Bringing an Old house back to life

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

By MARGARET NOWELL; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, February 1945.

There are few more worth-while experiences than bringing back to life an old house. This is what Mr. and Mrs. John Howard Joynt have done with the handsome brick house at 601 Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia.

Fig. 1-The house, with its gray brick wall, encloses two sides of the property, and overlooks an authentic eighteenth-century garden. The 1810 wing is behind the main part of the house, built in 1785, whose façade is shown here. 

The main house, with the kitchens which are separated from it by a thirty-foot courtyard, was built in 1785 by Benjamin Dulaney. It was occupied by him and his family until purchased by Robert I. Taylor in 1810. Taylor joined the kitchens to the main house by a two-floor addition which provided a dining room on the garden level, and small bedrooms above. From this time on the house was owned by only two other families until acquired by its present owners in 1934. Since it has always been in the possession of people who loved and appreciated it, the house still retains its original character.

Fig. 2-To the right of the hall are drawing room and living room, with wide doors opening between. Both rooms have painted walls in two tones of gray. They have identical cornices, window frames, and under-window paneling to match; fireplace paneling and over mantel design are the same in scale, but the drawing-room detail is somewhat richer. In the living room, damask draperies in soft blue-green hang at the windows. This color is used again to paint the interior of the recessed cupboard at the right of the fireplace, making a background for a collection of American silver, several pieces of which are Alexandria-made. On the tea table before the cupboard are three pieces by Joseph Richardson of Philadelphia. The pair of silver and Irish-glass sperm-oil lamps on the mantel is unusual in detail. The portrait over the mantel is signed by Blackburn and dated 1756. 

Behind the paneled front door, with its arched fanlight and dignified pediment, the main house opens up in all its lovely color and fine architectural quality. A large window, with paneled reveal, overlooks the garden. Draperies of gold damask, with valance shaped according to authentic style of the period, hang at the window openings. The view of the stairway is framed in a wide arch which repeats the arched contour above the entrance door.

Fig. 3-Blue damask is used for draperies in the drawing room, and a fine Aubusson carpet covers the floor with tones of deep cream, rose, and maroon. The child portraits over the mantel are by John Singleton Copley, of the twins in the Greenleaf family (c.1756-1758).  Copley’s American work includes only about ten portraits of children, and this pair was painted when he was only nineteen or twenty years old. Among other American paintings in the house are one by John Hesselius done at Exeter Plantation in South Carolina, and a Sharples of Jonathan Read dated September 1797. Conspicuous in the room is handsome Irish-glass chandelier. On either side of the fireplace are paired console tables of which one is shown in greater detail in Figure 4. Other furniture items not visible in the illustrations are all of the late 1700’s or the very early 1800’s, all suitable to their setting. The only non-American pieces are a pair of English Hepplewhite settees in the French taste, which are in this room. 

To be sure, Mr. and Mrs. Joynt started with a house that would be a joy to behold, unfurnished. But the addition of furniture, each piece worthy in itself and right in period, plus drapery and upholstery fabrics lovely in color and again true to the period, gives life to the whole house. Fireplace appointments, lighting fixtures, fine portraits, choice old silver-all reveal the discrimination with which they have been selected for their individual merit and for their value to the composite effect.

Fig. 4-This semicircular mahogany table is one of a rare and distinctive pair, made in New York, probably about 1805. The style as carried out here is unusual in American work. The table has four tapering carved legs joined by very delicate and unusually curved stretchers. The top is finished with a bead along both edges, and skirt has an interesting pattern of veneers and cross banding. The legs are extremely graceful and finely carved, with leaf motifs at the top and near the bottom, and stopped flutes extending for most of their length. The character of the construction and of the decoration, both carved and inlaid, points to Duncan Phyfe as the maker of this piece and its mate. The pair are superb examples of his work in the early year of the nineteenth century when he was under the influence of Sheraton design. 

Eighteenth-century houses once provided a full-time job for a staff of household servants. Today the owners must lavish their own time and care on preserving the beauty of this old house. Mr. and Mrs. Joynt, with their two children, have achieved the happy condition of living in such a way that their antiques form a perfect setting for a modern life. They live with the past but not in it.

Fig. 5-Hugh Drysdale, colonial governor of Virginia. Painted by Charles Bridges at Williamsburg in 1725.

Fig. 6-At the end of the hall and down several steps is the dining room. This is in the wing built in 1810 by Robert I. Taylor. The room proportions and windows speak plainly of their period, in contrast to the more elaborate architectural detail of 1785 house. Warm yellow walls and woodwork in this room are a foil to the fine Chinese wall paper, mellow with age, which covers one wall. To furnish the dining room entirely in choice American Queen Anne pieces, in these days, is an achievement-and that is what the Joynts have done. Especially noteworthy is the marble-topped serving table, shown in greater detail in Figure 7. Like this table, the chairs and dining table are Philadelphia walnut pieces made in the neighborhood of 1730. The large table has a rectangular top with two drop leaves, each supported on a swinging leg; the cabriole legs are three-toed, with carved ribs extending up part of their length. Here, as in the living room, old silver adds warmth to a charming room.

Fig.7-The Queen Anne walnut serving table in the dining room was made in Philadelphia, probably about 1730-1740. It is a rare item from any point of view, with gray marble top, finely curved legs with pad feet, and an interesting though not too intricately scrolled skirt. The pieces of silver upon it are a can by Benjamin Burt (c.1760) and a pair of candlesticks by Gabriel Sleath of London (1745). The details on the wall paper show more clearly here.

Fig. 8-The arch over the door is repeated in a paneled arch with fluted piers near the base of the stairway which leads to the spacious bedrooms on the second floor. An appropriate glass hall lamp hangs from the keystone of the arch. The stairway is straight, with a mahogany rail ending in a simple curve, plain balusters, and carved decoration in a scroll-and-rosette motif along the string.