Saturday, January 26, 2008

Richard Morris Hunt, part 1

Over the years I've visited a number of house museums that were designed by the prominent 19th century architect, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895). He was not a pretty man, as evidenced by the photo above but was extremely gifted and ambitious. R.M.H. was called the 'Dean of American architecture' because he was the first American to be admitted to the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris and later opened the first American architecture school in 1855. Born into a wealthy family with an artistic mother, R.M.H. spent much of his teen years in Europe following his fathers' death. Here he visited many palaces and castles that later influenced his residential work for the 'who's who' of American society during the Gilded Age. (his brother is the prominent artist William Morris Hunt)
'The Breakers', Newport, RI.

While most of his work has been torn down in NYC where he was based, a few projects remain such as the base of the statue of liberty and the facade of the Met on 5th avenue. Boston houses a lot of his work still and so does Newport, RI. Other projects are scattered nationally. He had quite an exciting and successful career; designing the first apartment building in NYC which was considered scandalous, one of the first 'sky-scrapers' with an elevator (the new york tribune building) and being one of the lead architects of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago which brought city planning and the city beautiful movement to the USA.
'Marble House', Newport, RI.

During the gilded age R.M.H. was the architect to go to if you were of a certain class to design your NYC townhouse and palatial country estates. Many of those still exist and are now house museums (Biltmore and the Breakers to name 2 of the most famous).
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC.

R.M.H. was so beloved of his society clients that upon his death he was rewarded with the only monument in the USA to an architect - along 5th avenue in central park across the street from the Frick collection but at the time faced many of his beautiful townhouses which no longer exist. To this day you can still pay homage to this great architect at his monument (here it is!)
RMH memorial, Daniel Chester French & Bruce Price
He also was painted by John Singer Sargent at the request of the Vanderbilts to hang in Biltmore. Most architects are lucky to get their name carved onto a building somewhere or on a plague -let alone a portrait by one of the preeminent painters of all time! You can recognize the Biltmore in the background.

In the following posts over the next week, I'll be highlighting some of his projects that I've visited with photos I've taken -I hope you enjoy these! I think they illustrate that even though most of these residences are totally ostentatious they also were built as family homes with a lot of charm, function and coziness beneath the gilded exteriors and public spaces.
'Grey Towers', Milford, PA.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cherry Blossoms

Every spring I'm reminded how beautiful DC is. Thousands of people from around the world come to see our cherry blossoms! Here are some pics I took last year, aren't they beautiful?
Cherry blossoms are all over DC, but the national mall has the most of them and this is where to see them at their most magnificent. The trees were a gift from the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington, DC in 1912. The initial gift was 3,000 trees!!!! Thats a lot of wood! See the official website online at:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One more for you....

Just so the last video won't leave you in a pensive mood to start your day - follow it up with this chaser. I DARE you not to dance along!

This one has much better hair and costumes, darlings........

Pie Jesu

Not a long post, just wanted to share one of the most beautiful songs ever written from one of our times' most gifted singers. Ignore the bad hair and costumes - look with your ears.....

Sarah Brightman - Pie Jesu - from Requiem 1985 by Andrew Lloyd Weber, her (former) husband


Just like Edna Turnblatt, the Saarinen Pedestal Table is TIMELESS to me. Probably perfection in design, the table is suitable anywhere from a country house kitchen to a big city conference room (and is frequently seen in both!).
The table was designed by Eero Saarinen (son of the prominent city planner, Eliel) who moved to the U.S. in 1923 from Finland as a teenager. Later he began his studies at Yale but ended up at the fascinating Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, MI where his father was the resident architect. If you don't know anything about Cranbrook, study up - it probably is the birthplace of classic modern design in the U.S.

In the late 1940's Saarinen worked for THE Herman Miller creating many of the most timeless ( there's that word again! ) designs the company still produces and that are so popular today!
Many people pair the Pedestal table with his Tulip chairs -but I really dislike those tulip chairs -they look really spacey, uncomfortable and inelegant and just......nasty. I prefer the Pedestal table with some really beautiful antique chairs such as klismos chairs or the Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner- something to counteract the coldness of the table; something more TACTILE.

The table is available in a few different styles, white marble, black marble, laminate, even wood tops and generally white or black bases -although I have seen some aluminum / stainless steel versions as well. White marble with a white base is the CLASSIC version though.
I do love the fact that it is round. The best dining tables are always round in my opinion -they make for the most interesting dinner parties and are the most useful while not in use for dining.Ikea makes a great knockoff if you can't afford the real thing - but it is a bit cheap and you really can tell the difference quality wise ( I know becaue I owned one for 2 years until recently! ). You can see the Ikea version of it here on the lefthand side of this picture. I was saving up for a vintage saarinen table from ebay but came across a beautiful antique Palladian table and chairs from Baker that I coudn't pass up. You can see that here. As you can see-it is a VAST improvement over what I had! Thanks to for the history lesson and photos!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Grey Gardens

Have you ever heard of 'Grey Gardens', the legendary documentary by Albert and David Maysles? It basically is a series of interviews and just video footage of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie. Notice something interesting - 'bouvier'? Recognize that? Yes, thats right, they were the cousin and aunt to Jackie BOUVIER Kennedy!
Edie and her mother were WILD eccentrics who lived in a rotting mansion in the Hamptons called 'Grey Gardens'. You can't even believe how they live...this mansion was condemned numerous times and Jackie bailed them out a few times to get neccesary work done on the house just to keep it from being torn down by the city! Now of course the house has been fully restored by a socialite and is one of the ultimate showplaces ( and largest homes ) in the Hamptons.

The real story here is their personalities. Both were socialite beauties in their respective days - unmarried / divorced and living in their past histories. Edie especially had extreme notions on beauty and dressing which have inspired many fashion designers. I think any fashion designer that has ever been interviewed has named 'Grey Gardens' as an inspiration.
A few years ago the documentary was turned into a musical on broadway and did fairly well I believe. I actually went up to NY to see it but was having such a good time that I didn't go to the show at the last minute ( and I SOOO regret it ). However, I may still see it as I hear it will be made into a MOVIE with Drew Barrymore playing Edie and Meryl Streep playing Edith. Please check out the documentary, the broadway show or the movie coming out in the next few years - you won't regret it! It's both hilarious and inspiring! Also check out the official website if you are interested in more information.

I've embedded a clip that is just great that takes some of Edie's crazy dancing movies ( she always wanted to be a caberet star ) with 'Hung up' from Madonna -it's PERFECT!!!! My ultimately favorite clip on youtube!!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Josephine Baker

One of my favorite singers is Josephine Baker ( or should it be 'was' as she passed away? ). She was born in the midwest but went on to be one of the biggest stars in France ( because of segregation and racism in the USA ) from the 1920's thru the 1970s. She was most famous from her dancing style - particularly known for her 'native' dances with a banana skirt and no top on! SCANDALOUS!! Later in life she became all brad pitt / angelina jolie'ish and had her 'rainbow children' - basically she ran an orphanage at her chateau for dozens of orphaned children from around the world.
This song is probably one of her most beautiful songs - very peaceful and a beautiful video - from the 1935 French movie 'Princess Tam Tam'

Marie Antoinette

My favorite movie of last year was Marie Antoinette by Sophia Coppola ( one of my favorite directors ). I think it really is one of the most visually stunning movies I've ever seen ( and I've seen a LOT of movies! ) Shot on location at Versailles - the movie is told as a story not only of a girl and of her private life behind the public facade, but of a place - Versailles. I haven't been to Versailles yet, but it is probably #1 on my list of places to visit: I have a few books on the stunning palace and grounds. Here you can see Sophia directing the lead, Kirsten Dunst.
Sophia Coppola's movie is based on Antoinia Fraser's in depth book on Marie Antoinette ( antoine to her friends ). The book is extremely well researched and a fascinating story, but rather dry - almost academic. Still a good read.
The other resource for her movie was the 1938 movie with Norma Shearer of the same title. Sophia's movie is basically a remake of that movie except more lush and accurate. I mean...word for word in some parts! THe 1938 version is more of a hollywood 30's spectacle and goes more for the feeling of 18th century france than anywhere near a faithful depiction -however a few things stand out in the movie such as the shot of Marie running down the huge staircase of the garden behind Versailles into the Orangerie for the part about the 'affair of the necklace'. A GORGEAUS shot and one that is actually pretty accurate visually speaking. Definitely check out this movie -it is full of 1930's fun with ELABORATE costumes -one shown below.

Another thing a little 'off' with each movies was that while Marie has gone down in history as a 'beauty' - she really wasn't.....maybe compared to the other inbred nobility. Now, she wasn't ugly by any means - she is what I beleive you call 'a handsome woman'. Here are some of the more accurate and most famous portraits of her by Le Brun, above. As you can see, she is no Kirsten Dunst ( who is charming and seen on the movie poster below ) or Norma Shearer ( one of the screen beauties of the 30s, against the red background ).

Now -for the record - Marie Antoinette was more a tragic figure of circumstance -she was not an evil queen, she never said 'let them eat cake' and if anything was actually an extremely sympathetic queen. So, lighten up on her already, she wasn't so bad!