Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Big Old Houses: I Died and Went to Heaven

I Died and Went to Heaven
by John Foreman

The mysterious island home of Aeolus, god of the winds, son of Poseidon, was a layover on the voyage of Odysseus. "The deathless gods counted him their friend," explained Homer, at least before the visit went south. Aeolus' island was, "a floating one; all round it there is a wall of bronze, unbreakable, and rock rises sheer above it. Twelve children of his live in the palace with him ... These all hold a continual feast with their dear father and much-loved mother; countless dainties are there before them, and throughout the daytime the hall is rich with savoury smells and murmurous with the sound of music."

What sounds like a gated community on the north shore of Long Island bears more than a passing resemblance — symbolicaly, anyway — to Eolia, the Connecticut country place of Edward Stephen Harkness (1874-1940) and his wife, the former Mary Stillman (1874-1950). Eolia, being a variant spelling, hunkers down on a lawny promontory swept by ocean breezes and looks a bit somber at first blush. Owned since 1950 by the State of Connecticut, the main house on the 230-acre former Harkness estate has been preserved in astonishingly, incredibly, amazingly, unbelieveably (have I made my point?) original condition ever since. I have seen soooo many wonderful old houses abused by thoughtless, often outright blind institutional users. Eolia isn't one of them.
True, it's made of cement blocks, which is a bit of a shocker, but these are softened by the survival of gorgeous formal gardens and lovingly maintained mature plantings. "Quite amazing," as a decorator friends of mine might have put it, that all this decorative vegetation is still here. Eolia's gardens were originally laid out in 1908 by a Boston firm called Brett and Hall. They apparently lacked sufficient brio, however, as ten years later the Harknesses hired Edith Wharton's niece, the famous Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) to do them all over. Mrs. Farrand is a legend — co-founder (at age 27) of the American Society of Landscape Architects, designer of over a hundred gardens on major estates and college campuses and, most famously, creator of the sumptuous garden complex at the Georgetown estate of Robert Woods Bliss, called Dumbarton Oaks. The gardens at Eolia, amended and perfected repeatedly by Farrand between 1919 and 1934 are, together with Dumbarton, among her very few surviving works.
These images are of the West Garden. James Gamble Rogers (about whom more later) designed the pergola; Beatrix Farrand removed its back wall and treillaged the ceiling.
That's the Fishers Island ferry on the horizon.
The images below are of the East Garden.
In lieu of Standard Oil lucre (Harkness was Standard's 3rd largest shareholder) today's costs are defrayed by weddings.
It looks to me, after consulting various contradictory references, that Eolia was designed in 1907 when Harkness bought the property, and completed in 1909. The architect was Austin W. Lord (1860-1922), famous (or possibly infamous depending on point of view) with partner James Hewlett for the preposterously ornate Sen. William A. Clark house, formerly on the north corner of 77th Street and Fifth Avenue. This short-lived mansion (google it; you'll be amazed) was replaced in 1927 by a swish coop called 960 Fifth Avenue. Random Historical Note: The hospital-loving Huguette Clark was Sen. Clark's favorite daughter. Lord studied in ateliers in Paris, worked for a time at McKim Mead & White, and was Director of Columbia's School of Architecture before easing off building design and focussing on painting. His design for Eolia, described misleadingly as "Renaissance Revival," is competent, if not particularly exciting. The principal allure of this big old hosue, at least for me, is its remarkably state of both house and gardens. Connecticut Parks' Mark Darin is opening the house and letting me loose.

Austin Lord's original Eolia had a sort of flamenco flair (sort of) that was renovated into obscurity ten years after the house was built by James Gamble Rogers (1876-1947). We should all have a patron like Rogers had with Harkness. Some accounts say the two were classmates at Yale, but I'm not sure how that would have worked, since Rogers was seven years older and graduated seven years earlier. I think the connection came through Edward Harkness's mother, Anna (1837-1926). In 1907, while Lord was drawing plans for Eolia, Anna hired Rogers to design a Fifth Avenue townhouse (still extant, now the home of the Commonwealth Fund), as a wedding gift for son Edward.

By 1917, Rogers was again working for Mrs. H Sr., this time on the design of the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle at Yale, donated in memory of her eldest son George. Two years later, Rogers was pulling Eolia apart and replacing Lord's interiors with the high Georgian look we see today. Although Rogers continued to tinker with Eolia through the 1920s, this work was secondary to other considerable architectural commissions, particularly at Yale. These usually came from his pal Edward Harkness, who often made philanthropic building grants on condition that Rogers be the architect.
John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil might well have gone bust, had Edward Harkness's father not loaned his entire life savings, some $70,000, to prop the company up. This act of faith made Stephen V. Harkness and his family extremely rich. The $129,000,000 of charitable gifts that his son Edward made before his death in 1940 probably equals over two billion of today's dollars. Mr. and Mrs. Harkness lived the way many rich people live — they wanted the best and didn't really care what other people might or might not think. Case in point: Mr. Harkness's study. Located past a coat room at the end of a short corridor to the right of the front door, it is neither big nor showy, nor does it have much of a view. It is private and functional, well finished, adjacent to its own small bath and completely appropriate to the house owner's private business.
On the other side of the front door is a truly wonderful morning or reception room.
The adjoining drawing room (they call it a music room) on the west side of the house has tall glass doors that open onto a south facing porch and a west facing terrace. The former overlooks the sea, the latter Farrand's West Garden. Eolia is all about competent graciousness — a.k.a. "good taste" — as opposed to memorable design. In lieu of a separate library, a pair of meager book cases crouches against the south wall.
As is fairly standard in charming (if not particularly original) big old houses, the central block is anchored on one side by a drawing room and on the other by a dining room. As the 1920s progressed, and modernism pushed its charmless snout into the built environment, Rogers' erudite classicism came under attack. His iconic Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, a Harkness gift in 1927, was excoriated by students for the sin of "historicism" or, put another way, for looking beautiful. No similar coyote screams disrupted Rogers' careful work at Eolia.
Glass doors at the south end of the dining room open onto a glazed conservatory decorated with painted summer flowers and architectural elements in treillage. This room balances the open porch off the drawing room. Between them is a terrace overlooking the sea, covered at the time of my visit by a tent for some upcoming wedding.
Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn I was utterly smitten by the condition of Eolia's serving pantry, kitchen and bathrooms, all of which appear to have been untouched since 1919.
Beyond the stove is a second pantry with a pass-through to the servants' dining room. Have I ever, in all the houses I've visited, seen an oak paneled servants' dining room? That would be a no. I doubt the estate manager in Harkness's day would have allowed the kitchen courtyard to grass over. That said, it doesn't look bad.
Let's return to the dining room, cross the hall and take the stairs to the second floor.
The second floor is tasteful, if not particularly exciting. Mr. and Mrs. Harkness's bedrooms and baths are at the west end of the main block. Her vintage combination tub/shower has enough valves and control on it to launch a rocket. A compartment under the window beside Mr. Harkness's fireplace contains a rolled up fire ladder.
There are three other bedrooms on the second floor of the main block, one used on a regular basis by Mrs. Harkness's sister, Charlotte Stillman. Eolia's principal guestroom is at the eastern end of the second floor hall. Although the contents of the house were auctioned off after Mrs. Harkness death in 1950, the occasional bed or table from old photos can still be seen among today's pieces from Raymour & Flanigan.
A short corridor at the eastern end of the bedroom hall passes the linen room en route to servants' cubicles on the second floor of the kitchen wing. A servants' stair at the extreme east end of the house connects servants' bedrooms to the kitchen suite below.
There are six more guestrooms on the third floor which, given the condition of the rest of the place, are like crazy relatives packed under the eaves.
There is still more to see, in a combination stable/garage/casino building located about a hundred yards from the main house.
I don't know if or when the state of Connecticut will ever restore the third floor of the main house, but the interiors of the garage/casino are on deck right now. Among the treasures behind its stuccoed walls are: 1) original farm vehicles; 2) untouched horse stalls; 3) a boiler that used to heat this and the main house; 4) a squash court of the narrow persuasion (on which people like myself learned to play during the Napoleonic period); 5) a bowling alley; and 6) a billiard room, complete with vintage wicker and obligatory collapsing ceiling.
A door on the south wall of the billiard room leads to a cutting garden which, amazingly, is maintained in perfect "private estate" condition.
Mr. & Mrs. Harkness were not just private, but downright shy, eschewing the publicity upon which so many philanthropists thrive. After John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Edward Harkness was the third greatest philanthropist in America, although interestingly, his largesse was not always immediately accepted. In 1928, Yale University inexplicably declined $11 million to construct residential colleges on the Oxford model. Harkness went to Harvard with the same offer, which President Lowell jumped all over. Chagrinned, Yale came back to Harkness in 1930 and, gentleman that he was, Harkness reiterated the offer — as long as James Gamble Rogers did the design.
Edward Harkness's philanthropies are really too numerous to list, at least here. The Commonwealth Fund, founded in 1918 by his mother, continues the family's philanthropic work, focussing today on health care and policy issues. Commonwealth's headquarters are in Edward and Mary Harkness old house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 75th St. The Harkness Memorial State Park, located six miles south of downtown New London, CT is open all year. You can walk on for free, but must pay to park. The link is www.ct.gov/deep/harkness. (And no, they had no children).
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