Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Big Old Houses: The Author, At Home

Big Old Houses: The Author, At Home
by John Foreman


I live in a big house where I used to give big parties.
That was then. Now I'm a divorced man, my daughter is married with a baby of her own, and my last boyfriend is so far in the rear view mirror I sometimes wonder if he was real. People ask me, "Do you use all those rooms?" and I reply, "What kind of a dumb question is that!" I don't really say that, even though I'd like to. The truth is I do spend 90% of my time in one room. OK, two rooms.
The fervid conviction of being unique, according to my sister, is a folly of youth. I think she's right. The older I get, the more I realize how true I am to a certain type — in my case, one of those old guys who lives alone in a big house that's full of junk and slowly biodegrading around him. Actually I'm not quite alone, nor do I spend the whole week here, but more on that later. Behind these windows is where I do spend my life, whenever I'm up here.
This is the original master bedroom, part of an addition to the house dating from 1889. I moved here in June of 1982 with a young wife and an infant daughter. The place was remarkably run down back then, having been boarded up for a decade. Before that it endured hard use at the hands of Timothy Leary and his crew of now forgotten stoners. I have rented the house for 31 years.
I wish I could say pretentious things about my furniture. My former wife and I bought this sofa for her brother who, in the 35 years since its purchase, has become rather a rich man. He's moved from Elmwood Park to Short Hills where I'm sure his second wife would bar the door with an assault rifle should anyone try to cross her threshold with it today. I actually don't blame her. My cat has shredded the original plush upholstery, a sad fact hidden by the slipcover from surefit.com in "tea stain."
I have a lot of fireplaces and they all look like somebody hauled them up from West End Avenue. That might not be far from the mark. I'm pretty sure all the woodwork in this house came out of builders' catalogs. It's nice and I'm very fond of it, but we ain't in Newport.
I keep wood in an old steamer trunk that has been hanging around the house for decades. Truth be told, I don't remember where it came from, which is typical in a big old house full of stuff. Some forgotten Victorian traveler beautified its interior with a picture of roses and peonies.
Fireplace mantels are for family photos, assuming you've got both. My newsman-explorer father can be seen alternately flashing his high wattage smile and sitting in his personal rickshaw in Shanghai, ca. 1929. That photo was once emblematic of a vanished world, but I wouldn't be surprised if personal rickshaws have made a comeback in modern Shanghai.
That's me in my daddy's slippers. I was a charming little boy. Below it are photos of my sister and myself on Long Island in the 1940s. How about that TV set?
Here's my desk. I'm sitting in that red chair right now, writing these very words. The waste basket beside it, which is really an umbrella stand, belonged to my father. The message on it didn't help him any more than it's helped me. The desk lamp came from my late mother's New York apartment. Made from a rather nice Chinese vase, it was originally one of a pair. My former wife broke the other one. (OK, it was an accident).
A column for New York Social Diary isn't the only thing I write, although it is the most fun.
Here's the view from the desk towards my dressing room, which I don't actually use but must walk through whenever I come and go.
The rosewood chest of drawers came from the Osborn Castle auction in Garrison, I think it was back in 1977. It's got a bum foot that's in the back and happily invisible. The pie crust table from the Bombay Company turned out to be about 3/4 of the size I expected. My riding boots are tucked behind it; it's been too cold to hack out for over a month.
No Rothkos on my walls, or "finds" picked up ahead of the curve at Mary Boone. The pretty little girl in white gloves caressing her pony's nose is the granddaughter of the man who built this house. Her room used to be right above us.
My dressing chair was made for Mrs. Harry Harkness Flagler here in Millbrook. It used to have wonderful washed-out mauve floral chintz upholstery, but the cat made short work of that. The damage is hiding under an old curtain panel. Let's move on.
At the opposite end of the room from the fireplace is my bed, and next to it my squash stuff. I play every weekend at the Millbrook School.
Anyone who reads my column knows about my love affair with vintage plumbing. Daheim (that's the name of my house) brims with excellent old bathrooms — 8 of them to be precise — each just slightly run down, which is a look I rather like. I brought the sink with me from Tuxedo, where we lived before moving here.
Some of the repro stuff they make today is quite good, but it will never be as charming as my authentic old shower. P.S. Ceramic handles have a way of falling off and breaking, given a century plus of use, and must occasionally be replaced with whatever's in a box in the basement.
The right angle corners on old bathroom tiles give an appealingly tight fitted look you don't see on new work.
Wicker tables are de rigeur in old bathrooms; electrical outlets are not.
Here's my dressing room. I've been storing that chaise longue for 15 years for a friend who doesn't like it either.
Those are my parents on the wall above the fireplace. My father isn't in fancy dress; the photo was taken in Tibet, where he made three expeditions during the late 1920s and early 1930s. We still laugh about the illustration in an old Encyclopedia Britannica of a wild Tibetan galloping on horseback, that is actually a photo of my father.
The difficulties of my beautiful mother's middle years show clearly in a pencil sketch done by one of my sisters in the 1950s.
We call the room beyond this door the Plant Room, but it was originally a lobby between Mr. and Mrs. Dieterich's suites.
More booty from the Osborn auction, and my iron. Every gentleman should know how to iron a shirt. I'm quite good at it.
More art: I got the poster when New York Magazine first came out, I think it was in 1968. The photos show my daughter at age 9.
Back to the bedroom ...
... which is a different place at night.
I once knew a girl who discouraged unwanted suitors by saying, "You know, I'm sleeping with a black cat." Well, so am I, but she has a tail and weighs 10 pounds. My cat is a wholly unremarkable animal, not at all like those cats you hear about who set alarm clocks and cook bacon. I exaggerate, but you get the picture. Jackie hides from visitors and claws the furniture. She runs out of the room when I walk in, and will creep back and jump into my lap only after ten minutes. She is a wholly unpretentious creature, takes up very little space in the world, has no arguments with anyone, is content with her lot, and has been my uncomplaining weekend companion for 14 years. I'll miss her when she's gone.
My bathroom is different at night too, but of course the night changes everything.
I'm catching an early train in the morning. Fresh shirt and tomorrow's tie are laid out; my watch is wound; vitamins ready. Jackie isn't really alone during the week. There's a caretaker in the house, and a carpenter, and three friends who are more or less permanent guests. I can go an entire weekend without seeing anyone, but if I fell down the stairs it wouldn't be left entirely to Jackie to call 911.
There are two clocks on the bedside table, just in case, and an old picture of Jazzy on the first day of school.
It's the end of the day, a time to contemplate life, gaze at the fire, and go to bed.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
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