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JUST BACK from a few days visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, where I was amazed at the number of Victorian villas. The area is a catalogue of 19th century styles including Second Empire and Italianate, with details like arched, porthole, and bay windows; porches, balconies, and cupolas; and all manner of decorative molding.
Sadly, these grand dames of yesteryear are often located on now-busy roads, and they mostly look like white elephants — enormous and drafty and difficult to heat without servants to stoke the many fireplaces. Some are in sorry shape. Others, like the blue- shuttered example here, in the town of Lee, seem well-maintained.
We stopped in Lee for lunch at the Cakewalk Cafe, then checked out a couple of thrift/antique stores on the intact 19th century main street, below.
Then into nearby Lenox, where my friend had managed to dig up the one historic house in the area — of some 75 such Berkshires “cottages” — open on a mid-winter weekday: Ventfort Hall, below, a 28,000-square foot Jacobean Revival mansion with 54 rooms, designed in 1893 by the Boston architectural firm Rotch & Tilden for Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P., and her husband George.
Like so many unwieldy mansions of that era, it had been abandoned for some time and fallen into ruin. As recently as the 1990s, the floors were ice-covered and littered with chunks of fallen ceiling plaster. Oak wall panels were missing, and the exterior was crumbling.
Docent Marsha McDermott, above, showed us ‘before’ photos — that is, before a small group of concerned locals formed the non-profit Ventfort Hall Association and purchased the property, then raised $4million in private and public funds to restore it and open it to public view. Then she sent us off to explore, giving us carte blanche to open doors and poke around.
Being avid Downton Abbey watchers, my friend and I could well visualize the family that lived here, enjoying such amenities as indoor plumbing, electric and gas lighting, radiant heat in the basement ceiling, a burglar alarm system, internal fire hoses, copper speaking tubes in the walls, and an electric elevator. Above, the Great Hall. Newly carved American red oak panels were left unstained, below, to distinguish them from the original woodwork. Unfortunately, there are no original furnishings left in the house; they were sold off long ago.
Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.
Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.
Delicate plasterwork and an onyx marble fireplace in the drawing room, below, which was used by Sarah Morgan and her daughter Caroline to entertain guests. It’s now a gift shop.
We exited onto the rear verandah, below, made of wood painted a ruddy color to match the stone facade. (If this elevation looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a set in the film The Cider House Rules.) The breeze coming off Stockbridge Bowl Lake, now obscured by trees, gave the house its name: Ventfort means “strong wind.”
Open 360 days a year, Ventfort Hall is available for weddings, receptions, dinners, parties, corporate meetings, and Victorian teas — not to mention picnicking on 12 acres of surrounding park. For more info: 413/637-3206, www.GildedAge.org
MY WHIRLWIND TRIP TO PALM SPRINGS on assignment for Endless Vacation magazine took place the week before last, though it seems forever ago. I’ve been bouncing around since — from Long Island, where I packed up two-thirds of my furnishings and turned my cottage in Springs over to renters for at least the next year (and am inching forward on the purchase of another property), and my apartment in Brooklyn, where I’m coming to terms again with life in two rooms. The warm sun and crystalline air of southern Cali are a distant memory, but I feel compelled to post more photos before I resume blogging about life on the East Coast.
I certainly enjoyed waking up each morning to the view, above, from the Hideaway, a low-key inn in a 1947 compound formerly known as the Town & Desert Hotel
You see, professional travel journalist here left an important gold mesh bag on her dining table when she departed at 5AM for LaGuardia Airport [slaps self upside the head]. In the bag: my camera battery and charger and the cord that enables me to download photos to my laptop. Once again, it was iPhone to the rescue; at least I was able to do one blog post from there, though the photos hardly did the place justice. I did have the camera itself with me, and I used it, sparingly, to the full extent of its battery power, capturing some of Palm Springs’ exceptional mid-20th-century architecture and the vintage-inspired hotels and design shops that have blossomed around them.
Herewith, a few more images from the trip.
Below, houses in the Las Palmas neighborhood by the enormously influential developer Robert Alexander.
Below, three of seven surviving all-steel houses by architect Donald Wexler, c. 1962
Below, Hedge, a shop in nearby Cathedral City whose owners can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Their taste in mid-century art and design is impeccable.
A grouping of Danish pottery at JPDenmark, below, which shares strip-mall space with Hedge and several multi-dealer vintage modern shops
At the trendy Ace Hotel, below, scooters at the ready
Below, Norma’s, a popular brunch spot at the Parker and public spaces decorated by the inimitable Jonathan Adler
The discreet 9-room Hideaway, my Palm Springs home for three nights
GOOD MORNING from Palm Springs, California, where I am, instead of the woman taking yard waste to the dump or running to catch the Flatbush Avenue bus, a minor celebrity. It’s because of a book I wrote in the 1980s, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, that launched many collecting and merchandising careers and helped spawn a huge revival of interest in the design of the period that continues to this day.
Guest lounge at the Hideaway, looking very much as it did in the 1950s
Palm Springs was an epicenter of adventurous custom architecture in the post-WWII years, and the town’s stock of homes by architects like William Cody, Albert Frey, William Krisel, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams has become one of the area’s main draws. I’m here to write about it for Endless Vacation magazine.
My room at the Hideaway, known as Ray’s Retreat (Ray Eames, I presume)
I’m comfortably ensconced at the discreet and well-named Hideaway (there’s no sign; I was told to look for three tall skinny palm trees rising out of a thick hedge) — a low-slung 1947 mini-resort by architect Herbert W. Burns, whose rooms, arrayed around a pool, feature authentic mid-century decor and Palm Springs’ ever-present, stunning mountain backdrop.
Bill Manion, manager of the Hideaway at its sister property, Orbit In
A real California breakfast: broccoli rabe frittata and cheddar hash browns at Cheeky’s
Palm Springs is a cohesive collection of mid-20th century residential and commercial architecture, sprinkled with a few remaining examples of the earlier Spanish Colonial Revival style that pre-dated it. Yesterday I took a comprehensive 3-1/2-hour tour with architectural historian Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours, who stuffed our heads with information and images as we drove through neighborhoods like Las Palmas, The Mesa, Little Tuscany, and Indian Canyons. He filled us in on where real celebrities, including Sinatra, Elvis, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Kate and Spencer, and on and on and on, owned homes or spent time, opening our eyes to unusual roof lines, innovative layouts, modern materials, and desert landscaping.
Tramway Gas Station (now Palm Springs Visitors Center), 1965, Albert Frey and Robson Chambers
Richard Neutra’s 1946 desert house for the Kaufmanns, also owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater
William Krisel’s 1962 House of Tomorrow designed for Palm Springs’ most influential developer, Robert Alexander; also known as Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s honeymoon cottage (they lived here for about a year as newlyweds)
I’m also checking out vintage modern shopping opportunities for the magazine at numerous stores whose inventory ranges from Good Design to unabashed kitsch.
Modern Way, where designer names abound
Above, Dazzles, where I relived my life in collecting, from rattan furniture to bottlecap figures to Lucite grapes (that’s Mike, the proprietor — the store has been here 14 years after 20 in L.A.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my morning swim…
IT’S BEEN A TRADITION on Long Island’s East End for almost three decades: the East Hampton House & Garden Tour, held Thanksgiving weekend to benefit the East Hampton Historical Society — a worthy cause if ever there was one. It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 24, from 1-4:30PM, with a benefit cocktail party on the evening of Friday, November 23.
My favorite of the five houses on this year’s self-guided tour is (no surprise) the oldest: the late 18th century Stafford-Hedges House above and below, said to have a tumultuous history of scandal and rumor over the course of its 230 years. It’s a “half house,” with the front door to the extreme right of the original structure, intended later to be expanded with its mirror image. In this case, that never happened. Instead, there’s a modern addition at the back.
The other houses represent a mix of periods and styles, from an 1894 Amagansett farmhouse to a cottage described as “East Hampton meets Nantucket via Harbour Island (Bahamas),” designed by a prominent interior designer and owned by a local landscape architect, below.
There’s also a 21st century modern home in Wainscott, heavy on the glass and incorporating indoor hanging gardens, designed by East End architect Maziar Behrooz, and a newly built “Tuscan casetta” in the Northwest Woods section.
The Opening Night Cocktail Party on Friday Nov. 23 from 6-8, a fund-raiser for the Historical Society, will be held at the 1891 William E. Wheelock House on 10 manicured acres, one of East Hampton Village’s first grand shingle-style cottages.
Tickets to the Opening Night Cocktail Party start at $200, which includes entry to the tour the following day. Tickets to the House & Garden Tour are $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the tour. Ticket proceeds benefit the East Hampton Historical Society and are on sale via:
- EHHS office, 101 Main Street, Tuesday – Saturday, 10-4
- By phone at 631-324-6850
- Website: www.easthamptonhistory.org.
- Clinton Academy, 151 Main Street, Friday, November 23 and Saturday, November 24, 10-4
I COULDN’T HAVE SAID IT better myself…and that’s why I’m lifting, wholesale, a sidebar that appeared in the November 5 issue of New York Magazine to counter-balance a real estate story on brand spanking-new condos. Under the headline “Old Rules! A Contrarian’s View,” architectural conservator James Boorstein, a man after my own heart and mind, explains the enduring advantages of vintage construction. If there’s a manifesto that expresses the guiding principle behind this blog, this could be it. Bolding mine.
I’m an architectural conservator, and my firm, Traditional Line, restores interiors for museums and homes. I own most of the building I live in, which I’m guessing is from the 1860s. Tearing it down and putting up a seventeen-story building would be a financial boon, but I don’t want to live in a new building. In most new condos, the spaces are tiny, the ceiling heights are low, the materials are poor, and things are not well made. In the old days, labor was cheap and materials were expensive. Now material is cheap and labor is expensive, so things are fabricated in factories and brought in. But labor is a big part of making something right. My building has the kind of ornate plaster molding in the hall that not even a very wealthy person would typically reproduce today.
New has become synonymous with good, which means we don’t fix things anymore. A lot of old buildings have 100-year-old wooden windows that just need to be repaired. Instead, people replace them with aluminum windows that are more like appliances than part of the architecture: When they get old, you throw them out. Everything used to be built of wood, and when you get a dent in it, you scrape it out and refinish it and it’s literally as good as new. In a lot of cases, you don’t have to do anything at all. An old wood-paneled library doesn’t require any maintenance. That woodwork just sits there and looks good for years. It’s like the food in some very expensive restaurants: The attention to detail shows, and it can be a source of deep pleasure.
As told to Justin Davidson.