Saturday, October 29, 2011

James Marston Fitch, The Force That Shaped Preservation

The success of historic preservation in this country -- and some of the seasoned readers of The Devoted Classicist will be thinking "such as it is" -- owes much to James Marston Fitch, 1909 - 2000.  Co-founder with Charles Peterson of the country's first graduate program in historic preservation which was started at Columbia University in 1964, Professor Fitch's philosophy has been spread across the country, and even the world, as his students have continued his efforts.  James Marston Fitch changed the way Americans look at historic buildings.
The SoHo District in Manhattan, circa 1970.  Fitch was a prominent figure in the opposition of an expressway that would have bisected the district.

Born in Washington on May 8, 1909, he grew up in Chattanooga, and attended the University of Alabama and the School of Architecture at Tulane University.  But before getting his degree, economic necessities required his working for an architectural firm in Chattanooga, and then, as the effects of The Great Depression worsened, in Nashville, working for the firm of A. Herbert Rodgers.  (Just as today, Nashville was somewhat cushioned against ecomonic down-turns and Rodgers designed a number of large classical houses in Nashville during this period when much of the rest of the country was financially strapped.  Now Rodgers is best remembered for his interior design and being the first mentor to legendary decorator Albert Hadley).  In 1934 he worked for the Tennessee State Planning Board, conducting demographic research that further reinforced his feeling of the correlation between professions, economy, and architecture.  Despite his great appreciation of Thomas Jefferson and his classical design philosophy, Fitch became interested in the Bauhaus and Modernism, free of what many saw as the anti-social implications of traditional architecture.
"Brook House" at 4431 Tyne Blvd in Belle Meade, Nashville, designed by the firm of A. Herbert Rodgers in 1931 is one of the city's most highly regarded of the classical houses that still remains as a private residence.

In the mid-1930s, Fitch moved to New York City and worked as an associate editor for Architectural Record.  It was a great period of building where he was able to observe, first-hand, the technology that allowed an new aesthetic in architecture.  From 1942 to 1945, he worked as a meteorologist in the United States Air Force.  This new understanding of climate from the scientific point of view, combined with a re-evaluation of architectural history, stirred his social conscience and the desire to create a better world for all.  This led to his writing the book AMERICAN BUILDING:  THE FORCES THAT SHAPED;  first published in 1947, it has since been edited and republished, as two books at one time, and now still continues to be greatly influential.
Grand Central Terminal, New York City.  The loss of Pennsylvania Station galvanized the preservation movement to save this historic building, now restored to its original glory and still used as a railroad station.

After the war, he worked as technical editor for Architectural Forum until 1949, when he became architecture editor for House Beautiful.  While at the latter magazine, he directed a "climate-control project" with model houses showing how landscaping and architectural forms can amend the microclimate, an interest he was to keep the rest of his life.  In 1954, he joined Columbia University as an associate professor, helping to improve architecture by education.
The map of Savannah, Georgia, showing the unique plan with squares, as public parks, allowing welcome green spaces.

In the years following World War II, "urban renewal" razed whole sections of cities, leaving vast bare areas even though no replacements were planned in most cases.  Real estate developers, in association with politicians and planners, had little if any opposition from architects;  it was the amateurs who were able to stop the demoliton.  One of the first successful steps in preservation occured in Savannah, Georgia, around 1960.  The scheme to "modernize" the city, to allow a better flow of auto traffic by eliminating the historic squares, was successfully blocked by nineteen enraged citizens who secretly bought up forty-three strategic properties, killing the project.  The properties were subsequently rehabilitated and Savannah today remains one of this country's most unique cities.  During this time, Fitch met Jane Jacobs in New York City who was to be regarded as one of the great pioneers of preservation, pointing out the discrepancies between what planners promised and what actually developed.
Jane Jacobs, shown in a Google image by an unidentified photographer, circa 1963.  Although Pennsylvania Station, the 1910 Beaux-Arts  masterpiece by McKim, Mead, and White was lost, the demolition was considered to be the catalyst for the city's first architectural preservation statutes.

With the graduate program at Columbia, Professor Fitch was able to establish a new profession, the historic preservationist.  Under Fitch's training, a preservationist would be educated in all areas that effect architecture, not only history and conservation, but also politics and real estate.  Emphasis was put on community efforts, as opposed to narrow and isolated special interest projects, thereby building a social conscience.
The Museum Block of South Street Seaport, Manhattan.

Fitch's book WALTER GROPIUS was published by Braziller in 1960 as one of the volumes in the Masters of Architecture series.  ARCHITECTURE AND THE ESTHETICS OF PLENTY was published in 1961.  Two volumes of the second edition of AMERICAN BUILDING came in 1966 and 1972, the first subtitled THE HISTORICAL FORCES THAT SHAPED IT, and the second, THE ENVIRONMENTAL FORCES THAT SHAPED IT.  In 1982, HISTORIC PRESERVATION:  CURATORIAL MANAGEMENT OF THE BUILT WORLD was published, still considered the best compilation of theory in the field.
The Tweed Courthouse, Manhattan.

In 1979, Fitch re-entered private practice as director of preservation in the New York City firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, Architects and Planners.  He brought along as his assistant, former student John Stubbs (now the new director of graduate program in Preservation Studies at Tulane University).  The Devoted Classicist was recruited in 1980 as Second Assistant, providing an invaluable one-on-one practical as well as educational experience for this writer.  Dr. Fitch, as he was referred to after Columbia University conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1980, played a critical role in the preservation and redevelopment of South Street Seaport, the initial study to save the Tweed Courthouse, the first phase of preservation of Ellis Island, the preservation of the Alice Austen House, the restoration of Grand Central Terminal, and many, many more.  In 1985, he received the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 1992, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Landmarks Commission.
The Alice Austen House, Staten Island.
The program at Columbia University continues today, still enrolling about fifty students in the two-year, and the cirriculum has been adopted by other schools nationwide, producing a whole new generation of preservationists armed with the technical know-how to back their beliefs.  The successful graduates who have helped change the way people look at old buildings is a long one, but I would put architect Roz Li, my professor who was notable as one of Fitch's star students and now in private practice involved in projects worldwide, at the top of the list.  Also, there was Joseph Herndon, who was Fitch's student assistant at Columbia and now in private practice, who was my first boss when I was graduated from architecture school.  John Stubbs, my co-worker at B.B.B. is still a Senior Advisor for The World Monuments Fund.  Frank Sanchis has joined W.M.F. as Director of US Programs.  And Adele Chatfield-Taylor is President and C.E.O. of the American Academy in Rome. 
The Main Building at Ellis Island, New York Harbor.

In 1989, the James Marston Fitch Charitable Trust was established to support professionals in the field of historic preservation by providing mid-career grants to those working in preservation, landscape architecture, urban design, environmental planning, decorative arts, architectural design and architectural history.  2011 Fitch Fellow Kenneth Love has created a fascinating film about Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork Fallingwater which will be featured as part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's Friday Film Series;  screenings on November 4 and November 18, 2011, at 1pm and 3pm are included in the price of general museum admission.  A five minute video preview of this remarkable film can be viewed by clicking here.

A selection of books written by James Marsten Fitch are available for sale through The Devoted Classicist Library by clicking here.  The black & white photo of Dr. Fitch is by Mark Ferri and the color photos of the Beyer Blinder Belle projects are from that firm.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Old Battersea House

The garden (river) front of Old Battersea House, London.
As a tie-in to the last post of The Devoted Classicist, here is another essay about yet another historic London house and an auction of its contents.  Fortunately, the mansion is still extant this time, and it is for sale.  (The "guide price" is GBP 12,000,000 or about $19 million).  And the contents will be sold with an upcoming auction in Edinburgh, Scotland, next month.  It is regretful, however, that we missed the opportunity to see the lots in situ last weekend when there was a public viewing at Old Battersea House.
The entrance to Old Battersea House.

When it was built, 1699 or even earlier, the Thames riverside property (now separated from the water by a roadway) was surrounded by fields.  Much of the land belonging to the handsome manor house was sold in the 1920s after being vacated by St. John's College, a Church of England college for priests.  Although the architect is unknown, the possibility of being designed by Sir Christopher Wren has been considered as the house does match his style.  The local authority, the Battersea Council, bought the house from the college and would have demolished it and built what we in the U.S. call a housing project had it not been for the public outcry.  An Act of Parliament saved the house from demolition.
A lithograph of Old Battersea House, signed E.F.G. Joy.
Lot 452.
[Sold:  US $279.]

The leaders of the fight to save Old Battersea House were Col. Charles G. Stirling and his wife Wilhemina.  They lived in the house, leased from the Council, starting in 1931 until her death at almost age 100 in 1965.  (The Stirlings' collection of paintings, ceramics, and furniture was bequeathed to the De Morgan Foundation and is on view at the nearby West Hill Library).  But the house fell into disrepair and languished until Malcolm Forbes acquired a 99 year lease in 1971.  (Freehold ownership was later acquired from the Battersea Council).
The Entrance Stair Hall of Old Battersea House.
Architect Vernon Gibberd and later, son Christopher "Kip" Forbes, restored the house, adding modern amenities, to serve as the Forbes family's London home as well as housing one of the world's most important collections of 19th century British art.  Elizabeth Taylor was a frequent guest, staying in the (queen size canopy bed, see photo below) Red & White Bedroom, and President and Mrs. Regan once stayed in the (twin beds, see the link to The DiCamillo Companion) Black Bedroom.  (Readers will want to see the video, linked below, to view the Black Bedroom, named for the walls, curtains, and beds all upholstered in flowered chintz with a black background).  The State Bedroom had a display of art in tribute to Queen Victoria;  the adjoining bathroom had a display of the Queen's personal garments.
The State Bedroom of Battersea House.

The State Beddroom with a view to the adjoining bathroom beyond.

Many of the works of art from the Forbes collection that had been displayed at Old Battersea House, along with antiques and furnishings of more recent date, will be sold in the November 1, 2011, auction by Lyon & Turnbull, Sale 338.   Unless otherwise noted, all these images come from their site;  the 508 lots can be viewed on their on-line catalog of the sale here.  A few highlights follow:
Fine South German Limewood Model of a Neo-Classical Palace.
Lot 11.
[Sold:  US $16,740]

The model by C. Herman Bruckner dates from the late 19th century and includes 31 figures of horse-mounted guards, standing guards, dogs, and the home owner with his family and servants.  The estimate is GBP 15,000 - 20,000.
Lot 70.

The oil on panel portrait was painted by the British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and is dated 1861.  Remarkably, it still has the original giltwood mat and "thumb print" frame designed by the artist.  The estimate is GBP 80,000 - 120,000.
Arts & Crafts Grand Piano.
Lot 140.

Designed by Charles Robert Ashbee, and made by John Broadwood & Sons, London, circa 1904, this unique piano features patinated brass pierced strapwork Celtic hinges.  The estimate is GBP 12,000 - 18,000.
The Late Victorian Mahogany Four-Poster Bed favored by Elizabeth Taylor.
Lot 338.
[Sold:  US $13,950]

This bed, circa 1880, in the Red & White (Master) Bedroom has red and ivory silk hangings.  The room was favored by Elizabeth Taylor and she spent her seventh honeymoon here with husband Larry Fortensky.  The estimate is GBP 8,000 -12,000.
Queen Victoria's Silk Bloomers.
Lot 414.
[Sold:  $13,950.]

The personal garments are usually destroyed after the Sovereign's death, so these knickers, embroidered in blue with a crown and 'VR2' on the waistband, are the only known survivors.  The estimate is GBP 2,000 - 3,000.
Oil on canvas view of Old Battersea House by Julian Barrow.
Lot 146.
[Sold:  US $1,116]

An excellent video overview of the house and contents was produced for the auction.  The 14 minute highly recommended film is hosted by Curt DiCamillo, an expert on historic architecture and decorative arts as well as a friend of Kip Forbes (and The Devoted Classicist).  It can be viewed here here.  And there is a second video, almost 7 minutes, that features just the paintings that can be viewed here.

The facts of the house's history came from the most informative site, The DiCamillo Companion, and more can be read here.  More about the features of the Grade II listed house today can be found at the site of the real estate agent, Savills, here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Duke of Devonshire's Lost London House

Last week, when Simon Seligman gave his brilliant talk, "Custodians, Collectors, and Tastemakers:  The Duchesses at Chatsworth", to the members and guests of Decorative Arts Trust (see the October 6, 2011, post), he touched on Devonshire House, the magnificent London home of the Duke of Devonshires that was once the center of the Cavendish family dynasty.  The Devoted Classicist remembered an article from an issue of "Country Life" last year on the occasion of the 'attic sale' by Sotheby's at Chatsworth.  The interior architectural details of the state rooms had been stored in the Chatsworth stables for almost 90 years after Devonshire House was demolished.  Whole rooms were carefully dismantled, labeled, and stored, with the hope that the interiors could be someday incorporated into a new building.
Stephen Colin's illustration of Devonshire House shows how the residence looked before the contents were removed in 1914.  From "Country Life" magazine, August 25, 2010.

Devonshire House was built by the 3rd Duke in 1733-34 on the Piccadilly site of Berkeley House, the 17th century residence that burned the previous year.  The new house with a severe classical brick exterior and grand classical interior was designed by William Kent, 1685-1748, and built on the foundations of the old house.  (Kent was a protege of friend and neighbor, the Earl of Burlington.  The Duke's son later married Lord Burlington's daughter, Charlotte Boyle, and inherited Chiswick Villa a Neo-Palladian masterpiece that was a design collaboration by Burlington and Kent). 
The marble staircase with the unusual crystal handrail disappeared and was the only major architectural feature not included in the auction.
The ground floor contained an Entrance Hall, accessed through a porte-cochere, and service rooms.  The main floor above, a piano nobile, contained eleven lavishly decorated state rooms reached by a spectacular curving marble staircase with a gilt-metal balustrade and a crystal handrail;  this 1853 Empire addition was designed by architect Decimus Burton who was also responsible for the portico.
The Ballroom of Devonshire House.
Two drawing rooms were combined during the occupation of the 6th Duke, using the decorating firm Federick Crace & Son to create a ballroom.
The Saloon of Devonshire House.
The Saloon, on the front of the house overlooking Green Park, was also redecorated by Crace with trompe l'oeil painting on the high coved ceiling above blue and gold silk covered walls with elaborate gilt framed mirrors.
The Dining Room of Devonshire House.
The Dining Room featured portraits within architectural frames incorporated into the paneling.  A robust William Kent console is shown with a later table and chairs dating from the Crace redecoration.
A side view of the Francois Herve settee, one of a pair, commissioned for Chatsworth.
During the occupation of the 5th Duke, the private apartments were remodeled by architect James Wyatt for the house's most famous occupant, the legendary Duchess Georgiana.  The 5th Duchess, 1757-1806, was the undisputed leader of London style, fashion, and society, painted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Cosway.  A close confidante of Marie Antoinette, the Duchess shopped in Paris just weeks before the storming of the Bastille.  A set of eleven caned chairs, believed to be similar to the pair of settees from Chatsworth and included in the auction, were commissioned from Francois Herve, the noted Huguenot cabinet maker of the George III period.  (Georgiana was portrayed by Keira Knightly in the 2008 film "The Duchess").

The house was occupied by the Red Cross during the First World War, and sold to a property company in 1919 to help the 9th Duke pay Death Duties of GBP 500,000 plus the debts of the 7th Duke which he also inherited.  But a condition of the sale was that if the house was demolished and replaced by an apartment building of the same name, all the interior architectural details reverted to the Devonshire/Cavendish family.  In 1925, the fittings were carefully dismantled and sent to storage at Chatsworth.  Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, oversaw the recording and removals, reinstalling the art at Chatsworth and seeing that the salvaged details of one of London's most famous mansions were preserved. 
Photo of the Devonshire House apartment building by Curt DiCamillo from
The DiCamillo Campanion.

Across from the Piccadilly entrance to Green Park, the entrance gates and sphinx-topped piers are all that remains in place from historic Devonshire House with the exception of the Wine Cellar, now the ticket office of the Green Park Underground Station.  More about Devonshire House can be read here on the remarkable website The DiCamillo Companion.  Curt DiCamillo's site includes a database that is a continuing effort to document every country house in Britain and Ireland, plus, and this is invaluable to this writer, a Pronunciation Guide.
Photo of the current Duke of Devonshire at the exhibition tent for the
Sotheby's Attic Sale at Chatsworth, October, 2010.
In an October, 2010, three day auction which also included items in storage at Chatsworth that were from other Devonshire family properties, almost $10.3 million was raised, selling 20,000 items in 1,400 lots.  The top lot was a circa 1735 marble chimneypiece (similar to this one pictured above) attributed to William Kent which was estimated at GBP 200,000 - 300,000 and fetched GBP 565,250.

The black & white interior photographs were taken by "Country Life" in 1914 before the house was closed and were reprinted, along with the color cut-away illustration, in the August 25, 2010, issue of the magazine.  More information about subscriptions to the magazine can be found at

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kissingers at River House

"Los Kissinger en su casa de Nueva York" is an article torn from a magazine The Devoted Classicist found while going through an unlabeled file recently.  Although the article is unmarked, there is no mistaking that it is from Hola! magazine.  It probably dates from the 90s, when I first discovered the popular periodical from Spain and used it for Show & Tell readings to cheer up a very ill friend.  The magazine's format is simple, but tried-and-true, with at-home interviews accompanied by as many as a dozen snapshot-like portraits with a wide angle lens that also manages to get in plenty of the decor.
Nancy and Henry Kissinger (seated).

Nancy Kissinger is a member of the Board of Directors of the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, located in a handsome, landmark, 1927 Federal Revival townhouse designed by McKim, Mead & White;  it was donated by Margaret Rockefeller Strong de Larrain, Marquesa de Cuevas, in 1965.  The article marks the ocassion of Mrs. Kissinger being that year's chairperson of the fund-raising gala that honors the Gold Medal award winners that have been recognized for their contributions to the betterment of relations between the United States and Spain.  (Dr. Henry Kissinger was one of the honorees in 2005, and recently-in-the-news newlywed H.E. The Duchess of Alba in 2008).  But before the photos of the Kissingers' apartment, some background on the famous building, River House.
One of the most prestigious apartment buildings in Manhattan is the 26 story River House located at 435 East 52nd Street.  And it is among the most exclusive buildings, with the co-operative By-Laws reportedly prohibiting the building's name or address in real estate sale listings.
The courtyard entrance of River House.
Located on the bank of the East River, its relatively secluded location (Greta Garbo lived across the street) on a dead-end street with entrance through a private courtyard allowing limousines to pull up to the door is a considerable selling point.
A vintage view of the Reception Hall of River House.
Past the doorman and the Foyer is a long gallery Reception Hall that overlooks the Fountain Court (as seen in the first image) and the East River beyond.  Mirrored panels of verre eglomise waterway scenes by Jan Juta, 1895-1990, are featured in the space decorated by Ernesta Beaux.  (For more on these two talents, and a better look at one of these murals, see the Aestheticus Rex blog).  Marble Art Deco versions of classical fluted pilasters flank the murals and give visual support to the cornice decorated by alternating moons and stars.  The original scheme had creme cast plaster gulls on a pinkish-brown ceiling above the Beaux-designed rugs in tones of brown, lemon yellow, henna and gray to compliment Directoire Revival and Empire/Beidermeier Revival furnishings.

Watercolor renderings of the river landing from the original sales prospectus.
A river landing was another original feature, but it lasted only until the FDR Drive was constructed in 1934.  The River Club, limited to 400 men and women from New York and 200 from other states, is an original amenity that still exists with an indoor swimming pool, two indoor championship tennis courts, ballroom, oyster bar, dining room, and 26 suites for out-of-town members and guests.  In addition to the separate 52nd Street entrance, there was previously an entrance from the river landing, and there is an elevator entrance from the River House lobby.
The Lounge at the Indoor Swimming Pool of the River Club.

A vintage view of an indoor tennis court at the River Club.
The entire building, including the River Club, was designed by William Lawrence Bottomley, the principal of the architectural firm Bottomley, Wagner, & White, and built 1929-32.  River views, privacy, and natural ventilation were all carefully considered for each of the 64 simplex (one story), duplex (two story), and triplex (three story) apartments, varying from 8 to 17 rooms. 
A typical floor plan of River House.
A very unusual feature is the interlocking plans of the "E" and "F" duplex apartments which have the public rooms of the apartment on the lower floor on one side of the wind and the private rooms on the opposite side above, allowing for variations in exposure.  Also, the ceiling heights vary, higher in the entertaining levels and lower in the bedroom levels. 
Floor Plans for the tower apartments and the "E" and "F" duplexes.
Tower apartments with exposures on all four sides start on the 17th floor.  The top of the building was originally a triplex with private terraces, but it was later divided to two apartments, a duplex and a simplex above.  (That duplex was famously owned by Susan and John Gutfreund in the 1980s, with a number of so-called "bad neighbor" incidents reported in the tabloids including the hoisting of a 22 foot Christmas tree up the outside of the building via a wrench mounted on their upstairs neighbor's terrace).
View from a penthouse terrace at River House.
Those living outside the big urban areas often find the concept of a co-operative building difficult to understand.  In the briefest of terms, a purchase involves shares in ownership and the right to occupy a specific apartment.  It also means that a potential buyer has to be approved by the Board, and rejection requires no explanation.  In a well-publicized lawsuit, Gloria Vanderbilt sued, claiming that she was not even allowed an interview.  Others who reportedly were turned away were Richard Nixon and Diane Keaton.
Henry Kissinger has lived in River House for decades and is always mentioned whenever there is a list of residents, so The Devoted Classicist is not compromising any confidences here.  It is a guess that this is an "E" duplex by interpreting the photos, but it is only a guess, and nothing is known about the decorator.  Considering the owners' wealth, education and exposure, the Living Room is remarkably unfinished.  Perhaps when it is filled with people, the flaws are less noticeable.  The scraggly potted orchids, and bunches of dried hydrangeas, inexpensive decoration, would indicate that at-home entertaining is infrequent.  The presence of at least four crystal ashtrays might contradict that, however.
Despite the over-use of green, this writer would have considered window treatments that were the same color as the walls, letting the Bessarabian rug be the major colorful pattern, and added throw pillows.  Also, the room would be improved if art could play a bigger role.  The lacquered and inlaid pieces do add a richness, however.  The original 6-over-6 double hung windows have been replaced with single pane tilt-turn sash that unfortunately give big expanses of darkness at night.
This writer, influenced by former employer Sister Parish, favors black candles, too, but does not display them without first burning the wicks briefly.  A manila clasp envelope on the left cabinet, presumed to be a late nineteenth century Boulle revival pair, appears in a previous shot.
Although the two-panel screen mounted on the wall above the canape is not objectionable, a stronger piece of art would help distract from the "legginess" of the furniture.  Just guessing, it looks like there is seating for at least 21 in this room, which is good;  a Living Room should seat, at the very least, the same number as the Dining Room.
Again, it is not that the furnishings themselves are objectionable; it is just an uncomfortable arrangement.  It is hoped that this rare, un-styled look into a celebrity interior was appreciated from a socio-anthropological and decorative point of view.  Do the readers have any suggestions for the Kissingers for a little home improvement?
The color vintage photos of River House are from THE WORK OF WILLIAM LAWRENCE BOTTOMLEY IN RICHMOND by William B. O'Neal and Christopher Weeks, University Press of Virginia, and the black & white photos are from THE ARCHITECTURE OF WILLIAM LAWRENCE BOTTOMLEY by Susan Hume Frazer, Acanthus Press, available here.   The photos of the Kissingers in their River House apartment are from HOLA! magazine, available here.