Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Big Old Houses: Not Very Big, and Not Very Old

Big Old Houses: Not Very Big, and Not Very Old
by John Foreman


Last June, I wrote about an 86-foot long yacht built in 1935 called "Enticer." A year later I find myself writing about an 86-foot long house built in 1930 in Connecticut. Both yacht and house are 18 feet wide, have about the same mass, and were built as stage sets for glamorous lives. Mr. & Mrs A. Everett Austin, seen above in Paris on their wedding day in 1929, built the house.

In most photos, the Austin house seems to sit in the middle of some vast estate in the Veneto. Actually, it is surrounded by Babbitt-era mansions lining an upscale boulevard on the west side of Hartford, CT. Unlike the weighty Tudors, Georgians, and Colonial Revivals on adjacent plots, the Austin house has a temporary, two-dimentional look, lots of flash and charm and very little gravitas. The owners of some of those Tudors, Georgians, etc. felt the same way — albeit unfairly — about Chick Austin.
Arthur Everett — nickname ChickAustin (1900-1957) and his bride Helen Goodwin (1898-1986), while wandering through Italy on their honeymoon, were charmed by the Villa Ferretti on the banks of the Brenta. Upon returning to Hartford, they engaged architect Leigh French to recreate it on Scarborough Road. Chick Austin meddled with the design to such an extent that, after his initial work, French abandoned the project altogether. French, incidentally, would collaborate a decade later with Edward Durrell Stone on New York's then cutting edge Museum of Modern Art.
The box over the rear terrace was a 1940 addition, about which more later.
The educated, innovative, often outrageous, dependably charming Chick Austin was Hartford's 20th century wunderkind. At age 26 he became the game changing Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, America's oldest public art museum located in downtown Hartford. He founded the "Friends and Enemies of Modern Music," organized America's first museum-sponsored motion picture series, staged the first Picasso retrospective, the first Surrealist show, and simultaneously enriched the museum with under-appreciated treasures from the Italian baroque. In 1933, at Austin's urging, the Wadsworth sponsored George Balanchine for American citizenship. Austin was understandably chagrined when Balanchine settled in New York.
Chick's mother was a conscientiously grand heiress who gave him the best, took him to Europe, sent him to Harvard, let him paint beside the pyramids, see the Ballet Russe in Paris, and called him "Boy Dear" until the end of her life. She paid for the house, an $80,000 ticket in 1930. Chick's wife Helen was an 8th generation Goodwin of the Hartford Goodwins, which means something if you live in Hartford. Her ancestors were founders of the Wadsworth, impressed by Chick's artistic background and museum contacts, and supported his appointment as director. They also gave him and his wife the lot on Scarborough Street. On December 16, 1930, Chick and Helen hosted 400 Wadsworth members on a tour of their brand new painted pine Palladian villa. It's our turn now.

Totaling just over 3000 square feet, this is the smallest "Big Old House" I've ever written about. (It is, after all, the same size as an 86-foot boat). Room #4 on the first floor plan below is the drawing room, located two steps below a grandly named "music room," really a narrow anteroom with an upright piano, and labeled #3. Room #7 on the other side of the stair is the dining room, with #8 and #9 indicating the pantry and kitchen beyond.
Rooms #11, #12 and #13 below originally housed the Austin's two children and a nanny. That is until 1940, when 7-year-old David got his own room in the new addition over the terrace. That room is labeled #9. Room #3 was his parents' bedroom, and #5 was Helen Austin's Bauhaus dressing room. Nowadays a caretaker lives in the Austin house, a common enough situation with historic buildings. However, his off-limits apartment, occupying the original children's and nanny's rooms, takes up about 30% of the house. Plus which, David's room was so full of storage I couldn't get a picture.
It's hard to properly sum up Chick Austin's short (he was 56 when he died) but remarkable life in a photo essay on his house, which the Wadsworth calls "the largest object in our collection." Austin was a teacher, a painter, a magician (really), an impresario and an active participant in the heady "between the wars" world of art. His pasteboard palace, as its detractors derided it, was just one of his many hobbies. He planned it, mixed the colors on the walls, marbleized the door frames, sewed the curtains, made the bedspreads, hung the walls with art, filled the floors with antiques, cooked feasts and then served them to everyone from Salvador Dali to Cecil Beaton, Lincoln Kirstein to Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill to Aaron Copland, LeCorbusier to Gertrude Stein, etc., etc.
This short corridor connects the front stair hall to the music room, which is more a lobby to the drawing room than a room unto itself.
To my eye, the Austins' drawing room looks gorgeously homemade, but homemade all the same. It speaks to one side of the owner's simultaneous interests in Baroque ebullience and Bauhaus minimalism. Architecturally speaking, except for the sinuous arch over a salvaged pair of antique armoire doors, the drawing room is just a plain white box. Chick hung the walls with a set of 18th century theatrical backdrops, made the taffeta curtains himself, kept the lighting low, and mixed genuine antiques with good looking (but otherwise ordinary) haute bourgeois sofas and chairs placed on wall to wall carpeting made of sewn strips (because broadloom was too middle class).
Here's the cast of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, enjoying Chick and Helen's hospitality on one of those sofas while positively oozing 1930's glamor. The salvaged armoire doors are visible in the contemporary views below.
A back hall (#5 on the first floor plan) connects the music room to the dining room on the other side of the house.
The door on the right in the image below leads back to the entrance hall; the one on the left, to the passage from the music room. Heavy silk brocade covers three of the dining room walls; an ebullient German rococo boiserie — totally gorgeous, if a bit out of scale — is fitted onto the fourth.
"Chick Austin was air and fire," said Marguerite Yourcenar of the Academie Francaise. "He was the center around which things revolved," said Philip Johnson. Here he is, leaning over his adoring mother-in-law, free hand holding the drink and cigaret that were never far away, while his wife — a smoker too, like everyone those days — gazes on approvingly. We Manhattan centrists struggle to wrap out brains around the notion of Hartford being the center of anything (except maybe insurance), but to the Avant-garde of the 1930s, Chick and his museum were the center of the world. He was a Connecticut Cole Porter — stylish, talented, socially desirable, married to money and sexually ambiguous.
Let's leave the "blue lagoon," as I am told the dining room was dubbed, and take a look at the pantry and the kitchen.
The Sixties kitchen, modern in its day, is not quite yet an antique.
Back to the main (actually, the only) stairs.
As noted earlier, I can report on only one half of the second floor, an unexpected setback in a house so small.
This second floor corridor, whose modernity startled visitors in 1930, could be in a Long Island ranch house today.
By contrast, Chick's black and stainless bathroom, lit by a Bauhaus shaving mirror, remains stylistically fresh, if you can see it.
The architecture of the master bedroom, which spoke to a new simplicity in the 1930s, is today only conventional. At cross purposes to its architectural modernity are the busy curtains and bedspread made by Chick himself. Well, the ones in these images are painstaking reproductions. The original bedspread is hiding under the repro.
As if Chick Austin weren't doing and being enough already, he was also an amateur performing magician, reportedly of some skill. He called himself Osram, after a German lightbulb, an homage perhaps to his penchant for the Bauhaus. (How about that costume? Love the lobsters).

On January 1, 1945, the trustees of the Wadsworth terminated Chick's fantastical stewardship of the museum in a case of an unstoppable artistic nature v. unmovable business temperaments. A California interlude ensued, during which Chick palled around with Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, and Angela Lansbury, and found time to establish a studio theatre with Charles Coburn, Edgar Bergen and Walter Huston. This sounds like everything was going splendidly, but it wasn't. The 1946 offer to become first director of the new John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota Florida couldn't have come at a better time.
Picasso you think? Nope, Chick painted 'em himself.
The Austin house's reputation for radical design, ca. 1930, rests in great part on Helen's dressing room. Black sheet linoleum, walls in contrasting colors, chrome tubular lighting, a chair by Marcel Breuer and a plan adapted from a dressing room by Walter Gropius move aficionados of this sort of thing to tears. It is certainly a contrast to the main rooms downstairs.
Chick's last decade of life was the sort of "Design for Living" one would expect of him — Xmas with Helen in Hartford, Sarasota in January with a young former magic assistant named Jim Hellyar, New Hampshire in June, Europe in September, back to Jim and Florida in October, winding up again in Hartford for Xmas with Helen.
At the end of his drive, the world of Scarborough Street often took Chick's bon mots, "Oh, the house is just like me — all facade," more literally than he intended.
Chick Austin died in 1957 from lung cancer complicated by an inoperable spinal tumor. He was 56 years old. Helen continued to live in the house almost until the end of her life. In 1984, trustees of the same Atheneum that forty years earlier had essentially kicked him out, suggested to his widow and children that they donate the house to them. In 1985 Helen did just that, dying the following year at the age of 88. A meticulous (to say the least) restoration began in 1998 and was largely finished by 2007. Tours are available on a limited basis; the link is www.wadsworthatheneum.org.