The legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper


Improving on the past
Sleeper had no misgivings about introducing reproduction pieces into his antiques-filled rooms. His carpenter Frederick Poole made a pair of easy chairs, bigger and more comfortable than seventeenth-century originals, to Sleeper's design for the Pembroke Room. For the Octagon Room, Poole created an eight-sided table when Sleeper was unable to find an appropriate antique one (see Fig. 9). Also, Sleeper did not shy away from twentieth-century comfort. Electric lightbulbs were concealed within punched tin lanterns, and guest rooms had access to the most up-to-date bathroom fixtures as well as full-length mirrors ingeniously hidden so as not to spoil the illusion of antiquity.

The creation of object envy

Visitors to Beauport have always wanted to take a piece of its magic home with them, and that is how Sleeper got many of his first clients. Several of them, including du Pont at both Chestertown and Winterthur, had Sleeper create versions of the Pembroke Room.11 The cowboy star of movies John Mack Brown (1904-1974) saw Beauport's round Norman Tower library and hired Sleeper to re-create it in his Beverly Hills house.12 For another client he created a pagoda-ceilinged "Chinese Ball Room" modeled after Beauport's China Trade Room (Fig. 10).13

Over the years reproductions based on objects in the house have been sold to the general public. Today visitors interested in creating a bit of the Beauport look can buy the same wallpaper as in the Strawberry Hill Room (Brunschwig et Fils's Beauport Promenade) or that in the Chapel Chamber (Christopher Norman Collection); a textile from the Indian Room (J. R. Burrows's Beauport Leaves); a camelback sofa like those in the China Trade Room (Southwood Furniture Corporation); modern reproductions of his beloved colored pressed Sandwich glass (Pairpoint Crystal Company); various paint colors (California Products Corporation); decoupage plates and platters adapted from wallpaper in the house (Neptune One Studios); and even copies of various wallpapers in the house miniaturized for dollhouses (Tiger Lily and Rose).

Had he lived into the late twentieth century, Sleeper might well have founded a lifestyle empire of his own. Of his captivating stage sets, legendary decorator Mario Buatta once told Elle Décor, "It's all so theatrical....It didn't cost Sleeper a fortune and he had fun. Beauport is something every student of decoration should see."14

Robert Rufino, editor-at-large for House Beautiful, got to know Beauport for a story he produced at Colonial Homes back in 1993 and still remembers the house vividly.15 "Anyone could walk into that house and take hundreds of ideas from it. There's something for every generation to discover." And no doubt there always will be.

1 A. M. B., "The New Old House," House Beautiful, vol. 40, no. 3 (August 1916), pp. 128-133, 164.  2 Beauport Chronicle: The Letters of Henry Davis Sleeper to Abram Piatt Andrew, Jr. 1906-1915, ed. E. Parker Hayden Jr. and Andrew L. Gray (1991; Historic New England, Boston, 2005).  3 Architect, vol. 3 (October 1924), Pls. 4-9.  4 "Exhibitions and Sales," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 26, no. 6 (December 1934), p. 232.  5 [Reginald T. Townsend], "An Adventure in Americana," Country Life [Garden City, N. Y.], vol. 60, no. 4 (February 1929), p. 42. 6 Nancy McClelland, The Practical Book of Decorative Wall-Treatments (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1926), p. 187. For more, see also Philip A. Hayden, "Henry Sleeper's Adventure with Color," Historic New England (Summer 2007), pp. 3-7.  7 Samuel Chamberlain and Paul Hollister, Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America (Hastings House, New York, 1951), p. 10.  8 Ibid., p. 5. 9 Michael S. Durham, "Sleeper Awake: Mario Buatta Spends a Day at Beauport," Elle Décor, vol. 1, no. 10 (December 1990-January 1991), p. 32.  10 For more on such collectors' houses, see Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home, 1750-1850 (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/ Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989).  11 Pictures of two other examples can be seen in "Indian Council Rock: The Residence of Mr. and Mrs. George F. Taylor at Newtown, Pa.," Country Life (Garden City, N. Y.), vol. 65 (April 1934), p. 52; and "The Country House of the Very Reverend and Mrs. Bratenahl, Brace's Cove, Gloucester, Mass." Architectural Record, vol. 60, no. 5 (November 1926), p. 481.  12 "Nine Gables, the residence of John Mack Brown, Beverly Hills, Cal.," Country Life (Garden City, N. Y.), vol. 61 (November 1931), pp. 34-39. Sleeper's initial Hollywood connection remains a mystery, but historian Philip Hayden has been working on this for some time. Sleeper is rumored to have done some work for Joan Crawford and when he fell ill in 1934 he was working on Fredric March's house.  13 Cited in Paul Hollister, "The Building of Beauport, 1907-1924," American Art Journal, vol. 13, no. 1 (Winter 1981), p. 76, n. 24.  14 Durham, "Sleeper Awake: Mario Buatta Spends a Day at Beauport," p. 32.  15 David W. Maurer, "Creative Visions," Colonial Homes, vol. 19 (April 1993), pp. 52-61.

SHAX RIEGLER is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York.

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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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