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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Dating My Wardrobe: Somewhere in Time on Mackinac Island

It’s July 2018, and I’m in love with my vintage wardrobe. Having given-up on finding romance with human beings, I looked to my closet for love. Moths, broken hangers and all! Now, this may sound like a rather depressing thing to say. You may be thinking, how can a girl be so love lorn that she’s reduced to forming amorous attachments with forty year-old hot pants!? However, my vintage wardrobe is exciting. They weather every turn with me. They are chivalrous protectors against the elements. And–unless I’ve eaten too many carnitas enchiladas with cheese– my wardrobe is always a perfect fit!

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Well, as I embark on this serious relationship with my wardrobe, I try to think of a good place to take my 1970s high waisted pants, and 1970s crop top. In the spirit of time travel and true love, I settle upon a trip to one of my favorite childhood haunts– Mackinac Island in Michigan. In my childhood, I traveled to this place to visit my mid-western family, wedged between my extraordinarily large brood of sisters and brothers in a fifteen passenger seat van, and a cooler filled with soggy bologna sandwiches. Captain dad at the wheel, always one to make “good time,” decided that stopping to eat, use the lavatory, or acknowledge any other basic human bodily functions would cut-in on his progress on the road, so we rarely ever stopped. The sound of whining, “I have to use the bathrooms,” and the Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” filled the small, tinny interior of the van. Despite these circumstances, I will always have fond memories for Mackinac Island. Once on the Island, the purgatorial car trip on Hades’ highway was but a distant memory. Once on the Island, there were no cars. Just Victorian Mansions, bicycles, and fudge.

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While I know I must find romantic moments alone with my wardrobe, I decide to meet my beloved aunts, sisters Char and MaryLou, on Mackinac Island. We meet at the Star Line Ferry in Mackinaw City, located on the tip of the big mitten of Michigan, and take a ride from mainland to the Island. We have taken our bikes with us, and as soon as we check into our charming bed and breakfast, we get on our bikes and ride around the eight mile circumference of the Island. My aunts also stop to perform their time-honored tradition of scooping horse poop off of the street (there is a poop-scooper stationed on every corner in town). They titled this photo “Tired of My Sister’s Shit”

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If you’ve never ridden your bike around Mackinac Island, carrying your pound size box of island fudge, and waving hello to a passing a horse and carriage or two, I feel sorry for you. There’s nothing like gliding along on your bike, tracing the shore of Lake Huron as if consumed by this vision of pristine blue. You sit on the shore. You eat your pound of fudge. You contemplate life while staring out into the waters, sugar and a fist-sized glob of fat corroding your insides.

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Now, aside from the spectacular views, and countless fudge shops, the rich history of the island is alluring in itself. The magnificent limestone bluffs showcase candy-colored gingerbread Victorian mansions, and hide prehistoric gravesites in caves. The Island was formed 11,000 years ago after the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, forming the Great Lakes in their wake. The high bluffs of Mackinac Island were left poking from Lake Michigan, and so the indigenous people living on what is now mainland Michigan reckoned that the island resembled an aquatic creature, naming the place mish-la-mack-in-naw— or big turtle.

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The native peoples of Michigan were not the only ones to take a keen interest in the island. During the 17th century, Mackinac Island became a French fur trading post. In 1780, the British Major Patrick Sinclair built his Fort Mackinac upon the prime real estate of the bluffs. And, after the War of 1812, Mackinac Island resumed its role in the fur trade, once again, becoming a central hub in John Jacob Astor’s fur trading business (meeting the demand for beaver fur top hats, which nearly wiped out the beaver population). And while the Island’s indirect role in bloody warfare, and nearly wiping out the entire beaver population was regrettable, the island does boast many positive historical events.

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For example, Mackinac Island became the birthplace of modern gastric physiology. It all began in 1822 when Alexis St. Martin accidentally blew a hole in his stomach with his shotgun, right outside of the American Fur Company building (the fur trade always has its hand in something nefarious).

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American Fur Company building where St Francis had a very bad accident

The young man was treated by Fort Mackinac’s post surgeon, William Beaumont. After treatment, and miraculously surviving the accident, it seemed that St. Martin’s stomach wound just wouldn’t heal, forming a gastric fistula. Basically, St Martin’s stomach had a coin-sized hole in it, where the stomach contents could be viewed. In the name of science, and plain-old cat-styled curiosity, William Beaumont tied a piece of string around some meat, and, arctic fishing-style, popped the meat into the hole. When he retrieved the meat, he studied it, thus finally settling a scientific dispute concerning the digestive system, and proving that food was chemically digested by the juices of the stomach. Fur trade + gun accident + Mackinac Island + meat on a string = scientific discovery!

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portrait of William Beaumont

Another great thing which Mackinac Island is responsible for is the ultra seductive backdrop, and undeniable tear jerker setting for the the 1980 film Somewhere in Time. If you’ve never seen the movie, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour–shame on you! Watch this film– again with a pound of island fudge– and weep salty tears over your chocolate stained lips. What could be more romantic than obsessing over the portrait of a dead woman, going back into to time to find her, romancing her along the breezy porches of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, and kissing your love bitter sweetly along the aqua gem shores of Lake Huron?! Nothing, that’s what!

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OK. I lied. The most romantic thing you can do is this. Go to Mackinac Island. Take your 1970s high waisted white pants, and psychedelic crop top out of your suitcase. Slide the smooth polyester over your supple skin. Let the draw-string of your crop top hug your waist so dear. Then take your vintage wardrobe on a bike ride around the Island. Stop at the Grand Hotel, and check out there famous geraniums, held in their lovely greenhouses.

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Ride the middle of the island, exploring limestone formations, old Forts, Victorian homes, Civil-War era graveyards. Finally, as the sun sets, take your vintage wardrobe down the the shores of the island. Watch the sun make its departure for the evening, sinking into the blue waters of Lake Huron, and searing the surface as it goes.

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Feel the nautical breeze move across your brow, just as it caressed the skin of Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve in their most romantic moment on the shore. Watch the white hot moon rise and echo along the waves of the lake, and realize that– like the hopelessly romantic Reeve from Somewhere in Time– some things in life surpass the space time continuum, and exist in a timeless dimension of love. Somewhere in time I meet my wardrobe, which comes from every decade of the twentieth century. Somewhere in time I meet the limestone bluffs of Mackinac Island, which hosts traces of prehistoric natives, enterprising French fur trappers, Victorian leisure culture, and the  modern phenomenon for fudge in tourist spots.

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And this is how I move as a time transient, blurring the supposed linear course of time. I wear the loves of my life on my back, clothes from many eras. I ride by moonlight on a bike through the cedar forests of the Island. I wonder, where the heck am I?! Well, of course….somewhere in time.

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my cedar tree friend, Isadora, in the moonlight

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My Own Muse: Hot Date With Myself, No. 6, “Lilac Time, Montgomery Place in the Spring”

Being dumped by someone who said that they would love you forever sucks. The occurrence makes you rethink the slippery word “forever,” and also the people who aren’t old fashioned romantics, who relish the idea of growing decrepit and old together. Hey, monogamy isn’t for everyone, but don’t waste my time if you’re not captivated by the notion of being euthanized together on a bed of roses when you’re 88! As an integral part of this “don’t waste my time mentality,” I decided to date myself. Dress like a babe, go to all of my favorite places, and just romance the heck out of myself.

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After a few successful dates, I decided to enjoy the breathy bough of spring in the lilac perfumed gardens of Montgomery Place, Red Hook, NY (sorry if this date is slightly out of sequence). By late April or early May, the lilacs at Montgomery Place are in full bloom, infusing the balmy air with the sticky-sweet aroma of bursting lilac clusters. As I walked through the lilac bushes, buzzing with bee activity, I was lulled into a hazy state of utter relaxation. It was an olfactory heaven, accompanied by the tune of one hundred honey bees flapping their gossamer wings.

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At this point, you can tell that I was really swooning for myself amongst the lilac branches. Imagine that scene from Disney’s Bambi, where the cute forest creatures are being walloped over the head with love in the spring– a phenomenon termed “twitterpated.” Yes, indeed, I was twitterpated, all right! In my state of amorous delirium, I walked over to a small garden, nearest to the Montgomery Place mansion–  the mansion was built as a Federal-style home in 1804 by Janet Livingston Montgomery, and transformed into a Classical Revival mansion between the 1849s and 1869s by Alexander Jackson Davis.
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The small sunken garden paths were lined with early blooming bulbs, giant snowdrops, and unfurling ferns, leading me down to the belly of the garden where a tiny pond exists. A layer of green duck weed skims the surface of the pool, obscuring the black water beneath, and acts as a cloak for the dozens of frogs living there.  As I neared the pond, I was amused by the sight and sound of many fleshy frogs hurling their fat little bodies into the water. Well, with all of these handsome amphibians about, perhaps I’ll find prince charing here!

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You’ll be happy to know that I did happen upon a completely alluring frog, who was not only an attractive shade of green, but very friendly. What a hunk!

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Because I was wearing blue velvet covered shoes with a five-inch heel, I figured I should forget about navigating the wooded trails on the Montgomery Place property– one leading to the Hudson River, the other leading to a waterfall. While I do consider my heels athletic-wear, they were no match for the twisted-root riddled trails. That being said, I hopped, skipped and jumped with my pointed toes to a neighboring garden with darling brick paths and a central sun-dial.

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With lilac in the air, and amphibians in my heart, I strolled into the sunset on a perfect hot date with myself. God, if only those frogs could see me now! So, dear readers, if you ever happen to visit Montgomery Place– which is now a part of the Bard College Arboretum– be sure to visit all of the meandering pathways which afford incredible views and garden delights. And don’t forget to say hello to my beloved froggy friends!

 

 

 

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My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 2, Blithewood Garden, Red Hook, NY.

After climbing out of the metaphorical blackened crevasse of an ugly break-up in June, I decided that it was high time that I surfaced for some sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, living as a troglodyte for one month had its benefits. I finished reading my collection of Regency-era romance novels, and binge-watched Korean dramas for four weeks straight, increasing my boob-tube stamina and romantic acuity. However, by the time July rolled around, I knew what I had to do. I would take myself on 100 hot dates.

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For date number 2, I rounded-up a selection of the finest cheeses (from my comprehensive personal refrigerator collection), and stopped at a local farm-stand for some fruit. My life brimming with cheese, and heart overflowing with cholesterol, I strolled over to the Blithewood Mansion and Garden, on the Bard campus, Red Hook, NY.

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Now, if you’re as much of a romantic as I am, you’ll know that cheese does not inspire sentiments of love and enchantment unless it’s consumed in the proper setting. To achieve this illusion of fromage amour, I traveled with a cheese laden bag to the breathtaking Italian sunken gardens of Blithewood Mansion. The garden was constructed circa 1903 as an extension of the Georgian-style Blithewood mansion, constructed circa 1900 for Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie and his wife Francis. Both the garden and the mansion were designed by Francis L.V. Hoppin, of the Hoppin and Koen Architectural firm, adhering to the conventions of Romanticism which influenced the Gilded Age home.

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At the time that I visited the garden, the rain had just subsided, and the sun began to glisten over the sopping wet flowers and walled structures of the garden. Sitting on a marble (or limestone) bench in the garden, I looked towards a sliver of the Hudson River, visible through a parting in the trees. With a mouth full of St. Agur cheese, I turned to look over my shoulder, and was rewarded with a vision of a double rainbow arcing over Blithwood mansion.

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Perhaps it was the effect of massive amounts of brie and agur entering my body all at once, but at the sight of this, my heart skipped a beat. Love flooded my veins. These are the moments that are best shared alone, on a date with yourself, smelling of fermented dairy and oxytocin. Between the natural beauty of the garden, and my full stomach, I was content that hot date number 2 with myself had been a complete success. I was falling in love!

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