Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Big Old Houses: (Very) Far from the Coal Mine

Big Old Houses: (Very) Far from the Coal Mine
by John Foreman


Here I am — actually I'm in the middle of the road holding my camera — in front of the gates to Blithewold, the former Bristol, R.I. estate of Mr. and Mrs. William McKee. The blaze of nearby Newport tends to obscure elegant little Bristol, where people have lived — and some still do — rather grandly.

Blithewold, finished in 1908, was designed by a not-well-known firm — perhaps because it was a Boston shop and I'm from New York — called Kilham & Hopkins. Walter Kilham (1868-1948) is remembered today, if he's remembered at all, as a vocal advocate for decent workers' housing, seemingly a far cry from Blithewold. The firm did other upscale residential projects, scattered around the greater Boston area and, prior to Blithewold, Kilham renovated the McKee's Commonwealth Avenue townhouse, apparently much to their liking.
From the outside, showy Flemish gables aside, I wouldn't call Blithewold "inspired." However, it does have heft, which I admire in a house. Long, heavy and vaguely English, it also affords an abundance of windows with water views. Its more successful interiors reflect the golden age of plutocratic America's love affair with the Colonial Revival.
Blithewold is better known for its grounds and gardens than the house itself. Anne Raver in The New York Times wrote, "The trees stand like gods over the property." This is no exaggeration; they are quite amazing. You'll have to come back to see them, however, since my focus is on the building.
So, who were the people who lived in this very grand house? Or, put another way, where did the money come from? William L. McKee (1864-1946) married Bessie Pardee Van Wickle (1860-1936) in 1901. He wasn't her first husband, nor was his house the first Blithewold on the site. McKee was a parson's son with a good education and good social connections, who worked his way up to partner in an upscale Boston clothier called A.W. Tedcastle & Co. His wife was the widow of his late friend, Augustus Van Wickle, a Pennsylvania coal baron who met an untimely end at the age of 42 in a shooting accident in 1898. But for the Van Wickle millions, a place like Blithewold would hardly have been on Mr McKee's horizon.

McKee's wife, the former Bessie Pardee Van Wickle, was the 12th child of another Pennsylvania coal baron, a man named Ario Pardee (1810-1892). Pardee and Simon Van Wickle, the father of her first husband Augustus, didn't own all the coal around Hazelton, PA, but they owned a very great deal of it, and it made them very rich. Bessie and Augustus belonged to the second generation of two great Pennsylvania mine owning families. They still worked, were still earnest church-goers, but they also bought yachts, traveled in Europe and built palaces in fashionable resorts.
William L. McKee (1864-1946). Bessie Pardee Van Wickle (1860-1936).
Speaking of which, let's take a look inside Blithewold, starting with the frankly magnificent double-height Colonial Revival entrance hall.
The corridor below, which extends north from the entrance hall, passes the main stair and the billiard room en route to a drawing room at the north end of the house.
Kilham's Colonial Revival sure-handedness has deserted him in the drawing room, which looks like the lobby of a prewar coop on West End Avenue. This is not a bad thing, and I actually like it a lot, in spite of its stylistic incoherence. It undoubtedly looked better with more tables and lamps, pictures on the walls, orientals on the floors, silver framed photos on the tabletops, etc.
The adjacent porch overlooking Narragansett Bay is quite divine.
We'll retrace our steps to the entrance hall, detouring into the billiard room behind the wall on the right.
The Blithewold stone over the fireplace was a part of the original Blithewold, which burned — unspectacularly, but with alarming thoroughness — utterly to the ground in June of 1906.
Here's the original Blithewold, designed by the much more famous (than Kilham & Hopkins) architectural partnership of Francis L.V. Hoppin & Terence A. Koen. Completed in 1896, it was one of Francis Hoppin's (1867-1914) early big house commissions and, while charming, lacks the assertive elegance of his later work in Tuxedo, Newport, Palm Beach and the north shores of Boston and Long Island. The old Blithewold was much more of a summer house than its successor. One lovely summer morning in 1906, an electrical fire started in a wall on the third floor. Buckets failed to put it out, and the arriving fire department lacked sufficient water pressure. The firemen, joined by a crowd of local people and the employees of the Herreshoff boat-building company, then attacked the place with strong arms and crowbars, ripping out fireplace mantles, bathtubs, paneling, books, library shelves, the stair rail, the Blithewold stone, plus furniture, glassware, pots and pans, rugs, clothing, bedding, linens, and anything else they could grab. The crowd labored calmly and efficiently, piling everything at a safe distance on the lawn, until the roof crashed in. The next morning nothing remained of Blythewold but fine ash and towering chimneys.
Here's Bessie's first husband, Augustus Van Wickle (1856-1898), the father of her daughters Marjorie and Augustine, and the source of the millions required to keep a yacht, a house in Back Bay, an estate at Bristol, entertain guests at extended house parties, travel around the world, etc., etc., initially for him and his wife, but eventually for her second husband as well. Mr. Van Wickle looks like a decent sort of chap. "I do hope we shall not be disappointed in you," his mother wrote on his 19th birthday, "for we do expect great things of you after all these advantages given you."

Augustus Van Wickle (1856-1898).
Not something I'd say to my own child, at least not in those words. Van Wickle did do his best and did made himself a very rich mine owner. In the summer of 1897, while he, his family and their guests enjoyed Blithewold, coal miners at the Van Wickle and Pardee mines, among others, went on strike. The coal business had been in a slump.

Owners had cut pay, laid workers off and raised fees in company towns. Interesting to note, between 1870 and 1897, 32,000 coal miners died in America's notoriously unsafe mines. In Pennsylvania in late August of 1897, strikes erupted. Settlements were made, reneged on, more strikes ensued, and soon thousands had taken to the streets.

The culmination came on September 10, 1897, when the sheriff of Schuylkill County, at the head of an armed posse, fired point blank into a mob waving an American flag. Nineteen miners were killed in the infamous Lattimer Massacre, all by bullets in the back. Chaos enveloped the region until the National Guard restored order. Lattimer was an historic turning point for the United Mine Workers, whose power subsequently surged. Ten months after Lattimer, while shooting skeet in Rhode Island, August Van Wickle leaned a loaded gun, stock down, against his leg — very odd, to which anyone who shoots will attest — leaned over, and accidentally shot himself to death.

Of course, the present Blithewold wasn't built in 1897. My patient guide, Ted Sykulski, leads the way from the entrance hall to the terrace. Peculiar masks on Walter Kilham's otherwise sober facade strike an unexpected note.
The entrance hall is beyond a small anteroom between it and the terrace. A powder room is beside the front door, and the dining room is to the right.
Blithewold — I'm talking just about the house — is a good example of something that's larger than the sum of its parts. "Large," parenthetically, is putting it mildly; there are 26,000 square feet of living space under this roof. However, I'm not speaking about size, but about the experience of living here. Blithewold is a wonderful, spacious, comfortable, luxurious, and beautiful old house, even if the drawing room is oddly detailed and the dining room is "millionaire generic." Beyond french doors at the west end of the dining room is my favorite room in the house.
When I was first married (agh! almost 40 years ago) we lived in a house at Tuxedo with a treillaged room like this. It was also located adjacent to the main dining room, and we called it the summer dining room. How perfect is that faded green paint? May lightning strike anyone who even considers "freshening" it up.
The serving pantry is between the dining room (behind the door in the image below) and the summer dining room (or summer breakfast room, as they call it here). To the right of the dining room swing door is a flower room.
The family converted the serving pantry into a kitchen, probably during the Depression, and stopped using the old one.
The original main kitchen is now a catering depot. Blithewold does lots of weddings these days. The old stove survives, a testament to the inconveniences of the picturesque past.
Beyond the old kitchen, in the southern wing of the house, is a back stair, servants' hall, assorted pantries and a terrific old walk-in. My regular readers will recognize the Jewett Refrigerator Company as the manufacturer of Mildred Cravens' fur vault ('Big Old Houses; Pasadena Paradigm,' May 2013).
The back stair may be right outside the walk-in, but I'm taking Blithewold's magnificent main stair to the second, or family bedroom floor.
Mr. & Mrs. McKee slept in a huge master bedroom that sits on top of — and is the same size as — the drawing room on the floor below. I don't doubt Mr. Van Wickle left his widow in excellent financial condition, but when the Great Depression arrived, it did so on the heels of three decades of her acting as her second husband's banker, without benefit of her first husband's continued earnings. By 1932, the McKees were broke. Bessie transferred ownership of Blithewold to her daughters who, together with their husbands, not only liquidated their stepfather's failing clothing store, but sold his Boston house and put him and their mother, both of whom now lived full time at Blithewold, on a strict financial diet.
The preeminent corrosive element in families, most of us would agree, is money, from which often ensues humiliation, harsh words, heavy judgements, quiet (sometimes not so quiet) misery and in the present case some pretty painful emasculation. Mrs. McKee died in 1936, hardly a pauper, living as she did in a mansion with servants, but no longer her own steward nor her extended family's anchor. Over the next decade, Will McKee, reduced to the status of elderly family ward, declined steadily before dying at Blithewold in 1946 at the age of 83.
Behind Ted in the image below, french doors lead to a sleeping porch, filled now with a rather random assortment of McKee/Van Wickle memorabilia.
After Will McKee's death in 1946, his stepdaughter Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon bought out her sister's share and, together with her husband George (1876-1954), took Blithewold over for themselves. The Lyons spent half of each year in Rhode Island, and the other half in Boston. They never took over the master bedroom, however, preferring a suite at the opposite (south) end of the hall. Visiting cousins shared the big master and its grand vintage bath.
The north corridor in the image below leads from the master bedroom to the main second floor landing. Marjorie's sister Augustine's bedroom and bath is behind the door on the right. Not many more years would pass before Marjorie and Augustine had a falling out of their own — one of those "I'll never speak to you again!" types of falling out. My former in-laws had a penchant for hurling that particular pronouncement at one another, something I could never understand.
Three additional family bedrooms lie to the south of the second floor landing. The most southerly, with its singularly unfeminine paneling, belonged to George and Marjorie Lyons.
The photo below was taken in the garden at Blithewold on Marjorie and George Lyons' wedding day in 1914. Figurative light years separate that idyllic moment from Will McKee's death on the same property in 1946. The second image captures another moment in happier days. Mr. Lyons is bowling at a Blithewold house party in 1925. His mother-in-law stands to the right, screening her eyes from the dazzle of afternoon light on Narragansett Bay.
Guests stayed on the third floor, in rooms radiating off a corridor extending both ways from a landing at the top of these stairs. Five bedrooms, one bath and a smoking room seem to me to constitute a very masculine retreat, at least in the context of 1908. When Blithewold opened that summer, the Van Wickle daughters were 25 and 10 respectively. Presumably their girlfriends and female cousins stayed with them on 2, while the top floor was packed with boys.
The former smoking room is now an archive, in which an astonishing volume of written and photographic family documentation resides in carefully labeled boxes.
More bedrooms, plus the boys' bath.
Servants' bedrooms occupy the two upper floors of the service wing on the south. To get there, we'll return to the second floor landing on the family side, then take the southbound corridor to a door at its southern end.
Down a couple of stairs on the other side of the door in the image above, is this curious outrigger guestroom, sandwiched between family and service areas, letting onto its own corridor, and complete with its own non-en-suite bath.
On the other side of the short guest hall described above are 3 upper servants' rooms, almost (but not quite) guestroom sized, plus a hall bath.
Much smaller servants' cubicles, five in all, are on the floor above. Blithewold's Communications Director Tree Callanan is opening one of the louvered doors that provides privacy and ventilation to each. The shared bath is a measure of 3rd floor seniority. Between house and grounds some 20 people worked at Blithewold during its salad days. They all obviously didn't live in the house.
I couldn't leave an old house like Blithewold without a look in the basement, where I found the sort of treasure that makes it all worthwhile — an original, unrenovated, vintage laundry room.
Note the electrically powered washing machine ...
A separate contraption for the spin cycle ...
And a mangle to squeeze things out before hanging them up to dry. What could be finer?
After George Lyons died in 1954, his widow Marjorie spent 22 more years at Blithewold — or rather six months of each of those years. She cultivated her increasingly famous garden, lived the role of family matriarch, traveled, remained vigorous, and kept the old house running much as it had in her parents' day. In 1956, the Trustees of Reservations of Massachusetts, aware of Blithewold's uncertain future in a world of crumbling country estates, urged Mrs. Lyons to consider giving it to Heritage Foundation of Rhode Island.

Upon her death in 1976, she did exactly that, guaranteeing preservation and public access with a $1.2 million endowment. By the late 1990s that endowment was, unfortunately, spent and the property almost closed. Shocked local residents formed Save Blithewold, Inc., raised $650,000 in 3 weeks and effected a heart-warming last minute rescue. On my recent visit both house and grounds — the latter worthy of a separate post for which I had no time — were in magnificent condition. You can help keep them that way; the link is www.blithewold.org.