The Hidden Magic of Henry Davis Sleeper's Beauport

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."

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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