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

glou11

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.

glou2

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.

glou2 copy

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

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

glou3

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.

glou8.jpg

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.

glou9

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.

glou copy

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.

glou7

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.

glou10

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.

glou4

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.

glou

Standard

My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 1, Vanderbilt Mansion Italian Garden

In June of 2017, I had a summer of fun heating-up on the horizon. My boyfriend would return from Florida, I was on summer break from grad school, and I had a killer new collection of crop-tops to show-off my hot rib-cage with! Yowza! However, the ripe promise of June came with a rotten surprise. My boyfriend returned home, only to inform me that he had found a new life in the sink-holes of Florida (Pun intended. He sure found some holes that he liked). After being mercilessly cast aside for a southern gal, and left broken and alone in my Hudson Valley home, I spent the first month of my summer break from school carrying around a box of Kleenex, weeping like a professional mourner from Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies (2003).  In June, I dressed like Queen Victoria. I mourned in black. My rib-cage hidden from the world.

IMG_8365 copy

Then, in July, I got a hold of myself. I realized that it was unfair to my gracious friends to impose my driveling pool of gelatinous emotions upon them for another month. After recounting the fateful day that my ex-boyfriend unceremoniously kicked me to the singles curb about ninety-seven times, I took mercy upon my lovely friends, and decided to create a new narrative. I had to become that better me that I always read about in self-help blogs. I decided, on July first, I would date myself. I would fall deeply, madly, inextricably in love.

IMG_8159 copy

So, I threw-off my somber black attire, and armed my new and improved romantic body with a sky-blue, off-the-shoulder maxi dress. With bounce in my stride, I took my rapturous blue hide over to the Italian Gardens of the Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY. Strolling along the symmetrical pathways between the precise flower beds, I felt a semblance of control returning to me. The extravagance of Frederick William Vanderbilt and his Gilded Age home (designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, and inhabited by the Vanderbilt family from 1895-1938) and gardens reminded me that I could indulge in a bit of decadence. In an act of pure hedonistic pleasure, I updated my beloved miniature calendar book, while resting in the shade of the pergola. God, do I know romance!

IMG_8247 copy

As I sensually penned dates into my itinerary for July, I was enamored by the sultry, shady ferns that surrounded me. There must be some significance in an entire garden devoted to the plant. After a bit of cursory research, I discovered a phenomenon known as Pteridomania (Aka. fern fever)! Throughout the Victorian period, there was a craze for collecting, hunting and cultivating ferns in both England and America. Much of this craze was fostered by botanists George Loddiges and Edward Newman. Owner of one of the largest hot-houses in London, Loddiges claimed that collecting ferns “showed intelligence, and improved both virility and mental health,” an assertion which his botanist buddy, Edward Newman, backed-up in his mid-century masterpiece, A History of British Ferns (1840). Frederick William Vanderbilt made sure that he was associated with the noble plant, thus ensuring his image of intelligence and manly virility with his handsome fern garden. Ugh. Where are all of these fern-cultivating men in the twenty-first century!?!?

IMG_8364 copy

So, dear reader. As I concluded the first date with myself in the Vanderbilt Garden, I decided that I was one hell of a gal, and that only a fern loving gent could take me away from me! Swoon! Also, you’ll be relieved to hear that it was time to bare my ribcage to the word, once again.

Standard