Dating My Wardrobe: Interior Desires, Henry Davis Sleeper’s Beauport

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Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House

Sometimes love is forbidden. You have to contain it, house it in an interior world of desire and expectation, where only those who have been invited into the sanctum of the self get to see it. In my humble view, Henry Davis Sleeper’s gorgeous summer home, Beauport, located on the Eastern Point of Gloucester, MA, is a metaphor for his own life. The rich evolution of identity unfolds as you tour each room of the house, but it remains hidden to those who have not have not received access into the space (in this case, you can purchase a ticket from the friendly museum staff, hanging out in a booth on the edge of the property). As one of the very first super-stars of American interior design, Sleeper had a national reputation for taste and decor for which he was widely recognized. However, his life as a gay man during the Edwardian era had to be interred, hidden away. For this reason, when I visited Beauport in June, during Pride month, I decided to take my loudest, proudest 1970s crop top and palazzo pants suit on a date to the National Historic Landmark. Unlike Sleeper, I don’t have to hide my affection for my love: my vintage wardrobe.

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Let me just say, when you take your neon pink and green floral palazzo pants from the 1970s on a date to a historic site, people notice. My conspicuous darling caught the eye of many-a-museum patron as we stood outside of Sleeper’s home, which he purchased as an Arts and Crafts Cottage in 1906, and expanded into a architectural fruit cocktail of Medieval, Gothic and Colonial styles. (Although, in retrospect, I may have just been confused for a clown who lost her circus troupe somewhere in Ipswich). Regardless, my possible identity as an escaped circus performer was soon forgotten once my little tour group and I entered the house. The interior is all consuming. You forget that there is an outer world, a 2018, a cell phone bill to pay just on the other side of the Beauport walls. You hover in that fantasy world designed by Sleeper, which begins somewhere in 1910, and then gets lost in time and space. I like to dwell here.

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Left: Indian Room, housing collection of Antique carved Native Americans

Below: Belfry Chamber, featuring sliced and reconfigured French Decor Chinois wallpaper

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The tour begins in rooms which were inspired by Americana, like the Colonial-esque Pine Kitchen, complete with a dusty rifle hanging on the wall above the hearth. As you move from room to room, Sleeper often leaves a little clue, indicating to the observer which room you’re about to enter next. For example, before you proceed into the functional kitchen of the home, you find a rolling pin, seemingly out of place in the hallway, leading to the kitchen. But, the rolling pin has a purpose– all part of a little tantalizing trail of design breadcrumbs which leads you to a mural of George Washington, commanding a speech over the breakfast table. Good old George pops-up all over the home, functioning as a buck-skin-breeched and powdered Where’s Waldo, of sorts. One of my favorite rooms was the Golden Step Room. A veritable green heaven, with a trestle table set for house guests, and majolica and Wedgewood glassware shining like treasure from a frothy set of seafoam green cabinets.

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The Golden Step Room

As I peered over his lemon yellow and vegetal green table settings, and into Gloucester Harbor, I felt as if Sleeper had prepared for a grand party, and was currently out– getting the oysters and champagne– and would return shortly. A feeling of occupation pervades the house. As I rounded every corner, I half expected to see Sleeper standing in a three-piece suit by the doorway, greeting me as he would have greeted frequent house guest, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

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Overhead view of table settings in the Golden Step Room,

overlooking Gloucester Harbor

In stark contrast to the breezy sea views of the Golden Step Room, the adjoining Octagon Room hungrily soaks light-up into its dark aubergine walls, offsetting the bright red antique toleware and glassware which Sleeper collected on his trip to France. Designing his rooms around curious objects and collections which appealed to him, Sleeper offers the visitor no rhyme or reason, only discovery.

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Octagon Room

For example, an antique Connecticut River Valley Door which Sleeper acquired becomes a showcase for his artfully arranged amber glassware collection. And what is good design without even better lighting? Sleeper seemed to realize this entirely, and cleverly installed a skylight and a mirror behind the amber glass, giving his interior space the dimension of a holy temple. It’s like entering his Spiritual center.

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Amber Glassware, housed in Antique Connecticut River Valley Door

But, just as you think you’re getting to know Sleeper, you’re thrown for a loop by the unexpected: an ordinary looking doorway which opens-up to reveal a full-length mirror, an impossibly small writing nook, secret staircases, and a wall which features butterfly-splayed specimens of books.

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Book Specimens

Another acquisition– hand-painted 18th century wallpaper, featuring varying scenes from China’s landscape– acted as the inspirational backdrop to Sleeper’s China Trade Room. The wallpaper, originally ordered by long-forgotten signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris, completes the evolution of historical and geographical dreamscapes. The fusion of culturally constructed ideas– East, West, Old-World, New-World–are deconstructed. In the end, it’s all just a blur.

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China Trade Room

 

And that brings me back to the interior life of Henry Davis Sleeper. In 1906, Sleeper discovered the beauty of Eastern Point, in Gloucester, MA through Abram Piatt Andrew, who lived there in his home called “Red Roof.” Soon after, Sleeper purchased a neighboring lot, converting the resident cottage into the amalgam architectural gem that it is today. The blurred definitions of his life, repeated throughout his interior design, are suggested between the lines of 60 extant letters, exchanged between Sleeper and his dashing neighbor, Andrew, and confirmed by the oral histories of friends who knew the couple personally. Other evidence of their romantic relationship remains secreted away. Personal papers, listed in inventories of Beauport’s holdings taken after Sleeper’s death on September 22, 1934, disappeared by the time the historic home was opened to the public in 1942. This was most likely done to protect the reputation of Sleeper during a time when homosexuality was certainly not something that one aired out in the open. That wasn’t safe. Constructing a fantasy world of walls, filled with objects of beauty, was safe. The people invited to cross-over the threshold of that protective fortress, and enter the interior world were lucky. So many decades later, wearing fluorescent florals and a sun hat from the 70s, I consider myself lucky. I get to take a peek into the internalized romances of Sleeper’s life.

Henry Davis Sleeper

Henry Davis Sleeper

Before I ended my date with my vintage duds, I decided to treat my palazzo pants to a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean, on Pebble Beach, MA. This view was much different than that of Beauport. Before me, the whole world was open. Unbridled Love, laid out before me like an oyster in there half-shell.

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