-known bachelors.”) He put all his money back into Beauport.

Since 1942 the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known as Historic New England) has run the house as a museum. Pilar Garro, the site manager, first saw Beauport on an evening tour when the grounds were open for picnicking before Gloucester’s July 3 fireworks. She was enchanted. “I’ve seen a lot of historic houses in my day but this had such an element of magic to it. Especially at night. Everything in the house seemed to sparkle and come to life.”

Garro, who has been managing the house for four years, is still seeing new things. “Sleeper was so clever. When you’re in the Master Mariner’s Room (Fig. 6) and you look back over the doorway to the Red Indian Room, you see this spiderweb over the door, and then you see it in a full window near the Master Mariner’s desk, and then you see it again over the door going to the North Gallery. And when you open that door, you see it again.” Throughout the house there are visual tricks and clues in one room that hint at the theme of the next.

Given nearly thirty years’ work, Sleeper could have created an autobiographical statement, a monument to ego, a pedagogical lesson in good taste. Instead he delighted his guests with his witty displays, and then he hid out. Most of his personal papers and all of his business records have vanished, leaving us free to wonder at his fancy, as that old-fashioned word has it. He has the transparency of a perfect host. He is elusive. (On evenings when he hosted costume parties, Sleeper liked to surprise his guests by appearing from behind a hidden door.)

“There are those who maintain that the house with its crooked passageways, doors leading to nowhere, secret staircases, dramatic surprises and shadowy recesses is Sleeper’s most revealing statement about himself—a riddle with a different answer for everyone who tries to solve it,” write two experts on the house, Nancy Curtis and Richard C. Nylander.1 Beauport may be a game of hide and seek: Look at me! No, look away! I’m gone. Know me- you can never know me. Admire me! Go away! Go home.

Perhaps a guide to Beauport can be found in Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Home is body and soul, Bachelard says. It is our first world; it is always a cradle. The “chief benefit of a house” is that it protects dreams, he writes. “The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” And, as if he had toured Sleeper’s dreaming house, “over picturesqueness in a house can conceal its intimacy.”2 Sleeper dazzles us with the magician’s chief skill of diverting our attention so he can pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Coming out of Beauport is not like emerging from other historic houses besotted with talk of highboys or the family’s hardships. Rather it is like emerging from the movies. You come out into the grounds—outdoor rooms with framed views—blinking, smiling, and remembering your favorite parts.

In some houses each object is a tent stake driven into the ground; each knickknack holds the house and the inhabitants to the earth. Beauport is a boat upon the water. You would never set sail with such an improbable cargo, and yet the place floats.

1 Nancy Curtis and Richard C. Nylander, Beauport: The Sleeper-McCann House (David R. Godine in association with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston 1990), p. 11. 2 Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of  Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, Boston, 1994), pp. 6-7, 12.

Howard Mansfield is the author of several books about preservation.