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.

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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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My Own Muse: Hot Date With Myself, No. 4, Nick Cave’s “Until,” at MASS MoCA

If you’re wondering why I’m having all of these hot dates with myself, I should start at the beginning of my tale, when in June of 2017 I was abruptly dumped by a major dumb-dumd with a wandering eye. While being relegated to the status of chopped liver by my boyfriend initiated my experiment with dating myself, I should emphasize the fact that I have since discovered that it’s much more exciting to take myself on dates than it is to drag an unenthusiastic man-slug about. In fact, I never ever want to stop dating myself. I’m committed to this monogamous love of myself! Swoon!

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Well, in June I didn’t feel so hot. Most of that month was spent getting my bloated, out-of-shape heart back into prime fitness. What I needed was a Richard Simmons-style introduction to love. Encouraging, embracing, sweaty. I began taking myself out to romantic gardens and hikes, easing myself into the idea that there was life after love. But, to truly lose myself in this lifestyle of romantic calisthenics,  I needed a wholly cathartic and cleansing experience, putting my seemingly devastating problems of a trodden-heart into perspective.

To accomplish this, I decided to visit Nick Cave’s immersive, massive and stunningly gorgeous exhibition, titled Until, on display at MASS MoCA during the summer of 2017. Cave created the exhibition to visually confront the problems of racism permeating American society, hinging the controversy of gun violence and race stereotypes from the hanging preposition Until– “Innocent Until proven guilty,” or, in this case, Guilty Until proven innocent.” Cave elaborates in his interview with the New York Times: “I had been thinking about racism and gun violence colliding, and then I wondered: Is there racism in heaven?” This question reverberates throughout the body of Until. 

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Upon entering the football field-sized building No.5 at MASS MoCA, I had in mind the familiar image of Cave’s remarkable Sound Suits, but I was not prepared for the overwhelming density of beauty, intersecting with violence, racism and politics. I mean, I was simply blown away.

 

 

 

At the entrance to the exhibition, I was met with 16,000 wind-spinners, and a meandering path to follow through the whirling, glinting curtains of ornaments. The beauty of the shiny and distracting objects betrayed images of guns and targets. A reminder of proverbial glistering. Emerging from this forest of spinners, I paused in amazement. At the heart of Cave’s installation existed a marvelous floating world, dripping with over ten miles of crystal, and 24 chandeliers, and backed by miles of net made out of shoelaces and millions of pony beads.

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Here, Cave’s idea is posed: “Is there racism in heaven?” To arrive at this question, one must climb-up one of four ladders which support the hovering heaven on earth, and peer into a bric-a-brac utopia made of thousands of ceramic and metal birds, fruits and flowers. Hidden within this Eden-like world are 17 cast-iron Jocko lawn jockeys, their black-face style countenances smiling back at you from behind a spray of faux flowers.

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It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be tickled and amused by fantastical flora and fauna in one moment, and then to suddenly be reminded by Jim Crow-era-style stooping ornaments that racism cannot be ignored or covered up by ornament and material mass. Cave’s Until forced me to consider a deeper wound; a collective mar on the face of society’s psyche. And while my romantic heart did ache, as I balanced on the top of a ladder, staring into a fabricated heaven made of ceramic robins, golden pigs and glass grapes, I knew that my heart-ache was singular, temporary, and would ease with time. Before me lay a bigger heartache– the drawn-out, festering heartache of America: racism. And, as I embrace my quest to love myself, and take myself on 100 hot dates, I am reminded along the way by beautiful places, thoughtful people and provoking art installations of the larger scheme of love, and all of its capacity.

 

 

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