EAVES OF GRASS Botanical-print wallpaper makes a garden of a potentially oppressive ceiling. Photo: Eric Roth 2 Comments By Amy Merrick
- Amy Merrick The Wall Street Journal
MY ROMANCE with Beauport started like many 21st-century flings: I fell for it online. A friend posted a photo of a botanical bower of a bedroom in Beauport, officially called the Sleeper-McCann House. I vowed to visit it, in Gloucester, Mass., for my birthday—bold for a first date, I admit, but when you know, you know.
The Arts and Crafts house was built by one of America’s first interior decorators, Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), as his family’s summer retreat, and it is preserved as a museum by Historic New England. Little known but by decorative-arts enthusiasts and preservationists, the 1907 home and its eclectic irreverence feel timelier than ever.
At 14,200 square feet, clad in brick, stone and shingle, it is unmistakably a grand house. So imagine my surprise at stepping into a diminutive entry cocooned in homey Georgian wood paneling, a humorously tiny portrait of George Washington presiding. The house’s introduction evokes intimacy, wit and ease. Newport it’s not.
I stumbled into a stair hall dimly lit by a large arched window full of amber glassware. The effect is madcap-Victorian-ecclesiastical, a shrine to obsessive collecting. I turned around to see another George Washington, this time a sculpture converted into an iron stove.
Clockwise from top left: 1900s Folk-Art Ship Model, $695, chairish.com; Iittala Kastehelmi Footed Bowl, $35, onekingslane.com; Antique American Hooked Rug Circa 1900, $1,250, nazmiyal.com; California Paints Ultra Aquaborne Ceramic Interior Paint, from $50 per gallon, Warshaw Hardware, 212-475-5820; Jardinières & Citrus Trees wallpaper, from $1,297 per panel, de Gournay, 212-564-9750 Photo: F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal (paint, wallpaper)
“Henry Davis Sleeper came along and broke all the so-called rules of tasteful decorating,” said Martha Van Koevering of Historic New England. “Edith Wharton established the rules in ‘The Decoration of Houses,’” and a decade later Sleeper set the design world free.” While Wharton’s 1890s treatise schooled Americans in European-based taste, Sleeper’s style valued personality over propriety. Clients included decorative-arts collector Henry Francis du Pont and the Vanderbilt family.
After admiring a circular Norman tower turned into a tiny library in which up-to-the-ceiling bookshelves surrounded a lone desk, I ducked into the China Trade room. Vibrant, 1780s, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper swaths the lofty parlor crowned by a gilt balcony. Forty-six rooms that swing between styles could cue seasickness, but Sleeper’s intimate proportions and reverence for symmetry balance the ship.
Up a secret spiral staircase, I found the Belfry Chamber tucked under the eaves (above), the bewitching bedroom that first turned my head. The hard-angled ceilings could easily feel claustrophobic, but Sleeper softened them with Zuber’s Décor Chinois wallpaper. “By using a large pattern in a small room, you blur the boundaries of a space, making it feel larger,” said North Carolina designer John Loecke, co-author of “Prints Charming” (Abrams). The paper’s progressively sparser floral pattern opens the room to an imaginary sky. A folksy hooked rug creates a garden-like floor, and a handwoven wool coverlet nods to the textile traditions of 19th-century New England. Green glass abounds, and red accents vibrate just enough to enliven an otherwise placidly green space.
The dining room houses but a few of Beauport’s 10,000 objects Photo: Historic New England
A delightful push and pull of informality appears in the nautically inspired Golden Step dining room. Mismatched Windsor chairs are anchored by a table, the set united with sea-foam paint. Rare thumbprint compotes by Bakewell, Pears & Co., appear like crystal buoys down the center of the table. Model ships and colored onion lamps, as well as the valance scalloped like waves that frames the waterfront view, affirm the maritime theme.
Shades of green, Sleeper’s favorite color, show up throughout the house. “Green is actually a neutral,” said Mr. Loecke. “In nature, it appears everywhere and goes with every color.” I sense a green phase on my horizon, as well as a fearlessness in conjuring my own world.
“The house is a great lesson in creating collections from things you truly love,” said Mr. Loecke. “It feels deeply personal.” Sleeper’s buoyant use of color and pattern is magic to eyes dulled by the blandification of tidying up.