Saturday, February 2, 2008

Richard Morris Hunt, Part 5

The most opulent house in Newport is probably 'Marblehouse'. Built between 1888 and 1892 for William Kissam Vanderbilt ( yes, another one, they must have bred like bunnies ), this was the first newport 'palace' - before this most of the mansions were very informal in nature -more like true beach houses. The house was $11 million to build ( yes, that much back in 1888 ) and $7 million of that was in marble alone. When you visit you can see why - every square inch, interior and exterior is covered in exquisite marble! It's like a big tomb on the beach -but I imagine in the pre-air conditioning days this really was a great way to stay cool.
two photos I could find of the interior, it gives you an idea of the grandness and the acres of marble! Looks more like Versailles than a beach house!

Just behind the house in the backyard is a really marvelous chinese tea house! It had just recently been restored when I saw it 2 years ago.
the teahouse which is just off the back of the house, pictured

Now, something upsetting is that RMH supposed based this on the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Hmm....I don't think so -but it's still nice. I'll do a posting on the P.T. next week so you can see how that is SOOOO different than Marble House - even its function was different, not to mention that Marble House was built to impress while the Petite Trianon was built as a refuge away from court life at Versailles ...don't get me started....... I'm getting upset...........This is NOT the petite trianon......... It's not even the Trianon!
a sitting room off a bedroom -what, no marble?

I was pretty sick of taking photos by the time of this house ( plus it was raining ) so the photos are courtesy of

a view of the ceiling of the portico- marble marble everywhere!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Richard Morris Hunt, Part 4

The Breakers

Are you getting bored yet? Only one more R.M.H. post to go! Will you miss him? I'm sure he'll miss you! Two summers ago I fulfilled a lifelong dream to go to Newport, RI. Some might say this was the playground of the gilded age - just R.M.H.'s cup of tea! I went during the famous jazz festival ( think louis armstrong and Bing Crosby in 'High Society' -thats newport and the festival ) which was really fantastic. Imagine sitting out in a sailboat riding the waves, sipping champagne and listening to fantastic music -that was me 2 years ago :) But of course it wasn't all fun and games -I had NUMEROUS house museums to see -I was on a schedule!!!
The front facade and driveway from Ochre Avenue ( millionaire row )

The most famous house in Newport ( and one of the most famous in the country ) is the Breakers. Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt ( ya, his younger brother built Biltmore ) as his summer home from 1893-1895, the Breakers is a 70 room mansion with 65,000 SF. Thats like.....super-target sized! The original cost was $7 million dollars ( $150 million in todays money). Like most of the mansions in Newport, the Breaker's rear facade faces the Atlantic ocean and cliffwalk ( a path you can follow along the ocean past all the mansions ).
the Breakers from cliffwalk and the 30 ft tall entry gates

The Breaker's truly is breathtaking. You enter into a lavish great hall which rises 50 ft. high, 50 ft. wide and 50 ft. long and basically all the main rooms of the house open off of it. Ceilings are tall and windows large to catch the ocean breezes. It truly is a magical place. However, the thing that struck me about all of the mansions in Newport were the fact that the mansions are so LARGE and the yards are so small. These are all basically palaces built one upon the other! In scale, it's somewhat like current-day suburbs - houses were built to maximize the space. Until Biltmore was complete, The Breakers was the largest house in America and it's sumptuousness surely beats the Biltmore estate.
the dining room and the central great hall

One interesting tidbit is that while the Vanderbilt family sold the home for $365,000 to the Newport Preservations society in 1972, the family still has the right to use the 3rd floor of the mansion for their use and they do each summer! So one of the biggest tourist destinations in New England which attracts over 300,000 visitors annually is still essentially a private home! Smart owners! Plus while technically the building and property are owned by the preservations society, all the precious furniture on display is still owned by the family. So when you visit ( and you must! ) don't touch!
Those pictures not by me are courtesy of the Newport Preservation Society as to preserve the house you cannot take interior photos

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Richard Morris Hunt, Part 3


This past summer I visited the Biltmore estate in BEAUTIFUL Asheville, NC. It was about a 7 hour drive from DC, so I took a long weekend there. Asheville is surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains; really spectacular scenery. Nestled among all this and outside of the small town of Asheville is Biltmore. George Washington Vanderbilt hired R.M.H. to design this monster in 1888 and it wasn't completed till 1895. It still remains the largest house in America at 175,000 SF and is probably the structure that comes to mind when people think of the Gilded Age.
The view from the rear and closeup of the entry

Surprisingly, Biltmore is still privately owned by the Vanderbilt family but as a huge business now and not a private home. No one has lived there since the early 1950s. The day I was there it was packed and they're open all year long! In addition to the house tours ( of which you can take your pick from numerous specialized packages) there is a wineyard and tastings area, numerous restaurants, a petting zoo, a working farm and a luxury hotel ( I stayed at a GREEN B&B in town ). The side garden
Asheville's main industry is tourism from the nearby hiking and the Biltmore estate of course which brings in over 1 million people annually! It's also a college town -so there is a thriving arts community and great restaurants. Really a cute little town!
Detail of the finial on the conservatory, rupenzel's tower ( rear of sculpture court )

I think everyone has seen Biltmore in one way or another - either in the Home Depot ads on tv, in numerous movies ( Biltmore has starred in over 12 movies starting in 1948 ) or in one of the many articles or books about it. Views from the sculpture court, almost looks like a smaller French chateau from here

The house has many 'modern' convienences, including a large indoor swimming pool, ELECTRICITY ( remember the time period! ), en-suite bathrooms for the NUMEROUS guest suites, really nice servants quarters ( a rarity in the day ), a 2-story library, a bowling alley, elevators, forced air heat, fire alarms, intercoms and oddly enough a system of centrally controlled clocks ( for the servants to run on time! ). Biltmore estate was built to be a well-oiled machine - based on the grand country estates in Europe.
Peaking through the garden towards the house and a weird (forgotten?) corner
What really is interesting to see are the servants quarters that have recently been opened to the public. Usually you see only the grand public spaces in house museums such as this -not the servant's bedrooms in the attic! You also get the opportunity to explore the massive kitchens and the sub-basement where the machinery is for the elevator, heat and electric generators, laundry machines, etc.
Entry Court Gates and detail of the stair tower
Unfortunately, you can't take any pictures of the interiors, but they're pretty easy to find if you're curious. The outside and the scenery are so breathtaking as you can see that I took 100s of photos - these are just a few of my favorites.details of lantern and the rear facade from the side

You can see the main website and learn more about Biltmore at

Monday, January 28, 2008

Richard Morris Hunt, Part 2


Grey Towers through the mist as seen from the side
This past fall I visited Milford, PA to see some fall leaves, the national forests there and also visit R.M.H.'s 'Grey Towers'. Of course it was rainy and misty my entire trip nearly, but that did add to the charm somewhat -so ignore the greyness of the photos! Milford is a charming little town surrounded by forests and amazing waterfalls. However, it wasn't always this way.

James Pinchot built 'Grey Towers' as his families summer estate to escape from NYC to his hometown of Milford. He had a flourishing wallpaper business and was friends with many influential designers of the day such as R.M.H. and Frederick Law Olmstead. He actually was on the committee to select the base for the statue of liberty and lobbied for his friend, R.M.H. to get the commission which of course he did.

Former Yale school of forestry, now cool design shops!

Pinchot was an early proponent of the American Forestry Association and endowed the Yale School of Forestry in Milford. The purpose of this association was to encourage reforestation of 'denuded' lands -which Milford and much of industrial America were! The school was housed in a beautiful building that now contains a few interesting antique and design shops seen above ( check them out if you visit). The building is in amazing condition and really fascinating!

Grey Towers from below
James's son, Gifford Pinchot (1865 - 1946) carried on his father's passion and was the first National forestor (he worked on the forests in Asheville, NC near the Biltmore estate at the request of the Vanderbilts from Frederick Law Olmstead's recommendation - I'll be talking about Biltmore later this week). He was one of the environmentalists at the turn of the 20th cenutry; So you might say he was an early 'GREEN' hippy!
one of the towers -check out the detailing in the lower right hand corner
Grey Towers was designed by R.M.H. for James Pinchot from 1884-1886 after his retiring from the wallpaper business. All the stone was mined from the site, so you can imagine how 'denuded' it became. Later on, his son Gifford would work on restoring the forests we see there now.
view from the house
The L shaped house is anchored by 3 large towers that give it its name and originally cost $19,000 to build ( furnishings were an additional $24,000 -hey, there were 43 rooms!).
on the front porch - cute shutters, love the moons and blue color!

Chinoiserie styled cabinet inside the grand hall that I LOVED!

Later, after Gifford was married, Grey Towers became his summer residence and a large redecoration took place under the care of his wife which is how the house currently exists. She modernized the first floor plan ( and tackified the interiors ) by combining 4 small public rooms into 2 much larger, comfortable rooms. You can see them here...the wall treatment in question ( you know what I mean ) is's SUPPOSED to look like that. It really is quite magnificent if a little tacky by todays standards.

Two photos from the living room
The exterior 'patio' was also redone with beautiful flagstones with an unusual 'pool' as a dining table as there was no indoor dining room in this summer residence. You simply put food in wood baskets and shoved them on the water between guests -really clever and fun. Guests ate on the edges of the pool shown here. These are obviously not the original chairs. A large swimming pool was added just above this.
Dining pool in foreground, swimming pool in background

Many pavilions for numerous uses exist on the site too - and the views are spectacular!
the gatehouse through fall foliage

In 1963 the home was donated to the Forest Service by his son, Gifford II and they now use it for Forest Service seminars and tours ( of course! ). The first floor is done as it was in the 1920s, but the upper floors are set up for use as a conference center and classrooms. JFK actually came here to christen the building in 1963, shortly before his death!
JFK was here!

As a side note, while there I stayed at a really charming and luxurious B&B style hotel called 'Hotel Fauchere'. (
Hotel Fauchere in the evening!

R.M.H. himself ate here at the hotel ( as did I, yummy!!). The rooms are all done up with the best of everything for a VERY comfortable stay. I plan on going again this year! Go visit Grey Towers and the surrounding forests and stay at the Hotel Fauchere! It makes for a great long weekend! About one block from the hotel is a GREAT little diner.....and I'm a diner expert!
cute small town diner - yummy food! RMH did not eat here!

You can find more information about Grey Tower's at it's official website at:

Mad Money

This past weekend I saw a really great movie - Mad Money - with an all-star cast! Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes and Ted Danson (??????). Imagine a funny Ocean's 11, except in this case more like Oceans 3. It was really clever and just an enjoyable movie!

Diane Keaton plays the mastermind - an upper-middleclass housewife who to save her home from being sold takes a job as a janitor.

Queen Latifah plays the single mother with the heart of gold that is a money shredder

Katie Holmes playes the ADORABLE spunky, quirky hippie chick addicted to her ipod!

I laughed, I cried......wait - I didn't cry -but I did laugh. Check it out!