Living with Antiques: Habitat for Humanity

Stacy C. Hollander with photography by Ellen McDermott with Bridget Sciales Living with Antiques

Fig. 1. The living room on the parlor floor draws the visitor in with its serene palette, and an eclectic mix of furniture invites intimate conversation. Laurie Brown’s wish to initiate a dialogue with the streetscape is fulfilled through the placement of two tall planters set before the windows.

On a tree-lined street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a street of small brick houses, stoops, and ornamental wrought-iron balustrades, lives a couple and their cat. Two oversize topiaries flanking the top of the stairs draw one’s eyes to a dark painted door, and you almost expect to find a small paper label with the words “Drink Me” hanging from the knob. Upon entering you suspect that you have walked through the looking glass into an “otherwhere,” greeted by the slightly wild and wide-eyed stare of little Miss Fanny, an “Electric Pencil” drawing by James Edward Deeds Jr. “Come in,” she seems to say. “Curious things await.” And so, as you step farther into the house, the outside world quietly recedes and you succumb to the embracing warmth of creative lives closely entwined with art, objects, and wonder.

Fig. 2. Above the living room fireplace— one of seven in the town house—hangs an 1840–1845 portrait of a child by Sturtevant J. Hamblin (1817–1884), one of the namesakes of the Prior- Hamblin school. Note how the point of the child’s hairdo exactly echoes the drape of the curtains above his head. At left, one of two plinths salvaged from a Vermont church perches atop a country table. The plinth’s faux marble finish inspired the imaginative checkerboard pattern painted on the floor.

Marc Brown has a shock of white hair. He is the compact, dapper, and bespectacled author and illustrator of the beloved Arthur book and television series, a world based on the compact, dapper, and bespectacled aardvark named Arthur Read, whose up and down relationships with friends and family have guided and beguiled generations of children since the first book was published in 1976. Laurene Krasny Brown, known to friends as Laurie, is small and self-contained with a bright alertness. She often wears her hair in braids and is given to artful, somewhat unconventional, dress. Formerly a Harvard-trained child psychologist, children’s book author, and illustrator, she is now an admired artist who uses paper and gouache, along with interventions of thread, wire, and recycled materials, to make collages and other assemblages. She is measured and thoughtful in speech and manner. He is enthusiastic and his voice rises when he gets excited about an artwork or idea. The two met while Laurie was a graduate student living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Marc was in Hingham. Immediately setting the tenor of their future lives together, on their first date they attended a sale at the Willis Henry auction house. Laurie bid successfully on a two-handled basket (that they still own) and discovered it was filled with beautiful old marbleized clay balls, whose earthy colors evoke the artworks that she now makes. True to form, their second date was spent wandering through the eclectic Brimfield antiques market.

Fig. 3. Marc and Laurie Brown share an affectionate moment with their cat, Romeo. The couple bought the house around ten years ago, and spent years on extensive renovations before finally taking up residence.

The two have since restored eight houses, separately and together, including a 1730s farmhouse on Martha’s Vineyard where they spend much of their time and maintain studios. In this 1840s town house—variously in its past a private residence, a boarding house, and an experimental theater—they have distilled their wealth of experience (and a well-worn, good-natured— usually—competition of ideas) into a finely-honed environment where they “are always going to live,” Laurie says. It is a precise and beautiful, yet somehow quirky, interior that exactly suits their needs—easily blending comfort, rich patterning in wallpaper, paint, and fabric, and modern conveniences with the stringent minimalism of early New England and the colorful exuberance of American folk art.

They were committed to honoring the 1843 origins of the building, despite extensive renovations that included opening the back to create a wall of doors that let light from the backyard flood into the ground-floor dining area. The four-level home feels expansive, yet the spaces are rather small. It is the sort of dialectic that delights the couple, who share an original, somewhat off-kilter view of the world.          

On a wall, two graphic late nineteenth-century Snakes and Ladders game boards from India— reptiles slithering menacingly across acutely angled ladders—grab the eye as the three of us enter a space divided by pocket doors into two well-proportioned rooms (Fig. 10). Floor-to-ceiling shelves and caseworks in each room hold books arranged by subject. Surprising objects pop out among and around them unexpectedly, adding notes of levity and color.

Fig. 8. Against the low-slung upholstered furniture in Marc’s study, the Windsor chair at left and the New England tavern table at rear look almost like works of sculpture.

Laurie curls up on a diminutive American Empire loveseat that she brought to the marriage, its top rail curving into two deeply carved and fierce phoenix heads. Behind the loveseat stands a tall-case clock with works by renowned Connecticut clockmaker Riley Whiting, housed in a wood case fantastically smoke-decorated in blackish-gray on white. A vintage Steinway console piano is a faithful companion that has accompanied Laurie through many changes in her life. Its wood case has undergone multiple metamorphoses and is now extravagantly grain-painted in the soft tones of the living room it inhabits.

Art and living spaces are unified through the couple’s early decision to use the collection itself to inspire decorative treatments within the rooms. Each floor throughout the home is painted in a unique design, some derived from the imaginative graining that embellishes specific pieces in the room. In the living room, for instance, the patterning was loosely based on highly abstract marbleizing on two impossibly shallow plinths salvaged from a Vermont church (Fig. 2).

Marc and Laurie had a list of requirements when they decided to leave New England for New York, including a good tree, a garden, and a fireplace in the kitchen. They may have gotten more than they bargained for in the town house’s seven fireplaces. All needed to be rebuilt, and the couple spent much time searching out period surrounds that were proportionally correct for the openings. Now, each mantel provides a place of honor to a significant work of art. In the living room, a pristine portrait by Sturtevant J. Hamblin features a full-length young boy in a red frock holding a bugle (Fig. 2). Marc is amused by the child’s pointy hairdo, which to modern eyes belies the seriousness of the portrait. A second large canvas of a child in red hangs above the fireplace in the connected room that serves as Marc’s study. The toddler is sitting on the floor with the soles of her little shoes splayed in a V-formation. A dramatically draped curtain forms a canopy that is inverted in the curve and exaggerated swirls of her skirt (Fig. 7). The portrait is attributed to E. W. Blake, a physician at the Boston Lunatic Hospital who was undoubtedly influenced by William Matthew Prior, whose atelier was near Blake’s residence. Marc had coveted the portrait since learning that dealer and collector Marguerite Riordan purchased it at a country auction some years ago, saying: “What’s amazing about antiques is that they go through collections and they come around again if you’re patient.”

Fig. 13 In the bedroom, a row of leather-bound books is interrupted by the small portrait of Julia Pike. Although the artist is unidentified, the portrait is related to watercolors of Charlotte and Sarah Ann Flint, c. 1833, of Utica, New York.

A handful of works by twentieth- and twenty-firstcentury self-taught artists is interspersed throughout the house. In Marc’s study, a gentle drawing of a seated female figure, her legs crossed, was made by James Castle of Boise, Idaho (Fig. 9). Threads hang, mysteriously, from one edge. Upstairs, an unusual painting of a single subway rider by Ralph Fasanella is a recent acquisition (Fig. 18). The couple selected her from a group of nine or twelve individual figures, immediately identifying her as “the one.” Presently she is auditioning for her spot over a portrait of a little boy by Prior. Both figures sport wide white shirt collars against a dark palette, and the woman’s downward glance (“she’s looking at her iPhone,” Marc jokes) contrasts with the boy’s direct, somewhat sullen stare. Marc credits Laurie’s curatorial eye with knowing the exact right place to hang an artwork. He had his doubts when she suggested placing a stark graphite drawing by Günther Schützenh.fer—one of the artist-residents of the Gugging Institute in Austria (see ANTIQUES, July/August 2021)—at the top of the stairs from the ground floor (Fig. 19). Those doubts vanished after he gazed up at the oblong shapes splayed in a large oval that responded perfectly to the repetition of stairs and balusters.

Fig. 14. The couple’s first major purchase, a portrait attributed to Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), has a place of honor over a fireplace in the sunny bedroom that continues the mix of old and new, plain and patterned, in furnishings and decoration.

Marc grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, where his parents owned an antiques shop for a time. His father worked for the railroad, but he had a true sensitivity to design, art, and early architecture— interests that he instilled in his son. “Sharing something that you’re passionate about with a child leaves an indelible impression,” Marc says. Laurie was not raised with antiques, but as a native New Yorker she had an appreciation for art through the many museums and cultural opportunities afforded by the city. She attended what was then called the High School of Music and Art, where she studied classical piano, and pursued a career in child development in college and graduate school. Although she picked up some antique furniture here and there, her collecting began in earnest in partnership with Marc, making a pact that they must both love whatever they bring into their home.

Fig. 15. The upstairs sitting room is a quiet retreat and hosts Laurie’s collection of bandboxes, colorful pantry boxes, painted furniture, and portraiture. Over the fireplace, the two children in white are silhouettes cut and drawn by Ruth Henshaw Bascom (1772–1848).

Both care deeply about children. Through their professional efforts, they have come to understand the illogic of a child’s logic, and accept it with compassion and clarity. It is little surprise, then, that the major thrust of their collecting interests centers on portraits of children, though these are not the sweet, often vapid faces that attract most collectors. Their children are strong-willed and complicated beings with distinctive expressions, by turns pensive, dour, or mischievous. (“That’s our family,” Laurie comments wryly.) As Marc puts it, they share a feeling of “aboutness”—they are about to move, or say, or do something: “They’re just so poignant, and the silent stories you hear when you look at these children are so moving.” Laurie points to their first major acquisition, a portrait attributed to Joseph Whiting Stock, citing the child’s natural gesture as she reaches out to touch a dangling ribbon (Fig. 14).

Fig. 16. A radiant c. 1833 portrait attributed to Samuel Addison Shute (1803– 1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803–1882) hangs in the sitting room. During that period the Shutes are known to have portrayed many of the young women working in the textile mills proliferating throughout New England.

Because the collection is so harmonious with the furnishings, and the home itself, it is not immediately apparent how extensive it is. The cumulative effect is not one that overwhelms the senses. Rather, it is a revelation of little discoveries and chance encounters on shelves, surfaces, and in corners, that feel precious and meant for one’s eyes alone. Scanning a shelf of red-bound books in the bedroom, for instance, a miniature watercolor portrait of young Julia Pike, wearing a bright red dress, unexpectedly interrupts a set of red leather-bound copies of the Children’s Hour, a series of books published between 1907 and 1916 (Fig. 13). Another child in red, holding a bunch of flowers, hovers over a lift-top blanket chest-over drawers painted in a gorgeous, time-softened russet hue with a pot of flowers adorning the front panel.

Gazing past a magnificent Federal mirror toward the fireplace in the upstairs sitting room, one is arrested by a pair of sweet young children in profile set against a blue paper background. They are Helen and Charles Mann of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, cut and drawn in pastel two years apart by Ruth Henshaw Bascom (Fig. 15). Their lace dresses are carefully detailed, and they wear beaded necklaces of applied gold foil paper. Charles’s portrait is cut from two pieces of paper and held together with threads, evoking the Castle portrait downstairs, and Laurie’s own work, which often includes waxed linen threads piercing paper. Reflecting on the seeds of her artmaking, Laurie recalls the skills of her aunt who sewed the family’s clothes, and the beautiful penmanship of her grandmother who kept correspondence for R. H. Macy, founder of the department store that still bears his name. Her affinity for paper is also evident in the number of works on paper in the collection, and in a vibrant selection of Shaker bandboxes stored in a period desk-and-bookcase (Fig. 15).

Fig. 20. The airy dining room is replete with food-related art and objects and furnished with early New England furniture. A nineteenth-century bellows that hangs by the fireplace is put to regular use by Marc, who marvels at its efficacy and beautiful painted ornamentation.

Another work on paper, a portrait of a young woman in a white dress by the husband-and-wife team of Samuel Addison Shute and Ruth Whittier Shute, hangs against a damask wallpaper between two windows just outside the bedroom (Fig. 16). A vigorously grainpainted drop-leaf table, positioned below, ties in the portrait’s painted frame. Marc and Laurie attribute their love of the Shutes to fellow collectors Helen and Steven Kellogg, with whom they struck up a close friendship. They had just returned from a visit with the Kelloggs when Marc saw a thumbnail of the painting in an auction ad. The artist was not unidentified, but Marc immediately called the friends, asking: “Helen, it’s a Shute, isn’t it?” “Yes,” she replied, “and I’m bidding on it!” Nevertheless, after a spirited few rounds during the auction, Marc and Laurie brought the portrait home. More recently they purchased a large pastel on paper of a child with remarkably clear eyes, sitting in a chair, that they believe to also be the work of the Shutes (Fig. 17).

In furnishing their house, Marc and Laurie’s philosophy was, “If you have to buy a table why not buy a great old table?” The ground floor dining room is dominated by a large oval 1730–1750 tilt-top, shoe-foot table, purchased years ago at the Winter Antiques Show (Fig. 20). Laurie said, “Marc, that is the one thing we should take home.” The dealer was horrified when told they were going to use it as a working table in the kitchen, and even more horrified to learn they had a young child who was going to be sitting at it with crayons, tape, and the like. They have been living with and loving the table ever since. It now resides in the light-filled space that opens out onto the back garden, surrounded by Windsor chairs—“the most beautifully designed chairs ever made,” in Marc’s view. Laurie adds that they are also the best chairs for cats: they fit just right in the seats, but are protected and can still see out.

Fig. 22. Hanging over the fireplace in the downstairs dining room is one of the many nineteenth-century theorem paintings collected by the Browns. This is a particularly large and bold example of the typical c. 1825–1840 composition of bird, butterfly, and basket of fruit.

Despite her years living in New England, Laurie has a city dweller’s appreciation of things that make a large visual impact yet take up minimal space and can also be easily packed to go at a moment’s notice. The ingenuity of the tilt-top table, architectural church plinths, grain-painted drop-leaf table, and other compactable furniture, is a source of enormous satisfaction. On the other end of the spectrum is the large Shaker storage cupboard that required their architect to customize a spot between the kitchen and dining area to accommodate its height and width, but minimize its depth. Carrying the Shaker theme further is the impressive stack of boxes, including one that retains the Shaker Sister’s original sewing implements within (Fig. 21). These sit atop a vibrant butternut yellow wood box from the esteemed collection of Jerry and Miriam McCue, who first started visiting the Shaker communities in the 1940s. In a journal notation in 1954, Jerry McCue wrote that “Sister Mildred (Barker) first saw this box in the Second Family at Alfred. . . . It was taken along and moved to Sabbathday Lake in 1931, and was in the care of Eldress Harriett Coolbroth who had been Eldress at Alfred (1864–1953).”

Fig. 24. A view of the kitchen takes in a cupboard laden with the Browns’ collection of Leeds pottery. Marc, ever the researcher, notes that George Washington used Leeds pottery at Mount Vernon as his everyday china.

The stack of Shaker boxes is crowned by a large theorem watercolor on paper. It contains a barely visible and lengthy pencil inscription at the bottom revealing that it was made as a gift from a teacher to a student. Marc and Laurie have assembled a large collection of still-life and theorem paintings, mostly on paper, though they have examples on velvet and reverse-paintings on glass. In describing her attraction to theorems, which have inspired several of her own artworks, Laurie says: “Perhaps it is first an impression of integrity, the pleasure of seeing, and a perception of beauty. There is tremendous appeal in the palette used, including the ways it has faded over time. The fact that most of this work remains anonymous blows me away.” In one of many serendipitous relationships, an elegant Federal lady’s worktable, with extravagant embellishment of fruits and shells across the top and along the sides, brings another dimension to the still lifes displayed on the walls.

In the kitchen, a peek into two wood cabinets reveals a stunning arrangement of white crockery, prompting Marc to recall the first time Laurie invited him over to her apartment in Cambridge, and asked him to get something out of the refrigerator: “I opened it and it was this heart-stopping moment; it was the most beautiful refrigerator. The negative space, and everything, was so beautifully arranged, the colors and the textures. That’s when I knew Laurie was an artist. And I wrote it into our wedding vows.”

Fig. 27. The backyard features stepped planters, large paving stones, and an architectural trellis. French doors were installed in the back wall of the house creating a fluid space between the outdoors and interior.

Examples of Laurie’s contemplative and cerebral art are placed around the house, resonating in perfect synchrony with the antiques and folk art in color, scale, and universality. Her studio, occupying the entire top floor, is a magical place replete with paper and paints, unorthodox materials, threads, and wires, completed projects, and those in progress. Marc’s art is lively and narrative driven; it deals with the challenges of human relationships filtered through a child’s perception. He works on his own large collages in his studio on Martha’s Vineyard. Here in the city, a cozy, odd, wedge-shaped little nook of a building in the backyard serves as his daily studio. It is just large enough to accommodate an old cupboard housing his collection of blue-and-white spongeware, an enthusiasm not shared by Laurie (Fig. 28). Though it has been banished from the main house, spongeware makes sly appearances in his Arthur series, along with the couple’s folk art, furnishings, room settings, and other autobiographical references of places and moments in his life.

Fig. 28. A brilliant collection of spongeware pieces is displayed in Marc’s tiny studio—a cozy, compact nest at the rear of the garden.

Collections can overwhelm both the collectors and their spaces, but Marc and Laurie have created a special amalgam of work, life, art, and objects that makes their home exquisite and meticulous, but also deeply personal and idiosyncratic. Folk art was the art that they wanted to live with; it appears in Marc’s illustrations and has, in ways, inspired the art that Laurie has been creating for twenty years. Perhaps she speaks for them both when she says: “When you live with it [folk art], the color, and the patina of age, the craftsmanship, and love of material . . . it has just seeped into my brain in the nicest ways.”

After exchanging goodbyes, and once again passing by Miss Fanny on the way out the door, you suddenly blink your eyes and shake your head. The noise and lights of the city slowly reassert themselves, and you are grateful that, for even a moment, your brain was linked with Marc’s and Laurie’s in the nicest ways.

Fig. 31. A view of another worktable in Laurie’s studio demonstrates the range of ways creativity moves her.

STACY C. HOLLANDER is an independent curator and writer specializing in American folk art.