Artists' houses. You have to love them. Otherwise, these valuable three-dimensional documents can sink into oblivion and be lost forever. Indeed, love may be the primary ingredient in any preservation effort, the emotional trigger by which the present reconstitutes the past as a gift for the future.
This thought comes repeatedly, and sometimes sadly, to mind when one visits some of the artists' houses that lie within a half-day's drive of New York City, along either side of the Hudson and in Massachusetts. The artists who inhabited, and occasionally built or altered, these structures range from Hudson River School stars such as Frederick Edwin Church and Jasper Cropsey, both of whom died in 1900, to the 20th-century American modernists Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L. K. Morris, whose International Style country house and studio in Lenox, Mass., opened for tours last summer. Also included is the home of the founding spirit of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). His home has been decaying for several years, shuttered and neglected where it sits in Catskill, N.Y., but its fortunes are on the upswing.
These homes provide valuable insights into their inhabitants' quirks, sensibilities and achievements, and illuminates as well the architecture, taste and living conditions of their time (and to some extent their class). Plus, each house comes with its preservation saga, one usually initiated by one determined individual -- often a descendant of the artist -- and carried forth against heavy odds, sometimes with tragic losses of material.
Hence the big picture can be equally valuable and sobering or thrilling, for anyone interested in architectural or artistic preservation. Each house represents different levels of financing, attention and understanding, a degree and kind of love measured in physical condition and intellectual coherence, and some remind us that love can be blind when genuine vision is needed most.
The parts of this picture are arranged in neither chronological nor geographical order, but according to the substantialness of the houses and in an effort to bring both their lessons and their pleasures into sharper relief.
Church's magical Olana
The greatest triumph of artist's-house salvation, because it is the most complete, is fittingly also the greatest artistic achievement in the group: Frederick Edwin Church's magical, magnificent Olana, a Victorian-Moorish fantasy perched high above the Hudson a few miles south of Hudson, N.Y. The views from Olana's grounds, towers, porches and windows are among the most spectacular along the Hudson, or any river. Still, inside and out, the house withstands the challenge spectacularly. And it seems to have been blessed with a fierce guardian, Sally Good Church, the artist's daughter-in-law, who lived out her widowhood at Olana, dying in 1963. Apparently, she never moved a thing in the lavishly appointed ground-floor rooms, the artist's studio included.
Made wealthy by the success of his dramatic panoramic paintings of the Andes and Niagara Falls, which thousands of people paid to see, Church was drawn back to the Hudson Valley just before his marriage to Isabel Carnes, in 1860. He purchased a 126-acre farm, whose topography he already knew and loved. From its various high points, he had sketched and painted the surrounding landscape with Thomas Cole, whose home lay directly across the river. (The precocious Church was Cole's only student, studying with him in 1844 and 1845.)
Living first in a smaller cottage, Church began planning a hilltop in the mid-1860s. But in 1865, he and his wife went abroad for 18 months to recover from the sudden deaths of their two young children from diphtheria. They visited England, savoring the sober decorativeness of the Esthetic Movement, and then the Middle East, where they became entranced by Persian culture. They returned home with a completely different concept for their new house.
Richard Morris Hunt, who had drawn up the initial plans, was replaced by Calvert Vaux. And Vaux was soon relegated to overseeing structural and engineering matters while Church designed the house and, with Isabel, decorated its elaborate interiors.
Squarish, with a robust Italianate tower rising from one corner, the house has great bones. To this austere structure, Church added keyhole archways and windows, a smaller tower and turret, and eventually a new studio, all pulled together by borders of decorative brickwork, tile and polychrome wood, sometimes in relief. At once massive and delicate, the result conjures up a mosque, a citadel and a summer palace that is also clearly the work of a painter. Inside, the decorated borders, usually stenciled, continue to mesmerizing effect around moldings and across doors, unifying rooms that change from green to yellow to salmon -- perfect-pitch tones that Church mixed on his palette.
The colors and borders also bring coherence to a mind-boggling range of furniture, art and decorative objects from around the world -- a Japanese Buddha, Chinese porcelains, copies of mosque candle lanterns, Turkish rugs and kilims. These are mixed with Church's paintings and those of his contemporaries, usually landscapes keyed to the real landscapes framed by every window. The totality is surprisingly tranquil and harmonious, as if Church had translated his penchant for universalizing the natural landscape into a deftly orchestrated celebration of world cultures.
Although New York state refused to accept Olana as a bequest from its last occupant, it was rescued from the brink of auction by a group led by the artist's biographer, David Huntington, which included Philip Johnson, Lincoln Kirstein and Edgar Kaufman Jr. They knew that Olana and its grounds, on which Church lavished equal attention, were the artist's final and possibly his greatest work.
Cropsey's Ever Rest
If Olana is the blazing jewel in the crown of artists' houses, Jasper Cropsey's Ever Rest, a yellow-and-white gingerbread cottage in Hastings-on-Hudson, is a lustrous little gem that has recently been given a somewhat awkward setting. This setting is the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Gallery of Art and Cultural Studies Center, which opened on adjacent property in 1994 in a sprawling yellow-and-white, Palladian-style villa.
The Newington-Cropsey Foundation, which is headed by Barbara Newington, Cropsey's great-granddaughter, seems to exemplify that love is at least partly blind. Newington and her husband deserve incalculable credit for reassembling an enormous collection of Cropsey's paintings, watercolors and drawings over the last 45 years. Together with archives maintained by the family since Cropsey's death, these artworks form an extraordinarily complete repository that will undoubtably benefit Cropsey scholarship.
But everything about the new building seems garishly inappropriate and amateurish, starting with the overwrought, badly scaled architecture. The central double-height gallery, based on the Pantheon, includes a staircase fit for a scene in "Gone With the Wind." And Cropsey's paintings are hung too high, poorly lighted, unlabeled and, worst of all, appear to have been vigorously overcleaned to a harsh, uniform brightness.
The art is much more at home, and is far easier to see, at the Cropsey homestead, which he bought in 1885 and lived in for five years, until his death.
Cropsey, four years younger than Church, lacked the latter's sense of spiritual drama and sweeping, eye-of-God perspectives. Influenced by Constable, Cropsey was an earthier, more prosaic painter, more likely than Church to include everyday signs of domestic life and modern progress -- farms, grazing cows, villages, trains and bridges -- in his elegantly worked paintings, which reflect a special talent for portraying the glowing colors of autumn.
And while Church backed into architecture, discovering a new outlet for his visionary impulses, Cropsey trained as an architect and frequently worked as one even after his focus changed to painting. His architectural credits include several Manhattan brownstones, the 14th Street subway station for the old Sixth Avenue el and the Moravian Church on Staten Island. (The most informative display at the gallery is a small room devoted to his architectural renderings.)
Cropsey may also have built his own Olana, a 37-room Elizabethan-Tudor mansion and studio in Warwick, N.Y., which he named Aladdin. He was forced to sell it in 1884, after the Hudson River School fell out of favor and his fortunes slumped; it burned to the ground a few years later.
Ever Rest, a relatively modest board-and-batten house built in 1830 to which Cropsey added a studio that he designed, is a pleasure. It has a breathtaking view of the Hudson and is chockablock with furniture and objects acquired by succeeding Cropseys. Also on view are several pieces of furniture designed by the artist; his palette, brushes and portable easel; the dress suit he wore when presented to Queen Victoria, and a series of small studies depicting the Battle of Gettysburg.
The work lining the walls of Ever Rest forms a veritable Cropsey retrospective, with the small oil studies and dozens of fine small drawings as standouts. And the large studio is especially dramatic: a grand, medieval banquet hall of a room lined with elaborate paneling and crowned with a cupola whose windows open with pulleys. An easel displaays the artist's last work, an unfinished portrait of his wife. A small watercolor reveals that the studio is almost an exact replica of the one that Cropsey built at Aladdin.
Morse's Locust Grove
Locust Grove, the sprawling gentleman's estate farm that the painter-turned-inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) purchased in 1847, is also a repository for art and furniture acquired by several generations of inhabitants. It is much more of a composite than Cropsey's Ever Rest, in part because Morse's life and career were peripatetic -- he abandoned painting after it failed to support him -- and in part because his children sold the house in 1901. Its new owner was William Young, whose daughter Annette lived in the house until she died in 1975 and endowed a small trust to maintain the estate as a historic site.
The Youngs were sensitive to the Morse connection, retaining some of his furniture and purchasing a few paintings by him (the house also contains a model of the original telegraph). But they were also inveterate collectors, especially of furniture, filling the house with acquisitions that ranged from the 1700s to the late 19th century. The house is an amazingly crowded pastiche of artifacts: a Dutch marquetry bedroom set here, an Empire gentleman's chest there, various pieces of Chippendale, numerous grandfather clocks and even an Elizabethan Revival dining room set.
In its profusion and disorder, Locust Grove is something of the "Un-Olana," and what the public sees is only the tip of the iceberg of decorative arts holdings. A new visitors' center, near the edge of the site, promises to be sympathetic and unobtrusive. It may relieve some of the congestion, but the current ambience of a large, high-end antiques store is not altogether unpleasant.
The most interesting aspect of the estate, aside from its beautiful grounds, which Morse had a hand in planning, is the house. It was Morse who enlarged and completely transformed it, with the help of architect Alexander Jackson Davis. The original rectangular Federal structure was encased in an octagonal Tuscan-style villa flanked by verandas, an arched porte-cochere on one side and, on the other, a four-story tower with breathtaking views of the Hudson. It is a graceful if subtly mongrel structure, unfazed by the Youngs' addition of a dining and bedroom wing in place of one of the verandas.
Edward Hopper House Art Center
Hopper House, in Nyack, N.Y., is an example of the artist's house as empty vessel -- one that, as these things go, was never very full. Built in 1858 by his maternal grandfather, the clapboard two-story house was Edward Hopper's birthplace and childhood home. He left it in 1906 at age 24 and never lived there again, although he retained title to the house and his sister lived there until her death in 1965. But Hopper visited Nyack regularly and the area's storefronts and houses appear in a few of his paintings. At his death, in 1967, he was buried in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery.
Hopper House is a shoestring, grass-roots operation. Slated for demolition in 1970, it was saved by local residents who formed the Edward Hopper Landmark Preservation Foundation, solicited donations and donated time and expertise to its restoration. Today it is a cultural center, holding exhibitions, drawing classes and concerts; its upstairs rooms are rented as offices. One small room is devoted to Hopper's life and work, but it contains none of his art and, except for an austere settee, no Hopper family furniture.
Still, to enter this green-shuttered white house, with its tall French windows overlooking the Hudson, wide bare floorboards and airy, high-ceilinged rooms, is to come under a spell that can be described only as Hopperesque. The house is the modest prototype of the austere white houses that Hopper turned into icons of small-town America. Even the emptiness of the rooms seems to echo the sparse interiors and emotional isolation of his paintings.
It is surprisingly affecting to see the point of origin of this motif, and this mood. It resonates throughout Hopper's sensibility, and gives the house its own kind of fullness.
Cole Historic Landmark
Thomas Cole's yellow-and-white home, which overlooks the Catskill Mountains, not the Hudson, as is often supposed, is an instance of artist's-house purgatory. Although Cole inhabited Cedar Grove for only the last 12 years of his life, his descendants occupied it until the early 1960s, preserving much of his art and many of his belongings. They even went so far as to block a proposed approach to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that would have required moving or demolishing the house.
Although the Cole house received National Landmark status in 1965, it was refused as a gift by New York state. Emptied of its contents in a heartbreaking auction, in which large paintings by Cole sold for less than $1,000, the house was finally purchased by a well-meaning group headed by the New York art dealer Ira Spanierman. Calling itself the Thomas Cole Foundation, this hastily assembled body ultimately lacked the money to keep the house open or even to maintain it properly.
But a happy ending may be in sight. The Greene County Historical Society, which bought some Cole items at the auction, has signed a contract to purchase the house from the foundation. Management of the house will be overseen by a separate board of directors, headed by Robert Stackman. A state grant has been received for exterior repairs; a federal grant and affiliation with the National Park Service may soon be forthcoming.
Although the board does not expect to be able to reconstitute more than a few rooms with displays of art and objects original to the house during Cole's time, it says the house will be open in time for Greene County's bicentennial celebration in 2000.
Frelinghuysen Morris House
With the house and studio of Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988) and George L. K. Morris (1905-1975), the 19th century gives way to the 20th, nature takes a back seat to culture and abstraction, and white stucco and glass brick prevail.
Frelinghuysen and Morris, both from wealthy families who encouraged their interests in art and music, married in 1934. A devout abstractionist, founding member of the American Abstract Artists and, later, an editor and art critic at Partisan Review, Morris rekindled his wife's childhood interest in painting. By the early '40s, they were known as the "Park Avenue Cubists," along with A.E. Gallatin and Charles Shaw, two other abstract painters of independent means.
Morris built the Bauhaus-inspired house on his family's Lenox, Mass., estate in the early 1940s, working with the Stockbridge architect John Butler Swann. He linked it to a studio he had built in 1930 that was based on the Paris studio of Le Corbusier, with whom he had studied. The blazing white compound formed by these buildings has a nautical, Art Deco glamour suitable to Nick and Nora Charles. There is a sunken bar underneath the spiral stairs in the foyer and, instead of Asta, a pug named Miss Rose once waited by the front door. But there is also a well-chosen collection of works by Picasso, Gris, Miro, Leger, Matisse, Braque and Helion, and Nonobjective fresco murals by the owners.
Morris painted the ones in the house's courtyard, curving stairway and living room. Frelinghuysen held forth in the dining room, with bold Synthetic Cubist compositions in a signature palette of blue, soft chartreuse and black. While her best efforts are often more satisfying than Morris' more cerebral works, she clearly took things less seriously, painting her bedroom with a frothy landscape and quoting Mantegna on the ceiling, while he created handsome wood and Bakelite wall reliefs for his bathroom.
The foundation, which was established in Frelinghuysen's will, is overseen by her nephew, artist T. Kinney Frelinghuysen, who prepared the house for public display, while also managing to leave it much as it was.
As the visitor departs through the woods surrounding the house, past a large reclining nude by Gaston Lachaise, an interesting question takes shape: How many houses of 20th-century American artists have already been lost to posterity, and how many will soon be in danger?
When you go:
Here is information about visiting the artists' houses:
Thomas Cole National Historic Landmark, 218 Spring Street (southeast corner of the intersection of Route 23 and Route 385), Catskill, N.Y. The house, in disrepair, is closed, but one can park and walk around it.
Jasper Cropsey Homestead, 49 Washington Ave., Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., 914-478-1372. Mondays through Fridays, 10 A.M. to 1 P.M., by appointment only. Free. Newington-Cropsey Foundation, 25 Cropsey Lane, Hastings-on-Hudson, 914-478-7990, Mondays through Fridays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., by appointment only. Also free. Both places close in August.
Hopper House, 82 North Broadway, Nyack, N.Y., 914-358-0774. Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., Fridays to 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation: $1.
Samuel F. B. Morse Historic Site, 370 South Road (Route 9), Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 914-454-4500. The house is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from May 1 to Nov. 24. During the rest of the year, it's open for holiday tours and for bus tours only in March and April. Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $1 for children 6 to 21.
Frelinghuysen Morris Foundation, 92 Hawthorne St., Lenox, Mass., 413-637-0166. Opens July 1. Hourly tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays. Admission: $7.50 for adults; $2.50 for children 5 to 16. Reservations are encouraged.
Olana, State Route 9G, near Hudson, N.Y., 518-828-0135. The house is open Wednesdays through Sundays from April through October, from 10 a.m. Call for closing hours, which vary with the season. Reservations are recommended. Admission: $3 for adults; $2 for the elderly; $1 for children.
-- New York Times