Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Big Old Houses: High Art and Deep Pockets

Big Old Houses: High Art and Deep Pockets
by John Foreman


This is Mrs. John Work Garrett (1877-1952), nee Alice Warder, whose husband was a grandson of the first president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Garrett family fortune was a whopper, although by 1908, the year of Mrs Garrett's marriage, the B&O had already gone bankrupt once. Garrett dollars remained abundant, however, if no longer illimitable. Judging from the marcelled hair, the satin frock and the divine lighting, I'd say the photo was taken sometime in the early 1920s. Pretty hot for a forty-something. Mrs. Garrett is the star of today's post, and we'll return to her later.

In the summer of 1888, while out on the Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Garrett's father drowned in a yachting accident. He was only 39. John Work Garrett II (1872-1942), seen below, was 16 at the time, the eldest of three boys. "How can I ever settle down to be a business man, a banker or a railroader?" Princeton freshman Garrett wrote in 1892. "There is a splendid business waiting for us ... (but) ... it's hard work to enter without a father to show us what to do." Four years later the B&O was in receivership, and young Garrett was dealing with trustees he didn't really trust.
The Garrett's Baltimore house, called Evergreen, was built in 1858 by a fellow named Stephen Broadbent. In 1878, B&O President John Work Garrett I (1820-1884), bought it for his son, the unlucky yachtsman. Between 1885 and 1886 the house was substantially enlarged with athletic facilities — a gym, bowling alleys and a billiard room — for Garrett's three boys. One doubts the facilities got much use, however, as their mother, Mrs. Alice Whitridge Garrett (1851-1920), closed the house after her husband's death and moved to Princeton, NJ.
Widow and sons were back at Evergreen by the late 1890s, at which point Mrs. G. electrified the place, built additional servants' quarters on the north, combined the double parlors of 1858 into a modern drawing room, and added an elegantly canopied entrance, with paneled and mezzanined stairhall within.
Subsequent alterations eventually quadrupled Evergreen's floorspace.
The drive-through is part of yachtman Harrison Garrett's 1885 athletic addition. Guestrooms are above the arch; athletic facilities out of sight beyond it to the left; a sliver of Mrs. G's 1895 service addition is visible at left foreground.
The original athletic wing, re-purposed in the 1920s, is on the right, extending east from the back of the house. The roof of a 1908 enlargement lurks behind the cupola. The wing on the left is the library, completed in 1928.
I doubt the view from the library terrace included so much pavement in the Garretts' days. An ornate greenhouse originally stood between the retaining wall and the lawn.
The path and stairs once led to the greenhouse.
Let's continue closkwise around the building to the front door of 1858.
By age 29, John Garrett had solved the problem of what to do with his life. Thanks to a combination of education, social standing, natural tact and family connections, he became a diplomat. In 1901 he joined the Foreign Service and, at different times, served in Holland, Luxembourg, Berlin (where his future wife was studying voice), Argentina, Venezuela and eventually Rome. When his mother died in 1920, he inherited Evergreen and, together with his wife, turned an architectural showplace into a high culture mecca.
Garrett's father is responsible for the heavy late 1880s look of the main hall, as well as the reception room immediately left of the front door.
In 1895 Garrett's mother combined the Victorian double parlors of 1858 into one large drawing room. Beyond the door in the distance was the dining room, built simultaneously with the athletic wing.
The dining room from the late 1880s was transformed in 1932 into a reading room, really an extension of the 1928 library.
The library, from whose terrace we admired the lawn, is, to my eye, an apotheosis of 1920s architectural glamour. It manages to be grand, elegantly proportioned and elaborately paneled without recourse to Edwardian heft.
Let's recross the reading room, duck across the main hall (the tapestry is Flemish 17th century, which you probably guessed), and have a look at the relocated dining room. Considering the rest of the house, it isn't very inspiring, in spite of the fact its decoration is attributed to (of all people) the famous costume and set designer, Leon Bakst (1866-1924), about whom more later.
The door to the kitchen corridor is on the east wall. Past dish pantry and back stairs is a really interesting room — the kitchen.
Now we're back in the main hall, looking west towards the old front door.
Just short of the reception room, the hall makes a 90 degree dogleg towards the new front door.
An obscure footnote in American social history concerns John Garrett's uncle Robert (1847-1896). Robert Garrett had been president of the B&O until his retirement at age 40, when, according to his New York Times obituary, he became "mentally ... unfit to participate in any business and ... seldom seen in public." Actually, he did go out a bit in society, accompanied by a patient wife who urged other guests to indulge her husband's delusion that he was actually the Czar of Russia. Or maybe it was Napoleon. This is one of those odd society stories you read, then cannot for the life of you remember where. Robert Garrett's mental collapse, one year before brother Harrison's drowning, only compounded problems at the B&O.
The view below looks north from the mezzanine to the stair down. The 2nd view below looks from the mezzanine up to the second landing.
These stairs lead to the third floor which, to my consternation, was "off limits" on my tour.
Houses built in 1858 are by definition deficient in bathrooms. Evergreen's many alterations and additions largely corrected that, although a slightly awkward hall bath survives at the western end of the second floor hall. The only room it serves is a guestroom immediately to the north.
On the south side of the hall bath, a pair of bedrooms were combined into an owners' suite, with new en suite bath. The dressing room (or boudoir or study or whatever they used it for) in the image below displays artifacts from Alice Garrett's many collections. P.S. Mrs. Garrett is not to be confused with her mother-in-law, whose Christian name was also Alice, and whose house the younger Alice move into with her diplomat husband in 1920. Mrs. Garrett Jr. was a financially able patroness of the arts who, accompanied by her dashing husband, inhabited a glamorous world of writers, artists, dancers, diplomats, critics and musicians. Alice Garrett was an early collector of Utrillo, Picassso, Dufy, Bonnard, Derain, a subject of Zuloaga (whose portrait of her husband hangs above the library fireplace), and the guardian angel who literally rescued Leon Bakst from homelessness.
Beyond the bedroom is the owners' en suite bath, redolent with '20s swank.
Across the hall from the owners' suite is a north-facing guestroom whose attached bath was decorated in 1886 by the famous high Victorian New York firm of Herter Brothers. (Think: Vanderbilt mansion, Fifth Avenue).
Herter Brothers' so-called "gold bath" is named for the curious excess of genuine gold leaf that has been applied to, among other surfaces, the seat on the can.
Mr. Garrett's boyhood room, above and south of the drive-through arch, became his study. The picturesque gallery looks original to the 1880s. Beyond this room is a double-doored elevator, on whose far side a corridor crosses the arch en route to the athletic wing.
A guestroom and bath situated en route above the arch overlook lawns and the site of the former greenhouse. Beyond the arch, long corridors lead to servants' rooms sandwiched originally between bowling alley below and gymnasium above.
Let's go up first, to what used to be a gymnasium.
In 1922, Leon Bakst arrived at Alice Garrett's Baltimore mansion in order to design a private theatre. And here she is, dancing "Songs in Costume" for her gala 1923 opening. The St. Petersburg born Bakst, who costumed Nijinsky and Pavlova and designed sets for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, was part of the Garretts' cosmopolitan/artistic millieu. At Evergreen in the '20s, high culture and cutting edge art met at a venue of luxe living.
By his early 50s, Bakst's youthful fame and fortune had been replaced by physical woes and financial terrors. He might well have lost his house in 1919, plus most of his paintings, had Mrs. Garrett not advanced him substantial sums "... based upon my paintings." She became his professional agent, organized a series of successful shows, purchased a number of his works herself, and pulled him from the brink.
Bakst died at the end of 1924, only 58 years old but at least no longer worried about money.
Two levels down is the former bowling alley which, not being bowlers, the Garretts converted early on to a gallery for their collection of Asian art.
Adjacent to the Asian gallery is the former billiard room, now a gift shop located strategically at the end of everybody's tour.
Evergreen is a huge house, much bigger than it appears at first blush. I estimate I missed about a third of it, about which I will say no more. John Garrett was 70 years old when he died in 1942, at which point Evergreen was willed to Johns Hopkins University, subject to a life tenancy by his wife. Alice Garrett died in 1952 at the age 75. There were no children. In the palmy 1880s, 51 servants worked in the house, stables and grounds. A comparative handful runs the place today, administering an important library and conducting public tours. The link is museums.jhu.edu/evergreen.php.
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