By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
We tracked down Andrea Anson the ancient way: through the White Pages, scarcely imaginable in this era, we know, but we were so taken with the richly-layered rooms in his SoHo townhouse when it was featured in Architectural Digest that we wanted to see things for ourselves. Bought in 1970 for $17,000 by Andrea’s late partner, Gordon McCollum, the derelict townhouse had been chopped up into small apartments and the renovation was a slow piecing-together that took a number of years. Somehow the rooms went from being quite spare to bohemian English country house, a shift that was accelerated by Andrea shipping in lovely pieces from his parents’ enormous apartment in Rome where he was brought up by his British army officer father and his mother, an Italian duchess.
Andrea's Federal/Greek Revival townhouse is one of three left standing in Manhattan. The house, which had been converted to a five-family home, was converted back to a single-family home by real-estate executive Gordon McCollum, Andrea's now deceased partner.
The aristocratic British family name of Anson probably doesn’t mean that much to people in New York but to his astonishment, Andrea discovered streets in old Charleston named after a relative, Lord Admiral George Anson, who had acquired acres of land in the 18th century—“Once the Charleston Historic Society realized who I was, they wanted to me to give a talk but I didn’t have a clue about any of it!”
We loved the description of your job in AD as a “classical music powerbroker” and you’ve managed these big names like Deborah Voigt and Angela Gheorghiu. How would you describe your job?
I consult now … I’ve stopped doing full on what I have been doing, which was managing artists for Columbia [Artists Management] and I decided to leave because I had family business to take care of in Italy. I represented singers and conductors, and what is involved is basically you’re constantly looking for what various positions are open all around the world. You write to contact them and er … create a situation.
It’s very much a matchmaking thing. Not only do we bring them together but they can both say things to me that they wouldn’t be able to say to each other.
Are these artists very temperamental?
You understand, often people need drama and you give them some drama! [laughs] I’ve always worked in the arts and I started off as a stage manager and, you know you suddenly find yourself working with Samuel Beckett!
A corner of the parlor. The walls are papered in a 1970s reproduction of "Monuments of Paris", originally produced by the atelier of Jean Dufour in 1814. A Louis XV ormolu mantle clock stands atop the fireplace mantel.
An heirloom Queen Anne japanned secretary stands in a corner of the parlor. Floor-to-ceiling scarlet curtains frame the windows.
The heirloom 17th century Italian Neoclassical gilt chairs are part of a set of eight chairs.
Arranged atop the open secretary is an alabaster column lamp, some family photos and a small collection of 18th century Blanc de Chine porcelain figurines.
A Waterford six-arm chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the parlor.
A Chinese porcelain lamp is flanked by Chinese ginger jars.
The parlor sofa is covered with a 19th century paisley shawl and an assortment of colored silk pillows from Jim Thompson.
Looking across the rear parlor into the front parlor. The leather armchair was from Andrea's parents' apartment in Rome.
An 18th century William and Mary walnut drop leaf table is now the house bar.
Oh! What was Beckett like?
Well it was Krapp’s Last Tape ... Beckett was pretty drunk.
Well, he was Irish. Did you grow up in England or in Italy?
My mother is Italian and my father is English and I grew up in Rome but I went to boarding school in England when I was nine. Nine is far too young to go boarding school. I was very, very, very fat ... it was crushing. The choice was either Roman Catholic and educated in England, or Church of England and educated in Italy—one of the parents had to have something.
[Sian] I was fat too, between the ages of eight and twelve, and I’ll never be fat again.
I’ll never be fat again. And at that age, and being on my own ... children are so mean.
In the front parlor, a Waterford chandelier hangs above paisley-draped table with stacks of books.
A George II armchair stands atop a Turkish rug purchased on a trip to Cappadocia, Turkey.
A Federal inlaid mahogany bookcase fills a wall of the front parlor.
When Andrea's parents gave up their large apartment in Rome Andrea and Gordon inherited a good deal of the art and furniture that now fills the double parlor.
Do you feel more Italian than British?
Oh no, I feel Italian. I was never sort of accepted [by people in England] The Brits in Ireland [cousins] were very, very welcoming.
Did you have a musical training?
Oh sorry, how did I get on to all this with my family …? The music started for me with a festival in Charleston—and to my amazement when I got there I found out that half of old Charleston was named after my great, great, great, great, great, great [relative]… George Anson [Admiral Lord Anson]—I knew that like Captain Cook he gone around the world a number of times he had no idea about these streets named after him in Charleston. [In 1726George Anson acquired 64 acres of Charleston, reportedly won in a game of cards, land which he then sold off for development.]
But … anyway, no, I don’t have any formal music training.
In the kitchen a 19th century Welsh dresser is filled with dishes and platters inherited from his family and the family of Andrea's late partner, Gordon McCollum.
Foregoing a formal dining room, Andrea often dines in this large but cozy kitchen.
A view from the kitchen window into the rear garden.
A group of 19th century Chinese bust-length portraits hang on the walls of the stair hall.
Going up the main staircase. The bannister and molding were both salvaged from an 1830s house in Connecticut.
What have you learned about the world of classical music after all the years working in that business?
I learned that the audiences, especially for opera, can be extraordinarily demanding and unforgiving.
Yes, I don’t know any other art form apart from stand-up comedy, where you’re quite such a lamb to the slaughter and where you can be booed off stage.
Yes. You’ve been giving everything you can for four hours or five hours and you’re completely vulnerable. It’s a lot like stand-up comedy [in that regard] except with stand-up comedy you don’t have four thousand people booing you—and it doesn’t last four hours.
A carved American Federal tester bed dominates the second floor master bedroom.
A handsome carved Chippendale cherry wood secretary makes a grand statement in a corner of the master bedroom. Books and catalogs are stacked atop a tilt-top tea table.
A 19th century landscape painting by American artist, August Rockwell hangs above the fireplace mantel.
Photos and mementos of Gordon are arranged atop the fireplace mantel.
Antique etchings flank an 18th century Irish harbor view. A Wedgwood bust of Mercury and family photos are arranged atop an 1810 mahogany bow-front chest of drawers.
Looking into the garden; Gordon had sidewalk artist, Hani Shihada paint the façade of the rear building.
What was life as a little boy in Rome like? Did you grow up in a beautiful apartment?
Yes, I did. You know, Rome was very glamorous in those days.
We completely love the way you have done these rooms but I read that your late partner, who originally bought the house, had a more spare style—did you then bring a lot of stuff over from your parents’ apartment in Rome?
Gordon didn’t allow me to bring a lot of stuff over. He did come with me to choose things but it was mostly “no”. My parents had moved to their country house but the apartment was so big and it was a question of space [back in New York], you know, where to put things.
An 18th century painting from the School of Boucher hangs on a wall of the second floor hall.
A Victorian 'crazy quilt' is draped over the stair bannister.
A Chippendale wing chair, ca. 1780 stands in front of a Chippendale bonnet-top high boy, ca. 1770.
An heirloom 17th century painting from the school of Jsack von Osade hangs above the study mantel.
In the study a desk inherited from Gordon's mother is positioned to enjoy the outside Soho street view.
A view across the study into the upstairs hall.
Looking past the bonnet-top American secretary towards a Federal grandfather clock, ca. 1790, in the corner of the study.
A large Italian 18th century landscape painting from Andrea's parents' apartment in Rome hangs above a Chippendale-style sofa covered in fabric from Jim Thompson.
So what do you miss about Italy when you’re in New York and what do you miss about New York when you’re in Italy?
Italy is a gorgeous place but [lowers his voice to a whisper] it is so corrupt! And in New York, you just fit in here—neither fish nor fowl—that’s what makes it so wonderful. I’m never either Italian or English.
You were brought up as a Roman Catholic, so what do you think of the new pope?
I’m thrilled! I’d written off the Catholic Church until this one came along, I mean, my God! He’s wonderful! He says things like, “who am I to judge?” and he’s said, let’s look at the important things like poverty.
A bookcase overflowing with books and objects fills a wall of the upstairs landing.
A Chippendale chest-on-chest, ca. 1780 stands front and center on the third floor landing.
Paintings collected and inherited over the years, including family portraits of Andrea's Italian uncle and English grandfather and aunt, fill the staircase walls.
I’ve never understood the weird, prurient obsession the Church has had with sex.
It is weird … [and perhaps it’s] from confession: “And then what did you my son?”
[Lesley] I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and I used to make up sins for confession because I was a kid and I hadn’t really done that much wrong. I quickly ran out of sins.
[laughs] You feel you’re supposed to come up with something.
Did you or your family break with the Church?
No, no, no. I did it when I found out my mother had been ex-communicated for marrying a divorced man.
Looking into the guest room from the third floor landing.
The entire third floor guest room was painted by artist Scott Robertson in a Bloomsbury/Charleston style, inspired by the country house of British artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
A mural of nudes gazing down upon a bowl of fruit hangs above the fireplace mantel.
A Bloomsbury style three-panel screen by Scott Robertson stands behind a comfy chair in the guest bedroom.
American painted side chairs flank a work table painted in Bloomsbury style by Scott Robertson.
An 1840 American maple bed is dressed with a colorful patchwork quilt. The hooked rug hanging above the bed is American, ca. 1880.
Do you believe in God?
I do believe in God, but not that God. We use ten percent of our brain and we don’t even know how much there is that we can’t possibly understand. How can we make something we don’t understand into something that judges who someone is? Look at us killing each other for it. How can anyone say, “God is on my side.” ?[clutches hishead] Arghhhhhhh…….!!
And so you also do some work with Family Constellations—could you tell us something about that?
Yes, that takes up quite a lot of my time. The man who founded Family Constellations saw how the Zulus were dealing with their family issues—and he worked on this [idea] that the same issues, the same problems keep coming up through the family [and the generations] We are all born into whatever is “normal” in that family—every single family has so many secrets and lies … it’s such a long and involved subject but I have a group meeting here once a month and I do some workshops here, downstairs in what used to be the library.
Why did you want to take on that role?
It feels real to me.
A three-panel screen painted by Andrea's aunt stands behind a metal ladder leading to the rooftop.
A study off the guest room is filled with books and lined with prints.
Looking into the top floor office.
Dozens of photos covering more than a century of family history fill the walls of the upstairs library. They include Andrea's grandfather, an Italian Marquis who married a niece; a brother who was a page at Queen Elizabeth II's coronation; an English grandfather who lived on a ranch in Texas and befriended Calamity Jane, and Andrea's father playing polo with Prince Philip.
What do you for fun?
What do I do for fun? Er … I travel quite a lot. I’m about to go to Brazil and South Africa. Some friends have invited me to Cape Town and the wine country. Usually we always go to Brazil … there’s a beach there … miles of bays with coconut trees and almost no one there.