One House Two Worlds
Walk in the front door of this unassuming twentieth-century Maryland town house. To the right you see an elegant eighteenth-century Philadelphia card table and side chair with a rococo looking glass above and an English portrait of about 1730 glimpsed through a doorway (see Fig. 2). Look beyond the entrance hall into the living room and there is more fine eighteenth-century furniture. But then, to the left, the door to the kitchen opens, and a different world comes into view (Fig. 1): a glass table with two twentieth-century Verner Panton–designed stacking side chairs, one of his idiosyncratic cone chairs in brilliant orange, and an aptly named “Z” stool by Gilbert Rohde; sleek blonde wall shelves hold more quintessential examples of mid-twentieth-century design—Peter Müller-Monk’s Normandie pitcher, Norman Bel Geddes’s Manhattan cocktail set, and Walter Von Nessen’s Coronet coffee urn, to name just a few.
You could describe the couple who own this town house in any of numerous ways for their myriad talents and interests—from botanist, lawyer, sailor, and medical laboratory director to travelers, architectural preservationists, photographers and lovers of food and wine—but do not call them “collectors.” As newlyweds in the 1960s, they “simply wanted to find beautiful—beautifully designed—things for our first apartment. I even went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at their silver and porcelain,” the wife remembers with amusement. “We were not collecting, we were furnishing a house to reflect who we are and in a way that would be comfortable for us and for our friends.” Doing so became a decades-long process that made their home into a visual and emotional center, not only for themselves, but also for the numerous curators, dealers, and scholars who share their interests in art, architecture, and design. Some of their pieces are exceptional, some are not. Not all are perfect or perfectly documented, but together they reflect the couple’s devotion to each other, to their regional and Maryland heritage, and to the things that matter to them both.
Husband and wife both grew up in Maryland, steeped in its history and art and nurtured by families who valued both. He went to Yale, where he was captivated by the lectures of the now legendary architectural historian Vincent Scully, which inspired a lifelong interest in the subject. Even as a child she was always “looking”—mostly at buildings and objects—bewitched by color, line, and form, and developing an “eye” for good design that has served her ever since. An important influence was Angelica Yonge (Mrs. Sifford) Pearre, a Baltimore collector whose son was their good friend.1 She was one of several women who, in the 1950s, had fostered the growth of the Baltimore Museum of Art and various preservation efforts in the city, and in many ways she served as a mentor to the young woman, who herself later became active in the museum as well as in the Baltimore Architecture Foundation and the historic house Homewood. Early on Mrs. Pearre recommended that she get to know the antiques dealer Joe Kindig III in York, Pennsylvania, an inspired suggestion that resulted in a relationship that continues to this day as one of mutual admiration and friendship, even if the acquiring is all done. “In those early days of their buying,” Kindig recalls, “we had a huge warehouse stuffed with things—some more interesting or important than others. She always found something interesting, and even if it was not in perfect shape, if they liked it, that was it.”
Indeed, condition was almost never an issue. They took home the mantelpiece now in the living room (Fig. 3) because under ten or more coats of paint it looked like the work of Robert Wellford (1775–1844). She took an ice pick and a scraper, and over the course of a year, meticulously dry-scraped it down to the original paint layer, revealing intricate compo ornament definitely ascribable to Wellford, including, in the center, the wheat motif associated with his Pennsylvania work. “The whole experience helped train my eyes, not only to the intricacies of Wellford’s compo but to that of virtually every other type of ornament I have looked at since.”
The mantelpiece forms the focal point of the room. Above it hangs an American portrait reputedly depicting the postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia (with his curious upswept hair style), flanked by exceptional Adamesque English gilded wall sconces of about 1780. The other furnishings include a desk-and-bookcase of about 1790 with inlay that ties it to Baltimore but other elements that suggest an origin in Charleston,2 and a sofa with the serpentine back flowing into the arms of Federal Baltimore examples.
Across the room hangs a handsome gilded English pier glass of about 1800 that was covered in dark green paint when it was in Kindig’s warehouse (see Fig. 4). Out came the ice pick and scraper again, but this time when she got down to the original layer, the wife found that most of the gilding was gone. She sought out books on gold-leafing and taught herself how to do it. “The hardest part was making it look old, which I finally accomplished through trial and error—applying the gold leaf unevenly, allowing the red ground to show through, and then rubbing in some lampblack.” Beneath the glass is a painted serpentine Baltimore card table with finely executed landscapes of ruins in the cartouches that are probably the work of an artist such as the Dutch-born Cornelius de Beet (1772–1840), who worked as an ornamental painter in Baltimore between 1810 and 1840.3 The couple’s twentieth-century interests are subtly insinuated into the room in the pair of “toucan” bookends designed by Albert Drexler Jacobsen (1895–1973) for the Cowan Pottery in Ohio, 1929, and in the four-piece Diament tea set designed by Jean Theobald about 1928 for the Wilcox Silver Plate Company, a division of International Silver in Meriden, Connecticut.
Friends will tell you that fine wine, food—she is an excellent cook—and conversation are the hallmarks of every dinner party here. The original demilune ends of the dining table, with unusual inset painted glass panels depicting George Washington, were probably made in Baltimore or Philadelphia, where the European trained Samuel Kennedy (active 1801–1819) made and sold églomisé panels in the first decades of the nineteenth century (see Fig. 4). The dining room chairs are from two sets with the elegant heart-shaped shield backs closely associated with Baltimore. “The backs are very fragile, and tend to break easily, but we definitely wanted Baltimore chairs, so we glue them back together. Actually today’s glues are much stronger than the originals anyhow. Still, it makes one friend nervous, since he broke one chair and was here when another one went, so we have invested in a pair of sturdier Crate and Barrel chairs too.” Notable, too, in the dining room are a serpentine-front chest of drawers, 1790 to 1800, and the sideboard (Fig. 5), which was included in the seminal Southern Furniture, 1640–1820 exhibition, held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 1952.4 Kindig notes a certain provincialism in its proportions and combination of inlays that suggests it was made outside Baltimore, but ongoing research suggests that it may well have been made in the city by a craftsman newly arrived from abroad.
The couple moved to the town house in the 1970s, thinking that sooner or later they would find a place more suitable to their eighteenth-century furnishings. Eventually he admitted that the thought of shoveling snow and mowing the lawn was not really that appealing: traveling was better. They began taking almost yearly trips to France, each time carefully determining a theme in advance, and setting up a well-researched itinerary that would provide the fullest exposure possible (not to mention the best food and wine)—Gothic architecture, art nouveau in Nancy, the fountains of Paris, Le Corbusier, the eighteenth-century architecture within the Paris Péripherique (ending at the Hôtel de Crillon, built under Louis XV, where the manager asked to meet them and provided complimentary champagne and flowers). They also traveled extensively in the United States, visiting numerous cities and national parks across the country, always fully briefed before they left on the art, architecture, and music—or the flora and fauna—they would encounter: only three states remain to be explored—North and South Dakota and Alaska.
At home their focus turned increasingly to the twentieth century. First, his law office. In contrast to the staid wood-paneled offices of his partners with their easy chairs, fine art, and mahogany desks, he wanted art deco and moderne: a sleek convertible desk/dining table, aluminum and steel floor lamps, capacious black-upholstered armchairs and chrome side tables of the 1930s, a bold standing ash tray, and, as the centerpiece, a 1919 model of a coastal freighter out of Philadelphia. His partners said it looked like a “Greyhound bus station,” but somehow it was where they most often congregated.
The couple began frequenting the seminal American art deco dealers Dan Inglett and Gene Watson, who had established Inglett-Watson in the Washington, D. C., area in the 1970s, but reputedly found the clientele too conservative and moved to Baltimore in the early 1980s, where they were putting American design of the 1920s and 1930s on the map. “The shop became a gathering place for many budding enthusiasts,” recalls the wife, “and we all learned a lot together. It was an exciting time. We decided to do the guestroom, dressing room, and office in the town house in this new style, which appealed so strongly to both of us.” They went to the first Modernism show in New York in 1986—and to many thereafter, but for a long time Inglett-Watson was their main source.
One favorite piece acquired from the firm is the crisscross-based table in the guestroom, the designer of which is unknown, showing that good design is still often anonymous (see Fig. 8). In this room, too, are a plate glass dressing table and chair and a molded-glass looking glass from the line the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On the bed pictured (one of a pair from the 1930s) is a length from a bolt of fabric that was unidentified when they bought it, but subsequent research revealed that its design is identical to that of a wall covering in the women’s lounge on the third mezzanine of New York’s Radio City Music Hall of 1932. The fabric may have been designed by Donald Deskey (1894–1989) who had overall control of the design of the music hall’s interior and produced some textile and carpet designs for it; or it may have been the work of Ruth Reeves (1892–1966), whom Deskey commissioned to design some of the fabrics for this and other buildings.5
“Finding appropriate twentieth-century rugs is important to the look of a room with these kinds of furnishings, but can be difficult,” the wife observes. Many art deco rugs, including the one in the guestroom, were made in China in the 1920s and 1930s by the firm founded by Walter Nichols in the early 1920s. By contrast, the rug in the dressing room, called Two Harlequins, is French, initialed by Jean Lurçat, who trained in Paris as a painter but also designed rugs and tapestries derived from his cubist style.6
The rug in what is wryly referred to as the “curator’s office” is American art deco of about 1935, but the real excitement in this room comes from the enormous wool wall tapestry believed to have been designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s and the pair of ribbon chairs designed by Pierre Paulin in 1966 for the Dutch firm Artifort (see Fig. 9).7 Curl up in one of these chairs, still with their original stretch fabric designed by Jack Lenor Larsen (1927–), and you may never want to get up. Which is what Paulin, whose designs made relaxation into an art form, may have intended. Certainly, the chairs provide the perfect place to sit when consulting the library these “non-collectors” have assembled over the years. They were always educating themselves about the things that interested them, through their travels and their reading, by attending lectures and symposiums (she went to Winterthur’s winter institute in 1987), and their hands-on experiences. Whether collecting specimens of Maryland flora or Annapolis chairs, designing and sewing bed or window hangings, or repairing or regilding pieces of furniture, together they created an environment where content and context are perfectly combined.
I am grateful to Joe Kindig III, Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Sumpter Priddy III, Cynthia Trope, and Bruce Rippe for their help with this article.
1 See Barbara Snow, “Living with antiques: The Baltimore home of Mr. and Mrs. Sifford Pearre,” and Helen Comstock, “Baltimore furniture in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sifford Pearre,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 82, no. 6 (December 1962), pp. 628–631 and 632–635. Much of the collection is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.
2 The desk-and-bookcase is illustrated and discussed in Sumpter Priddy III, J. Michael Flanigan, and Gregory R. Weidman, “The Genesis of Neoclassical Style in Baltimore Furniture,” American Furniture 2000, pp. 72–74.
3 See William Voss Elder III and Jayne E. Stokes, American Furniture 1680–1880 From the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 1987), p. 62.
4 Southern Furniture, 1640–1820 (The Magazine Antiques, New York, 1952), p. 53, no. 124.
5 I am grateful to Anita Jones, curator of decorative arts for textiles at the Baltimore Museum of Art, for this information. A photograph of the lounge is in David A. Hanks with Jennifer Toher, Donald Deskey: Decorative Designs and Interiors (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1987), p. 107, fig. 126.
6 See “Art Moderne Rugs to the Fore,” Good Furniture Magazine, vol. 31 (September 1928), p. 143. 7 The tapestry has not been documented to Le Corbusier, but was accompanied by the history that the original owners had it woven to cartoons he made in 1952–1953.