The legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper

The question of purism
In 1924 the Architect published six photographs of Beauport, two of them featuring the famous Pembroke Room, or Pine Kitchen, which had been installed in 1917 (Fig. 8). The pictures ran with a caption that read, "Typical Early American Interior, Restoration, ‘Beauport': Gloucester, Mass."3 That word "restoration" is telling, and misleading. In truth, the room was Sleeper's composition: the ceiling beams, chimney, and paneling were salvaged from the seventeenth-century Barker homestead, his mother's family seat, in Pembroke, Massachusetts, while the two-foot-wide pine floorboards came out of a demolished Boston house. In the Linebrook Parish Room floor, rafters, and paneling (including the hidden door concealing a secret passageway) were taken from a 1673 house in Ipswich (Fig. 11).

A few months after his death in September 1934, an appreciation in Antiques described Sleeper as "primarily a creative artist and secondarily an antiquary." According to the magazine, Sleeper appreciated "the quality and character of ancient things...yet was never enslaved by the letter of period design. Instead, he rifled the past to achieve new and often entrancing modern harmonies."4


As he embarked on the building of Beauport, Sleeper's first purchase was the paneling out of a crumbling eighteenth-century house in Essex, Massachusetts, for use in the entrance hall and dining room. He went on to salvage doorways and fireplaces from houses in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Gothic windows from a church, and even a bizarre, but eloquent, 3 1⁄8-inch thick Indian-repelling door from Deerfield, Massachusetts. Such bits and pieces of Americana had only recently come to be valued as worth preserving. Sleeper showed that they could also be beautifully incorporated into a decorative scheme on a par with the bits of salvage from European country houses and city palaces that had long been the preferred plunder of America's rich. As Reginald T. Townsend (1890-1977), the editor of the American edition of Country Life, pointed out in the magazine's 1929 article on Beauport, "Before the building of this house much of the old wainscoting of old New England houses was being burned for firewood or thrown away....The adroitness of the use and the intimate charm of [Beauport's] rooms have inspired many a visitor to search and save likewise."5

The matter of colonial color
Nancy McClelland (1877-1959), one of the first professional interior decorators in the United States and a friend of Sleeper, commended him and his work at Beauport in several of her popular books. In The Practical Book of Decorative Wall-Treatments, she credits him with an early bit of historical detective work:

It is generally believed that in America early panelling was always painted white; this belief has its foundation in the fact that there is undoubtedly a great prevalence of this clean and immaculate colour in old houses. But the American colonists did not, as a matter of fact, confine themselves to this background. Henry D. Sleeper, who has made a special study of the subject, says that he has found at least seven different colours of paint which occur frequently in old dwellings, and which he has reproduced in his wonderful house at Gloucester. Among them are a golden brown, pumpkin-yellow, and sage-green.6

Or as Sleeper is supposed to have put it, "So many people overlook the fact that once our ancestors had struggled out of their early harsh life, they cheered up and slapped color on everything in reach."7

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

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