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.