Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Big Old Houses: High Art and Deep Pockets

Big Old Houses: Inside Stan Hywet
by John Foreman

This is Stan Hywet Hall, the Akron, OH manse of tire mogul Frank A. Seiberling (1859-1955), a magnificent anachronism from the moment it was built. Last week, we walked around (and around, and around) outside. This week, we're going indoors.

Curator Julie Leone is my guide on a challenging tour. How do I document, in my usual exhaustive manner, a 65,000 square foot house and not lose my readers somewhere between the infirmary and the cook's pantry? Answer: by leaving a lot out.
Here's the Great Hall at Stan Hywet, photographed in 1916, a year after the house was finished. When planning started in 1912, houses this big still fit into the context of an established world. By the time this one was finished, the First World War, though still ongoing, had already demolished that world. Stan Hywet's site, adjacent to downtown Akron, is hardly that of a country retreat or a villa in some fashionable resort. The site was chosen for convenience to work. Stan Hywet was a full-time family home on a 3000-acre edge-of-town lot.
Seiberling, a co-founder with his brother George (1869-1945) of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, was immensely rich. Despite spectacular ups and downs in his career, he managed quite well to live up to this house. The view below shows multiple generations of the Seiberling clan gathered at Christmas to watch one of Grandpa Seiberling's farm horses drag a Yule Log into the Great Hall at Stan Hywet.
In 1937, Frank Seiberling (on the right) and his wife Gertrude celebrated their 50th anniversary at Stan Hywet. Seen with brother Charles on the West Porch, they are the apotheosis of period Midwestern American pomp, combining era-specific style and grandeur with "can-do" American achievement.
Today, the orientals and the bear skin rug are gone, the furniture has been pushed against the walls, and changing exhibits occupy center stage in the Great Hall. At the time of my visit a scale model of the RMS Lusitania made from 194,000 toothpicks had been tied, mysteriously I thought, into a narrative of Seiberling family foreign travel.
The arched door in the image below leads to the front stoop. The steps to the left of it lead to the main stair. We'll take a peek at the powder room, then head down the south corridor. You can keep track of our tour with floor plans at the end of this post.
I am particularly fond of high class old houses with phone rooms.
Immediately south of the Great Hall is a library that overlooks the lawn terrace we explored last week. Things to note: sumptuous overstuffed furniture, fringed lampshades, and a "secret" panel that leads to another which opens by the fireplace in the Great Hall.
There's a small reception room across from the library, but it's so full of display stuff I decided to skip it. Instead, we'll proceed to the conservatory, or solarium as they call it, which faces the driveway through a curved wall of windows. Given the running water and the stone floor, I assume it was once a miniature emerald forest.
The glory of Stan Hywet, more than the Great Hall, is its 2700 square foot drawing room, or music room as they call it. This is a good place to talk about the Panic of 1920, a financial crisis with which most people today are unfamiliar. The sudden end of wartime inflation brought about an equally sudden deflation in the American economy. The federal government handled the situation poorly. Unemployment jumped from 3% to 10% and more than 100,000 American businesses declared bankruptcy.
Assuming wartime government contracts would continue, or peacetime demands for tires and consumer goods would replace them rapidly, Seiberling committed Goodyear to large scale forward contracts for rubber, etc. at inflated prices. Instead, the economy tanked and his company went from a $51 million profit in 1920 to a $5 million loss by mid-1921. Goodyear's board of directors peremptorily voted him and 26,000 company employees out of their jobs, then turned to Wall Street investment banker Clarence Dillon of Dillon, Read & Co. to rescue the company from bankruptcy. Making the situation worse for Seiberling was the fact that during the year previous to this disaster, he had propped the company up with his own personal funds, all of which were now lost.
At the end of May, 1921, Frank Seiberling was 62 years old, unemployed, broke, and the owner of this extremely high maintenance house. Amazingly, 6 months later he managed to raise enough capital to start the Seiberling Rubber Company with his brother Charles. By 1927, the new firm had become the world's 7th largest manufacturer of tires. Frank Seiberling's son, Penfield, took over as president in 1938; Frank Seiberling remained chairman of the board until his retirement in 1950 at the age of 90.
A musicians' gallery is located directly over an organ, the latter being a more or less obligatory feature of big houses of the era.
The door below on the north wall of the drawing room leads to the West Porch, where the 50th Anniversary portrait was shot.
The Great Hall is located at Stan Hywet's approximate mid-point. We've looked at main rooms to the south. Let's now explore those to the north starting with the dining room, whose entrance is under the left side of the hanging tapestry. If you went straight ahead instead, you'd wind up on the long arcade that leads to the garden in last week's post.
I've seen Chaucer's Canterbury Tales more than once on a dining room frieze. It's driving me nuts that I can't remember where.
The screen below would originally have better obscured the door to the serving pantry, seen behind the rope on the right.
First stop on the rear hall is the kitchen, located through that door on the left. I could have posted 20 pictures of Stan Hywet's fantastic and totally intact old kitchen, but. ... we gotta move on.
The service corridor (not to be confused with the rear hall) starts at the north end of the kitchen and leads to the cook's pantry and servants' dining hall seen below.
We glimpsed the vista below, down the garden-bound arcade, from the main hall. The cook's pantry and assorted storage areas are behind the wall on the left; we're headed for the breakfast room behind us on the right; adjacent to the breakfast room is a vintage serving pantry.
Stan Hywet's main stair is in the square tower next to the front door; the Great Hall is behind the camera; a billiard room and Mr. Seiberling's office are located beyond the arch on the first landing.
It is a curious love that proclaims itself in the form of taxidermy. Her name is — sorry, was — Sophie, the beloved pet of a long forgotten Goodyear exec. She spent many motionless years in his office before being moved to the now defunct Goodyear World of Rubber Museum. A former Stan Hywet curator with an odd sense of humor plopped her down on Frank Seiberling's office rug. If Frank could see her now, he'd be more surprised than anyone.
Time to go upstairs.
Sleeping arrangements at Stan Hywet are typical of upper class households with children of both sexes. From Ipswich to Greenwich, I've seen the bedrooms of daughters and parents clustered in adjacent suites at one end of the house, while sons and guests are billeted at the other. Long hallways, purposeless lobbies or in this case, an open sided catwalk over the Great Hall, form a psychological barrier between them. The ornate timbered ceiling, by the way, is a stage set enclosed within the outer structure of the house.
Irene and Virginia shared a pair of rooms with a bath in between.
Their parents' room is located directly above the library. The library has a secret door to the Great Hall; the bedroom has a leaded window overlooking it.
Mrs. Seibering's dressing room adjoins her bathroom, which is almost too divine for words.
A corner sleeping porch connects to Mrs. Seiberling's and Mr. Seiberling's baths.
Across the hall from Mr. S's bath is a so-called morning room. In another house, this might have been Mrs. S's boudoir or, just as easily, Mr. S's bedroom.
The entrance to the musicians' gallery, oddly enough, required musical help to wiggle up a tortuous hidden stair from the music room, then cross the south end of the Seiberlings' private bedroom corridor.
North of the Great Hall, sons Franklin, Penn and Willard shared bedrooms named Red and Blue with guests in other rooms named William and Mary, Colonial and Adam. By the time the house was built, brother Fred was already married and in the military.
A housekeeper and four maids occupied spacious and much better than usual servants' rooms at the north end of the second floor.
We saw this stair outside the kitchen on the floor below. Above it on 3 are more service, guest and storage rooms.
Also on the 3rd floor is the curiously labeled "serving room." It's now full of stored junk but looks to have been intended for visiting grandchildren.
This skinny corridor connects the north and south ends of the third floor. If we peek through an access door to the attic over the Great Hall, we can see how the Great Hall ceiling is supported. The south end of the house is used today for archival storage, but was designed as two large dormitories.
But wait, there's more. Four floors up, at the top of the tower over the main stair, is an infirmary.
I'm not leaving this place without a look at the basement where, among other things, there is a remarkable vintage laundry room.
There is also an antique spa, complete with antique sauna ...
... and an antique plunge. Truth be told, as fabulous as it is, I don't really like to swim indoors. Not an issue here, since this one hasn't had water in it for generations.
Seiberling Rubber was eventually absorbed by Firestone Tire and Rubber. Seiberling tires are still marketed overseas, but have been reduced to "budget" status. Subdivision of the Stan Hywet estate began in the early 1920s after the Goodyear debacle. Frank Seiberling's death in 1955 forced the family to sell 900 more acres in order to keep the place going until they could donate it to a non-profit foundation. Until that foundation obtained tax exempt status, still more acres were sold and more ranch houses built, until the original 3000 were reduced to today's 70. Reduced or not, the house and its gardens maintain a gratifying integrity of site and are wonderful places to visit. The link is www.stanhywet.org.