Living with antiques: No velvet ropes–a collection in New Jersey

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2011 |

Called the last of the Georgians by the architect Robert A. M. Stern, Mott B. Schmidt dared to be unfashionable, stub­bornly designing traditional houses for town and country long after they were in favor.* Schmidt's houses in the American Georgian manner usually relied on a restrained com­bination of red brick, dark shutters, and white trim accented with classical motifs drawn from English precedent. A wrought-iron balustrade or a carved pediment was as flamboyant as the architect got. After the excesses of the 1920s, Schmidt's blue-blood clientele yearned for discretion.

Built in 1936 for the American statesman and finan­cier C. Douglas Dillon, Dunwalke East in NewJersey's Somerset Hills is among the best of Schmidt's country houses, a taut play between grandeur and simplicity accomplished with a master's economy of gesture (see Fig. 2). The house closely resembles Hudson Pines, a 1938 Schmidt commission in Pocantico Hills, New York, for the Rockefeller family, with whom Dillon had lifelong personal and professional ties.

Since 1994 Dunwalke East has been home to Carol Zipkin and Dexter Earle, former New Yorkers who wanted a pastoral upbringing for their son and daugh­ter. The Earles are model stewards of the thirty-three-acre estate, honoring architect and patron while bringing Dunwalke East into the present century with innova­tions of their own. Inviting in scale, the house provides a fine backdrop for their extensive collection of seven­teenth- through nineteenth-century Chinese porcelain, nineteenth-century French and English painting, and eighteenth-century English and American furniture.

The couple's search for a place to live within fifty miles of Manhattan started when their children, now young adults, were toddlers. Their first visit to Dun­walke East in the fall of 1993 began inauspiciously. "It is too much for us," Dexter said as they pulled into the pebbled drive. But after touring the seven-bedroom house with eight working fireplaces, the Earles were smitten. Their contractor supplied further reassurance. "It is the most beautiful house that I have ever seen. Just imagine what you can do with it," he offered. "It is like a diamond ring. The longer you look at it, the smaller it seems," their realtor added encouragingly.

Dexter, who retired as a partner from the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, and Carol, who enjoyed her own successful career in finance, first at Bankers Trust and later at the Ford Foundation and Alliance Capital Manage­ment, began collecting in the early 1980s.

"We squished into a little Fiat with a friend who worked at Mallett on New Bond Street and zipped around London. The dollar was king then. We bought a slew of antiques for our New York apart­ment. It was really the beginning of our interest in English furniture," Dexter recalls.

After moving to NewJersey, Carol formed a close friendship with the antiques dealer Fred B. Nadler, whom she met when he kept a small shop in Ber­nardsville. A gifted stylist and a connoisseur of the best Chinese export porcelain, Nadler's opulent displays were fixtures of New York's Winter Antiques Show for nearly three decades beginning in the mid-1960s. Nadler supplied well-heeled clients from Pennsylvania to Texas. At the on-site sale of Colonel Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch's collection at Pokety Farms in Maryland in 1980, the dealer claimed a forty-eight-piece Chinese export partial dinner service in the rare rose Fitzhugh pattern. Years earlier, at one of Ronald Bourgeault's first auctions in New Hampshire, Nadler outbid rivals Horace and Elinor Gordon for a Chinese export porcelain cider jug made for the American market.

Friend and confidante, Nadler advised the Earles not only on what to buy but where to put it. For upholstery, he sagely recommended that they use a favorite Scalamandré silk damask throughout the house, a solution that has allowed the Earles to move furniture from room to room, and from residence to residence, over many years. "Dexter would leave for work and Fred would arrive with treasures and gifts. He never came empty-handed. We spoke morning and night and he visited several times a week. Fred was espe­cially close to our children," Carol recalls.

Unlike the Dillons-infrequent visitors to Dun­walke East who also kept properties in New York, Florida, Maine, and France-the Earles spend much of the year at their New Jersey house, enjoying every season and vista. "When we arrived, there was a huge kitchen garden planted with Douglas Dillon's favorite asparagus and rhubarb, a clothesline, and a cinderblock garage where the limos parked," Dexter says. Clearly, the Dillons rarely visited the rear of the house.

"Our children romped everywhere. No room was off limits," says Carol, emphasizing the informality the family brought to their new quarters. "People wonder how we live with antiques," she continues. "The answer is that it works for us. We have done a great deal of entertaining of all sorts over the years and have always encouraged our guests to enjoy the house as we do. There is no velvet rope." Framed snapshots, children's drawings, and souvenirs of summer sojourns abroad speak to the Earles' devotion to family. Carol's flair is evident in her collection of bespoke fashion created by New York designer Constance McCardle, who often incorporates antique fabric into her wearable art.

* Robert A. M. Stern, "Introduction," in Mark Alan Hewitt The Architec­ture of Mott B. Schmidt (Rizzoli, New York, 1991), p. x. Hewitt, a practic­ing architect in Bernardsville, New Jersey, provided additional information on Mott Schmidt and his work for the Dillon and Rockefeller families for this article.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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