Dating My Wardrobe: Blooming Romance at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion

Dating human beings in the summer: terrible idea. Who really thinks it’s a good plan to be canoodling with some 98.6 degree bag of skin, sopping wet with urea stinking perspiration welling from every pore?? Darlings, listen. Leave your hormones for humans at the front door, and run straight to your closet for romance! I have been dating my wardrobe for years, now, and I don’t regret my decision. Forget smelly mammals with opposable thumbs! Cool cottons and breezy hats make much better summer lovers. On my date to Sonnenberg Gardens, Canandaigua, NY, I chose my most compatible summer companions from my wardrobe: a light-cotton 1960s day-dress, and a 1940s broad-brimmed straw hat. While my last summer date with my wardrobe ended in mild heat stoke, and far-out hallucinations, I was determined that for this date I would be as cool as a cantaloupe in June.

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Sonnenberg Gardens was the perfect location for my date, not just because it’s a great place to impress a vintage hat, but because it boasts nine spectacular themed gardens of the world. Mary Clark Thompson was the living force behind the creation of the gardens, but the death of her husband, Frederick Ferris Thompson, served as the impetus behind the horticultural masterpiece.  A few years after Frederick’s death in 1899, Mary set about creating a literal living memorial to her husband using one of the greatest creative mediums of the Victorian and Edwardian era: gardening. You want to tell a deceased someone that you love them, forget marble mausoleums like the Taj Mahal. Spell your Victorian mourning out in the bold language of flowers, water features and puddingstone lined pathways.

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The germ of cynicism which lives under the brim of my 1940s straw hat leads me to believe that the incredible gardens of Sonnenberg resulted primarily because Mary Clark Thompson found herself with more time on her hands, now, that Freddie was dead, and had access to large sums of money. Sonnenberg, after wall, was merely the summer home of the Thompsons. Frederick was a prominent New York City banker, and Mary was the daughter of a New York governor. These people were not strapped for cash. Yes, I do not doubt that Mary was very sad that her husband had died, but I’m imagining that time and money were greater building blocks than grief.

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Now, that I’m through with being critical of romantic tales of memorials, let me get back to the history of the gardens. So, Frederick dies in 1899, and soon after Mary begins her tour of famous gardens of the world. Among others, she surveyed classic Japanese gardens, tidy English landscape gardens, and formal Italian gardens. When she returned to her home at Sonneneberg, she was armed with research and inspiration. Between the years of 1902 and 1919, Mary created her nine representations of classic gardening, boasting such thematic features as Roman baths, a Japanese tea house, and a devotional Greek temple for the goddess Diana. With an entire globe of gardening history represented in her backyard, I don’t believe that Mary had the time to mourn for old Freddie. She was too busy managing pansies and heliotropes.

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One hundred years later, I can enjoy all of Mary’s efforts as an overeducated poor person, with a taste for romancing inanimate clothing objects. As I idly stroll through some of the most beautiful gardens in the world, with my purple dress swaying in the breeze, I have to appreciate that someone had enough money and means to create such a romantic landscape to roam.  I also must appreciate the turn of events which made these historical gardens open to the public. Here’s a brief overview: Sonnenberg– which translates into “sunny hill”– was purchased as a 300 acre farmstead in 1863. In 1887, the farm house was replaced by a Queen Ann-style mansion. Frederick Thompson dies in 1899. Mary Clark Thompson developes the gardens between 1902 and 1919. In 1923 Mary dies, and, having no children of her own, the property goes to her eldest nephew, Emory Clark. He sells the property to the Federal Government in 1931, and the house and property were turned into a VA complex.

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Over the course of 40 years, the property is vandalized, and generally just trashed. Realizing the historical significance of the property, a local citizen’s movement begins to purchase and restore a 50-acre portion of the estate and gardens in 1966. A formal bill transferring ownership of the property from the VA to Sonnenberg Gardens (a not-for-profit organization) was passed and signed into law in 1972. A year later, restoration work began, and involved mapping-out and uncovering buried gardens, and taking-down the partitioned and boarded-up mansion rooms. Between 1973 and 2003, Sonnenberg Gardens struggled to maintain the property, burdened by huge debts. Then, finally, in 2006 the Sonneneberg Gardens and Mansion was purchased by New York State. By the time we arrive in 2018, I can purchase a ticket to meander about 50 Acres of jaw-dropping beauty for $14. Considering the fact that I just spent $17 to stuff a bagel with cream cheese, and small latte down my gullet, I regard $14 for four hours of world-class culture and beauty a real deal.

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The cultural moment in time which I was sampling on my tour of the home and gardens was the sweet, bountiful cusp between the Victorian middle-class boom, along with all of its Victorian bric-a-brac and manners, and a reactionary Edwardian Age, with its Arts-and-Crafts sensibility, and aesthetic shift to the “orient.” The Garden complex is a reflection of both Victorian and Edwardian garden aesthetics. At its foundation, the group of gardens exhibit the three major styles of Victorian gardens: Picturesque style, Neoclassical style, and Gardenesque style, but include elements of newer style developments which emerged during the Edwardian Era: Arts-And-Crafts and International Style. The Japanese rock garden– designed and built by a Japanese designer in 1906– adopts the conflated principals of the Victorian and Edwardian. The garden reflects characteristics of the Victorian Picturesque style, leaving old growths, rutted paths and textural terrain in the design scheme, additionally embodying some of the design principals of Gardenesque style, showcasing exotic and indigenous plant specimens, using small scale natural vignettes, and island beds as dramatic flourishes. But above all, the Japanese garden exemplifies the Edwardian trend in constructing International Gardens: dreamscapes of far-away places built in one’s own back yard, and the Edwardian Arts-And-Crafts garden, which includes seemingly untouched woodland glades, naturalistic water features, and rustic pathways leading through rock gardens.

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Uniting the tea house, buddha statues, and gateways of the garden is a stream which passes under five bridges, in which case I am fortunate enough to have traipsed over each and every one. My favorite bridge to frolic across was the striking red Japanese-style bridge which afforded my vintage dress and I a fantastic view of the Lilly pads in the stream below. Thus, I began my romantic date under the cool shade of the specimen trees, and by the babbling waters of the Japanese garden. I can tell you that the evergreen laced breezes not only kept my amorous apparel from getting too hot and heavy, but allowed me to enjoy an aroma which was the very exact opposite of the smelly human flesh of summertime.

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From the Japanese garden I walked to the Roman baths which are currently slated for renovation in the coming year. The original pool, styled after ancient Roman baths, was designed by architect Francis Allen. The pool complex boasted a slew of gracious changing rooms and restrooms, heated water, and, at its center, an aqua-blue gem of a pool, lined with turquoise English tile.  So refreshing. So tranquil. Hold onto your hat, I’m ready to dive in!

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Only, not really. I was just pretending to dip my toes into the waters, wearing my Edwardian wool serge bathing suit, swim cap, and lace-up gum shoes. In real life, my purple dress and I had an imaginary swim amid the romantic decay of what appear to be ancient Roman ruins– a romantic fantasy which my 1940s straw hat wanted nothing to do with!

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As my straw hat was too practical for musing over ruined Roman baths, I decided that I needed to find a spot that was more contained and orderly. Following a wooded, winding path, I eventually found myself in the Sub Rosa (below the roses) garden. Everything living in this particular garden is green. Green grass, green boxwood trees, green evergreens, greens waters, and even a handsome green frog! This garden is so cool, crisp and delightful, I could not help but repose (upon my hat’s approval!) by the white marble fountain, which is presided over by statues of Zeus, Artemis and Apollo. While it was an honor to be amongst the gods, I was more interested in having a conversation with the denizen of the fountain– a little green amphibian which I named Miguel Ángel He was absolutely charming, and had the most beautiful glossy green nose. However, my purple dress and hat became pretty jealous of my interest in Miguel Ángel, and I had to move onto the next series of absolutely stunning gardens, including the Italian garden, the rose garden, the old fashioned garden, the pansy garden, the blue and white garden, the moonlight garden, and the old-fashioned garden.

 

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Dear Readers: the nine gardens of Sonnenberg Gardens are so beautiful that I’m not going to bore you with an exhaustive list of adjectives describing each– which include, but are not limited to, words like “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “dazzling,” “dizzying,” “dramatic,” “beguiling,” “mesmerizing,” and “freaking good.” And I haven’t even gotten to the point in my date where I toured the interior of the Queen Ann-style mansion!

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The modest, little 40 room summer residence of Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson was designed by architect Francis Allen, and built between the years of 1885 and 1887. As I entered the home, my fashionable cotton and straw date was bathed in the most delicious lighting, pouring like nectar from the bay windows. If you want to look good on your date with your lover (textile, or otherwise), this is the place to be! The lighting inside of Sonnenberg Mansion was better than the lighting designed for Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume advertisements, first airing in 1991! Take your dear amour to this parlor, and let them see you in this light. They will not let you out of their sight!

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As for me, I found the lighting particularly lovely in Mary Clark Thompson’s bedroom, which is covered wall-to-wall in the most beautiful art nouveau style wallpaper. Talk about the perfect compliment to my wardrobe!

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At this point, my woven sartorial lovers were thoroughly impressed with the date I had arranged at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion. We whispered sweet nothings to one another in the privacy of the pansy garden, mused over our future together, playing-out domestic fantasies as we toured each room in the Sonnenberg mansion, and vowed our eternal love for one another near the ruins of the temple to Diana. How could this date get any better?! I’ll tell you how. World-renown glass houses. Glass houses. Many, many glass houses.

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I have always been a lover of the glass house. To begin, I have invariably adhered to and respected the proverbial wisdom given to people who live in glass houses. I may walk around looking super cool, and in the company of an amazing wardrobe, but I am, in fact, just a fragile human who fears someone reminding me of my many flaws. Therefore, I will not be bandying about proverbial stones. Furthermore, glass houses are simply stunning. They shine like jewels in the sun, sparkling with promise in the distance. Once inside the glass house, you are not disappointed. The interior is filled with verdant greens, delicate flowers, or prickly cacti. Second only to my wardrobe, plants are the best company to keep.

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Sonnenberg Gardens boasts what is considered to be one of the United States’ most important residential greenhouse complexes, which were manufactured by Lord and Burnham. If you please, you can walk through several of the refurbished glass houses, including a remarkable domed conservatory, and peer into the romantic decay of the glass houses yet to be repaired.

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The Sonnenberg greenhouse complex was born out of the hey-day for glass house construction. There are several reasons that the Victorian and Edwardian era became the cultural incubator for glass house popularity in England and America. To begin with, there was a middle-class boom in England and America, an extension of Colonial reach, and the expansion of the world market. Importantly, the glass tax was repealed in England in 1845, and the window tax in 1851, reducing the cost of a structure made almost entirely of glass and windows.

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Additionally, exotic plants became more readily available on the English and American market, and plant cultivation and collection became increasingly sophisticated, eventually developing into an all-out plant craze. Victorians were ga-ga for greenery! Finally, technical and material innovations of the Industrial Age spilled-over into glass house manufacture. The mechanization of paint and brick manufacture, increased production of wrought and cast iron, cheaper manufacture of glass, and lighter construction materials (combination of composite wood, and cast and wrought iron) made glass house construction easier, cheaper and more available to the masses. Combine all of these factors into one cultural crucible, and the end result is an increase in glass house popularity. The glass houses of Sonnenberg Gardens are exceptional examples of this popular movement.

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And this is where I ended the date with my vintage duds– within the exceptional confines of the glittering glass structures of Sonnenberg Gardens. As I stood in the center of a glass house filled with cacti, I finally felt a bit flush. My vintage dress and hat and I had traversed a summertime landscape of remarkable beauty together, never breaking a sweat. Now, suddenly, I felt a warmth wash over my body, and radiate from my darling purple dress. While I could blame this moment of heat on solar radiation, and containment (AKA the greenhouse effect), or the way in which my purple dress was hugging me so dear, I like to think that I was warmed by a love which radiated from the cockles of my little heart. If I have learned anything about glass houses and their relation to people, those who live in glass houses will radiate with warmth. And that is– after all– not a bad thing!

 

Appendix

The Following Images can be found on the New York Heritage Digital Collection Site,

from Mary Clark Thompson’s personal photo album, 1907

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Temple of Diana (1907)

“Erected in 1905 at the western edge of the pergola. The classical structure contained Diana, the Goddess of the hunt. Pillars are made of marble, and a reinforced cast mortar temple dome represents early use of this material. Unfortunately, the structure suffered extensive deterioration over the years. It was dismantled in 1999 for safety reasons, and the statue (of Diana) moved to the Blue and White Garden.”

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Fountain of Neptune, Italian Garden (1907)

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Japanese Garden (1907)

 

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Orchid House (1907)

 

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Italian Garden and Pergola (1907)

 

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Old Time Garden and House (1907)

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Dating My Wardrobe: Space Poetics of Innisfree

I have to admit, I am a space snob. I break-out into a cold sweat if I so much as glance at spotty window panes, with dusty Red Rose tea figurines lining the windowsills (watching me with glazed eyes!), or a muted room with popcorn ceilings, and diabolical fluorescent lights clinging to its pocked surface, shedding an ill-light. I have freaked-out on outings with perfectly lovely friends who are more hardy, and genetically made to withstand harsh lines, and sallow lighting. In the middle of a friendly conversation about suggested books, I will tell you now that I am not listening. If I’m in a disorderly place, my mind will wander, fixed on a point of particular ugliness, and focus on that ugliness until I blurt out,” I’m sorry, what were you saying? I think I have to leave….immediately.”

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marsh mallows, and rock walls of Innisfree

And this is why I visit beautiful places, and choose to be romantically involved with my clothes. Sentient beings just don’t understand me the way that my darling wardrobe does. Maybe it’s because they just don’t have any brains, but I believe it’s because my clothing is the most accommodating companion that I know.

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Moi, pre-heat stroke

To celebrate my long-lasting relationship with my wardrobe, I decide to take my dear 1960s gingham skirt, and yellow silk shell on a romantic romp through one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth– Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY; The early twentieth-century country residence of Walter Beck, and wife Marion Burt Beck. This is a romantic poetic space, where my senses are refreshed at every turn.

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cup garden view 

Innisfree Garden is known as a cup garden– a term which Walter Beck coined to describe the intimate garden vignettes which existed within the larger scheme of a more naturalistic garden landscape. During the 1930s, Walter Beck came across scroll paintings of 8th century Chinese artist and garden creator, Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Villa design.

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portion of Wang Wei’s painted scroll of Wanchuan Villa

Utilizing the natural shape of the landscape as the foundation, and creating inward focused and hidden gardens within the overall landscape was a departure from western garden philosophy, which sought to create a uniform and open design scheme. Struck by a concept which encouraged exploration and discovery, and working with the indigenous plants on the property, Beck, along with his gardener wife, Marion, began the fifty some-odd-year development of Innisfree Garden.

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While the theoretical framework, and botanical bones of the garden were in place, it wasn’t until landscape architect Lester Collins came into the picture that the space really began to take shape. The Becks and Collins met in 1938, as Collins was studying English at Harvard University, and traveling with fellow student, John Ormsbee Simonds, to Asia. It was in the balmy breath of spring in 1938 that the fruitful partnership between the Becks and Collins began– a collaborative effort which would produce one of the most profoundly gorgeous spaces on the planet.

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Upon his return from the “Far East,” Lester Collins enrolled in the Master of Landscape Architecture Program of Harvard’s School of Design, receiving his degree in 1942. Here he was met with blossoming ideas of American modernism, which quite naturally complimented “Eastern” design philosophy. However, his career would have to wait, as World War II engulfed whole societies in its growing wake. Collins served in the British Eighth Army from 1942-1945. After which, he returned to America and became a professor of landscape architecture, and later the Dean of Harvard’s School of Design.

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Lester Collin’s quest to expand his breadth of knowledge was a lifelong passion. In 1954, he studied traditional Japanese Garden design and construction methods as a Fulbright Scholar, working with a Japanese scholar to translate the eleventh-century Japanese text Sakuteiki–literally “records of garden making.” This detailed record outlined the styles of gardening in the Heian period, defining gardening as a poetic aesthetic endeavor, in which the designer created from feelings, and responded to the physical characteristics of the site. This ancient methodology was artfully employed by Collins as he worked on the gardens of Innisfree from the 1940s until 1993, responding to the natural character of the terrain with sensitivity and whimsy.

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Innisfree is a space which meets at the intersection between emerging American modernism, ancient Chinese and Japanese aesthetic philosophy, and the Hudson Valley’s inherent natural beauty.  At this point of intersection, I decided to rest a while. The day which I visited in late July boasted 100 degree temperatures, and maximum humidity. The air around me felt like the inside of the moist mouth of a giant dog. Only the cool mist of the modern water fountain, and the shade of a teacup nook could rescue me from this dog-day of summer.

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Despite the air quality, the garden was so beautiful that I wandered from one garden vignette to the next without even noticing that I was massively dehydrated, and overheated. I may be a great lover of my wardrobe, and a fantastic date, but I have never gotten the hang of hydrating. I can drink a cup of coffee or tea, but it never occurs to me to drink water until my cells are shriveling-up, and my tongue feels like an old dried-up piece of hard tack from the Civil War era.

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Heat Stroke, or swooning from passion???

I had to apologize to my dear ’60s ensemble, and sit down in an ivy shrouded nook to rest for a while. I collapsed against the cool stone of an outdoor staircase, my gingham skirt swooning as I reposed. And while I retired like a sweating lump in the most gorgeous garden in the Hudson Valley, I looked out into the verdant landscape, and felt a sense of complete tranquility. Perhaps it was the heat stroke which made me feel as if I was in a lucid dream, but I truly was transported.

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I was a million miles away, in a poetic space, which is never bound by the physical parameters of the land. It is here that I like to dwell, along with my sweetheart wardrobe. This is the space where I stay a while.

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Dating My Wardrobe: Negotiating Space at Naumkeag

As I embark on a sartorial romance, dating my vintage wardrobe, I realize that the clothes on my back are the only real constant in my life. Every seven years, my very own body freakishly exists as collection of completely new regenerated cells, and I certainly have changed my mind over the steady march of time. I lived in various places, as visitor with a lease agreement, but nothing so permanent to call my own. My clothes. My woven companions. These are the only things which cling to my person with any sort of permanence. This negotiation of space, both personal and geographical, always includes a piece of my beloved wardrobe. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Naumkeag, and my date with my vintage 1980s circle skirt and off-the-shoulder shirt.

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Moi in the “Afternoon Garden”

I realize that the places I typically drag my wardrobe along to exist as historical sites, and are generally reserved as a landmark, and preserved for public posterity only after some rich, old white dude from the Gilded Age drops dead, and his descendants of a modern age can no longer afford to upkeep an overgrown, and ostentatious property. This is where a board of trustees, or the government swoops in to care for the property, offering its remarkable beauty to the public (for a nominal fee). This period of historical tourism, for any designated space, is only one chapter in the line of many. As I visited Naumkeag, in the Prospect Hill district of Stockbridge, MA, I do so considering the many different people, structures, purposes and names that the historic spot possessed. Like myself, Naumkeag is a space which has experienced a history of negotiation and reorganization. As I tip-toe through the “Chinese Garden,” perched on a Hill once inhabited by Native Americans, but now exists in an exclusive residential area of New England, only the company of my 1980s tropical motif skirt makes any sense.

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Joseph Hodges Choate, old, rich white dude

While I can’t account for the Stockbridge region during the Mesozoic, Cretaceous, Neolithic eras, historically, Stockbridge was inhabited by Mohican Native Americans. During the 1730s, Stockbridge was founded as a Mission Community, where reading, writing and the Christian doctrine was taught to the Mohicans, and other Native tribes. In the late-19th century, the site on top of Prospect Hill which would become Naumkeag was purchased by prominent New York City lawyer, Joseph Hodges Chaote. Here’s where some name/place negotiation gets tricky. Choate came from the Essex County area of Massachusetts, originally inhabited by the Naumkeag Native American tribe. Before Salem, MA became Salem, it was known as Naumkeag– most likely derived from the Algonkian root “namaas” (fish), and “ki” (place)– or fishing place. Joseph Choate liked the idea of the tranquil fishing hole behind the name Naumkeag, and so he named his Stockbridge area summer home, purchased in 1884, “Naumkeag,” leaving behind his Choate name in the Essex County area, where one can find Choate Hall and Choate Island.

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The Front Entrance to Naumkeag

Ok. Considering the naming, and renaming of all of these places is making my head spin. I’m holding my familiar circle skirt and fanny pack near and dear, and moving on to my date. To begin, I park near some cows in the visitor parking area, put my lipstick on (with the approval of onlooking heifers),  and march-up Prospect Hill. I purchase my ticket, and while I wait to tour the 44-room shingle-style “summer cottage” of Naumkeag, designed by the infamous Stanford White of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1885, I stroll around the thematic gardens of the property. I think about Stanford White’s violent end, while I admire the tranquil Berkshire Mountains from the Tree Peony Terrace. Aside from being a talented architect, Stanford White was a seasoned lover of the ladies. unfortunately choosing to romance celebrated beauty– and wife of millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw– Evelyn Nesbit. In a fit of rage and jealousy, Thaw murders White in what was contemporaneously termed “The Trial of the Century.” Needless to say, White’s career–among other things– ends.

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View from Tree Peony Terrace Where I Contemplate                                                 Murder…That of Stanford White, of Course!

But, I’m not fixated on the house for long. My attention is drawn to the gardens of property, largely developed by the last resident Naumkeag, Mabel Choate. Following the death of her father in 1917, Mabel took the reigns of revamping the gardens, collaborating with the landscape designer Fletcher Steele in 1926 to create the Afternoon Garden, Rose Garden, Tree Peony Terrace, Evergreen Garden, the Chinese Garden, and Steele’s world renown Blue Steps, featuring a graduated series of water fountains with cobalt blue tiles, and flanking staircases.

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Studying the Art of Leisure in the “Chinese Garden”

I move from the Tree Peony Terrace to what is called the “Chinese Garden,” which showcases Mabel Choate’s collection of Asian sculpture, acquired from her travels. Despite my current status as a post graduate student, working two internships, and living with my aunt in a little pink room, I am able to pretend that I am a lady of leisure, in an age dripping with golden opportunity. I sit in a comfortable orange recliner, located in the fantasy Chinese pagoda-style outdoor patio, and admire the geometric and minimalistic water features of the garden. After a bit of lounging, I exit the Chinese Gardens through a lovely circular gateway– an action which is considered good luck.

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The green inhabitants of the Afternoon Garden

The rest of my garden-tour is an ongoing series of walking, stopping, having my breath taken away from a view, sitting, making sure that my skirt stops riding-up my leg, and fanny pack quits its 360 degree revolution around my waist, and walking again. Through this experience, my vintage wardrobe and I grew closer than ever. Negotiating spaces can be confusing. Names change, people change, places change, but clothes remain the same.

 

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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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