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The legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

December 2009 | November 1915. On “one of those autumn days when the darkness comes so suddenly that one seems to bump one’s head against it,” a small party departs from an unnamed city. Wrapped in furs and nestling into blankets, they huddle in the back of the open car to ward off the chill. Soon paved roads give way to deserted lanes. They hasten past a mournful, abandoned beach, and suddenly, as the car passes alongside a high wall, a man springs out from a concealed gateway shouting and waving a lantern. He ushers the group into a welcoming house, fire blazing, tea on the hob. The writer of this atmospheric account, identified only by the initials A.M.B., on assignment for House Beautiful, is describing a visit to Beauport, the seductive dream house built by the interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper between 1907 and 1934 on Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts.1

Though first in print, A. M. B. was hardly the last to be bewitched by Sleeper’s Beauport. Indeed, it is one of the most widely published houses of the twentieth century, showing up as recently as the September 2006 issue of the ultra chic World of Interiors, which deemed it cover-worthy after all these years. Professional tastemakers and other inspiration-seekers still make pilgrimages. While we may have long taken many of Sleeper’s innovations for granted, and even consigned some of them to the trash heap of interior design clichés, his vision was radical and is still influential: in his passion for Americana (at a time when most Gilded Age socialites preferred European antiques), in his view of restoration as a mixture of both historical re-creation and imaginative creation, and in his ability to create a treasure-filled house that still feels intimate.

Unfortunately, most of Sleeper’s personal and business papers disappeared after his untimely death at age fifty-six from leukemia in 1934. A batch of letters to his great friend the economist Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. (1873-1936)—the man who first brought him to Eastern Point—survived and was published in 1991. Though one-sided, they offer a glimpse into the social context in which Sleeper lived and worked.2

One great boon to Sleeper’s posthumous reputation was his association with Henry Francis du Pont (1880- 1969), and Winterthur, du Pont’s house-museum in Delaware and one of the most influential houses in the United States. There is a trove of documents at Winterthur going back to 1923, when du Pont and his wife paid their first visit to Beauport and decided to hire Sleeper to help them with Chestertown, the house they were building in Southampton, New York, that provides a fascinating insight into the decorator-client relationship. The lively back and forth between the two men as du Pont’s growing erudition and obsession with quality and accuracy came into conflict with Sleeper’s more romantic engagement with antiques makes fascinating reading.

The other great source of information on Beauport’s influence on American design comes from the newly emergent popular decorating and architecture magazines that published Sleeper’s house and a great deal of his work for clients. Beauport or some feature of it appeared five times in national magazines between 1916 and his death. His Boston townhouse was published in 1930 in Country Life. Five additional magazine pieces during this period focused on objects in the Beauport collections. And then there are the some fifteen magazine or journal articles (not to mention books) on Beauport or Sleeper between 1934 and 2006 (including in Antiques, March 1973 and March 1986). More recently, bloggers have celebrated the story of the house. All told, that is a reach any contemporary decorator would envy. Sleeper’s approach to collecting and design observes a few easily identifiable principles that have left their mark on American interiors

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

Value and display
While Beauport and its many objects were cited in many articles meant to educate readers interested in collecting antiques, it was Sleeper’s dramatic arrangements of these objects—rather than any individual pieces-that have most fascinated people. Sleeper’s most obvious and beguiling technique was the massing of objects of the same color—the false windows lined with amber and amethyst glass (see Figs. 2, 4), or the shelves with redware in the Pembroke Room (Fig. 8) and the green majolica in the Golden Step Room (Fig. 5). In the 1951 book Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America, full of detail-crammed photographs and breathless text, is an account of a woman visiting from San Francisco who fainted, not once, but twice over Sleeper’s signature arrangements of colored glass.8

This massing of similar objects in museums and private houses is so familiar today that we may take their impact for granted. A lot of any one kind of thing, valuable or not, has a huge effect. Of course, Sleeper and his Pembroke Room may also be partly responsible for the lamentable ubiquity of old-time butter churns and spinning wheels by the fireplaces of many a house from the 1920s onward.

Atmosphere and poetic license
Another of Sleeper’s tricks was the introduction of “relics”—both authentic and not—to give various places their distinctive personality. The Nelson Room holds a framed shred of toile de Jouy depicting the funeral procession of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), while a miniature of the naval hero’s great love Emma Hamilton (c. 1765-1815) hangs above the bedside lamp. To further enhance the medieval atmosphere of the Chapel Chamber, the salvaged Gothic windows look out on a cathedral-like dovecote rooftop. A Franklin stove and other evocative objects underscore the Benjamin Franklin theme of the Game Room. The Byron Room was said to contain the poet’s bed from Newstead Abbey, and although this wonderfully dramatic object seems appropriately Byronic, it is now known to have been made in Boston. The house is full of such stories and associations, although a curator once warned that, “it’s better not to investigate some of them too closely.”9

Here, perhaps, Sleeper was drawing on an older tradition. We know that he spent time in England and France, where he must have visited and been inspired by many great houses. And he himself apparently drew parallels between what he was doing at Beauport and what earlier romantic collectors like William Beckford (1760-1844) and Horace Walpole (1717-1797) did in their houses.10 While Sleeper identified with such earlier gentleman amateurs, he took a distinctly twentieth-century approach when he put his cultivated tastes and shopping skills to professional use. One of the things his clients seemed to want from him was the acquisition and installation of the same kinds of carefully curated “treasures” they saw at Beauport.

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.