Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Big Old Houses: Cultured People in the Hills

Big Old Houses: Cultured People in the Hills
by John Foreman


The famous American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), "Dan" to friends and intimates, led a life that, from all accounts, went extremely well from the start. French was a New Englander from a background of education and public service. His father was a judge, later an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. The family's cultured neighbors included Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Alcotts. Louisa May's own sister Abigail started young Dan on a sculpting career. He landed a commission to design a statue of the Minute Man at Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass, when he was 22 years old. So what if he flunked out of MIT? The 1875 unveiling of his Minute Man was attended by President Grant himself.

In 1895, Dan French, by now a central figure in the American Renaissance and the married father of a 6-year-old daughter, bought a summer place with a knockout view outside the Berkshire Mountains village of Stockbridge, Mass. His artistic opus at age 45 included sculptures on United States customs buildings and post offices, memorials from Harvard to San Francisco and, most recently, the colossal "Statue of the Republic" which had presided grandly over the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The family moved into an old farmhouse on the property, while French, reacting to a flood of commissions in the wake of the Exposition, built a separate studio, completed in 1898.
French spent half the year in a Greenwich Village rowhouse at 125 West 11th St., and the other half at Chesterwood, the name he gave his country place. The Frenches entertained a steady stream of visitors, for which the old farmhouse soon proved inadequate. Once the studio was finished, a new house was planned.
The new house was designed by Henry Bacon (1866-1924) and completed in 1901. Bacon, not coincidentally, was also the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., site of French's seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. The Memorial wasn't completed until 1922, but Bacon was working on the project as early as 1897. Bacon recommended French to do the Lincoln statue; the statue cemented French's reputation to posterity; it was only logical that Bacon design French's new house and studio at Chesterwood.
Bacon worked as a draftsman for McKim Mead and White before going out on his own. He's mostly remembered for Beaux Arts-type public buildings — a library in Paterson, NJ, a train station in Naugatuck, CT, the Union Square Savings Bank in New York (site of today's 'Fuerza Bruta!'), a hospital in Waterbury, CT, etc., etc. During a brief partnership with James Brite, Bacon contributed to a few residential commissions. After Brite and Bacon dissolved in 1902, Brite went on to design mega-mansions like Herbert Pratt's Braes on Long Island, while Bacon stuck to monuments and trains stations. And Chesterwood, which technically had been done before the breakup.
Is it a great house? That would be a no. It is welcoming and comfortable, however, and I could easily see myself growing to love it. The architect's exteriors are comely, if not particularly original, and his floor plan is competent, if ordinary. The design for the studio has brio; the design for the house does not. I remind myself that Chesterwood was intended as an informal summer retreat, an unpretentious home for artistic people and frequent visitors.
The plaque says: "This house was built in 1900 by Daniel Chester French and Mary his wife; Henry Bacon Architect; William Lawless Builder." Let's have a look at the plans, and then step inside.
Chesterwood is a by-the-book Colonial Revival house whose center hall plan has been around for centuries. While hardly showy, it has a sort of low key Edwardian expansiveness to it, one which was in the air back then. Of note in the main hall are a screen of stylish columns setting off an otherwise simple stairway, and a boffo view of Monument Mountain from the door at the hall's south end.
The view below looks the other way down the main hall, north to the front door. The drawing room, or parlor on the plan, is through the door on the left. Supposedly a replica of Dan French's grandparents' parlor, it opens to "Piazza A" the plan. Chesterwood is full of family heirlooms and works of art by friends, wherein lies much of its charm.
John Johansen's 1927 painting of Dan and Mary French on a summer evening, reading in their drawing room at Chesterwood, captures the very essence of their life here. Mr. French is wearing a suit and tie, which I doubt was put on for the artist. Although his wife has staked out a curious seating position, the emotional connection between the two of them literally vibrates off the canvas. By 1927 they had been married for 39 years.
French salvaged a set of solid mahogany doors from a demolished (Greek Revival, from the looks of it) townhouse in New York, and his contractor installed them in the country.
On the other side of the main hall is the dining room, which opens onto "Piazza B."
The swing door behind the exotic leather screen leads to a country version of your basic pantry-kitchen-servant hall combo. Simple as they are, these rooms are intact and full of terrific potential. Were it up to me, I'd refurnish them with vintage appliances and open them to the public. Unfortunately, it's not up to me. What you see below is slated for replacement with a modern staff kitchen. Wrong decision, I'd say.
The door to the right of the dumbwaiter leads to a service corridor (labeled 'passage' on the plan), which passes the back stair and a "bicycle room" en route to the main hall. Across from the passage entrance, located under the main stair, is the door to the den. Fireplace, overmantel, doors and box locks were salvaged from the original farmhouse.
Upstairs are 4 family bedrooms (only one of which is a suite), 2 maids' rooms, and a grand total of 3 bathrooms. Clearly, this is a Stockbridge country house and not a Lenox palace.
The best guestroom (No. 3 on the plan) is on the southeast corner of the main block.
Daughter Margaret's childhood room is No. 2.
The owners' suite speaks to Chesterwood's overall architectural modesty. It does have its own bathroom, however, plus a small dressing room/office/boudoir tucked away in the back.
A secondary passage leads east from the second floor landing, passes Bedroom No. 4, makes a dogleg at the top of the back stairs and ends at a pair of maids' rooms. A maids' bath (not on the plan) has been inserted into the hall at the top of the back stairs.
The door in the image below leads to the attic; not on my tour, alas, but the plan is attached.
Let's go downstairs, outside, and have a look at the studio.
First, a few words about the Frenches' daughter Margaret "Peggy" French Cresson (1889-1973).

Margaret "Peggy" French Cresson.
Although a sculptress in her own right, she is primarily remembered as the keeper of her father's flame.

In 1921 Peggy French married a Beaux Arts trained architect turned diplomat named William Penn Cresson (1873-1932). After postings from Peru to St. Petersburg, Cresson took a job teaching international law at Princeton and married Peggy French in Taormina, Italy. She was 32, he was 48.

The age difference is often noted, although I've dated people considerably further from me than that. Cresson was teaching at Georgetown and living in Washington D.C. when he died unexpectedly at the age of 59.
In 1931, the year before her husband's death, Peggy Cresson's father passed away at the age of 81. Peggy took it upon herself to move the contents of his New York studio to Stockbridge (no small task), collect her father's plaster models from museums that no longer wanted them, and accept works saved by studio assistants of the past. In 1955 she opened Chesterwood to the public. In 1962, she converted an adjacent barn into gallery space, currently devoted to an installation called "Daniel Chester French; Sculpting an American Vision," which was more interesting than I'd expected. She died at age 84, hosting a dinner party at Chesterwood.
The tracks allowed over-scaled models to be wheeled out of the building and viewed in natural light.
Chesterwood is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open from late May to mid-October. Besides self-guided tours of house and studio, the site offers events, demonstrations, programs and, of course, people get married here as well. The link is www.chesterwood.org.
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