|Big Old Houses: When Your Own Name is Enough
by John Foreman
This is Theodate Pope Riddle (1867-1966) on the right, with her prize Guernsey Anesthesia Faithlow. I know; they sound like characters from the "Hunger Games." When born, Theo, as friends and family called her, was called Effie, but at age 19, she informed the world that henceforth she would only answer to the name "Theodate" and none other. This was typical; she was a strong willed girl. Theodate means "God's Gift" and belonged to one of her grandmothers.
Serious farming, in Theo's case on an elaborate Connecticut estate, was one of her many talents.
|Before her marriage to Mr. Riddle, she designed the large Colonial Revival house in the photo below, built for her father's retirement. The house is called Hill-Stead and stands today on 152 of its original 250 acres, adjacent to the extremely attractive village of Farmington, CT. Theo was disinclined to live the life of a boring Cleveland debutante and, encouraged by her rich modern-minded metals millionaire father, she became an architect. Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) provided his daughter with both the leisure to study architecture, and her first major contract, to wit, a 33,000 square foot Connecticut retirement house built between 1898 and 1901. So much for "downsizing." Theo and her parents shared this house until their respective deaths.|
|The image below shows Mr. and Mrs. Pope and their daughter Theo lunching at Hill-Stead. The butler Ernest Bohlen went to work for the Popes in Cleveland at the age of 32. Theo buried him at the age of 90 in the Pope family plot in Farmington. I should really call Hill-Stead "Miss Pope's House," since John Wallace Riddle (1864-1941) didn't come along until 15 years after it was built. He was 52, she was 49, and the engagement stunned friends and family alike.
Prior to the marriage — the first for them both — Theo suffered from serious depression and intimacy issues. According to her memoir, she was born "before I was needed and greatly to my mother's resentment ... I have no memory at all of ever sitting in my mother's lap."
Well, my mother was a little distant too, but I certainly sat in her lap — now and then anyway. Apropos of her father, Theo wrote, "I was fifteen years old before he realized he was losing his child." He caught himself in time, however, and he and his daughter became close friends — "intellectually" at least.
|Alfred Pope died in 1913 and a year later, perhaps in reaction to the loss, Theo adopted a 2-year-old orphan named Gordon Brockway. Not your typical single mother, she immediately hired a couple to actually care for the toddler while she proceeded to teach him how to draw. This ambitious plan ended abruptly in 1916 when the child died of polio at age 4. The following year she adopted not one but two orphans, this time each aged 10. They are seen in the image below, a couple of privileged teens at the wheel of a Stutz Bearcat by the front door to Hill-Stead.|
| According to John Riddle's half-brother, "(I)t seems to me as a rule inadvisable for a very poor man to marry a very rich woman."
Back in her "Effie" days, Theo had been a student at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. Smitten by the area's rural charm and splendid old houses she decided her parents would be happier spending their "golden years" here than mouldering away in Cleveland.
Hill-Stead's original driveway was probably gravel, but other than that, the original approach to the house is unchanged. An awful lot of historic houses compel the public to scuttle in and out on service drives or, worse, horrid new roadways which greatly diminish intended aesthetic impact. I gave Hill-Stead high marks the moment I drove in.
|Theo designed this house, but the job was done with professional help. A pair of McKim, Mead and White employees named Egerton Swartout and Walter Wilder converted her layout and perspective drawings into professional plans and elevations. Stanford White had an advisory role of some sort as well, but his firm's work was sufficiently secondary that they charged a discounted commission. As soon as the house was finished, and almost immediately after a visit Theo made to Mount Vernon, the 2-story porch on the west was added.|
|Theo opened her Manhattan architectural office in 1913, but it wasn't until 1918 that she was admitted to the American Institute of Architects, thereby at last achieving legitimacy in an assertively male-dominated field. Her professional opus was not extensive. She did only a few houses, mostly modest Connecticut dwellings, plus the reconstruction of TR's birthplace on East 22nd St., and one grand mansion in Lattingtown, L.I. She is best remembered for two private Connecticut schools: Westover for girls in Middlebury, her first non-family commission; and the fantastical looking Avon Old Farms for boys, truly a "trip" if you've never seen it, in Avon, which she not only designed, but founded.|
|This part of suburban Connecticut can hardly be called rural any more, but you wouldn't know that from these views.|
|Among Hill-Stead's oddities is the location of the front door. It looks for all the world as if it should have been in the middle of the Mr. Vernon porch, but it isn't and it never was. The left end of the house in the image below is a 1906 enlargement designed by McKim, Mead and White, when a second library and a new study for Mr. Pope, the latter with north facing porch, were tacked on to Theo's original composition.|
|The Hill-Stead Museum's literature aptly describes the house as a "traditional farmhouse ... writ large." The barn attached to its eastern end is both an homage to big farms in cold climates, and an explanation of how the place came to measure 33,000 square feet. This was indeed a working farm, but Theo's prized (and odorous) Guernseys lived in another barn located a discrete distance from the house.|
|Theo added the garage (in mint condition) and greenhouse (unexpectedly demolished) in 1907.|
|An Olmsted protege named Warren Manning advised Theo on the landscape and Beatrix Farrand did the perennial plan for the sunken garden.|
|My hostess, Hill-Stead's Melanie Bourbeau, is waiting, so let's go inside.|
|Mrs. Riddle's will stipulated that Hill-Stead and the collection within it (which we'll get to in a minute) be preserved for the public exactly as they were when she lived here. Her wishes have been overwhelmingly respected, so we can't blame anybody else for making us enter this great big old house via a glorified mud room. It's called the "Carriage Porch' on the plan below, and located right next to the kitchen. This arrangement reminds me of "colonial" subdivision houses whose front doors are entirely vestigial because everybody goes in and out through the garage.|
|I love poring over floor plans. Below are Hill-Stead's first and second floor layouts which, despite a few inaccuracies (notably the outline of the verandah) and omissions (labels for bathrooms and areas not open to the public), will be very interesting to some.|
|OK, so the first thing I saw on entering Hill-Stead was a claustrophobic corridor connecting the kitchen (behind the camera) to the dining room (straight ahead). The first room I passed as I entered Mrs. Riddle's house was the serving pantry. Now, I love old pantries, but it made no sense to me, from the standpoint of aesthetics or convenience, to plonk down the serving pantry immediately inside what appears to be the front door. As it happens there is another door to the dining room, tucked into a corner of the "carriage porch." I'm told the family used this as the front door, which seems counter-intuitive since it's not on axis with the covered walk. I suppose ushering arriving visitors directly into the dining room makes fractionally more sense than squeezing them into a service corridor — but not much. In fact, the whole arrangement looks less like weak planning than no planning at all.|
Having groused about its zany location, I hasten to note that the pantry itself is an extremely well preserved antique. Note the pass-through to the dining room on the right side of the first image below.
|An adjacent prep pantry connected the serving pantry behind the camera to the main kitchen beyond the door ahead. Hill-Stead's main kitchen was undoubtedly a terrific antique until it was replaced by a modern — well, "colonial" style — conference room.|
|On the other side of the pantry pass-through is a grandly scaled and finely proportioned formal dining room. This is the first main room through which the visitor walks, which also makes no sense.|
|I'm told the dining table, when extended, can seat 30. The door in the image below leads to the entrance hall which, of course, isn't really an entrance hall at all.|
|Hill-Stead's woodwork is all "faux bois," which is to say, clear pine (probably) painted to look like hardwood. Inspired by humbler New England precedents, it's quite luxuriously done here.|
|The room below is the "Entrance Hall" on the plan, but it should really be called the Stair Hall. The door to the Mt. Vernon porch is behind the camera. Virtually nothing has changed in this room since 1901. Note the second image, reproduced from a shelter mag of the era, crediting McKim, Mead and White as architects.|
|Mrs. Riddle's drawing room furniture and paintings, in the room behind Mel, have been culled slightly. Speaking of paintings, Theo's father Albert Pope was a noted collector of Impressionist art. Splendid examples hang everywhere at Hill-Stead in precisely the way I wish I could see them everywhere — neither crowded on the walls nor competing with one another, but simply beautifying the rooms in which they're hung. Years ago, my daughter and I visited the Barnes Collection when it was on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. I was disappointed. There was just too much, and not all of it was that good. To me, Albert Barnes seemed more of an accumulator than a collector. By contrast, Albert Pope's collection is comparatively small but consistently brilliant. A shared love of Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, not to mention Renoir and Pissaro was what finally cemented Theo's friendship with her father.|
|"Big Old Houses" is not about pictures, but there are wondrous ones everywhere on these walls. The Hill-Stead collection came as a complete surprise to me and I couldn't wait to tell my daughter about it. Putting pictures aside and getting back to the house, the view below shows the so-called Ell, a sort of overgrown alcove on the south side of the drawing room, whose proportions it does nothing to help. Hill-Stead was built by rich people who lived in Victorian splendor on Euclid Avenue in turn-of-the-century Cleveland. Theirs was an aesthetic influenced not just by the lightness of Impressionist art but also by the heavy hand of Victoria.|
|On the north side of the entrance hall, balancing the drawing room on the south, is the library — which is actually 2 libraries, labelled "First" and "Second" on the floor plan. The vintage and modern images below show how McKim, Mead and White's northern addition was integrated into the original house.|
|What was originally a porch and Mr. Pope's study were replaced by a spacious McKim, Mead and White-designed second library, seen below looking west and east. A leitmotif at Hill-Stead is big-ness, which makes the main entrance so bewildering.|
|North of the second library, and down a few steps, is the morning room, built originally as a new study for Mr. Pope. Hill-Stead is a veritable elephants' graveyard of sensational old bathrooms, the first of which adjoins this room.|
|Let's leave the morning room, cross the second library to the door on the left side of its south wall, and take a look at a ground floor guestroom called the Parlor Bedroom. Billeting guests on the first floor seems very old fashioned to me. How about that bathroom. And oh yes, how about those pictures! In 1907, Theo's friend Henry James described the Hill-Stead collection in "The American Scene" as follows: "... wondrous examples of Manet, Degas, of Claude Monet, of Whistler, of other rare recent hands, treated us to the momentary effect of a large slippery sweet inserted without warning, between the compressed lips of half conscious inanition ..." (Go, Henry).|
|Radiating off the second floor landing are five family bedrooms, three of them small suites, each with a vintage painted and paneled bath. The portraits of the Riddles on the second floor landing are a contrast to the masterpieces elsewhere. They were done in 1935 by "C.J.Fox," a Manhattan portrait factory that used photographs to crank out likenesses of business and society people.|
|We'll move around the second floor counter-clockwise, starting in the northeast corner with the Green Room. I apologize ahead of time for all the bathroom pictures; I just couldn't resist.|
|The Mulberry Room is part of a suite.|
|After his 1916 marriage, the bedroom and bath on the southwest corner became John Riddle's.|
|Theo installed a door connecting her bedroom to that of her husband.|
|She herself took over the big room on the southeast corner which had formerly been shared by her parents. The vintage photo shows Theo's mother in this room. She looks like a woman who'd dandle a little child on her lap, doesn't she? Well, maybe not.|
|How great is Theo's bathroom? The miniature tub is a foot bath; you must sit on a small seat or bench in order to use it.|
|The mother-in-law stayed in the Ada Brooks Pope Suite, seen below.|
|A corridor continues east past a linen room before entering a warren of maids' rooms whose plan has been altered for office use.|
|"Big Old Houses" wasn't going to leave without taking a look at the 3rd floor. I found a big modern office, a couple of errant servants' rooms, a long corridor under the southern eaves, and an elevator to the 1st floor.|
|Mel and I took the stairs.|
|West of the back stair landing on 1 is the meeting room that replaced the original kitchen. Since a meeting was in progress at the time of my visit, natural delicacy forbade a photo. To the east of the landing is a fully equipped and completely separate service pantry, beyond which is the former servants' hall, now an office.|
|A corridor from the servant hall leads to the laundry room, not notable for much, save a bit of vintage linoleum in a closet along the way.|
|In the basement is a wine cellar with fake bottles and real labels.|
|When they weren't traveling, the Riddles lived together at Hill-Stead and in New York for 25 years. John Riddle dropped dead of a heart attack on Pearl Harbor Day, 1941. He was 77 years old. His architect wife, Theodate Pope Riddle, died in August, 1946, at the age of 79. Her much loved house was opened to the public as the Hill-Stead Museum the following year.|
|At one point in her earlier life, Theodate Pope was so sunk in depression that she underwent shock therapy. Her greatest shock, however, came in May of 1915 when, with her maid and a traveling companion, she sailed from New York on the Lusitania. Strolling on deck when the torpedo hit, she joined a panicked mob that leaped overboard into cold Atlantic waters filled with screaming struggling people. The ship went down in under 18 minutes, killing 1195 of the 1959 souls on board. Not, however, before one of those panicked souls jumped and landed on Theo. After regaining the surface, then losing consciousness, she woke up in a pile of dead bodies. This was clearly a second chance at life. The following year she married John Riddle and started Avon Old Farms. Hill-Stead is a wonderful place to visit; the link is www.hillstead.org.|
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