Harmonic inventions

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

For most of his eighty-five years H. Peter Stern has carried within him the vision of a lost Eden. As a boy on vacation from his European boarding school he often traveled back to Bucharest by Orient Express. Ap­proaching home he thrilled to the sight of the Transylvanian plains, where farm­ers in sheepskin jackets and tall fur hats worked golden fields of wheat in the early morning light. His childhood in Romania was, he says, idyllic, and this homecoming vision seems to have been that idyll’s emblematic moment. Those were the 1930s. In 1940 most of the Stern family, German Jews originally from Hamburg, board­ed the last boat from Genoa bound for Manhattan. Peter Stern, born Heinz Peter Stern in 1928, when, as he says, you could be both Jewish and German, was twelve. He did not see Romania again until 1986. That year, as a trustee of the World Monuments Fund (where he served for forty years) he visited to explore the restoration of Constantin Brancusi’s ninety-six-foot-tall Endless Column, which had been badly damaged during the postwar period.

There are several things people do with a lost Eden and most of them are bound up with nos­talgia and regret. Somehow Peter Stern found a better path.  Since arriving here as a teenager he has figured out how to be at home everywhere-East and West, ancient and modern, mercantile and cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and physical. It is an enviable accomplishment, this global idyll of his, and it takes material form in Cedar House, his home in the lower Hudson Valley.

In 1978, well after he and his father-in-law Ralph E. “Ted” Ogden had created Storm King and put it on a path to becoming the world’s most important modern sculpture garden with its own Edenic landscape, Peter Stern began building Cedar House not far from the Storm King campus, where he would eventually live with his second wife Margaret Johns, a research biologist. His choice of architect, Joyce M. Rutherford, a woman whose work has a marked California sensibility and who was the only woman in her class at the University of California, Berkeley’s school of architecture, was unusual for the time and place.  Her design of a cedar-sided post-and-beam structure with its own folly, a tower at its west end, was equally unanticipated. From the outset the project was the work of three people, Joyce Ruth­erford, Peter Stern, and Joyce’s husband William Rutherford, the landscape architect who had con­toured the hills of Storm King so beautifully. The siting of the house, its pergola, pool, and tennis court were as carefully considered as its architecture. Its views are, in a word, idyllic, and one of them, the vista that takes in a thirty-two-hundred-foot-long iron railroad trestle, the Moodna Viaduct, is both sculptural and bucolic in the manner of Storm King. Many urbanites intent on building a house in a country setting in the 1970s would have turned their backs on this industrial relic, but these three made it one of the great vi­carious thrills of Cedar House.

By the time the house was completed, Stern had expressed his love of In­dian culture by purchasing a number of Indian textiles for its interior. They join carved sandstone jalis, Indian miniatures, and other material from the subconti­nent as a dominant theme in a musical composition that strikes global notes from several centuries, as you would expect from this citizen of the world. India runs deep with Stern, all the way back to high school in Scarsdale, New York, where he arrived from Ro­mania as an athletic boy who nevertheless had none of the required skills for American teenage success-baseball, football, basketball.

Peter Stern will always find his way to joy, and in high school he turned to the pleasures of books, reading widely and discovering in the Upanishads what must have been a consoling point of view for someone who, at least temporarily, occupied the place of an outsider. For his senior paper he wrote about Hinduism and Buddhism and, he has reported with some amusement, his paper so impressed his teacher that she too became passionate about India, traveling there often, as Stern himself later did.

Spreading pleasure and radiating enthusiasm, Peter Stern has moved through life engaged in both lighthearted and deeply serious pursuits. He seems to have absorbed the wisdom of George Santayana, who thought that one should turn “as often as pos­sible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”  Stern has done just that with exactly those results. To law, international relations, preservation (of Angkor Wat among other important sites), and business he has added some expertise in the violin, dressage, tennis, wine, and mime. Yes, mime. He was apparently good enough to be asked to join a traveling troupe; his pièce de résistance was his rendition of a dressage horse going through its gaits, something this writer wishes she could have seen.

Cedar House exudes Stern’s adventurousness as well as his moments of insouciance. There is, for instance, the outrageous bed suspended from the ceiling with brass chains. He likes to say that he bought it on impulse at a Bloomingdale’s Festival of India. He probably did. That it faces an important fifteenth-century Flem­ish tapestry from Tournai, The Betrothal, should not surprise anyone who visits Cedar House. A place this warm and welcoming makes such dis­junctions joyful and harmonious rather than jarring.

Some years after the death of Margaret Johns, Stern married the doyenne of modern craft, the irrepressible Helen Drutt (see our March/April 2013 issue), whose sure hand can be seen in the placement of work by the artists she admires among her husband’s collections: Felicity Aylieff’s huge ceramic pillar with Indonesian and Cam­bodian textiles; a silver platter from the German artist Gerd Rothman (1941-) on top of a piano made in Dresden in 1896 for the Paris Exposi­tion Universelle of 1900; contemporary Ameri­can and Danish ceramics on a George Nakashi­ma bench beneath a late eighteenth-century pichhavai from Rajasthan in the front hall, and so on through the house.

In The Hare with Amber Eyes Edmund de Waal describes a moment that befalls many collections: in 1918 the Ephrussis, Vienna’s powerful Jewish banking family, experienced the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rising tide of anti-semitism, and the collapse of much of their fortune. At that moment, he says, all the treasures that had been a part of a busy Ephrussi social life-Dutch old master paintings, Gobelins tapestries, French furniture and porcelain-turned into objects to be dusted and polished, inert relics of a vanished glory that gave off  “a kind of  heaviness.” This hap­­­­pens to many collections, with or without the traumas of history. Yet you sense that Cedar House, built with imaginative joy and furnished with so much openness to the material world, can somehow remain immune to such fossilization.