December 2009 | November 1915. On "one of those autumn days when the darkness comes so suddenly that one seems to bump one's head against it," a small party departs from an unnamed city. Wrapped in furs and nestling into blankets, they huddle in the back of the open car to ward off the chill. Soon paved roads give way to deserted lanes. They hasten past a mournful, abandoned beach, and suddenly, as the car passes alongside a high wall, a man springs out from a concealed gateway shouting and waving a lantern. He ushers the group into a welcoming house, fire blazing, tea on the hob. The writer of this atmospheric account, identified only by the initials A.M.B., on assignment for House Beautiful, is describing a visit to Beauport, the seductive dream house built by the interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper between 1907 and 1934 on Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts.1
Though first in print, A. M. B. was hardly the last to be bewitched by Sleeper's Beauport. Indeed, it is one of the most widely published houses of the twentieth century, showing up as recently as the September 2006 issue of the ultra chic World of Interiors, which deemed it cover-worthy after all these years. Professional tastemakers and other inspiration-seekers still make pilgrimages. While we may have long taken many of Sleeper's innovations for granted, and even consigned some of them to the trash heap of interior design clichés, his vision was radical and is still influential: in his passion for Americana (at a time when most Gilded Age socialites preferred European antiques), in his view of restoration as a mixture of both historical re-creation and imaginative creation, and in his ability to create a treasure-filled house that still feels intimate.
Unfortunately, most of Sleeper's personal and business papers disappeared after his untimely death at age fifty-six from leukemia in 1934. A batch of letters to his great friend the economist Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. (1873-1936)—the man who first brought him to Eastern Point—survived and was published in 1991. Though one-sided, they offer a glimpse into the social context in which Sleeper lived and worked.2
One great boon to Sleeper's posthumous reputation was his association with Henry Francis du Pont (1880- 1969), and Winterthur, du Pont's house-museum in Delaware and one of the most influential houses in the United States. There is a trove of documents at Winterthur going back to 1923, when du Pont and his wife paid their first visit to Beauport and decided to hire Sleeper to help them with Chestertown, the house they were building in Southampton, New York, that provides a fascinating insight into the decorator-client relationship. The lively back and forth between the two men as du Pont's growing erudition and obsession with quality and accuracy came into conflict with Sleeper's more romantic engagement with antiques makes fascinating reading.
The other great source of information on Beauport's influence on American design comes from the newly emergent popular decorating and architecture magazines that published Sleeper's house and a great deal of his work for clients. Beauport or some feature of it appeared five times in national magazines between 1916 and his death. His Boston townhouse was published in 1930 in Country Life. Five additional magazine pieces during this period focused on objects in the Beauport collections. And then there are the some fifteen magazine or journal articles (not to mention books) on Beauport or Sleeper between 1934 and 2006 (including in Antiques, March 1973 and March 1986). More recently, bloggers have celebrated the story of the house. All told, that is a reach any contemporary decorator would envy. Sleeper's approach to collecting and design observes a few easily identifiable principles that have left their mark on American interiors