By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Ralph Harvard is particularly known for restoring old houses and making them livable for the people romantic enough to buy them. He himself has several 18th century wooden houses disassembled and packed away, ready for when he has the time to reassemble them and restore them—it just sounded so cool to say that you have whole houses in storage! However although we dutifully started out discussing restoration we wound up discussing the nature of anxiety and worry because he is one of those rare people, especially in this city of worrier princes and princesses, who is genuinely relaxed and not given to fretting … it was so unfamiliar it was almost exotic.
We’re particularly interested in the restoration aspect of your work and the question I wanted to ask was …
Launching right in! Dispensing with all the bullshit!
Oh yes, I’m not so interested in where all our kids go to school (which was what had been the topic …)
Well let me tell you my daughter is doing so well … she’s got mostly As …
In the entryway a cast of Houdon's Jefferson in a wreath of magnolias. The octagonal mirror with shell appliqués was made for a show house. The 18th century British ceramic storage jars all have Virginia histories.
Looking through the hall, the Virginia made yellow pine chest of drawers was illustrated in the landmark publication "Southern Antiques 1931" formerly in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. It has its original dark varnish finish. The wallpaper border is an antique from 1840.
A mahogany Eastern Shore of Virginia cabinet from the family of Governor Henry Wise. The cabinet holds Canton china, archaeological artifacts, bits of silver and some architectural models. Deer antlers are used for hat and tie racks.
The two Harvard kids, ages 3-16. Ralph took the pictures of his kids over the years, and hung them on a navy felt wall in 10 dollar frames.
Projects from Atlanta to Annapolis. The wall is papered in the 18th century fashion with custom made paper consisting of individual sheets seamed together and brushed a marvelous period-correct azure.
A miniature carved Georgian mantel from Crowther at Syon Lodge hangs in the entrance.
I watch the show Pawn Stars and when people bring in these old beaten up juke boxes and commercial Coke fridges, they buy them and restore them perfectly for resale. I always think, “Oh they’ve ruined it. It had all that character!” but then I realized that the restored ones are actually more authentic in the sense that that was how they were supposed to look … so which way do you go with restoration?
I’m not a believer in the artist’s original intent. I mean if you want that, we can make you one of those. It’s a problem for museums – do you clean these pictures up so much that they look brand new?
What about statuary – wasn’t it once all painted garish colors?
No, see that’s bullshit. That is not true that the Parthenon was painted originally. It was painted in a later period but when it was first put up it was white. Later on, I know we’re talking thousands of years, they painted it.
Chocolate brown painted doors lead into Ralph's office. The Colonial Williamsburg paint, Chowning's Tavern Brown, is one of the few deep chocolate browns still available.
Black walnut straight-back Virginia chairs surround a Norfolk,Virginia gate leg table from 1720. The chairs, in the "neat and plain" style preferred in the second half of the 18th century in Virginia, are actually taken directly from Thomas Chippendale's "Director" of 1752. The table is unusual for its large size and beefy William & Mary style cone turnings. The needle point carpet is 19th century.
The 1730 arm chair by the fireplace belonged to Frank Horton, Winston-Salem , N.C. , founder of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. On the mantle is a bust made by Ralph's mother and two tobacco jars emblazoned 'Tobac De Virginie' and 'Maryland Toback'. Sawtooth bills flank the mirror. The turnings of the legs of the gate leg table on the left and tea table on the right are near identical and both were made in the same Norfolk shop. Parts of four large Audubons of seabirds can be seen on the walls.
An early cellaret (1765) sits on top of a painted pine blanket chest (1780), both from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The red "back stools" are old Colonial Williamsburg reproductions. In the foreground can be seen the distinctive turnings of the Norfolk treatable.
I thought Roman statues were all originally brightly colored with marble or glass eyes?
Well Greece and Rome are very different. Rome was a little tacky. They were making things fancy and they wanted their money fast.
They sort of did what Trump does now …
Yeah … the Romans were much more vulgar and everything was built quick.
Gee, and now we think it’s all so romantic and antiquated. If something is old and has patina, do we unconsciously imbue it with narrative?
Well, we certainly don’t feel that way about people … [laughs]
Clients meet at the gate leg table in Ralph's office. Julep cups are always on hand. The pink wall was ragged on with a sample pot of Farrow & Balls "Fowler Pink" and a bucket of water. It's the only painted wall in the room. The other walls were stripped for paint, but looked so beautiful that Ralph left them alone.
While the carved deer head is probably from the Black Forest, the two antler mounts were taken in Albemarle Co. Virginia. The maps are of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay and all date to the 18th century. The picture in the upper center is of Petworth in Britain and was painted by Ralph.
The bronze hands, of unknown age and origin, have a gnarly almost mummy-like feeling. An aunt needle-pointed the pillow.
Next to the gator foot is a 5-million-year-old fossil, "Chesapecten Jeffersonius" from the banks of the James River. The Florida shark's tooth is from the same Late Miocene Period.
Delft posset pot resembling an elephant is flanked by 18th century wine bottle seals and coral in an Italian porringer.
I don’t know – I find old people more interesting. They certainly make for a better interview.
Well some … those ones who drink and smoke cigarettes right up to the end. They’re always the best.
We love people like that. Do you smoke?
No, but I do drink … I was going to make mint juleps, but it was just a little too early.
Now, what I found interesting about much of your work is that it’s not really in Manhattan anymore is it?
No, so much of my work is out of town.
The rare black walnut tea table dates to 1730 and was made on Virginia's coastal rim. Early tea tables are rare as tea and its equipage had just been introduced to the gentry in the early 18th century. In typical fashion, it is finished on four sides and the top has a negligible overhang, as folks sided up to have tea, rather than facing the top as one would a writing table. The whale rib is off a South Carolina Beach.
A sample of green 18th century wallpaper is a tantalizer for the whole set, which Ralph has in storage. The large set was previously installed in the James Getty House in Williamsburg. Printed in Britain about 1760, it has a lime green ground overlaid with white lace patterns and shocking lavender flowers. The carved mantle frieze dates to 1730.
Nobody wants brown furniture and gentility … aren’t they leftovers?
Well there are people … and we’re a small firm so we’re a magnet for them. I mean I hate to say it like that. We just did an apartment where they had 18th century English furniture and we bought a bunch more and they’ve got massive photographs throughout the apartment—shocking pictures—Cindy Sherman [and others]—and it’s a cool thing to have those things together. These clients are not old either … they’re in their thirties. One of them is on the board of the Guggenheim.
What sort of clients do you have in general?
Usually the people that come to me have bought a big old house. Four-fifths of them are collectors of American furniture or a painting collection. They’ve bought some important house and they don’t want to screw it up. Even though they might want some scary things like a Jacuzzi or somethin’ … they think if they get me I can talk them out of it. They want me to validate [their choice].
Decorative arts books and "Cavalier Baroque" walnut furniture dominate the space. The miniature dumbwaiter holds early 19th cemtury silver southern julep cups. Above the sculpture in the background is a Rococo brass lantern with the original crusty finish.
The distinctive mahogany dressing table was made in Tidewater Virginia about 1730. The foot stool was made in North Carolina about 2003. The chair is from Williamsburg circa 1765.
A mahogany Virginia dressing table from c. 1730 holds arts and crafts from Rafe Harvard, including a teapot and portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
A plaster cast of the "Venus of Cyrene" sits in a real scallop shell.
Are they scared of what they have taken on?
I’m not sure that they’re scared—I really think they want to do the right thing.
Aren’t there people who are trying really hard to be upper class?
Who the hell isn’t? Name me somebody whose not. Everybody’s striving to get up to the next level.
Why do so many people want their houses to look like hotels?
Because that’s the grandest thing they’ve ever seen. That’s the nicest thing they’ve ever seen.
Over 3000 books on architecture and decorative arts in a bookcase under spare lamps, birdhouses, and a sperm whale skull. The Baroque desk on the right dates to about 1730.
Above the bookshelves, with their suede shelf facing are two images of the Charleston Exchange Building from 1767 and an Eastern Shore birdhouse.
The shadow box belonged to Ralph's father and contains his favorite fish, an American Shad.
Three tortoise shells on custom wallpaper ("Harvard Yard") produced to reproduce the aged and worn original from 1810. The 18th century red wax figure was a gift from Elle Shushan. The cane was "Cut from Jefferson Toome, Monticello."
On a Norfolk desk of 1730 are a collection of Delft ointment jars, portrait of William Kent, porcelain squirrel, and a silver can that belonged to President John Tyler.
An armadillo from a witch in Louisiana, glaring from beneath a Queen Anne Virginia drop-leaf table.
And screens in every room … almost driven by a fear of being alone with no noise around you.
Yeah, that’s not my client. We like going to the Adirondacks because there’s no cell service. It’s forced on you.
But doesn’t it take you a day or so to get used to it?
Oh my God, yeah! We keep saying, “Shall we drive by the library and see if we can get a little bit of service there … you know.” I hate to say it but I like checking for messages and that’s not like me.
So you grew up in Richmond, Virginia. What was that like?
It was like Leave It To Beaver. I had a perfect family and my parents never got divorced. It was a wonderful way to grow up and when I go back, the trees are so big and everybody is so beautiful but after the third day, I’ll be in the bakery and the lady is writing everything out by hand and I’m like: GIVE ME MY CHANGE. I WANT TO GET OUT OF HERE!!
A model of Ralph's 1717 Dutch roof house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, shown in its restored state; it is currently a wreck. The snakeskin behind it came from the attic.
The apothecary 'Tic-Tac-Toe" chest was made on the eastern shore of Virginia c. 1775. John White's 16th century "Indians" hangs on the left and period portraits of Pocahontas and Inigo Jones are on the right.
Family pictures clutter the top of a chest.
But you actually seem like quite a relaxed kind of person.
Oh absolutely. I never worry about things. I got that from my mother.
Oh, I am. Things can push back and they’re not buried down here where I’m worried about them … they’re gone. I’m so lucky that way. My parents gave me great confidence and I wish I could understand how because I’d like to do it for my kids, both of them. I mean even though I’m dyslexic and goofy and can’t spell … I can swim beautifully but I can’t catch very well. All these things that mean I should have been a sad loser, but I’ve always had confidence and knew everything would work out.
The Campeachy chair was purchased 20 miles from Monticello. Jefferson owned several and called them 'Siesta' chairs. The maple construction indicates its American origin.
One of a pair of classical caryatide-form lamps from Parrish-Hadley flank a mantle from 1840.
A sneak peak into the office bathroom.
Supply shelves frame a view of the WC with antique Chinese wallpaper, Mark Catesby prints and a cut-up wall-to-wall Sarapi carpet.
Stone, wood, plaster and tile samples.
Random collection of 18th century locks and hardware.
Do you think people who don’t worry are people who are confident enough to know that if or when things go wrong, they have faith that they will be able to cope? People who worry don’t have that faith.
Yeah I think that’s right. Sometimes I think they wish bad luck on themselves in a way. My wife’s father was always worried about a flat tire – and he got a flat tire! Like, I’ve never had a flat tire! Not in 25 years!
Sometimes it’s okay not to think everything’s going to be okay – because when it isn’t, and it usually isn’t – then you’re prepared.
If a horrible thing is going to happen, I’ll deal with it. I don’t know ... maybe I’m a little scared of death ...