Friday, July 25, 2014

A singing ringing tree and a country house

Friends have bought a country house which, at the moment, is in the hands of their decorator. The big reveal will take place around Labor Day and knowing them and their decorator as I do, I am sanguine there'll be none of that country twaddle – twiggy furniture, antlers, plaid throws, taxidermy, botanical prints, gingham doodads, reedy wreaths hung with berries and bows, colonial-style hope chests, doggy or horsey anything, patchwork quilts, iron chandeliers, duck decoys, baskets, pinecone candlesticks, rag dolls, doilies, hutches – in fact, none of the foolishness that afflicts some decorators and their clients when faced with living in what, in reality, are suburban subdivisions on mountainsides, in former horse country, or in just-graded, tree-free, erstwhile wilderness. Living in the country, be it ersatz or real, need not stupefy a sense of proportion and send one headlong towards the land of cute and dainty.

Not that the picture is any better on the other side of the pond. Looking at real-estate photos of interiors near my home town was horrifying – so many dark-stained big-box store fittings and fixtures, staircases and balustrades, "hand-adzed" beams and rafters, "medieval" smoke hoods above electric "living-flame effect" fireboxes. And the bathrooms, without exception megastore "contemporary," left me not knowing whether to swear or laugh, as also did some of the most ludicrous window mistreatments I've ever seen. I don't think my home town or the valley where it's located is a bastion of bad-taste, though, judging by what I saw, it could well be – I have never seen so many pub-like residential interiors in my life. There the pub has an influence on some demographics and here it's the country club.

I've always had a hankering after a country house but the Celt, having lived in at least one in his youth, is resolute about not wanting to leave the city. Having heard tales of his long walk home from the bus stop through woods and by fields to the family house, often in the dark and wet, I cannot blame him. Nowadays, of course, it is unimaginable that a boy would be allowed to hike a mile or two at any time of year without accompaniment. Those days – not that long ago, as I'm sure he'd remind me – were very different. 

At the time I left home, in my early twenties, I had never gone further than the woods and farms surrounding our house and the villages around my home town I knew by name only. Pendle Hill was visible from our garden, as were the valley sides, with their sheep-grazed fields and stone walls – but I had no real appreciation of it. I was too busy hiding to look outwards. 

The last few years, we have visited the area, but only in winter – which isn't the best season, given the short, grey and wet days, for being a tourist. On this trip, the long, warm summer days made true tourists of us, drawing us out onto the moors and into the smaller towns and villages. 

I realize now how much influence the architecture of my youth, however unappreciated then, has had on my aesthetic. The long, sooty rows of stone-built  houses, the Gothic Revival stone-built churches and the simpler non-concormist chapels, the churchyards with gravestones listing family histories well into the the 17th and 18th centuries and occasionally, if I wandered into church, the wonderful stained-glass windows. 

The reredos in my primary school's church has stayed in my memory as one of the most magical things I had ever seen, but of dark carved wood rather than the gilded and painted object it now is. The school building is long gone. I'm not really sure why "improvement" means pulling down perfectly good buildings or, for that matter, why Spanish patio-compatible terracotta tile replaces flagstone in a medieval church but ... who am I? I no longer live there. 

So, with rain threatening we walked through the lychgate – I noticed that the arriving funeral did not pause there as it once would have for the first part of the ceremony to take place – to take a few photographs of the church and its yard. Lych is old English for corpse; lychgate is not the romantic destination brides of today and their photographers find it to be. Beautiful, though, with its late 19th-century carved detailing and slate roof. 

I walked and walked, amazed with the beauty of it all – an historic beauty I was only just seeing for myself – snapping photograph after photograph until, as I've done before, I realized I was missing so much by putting the lens between me and the buildings I saw.

It rained eventually. Pendle Hill (see above) disappeared under clouds,  almost as we reached the Singing Ringing Tree. A man, just leaving as we and the rain arrived, remarked it was in fine fettle that day and so it was – humming, singing and sighing with the wind that passed over and through it. An intangible song of weather befitting a landscape of hills, moor, rock, running water and, if legends are to be believed, witches.

My brother-in-law and I were too cold and wet even to be amused at the spectacle of my 5' 10" husband sharing a small, packable umbrella with my sister who is 10 inches shorter. 

Photograph of St Andrew's reredos is from here

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A thousand-year-old Book, Paolozzi's Newton, and Mellow Yellow Brick

The British Library courtyard with St Pancras Station beyond

I'd never thought that the King's Cross area of London as being anywhere other than a place to avoid – very run-down with tarts galore – but this visit, my first, proved how long-established my ignorance has been. During the last twenty years or more, the area and the railway station have been regenerated (the area, beginning with The British Library and the station with a marvelous canopy above the new Western Concourse) with hotels like the resurrected Great Northern Hotel and George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Hotel, restaurants, residential and commercial buildings being built, and older structures made sound and adapted for reuse.

Newton after Blake
Eduardo Paolozzi

The British Library, architecturally speaking, is underwhelming, but, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery with an exhibition of more than two-hundred items, overwhelmingly reveals itself as the treasure house of world culture and knowledge that it is. As the web page for the exhibition states, half of the exhibits have not been in public view for many years and, believe me, the list of those exhibits is formidable. With exhibits such the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, Handel's Messiah, the Gutenberg Bible, Laurence Olivier's script for Macbeth, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a thousand-year-old book, give or take a minute or two), a First Folio of Shakespeare, and Magna Carta, this British Library gallery is well-worth a taxi-ride across London. In fact, it's downright awesome!

For over forty years the front of King's Cross Station was obscured by a "temporary" structure and it is only recently that structure has been removed and replaced with a relatively new (in modern times) phenomenon – the piazza. Not yet finished, but very well-used by travelers and those who meet them, this new piazza is a place to keep wallets safe and to wonder at the variety of the human face. 

King's Cross railway station is fronted with mellow-yellow brick arches that trace the shapes of the massive iron-arched train sheds behind. Easy as it is to forget that for the Victorians (King's Cross was built in 1851) structures such as these were the acme of contemporary technology in architecture – a point that is immediately evident when one walks from the old structure to the new Western Concourse with its soaring fountain of a canopy – a covering suggesting the springing of the gothic arch of St George's Chapel, Windsor, rather than the Gothic of the nearby St Pancras railway station.

King's Cross Western Concourse 

Lewis Cubitt, the designer of King's Cross railway station was also responsible for the design of the Great Northern Hotel seen in the photograph below to the left of the station. The hotel has gone from being drab and basic to contemporary "boutique" hotel with a redesign and renovation reputedly costing £45,000,000 ($76,687,117). This is where we stayed for the first of the family parties before we headed north to Lancashire and Scotland. 

Photographs of Newton after Blake by Eduardo Paolozzi and the King's Cross Western Concourse are from Wikipedia Commons. All the other photographs are mine. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Forty years ago, David Whitcomb on Beekman Place

"Everything that goes into a room should be meaningful to the owner – status decorating is over." So declared David Whitcomb in 1974 when interviewed for Architectural Digest. Would that his claim had carried weight with more people in the following decades – it's quite clear that status decorating has never left us and probably never shall.

The interviewer is nowhere recorded, surprisingly, but I intend to quote both him and Mr Whitcomb himself to describe the decorator and the decorator's own home – a place clearly full of things meaningful to the owner – they both will do a better job than I. If there's any emphasis on status in this house, and I'm sure there is, it is not crude. I have written about Mr Whitcomb before  and should you wish to see more of his talent and his, to me, timeless decorating please click here or look for his name in the sidebar "Labels."

"Just in from his second home, in upstate apple/dairy country, David Whitcomb, in well-broken-in walking shoes and a cozy, stretched-out sweater, settles himself down on a u-shaped bench in the duplex where he's lived since 1959, the same year he purchased the five-story graystone townhouse. A seemingly relaxed man, with nice blue eyes, graying hair and a quiet sensibleness about him, he admits:

" 'It's difficult for me to talk about myself and my design work, especially something that is so basically visual. Words, somehow, aren't right in this case. And you see, I'm not one of those designers on an ego trip. It's very important to me that the results I try to achieve do not come out looking like Joe Whosit or Jane Whatsit did them. I've seen so many designers only interested in themselves, it's made me turn around and get more into my clients' point of view. Frequently clients don't have the time or interest or knowledge, but they always have a point of view.

" ' I don't know if I have a word for my style. I don't like that word 'eclectic.' Let's say it's a collection of dissimilar pieces, both in county of origin and period of time, from this bench to that highly carved Chippendale armchair in flame-stitch fabric.

 " ' As a designer I see so many objects that turn me off. I'm very particular about what I want around me, even to the simplest things. I feel that everything that goes into a room should be meaningful to the owner – objects one loves, not just things that represent money. Status decorating is over. After all, really incredible beauty is often something you cannot bring into a room. Like a tree branch coated with ice. There's transitory beauty!

" ' The act of design is a creative one, which makes for a certain amount of ego, I guess. I'm proud of what I do but I don't think it need to develop into egotism ..... I have never had a client who didn't have taste. That's why they come to me.' "

As I wrote above, I've let David Whitcomb speak for himself and as far as I am concerned his house needs no description of contents and finishes for it, too, speaks for itself. This is a house, as have all of Whitcomb's been, a place I would have like to have spent time, talking, reading and listening to music. It is a subtle and sophisticated room, long-gone, I'm sure, and to my eye quite undated.

That "Kentian" table in the second photograph reminds me that I'm catching a plane in a few hours, first to New York, thence to London where we'll visit the William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum – an exhibition I'm looking forward to immensely and one I missed when it was at the Bard Graduate Center before the end of last year.

We are going to New York, London, Edinburgh and Dundee for theatre, exhibitions, a birthday party, a family reunion, reunions with old friends, and to spend time with two very excited nieces, eleven and thirteen years old. The twenty-four-year-old nephew is being very cool about it all – as is only to be expected. I, on the other hand .... well, more about that from over there.

Photographs by Daniel Eifert to accompany text written (anonymously, as far as I can see) for Architectural Digest, May/June 1974.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A very happy Independence Day

 Seventy degrees with low humidity – perfect for the annual Peachtree Road Race. 

Yesterday, a walk by the Chattahoochee 

Fred, who likes nothing better than lying in shallow pools – if there aren't any snapping turtles

After dinner, on the way home by the Swan House

Next week we go to New York, thence to London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dundee. I shall be posting from there. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Who knew?

Happy birthday to me from Google. 
I'm touched that the folks at Google would take time out of their busy schedules on a Sunday to wish me a happy birthday. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

With a song in my heart

With a song in my heart
I behold your adorable face.
Just a song at the start
but it soon is a hymn to your grace.
When the music swells
I'm touching your hand
It tells that you're standing near, and
At the sound of your voice 
heaven opens its portals to me.
Can I help but rejoice
that a song such as ours came to be?
But I always knew
I would live life through
with a song in my heart for you.

A year ago today, in the Supreme Court of New York building, on my brother's birthday, the day before my own, thirty-five years after we met, Rory and I were married

With a song in my heart, indeed

Lyrics by Lorenz Hart, 1929

Monday, June 23, 2014


Asked my old prof when I told her we were considering remodeling the kitchen. "I've lived with mine for more than forty years despite it being small and having three doorways in it." "You just make do," she said, "but nowadays you might as well tell that to the Marines." "All that good stuff going into the landfill just because some dolly desecrator says so." Warming to her theme and sipping her wine "It's not that I'm advocating waiting for the tinker to come by and have him repair a pan as my great-grandparents had to do – not that these gals nowadays would know how to wear out a pan; they don't cook! Can't cook, in most cases. Didn't you once tell me about a neighbor who threw out all her old pans because they didn't go with her new kitchen and bought a matching set of fashionable, so-called professional pans? Who do these people think they are – chefs? Can you imagine Piero throwing away a pot because it doesn't look good? It should be about function not fashion." 

"Is there a problem with the new menu?" said Piero (whose grandfather, as a boy, saw Buffalo Bill in Piacenza) walking over from his kitchen – we were having our usual Friday lunch and I guess we'd got bit excited and enthusiastic. There's never a problem with the food that comes out of your kitchen except, perhaps, my waistline, I assured him. 

Our kitchen, as you see from these photographs, is a galley and its layout was designed in 1969 by the architect of the buildings. It was designed as a "work center" – a place where the help could enter by the back door (there's a doorbell on the door frame) and begin her work without entering the main door. The room functions as both kitchen and laundry. Not an entirely satisfactory situation by modern standards, but as a good instance of 1960s thinking and planning it cannot be beat. Ted Levy, the architect, had provided a laundry room for tenants in one of the buildings yet I have come to appreciate the combination of kitchen and laundry – perhaps because I grew up with such an arrangement, and being able to keep an eye on more than one task is of great use to me. 

The kitchen was fitted with new cabinetry and appliances in the 1970s and when we bought the place it was in a terrible state and only one appliance worked – the oven, and it died halfway through  baking a cake on my birthday. Given that the building/selling boom in Atlanta was then at its peak we couldn't get a contractor because we lived in a high-rise – they were too busy with building the suburbs. Nowadays, of course, they're fighting to get in the buildings so, perhaps, this time it will be easier to remodel. 

We painted the dark cherry cabinets a soft grey-blue, built a cabinet for the stacked washer/dryer, replaced the peeling counters with Silestone, backslashes with subway tile, and used Miele and Sub-Zero appliances. You see the results – on a summer morning, facing the rising sun, the kitchen is a joy to walk into. On a winter's night, orange curtains closed against the cold, it's delectable having the Celt sit at the table telling me about his day whilst I futz at the cooktop and then join him in one of the Provençal chairs we bought more than thirty years ago. 

Now, nearly ten years later we both want a new kitchen – one without oddly projecting cabinets with more work surface, no stainless steel (a misnomer if ever I heard one), no visible hinges and without paneled doors. In other words we want a contemporary, streamlined, easy-to-care-for and to cook-in kitchen that is beautiful and suits someone with back problems. 

Inevitably, fashion plays a role in decorating and remodeling decisions. Neither of us wants the kind of curlicued cabinetry that refers to a mythical Victorian past – kitchens until the late 20th-century were hellish and from our first-world perspective created more labor than they saved. The modern kitchen is one of the wonders of the modern age and also of modern marketing – as much a product of suburbanization as was the creation of the family room/great room/keeping room/kitchen combination with attendant butler's pantry and wine cellar. 

What exercises us is not when to remodel, but whether or not we remove the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. In essence, the kitchen would not get any bigger except than an island or peninsula would supplant the dining table, yet I see the attraction of taking away the wall – the undertow of fashion and marketing is strong. We are divided about it – not acrimoniously but certainly typically.

It's likely that making do as my old prof advocates is not a choice – the concept of "aging in place" and the adaptability of the environment to the needs of the user already require that changes be made to the room.  Also, perhaps, what should exercise us more than the possible removal of a wall is what happens to the old cabinets and counters. Do they go into the landfill? Would anyone even want them?