“No matter how grand the house, it is first and foremost a stage on which real human beings play out their lives.”
FROM THE FORWARD OF
American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer
by Michael C.Kathrens - Richard C.Marchand - Eleanor Weller - Acanthus Press - 2012
Observe any designer entering a Trumbauer house and you will witness an expression of sublime satisfaction followed inevitably by the expression: “ah yes…perfect.”
Horace Trumbauer created robust, dynamic houses for robust, dynamic people. In an age of keen focus on social status and the substantial new wealth required to achieve it, Trumbauer’s work spanned a remarkable range of styles while developing distinctively rich architectural language. The titans of industry who were his champions demanded this critical combination of aesthetic breadth which encouraged personal expression, while creating signature structures of supreme confidence and unerring mastery.
Today, as we restore his masterpieces (an enviable though sometimes daunting undertaking), we are guided by the hallmarks of his exemplary work:
Grace – expressed in proportion, scale and balance
Flow – evident in logic, sequence and vistas
Elegance – celebrated in formality, materials and detail
These characteristics were expressed consistently throughout his opus, and he sought out the internationally renowned designers of his era whose expertise amplified the power of his vision. Ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of collaboration, his houses achieved unparalleled aesthetic harmony, integrity and authenticity.
This unmistakable synergy between architecture and design is the foundation for the appeal and longevity that his houses enjoy today. One hundred years later, Trumbauer invites us to approach his interiors with the same spirit of pragmatism and passion he devoted to them, a process of renewal that is inspiring and compelling.
In approaching the interiors of iconic buildings, we aim to recreate the Zeitgeist of the house rather than a correct but frozen museum period room. Even the most ardent historic house enthusiast blanches at the idea of living only by candlelight or cooking in a true 19th century kitchen. No matter how grand the house, it is first and foremost a stage on which real human beings play out their lives, not a stage set. Our goal is to create the backdrop that allows them to live well, connect to their environment and cherish their experiences. When a house is truly responsive to its inhabitants, it enjoys a sense of purpose and relevance, ensuring its survival for generations to come. We consider every aspect of its past and imagine every aspect of its future to encourage, accommodate and facilitate its use and enjoyment. Animated day and night, a house exudes life and vigor becoming a continual presence in our emotional landscape.
The process is somewhat like painting a portrait of an historical figure, having only old photographs as your guide. Important information and intriguing insights into the “subject” can be gleaned from existing conditions but, to breathe real life into it, one must introduce the character, the attitude and the essence of the room just like the painter must discover and express these traits in the portrait. Initially, one can be overwhelmed by the flood of creative ideas all competing for development. However, it is vitally important to slow down, absorb visual information fully and “listen” to the house…it will tell you what it wants. We allow transparent images of potential realities to overlap and intersect, watching the elements settle in as a dominant aesthetic anchor takes hold.
Designers face the same challenging questions a museum curator does when installing period rooms: do we restore to original condition or to the condition that the room and its furnishings would have aged if well cared for? There are many different definitions of “right” and all legitimate:
right for period
right for the spirit of the period
right for the original owner expressing his own version of the spirit of the period
right for a 21st century lifestyle while respectful of the period
Sometimes, a client will provide brilliant direction as Robert Montgomery Scott did for Ardrossan, his grandfather’s house: “make her the beautiful old lady she is.” Sometimes we build on aesthetic changes which the original owner began, as when André Carlhian was engaged to (as the family amusingly puts it) “Frenchify” Ardrossan’s original ultra-Anglo ballroom created earlier by White, Allom & Co. And sometimes, the memory of strong personal tastes prevails, as when a rare period carpet was passed over because “it’s perfect, but alas my grandfather wouldn’t have chosen it.” As a result, the creative process weaves a circuitous path, full of challenges but also full of serendipity. It becomes critical to provide a rudder and steer with a firm hand, charting a course and committing to it but staying nimble and responsive as conditions inevitably change.
Frequently, we can attribute the choice in approach to the realities of changing ownership. At Ardrossan, the interiors were returned to period specifically aligned with the taste of the original owner whose family has crystal-clear recollection of his personal preferences. At Portledge, with somewhat vaguer clues, we returned the house to the period but reflecting the broad interests and exuberant expression favored by the new owner, an enthusiastic young collector. At the E.C. Knight house, subsequently acquired by a private bank, the interiors regained their formal, early 20th century ambiance but subtly accommodate the commercial needs of the new owner as well.
Opportunities abound within these gracious buildings to explore the vistas Trumbauer created linking interior and exterior, and to reinforce this message through strategic placement of furnishings. We pay careful attention to elements and surfaces that are frequently given too little importance in contemporary residences but were wonderfully embellished in earlier eras. These can include vast ceilings ready for the visual punctuation of elaborate ornament or exquisite door hardware, so finely cast that it rivals the craft of a master jeweler. Within these walls, we can highlight the nuances of ornate plasterwork through subtle shifts in the color palette; focus attention on intricately carved moldings inspired by the work of the classical masters; and capture the interplay of the hardscape rendered in limestone, marble, wood and gilt bronze with the soft surfaces of silk, wool, horsehair and linen. Every component works together to create an exceptional visual feast.
Each house presents a different challenge because of the condition in which we encounter it. At the E.C. Knight house, layers upon layers of dull taupe paint almost completely obscured exquisite plaster ornament adorning the walls, requiring months of tiny brushes and gallons of solvent. At Woodcrest, the handsome oak paneling was so dry it peeled off in layers requiring extensive re-hydration. At Portledge, the subtle original palette was obliterated by aggressive application of faux marble. At Ardrossan, extensive damage was sustained after decades of elusive roof leaks caused crumbling plaster, rotted wall upholstery and stained limestone. Architectural archaeology gives us valuable clues in discovering the original intent and guidance for remedies to repair the envelope. With furnishings, we employ more liberal guidelines, differentiating things “in the house” from things “of the house.” Here, personal taste can predominate within an historical context. Assembling the appropriate furnishings can range from the ambitious – buying period furnishings through dealers and auction across the continents – to the magical – tracing and reassembling the original furnishings collection and restoring it to its home. In both cases, the essential goal is achieved: to magnify the essential character of these exquisite houses.
Frequently, clues are scarce and you must employ every tool at your disposal: architectural archives at historical societies and universities, old photographs, lucky discoveries in endless attics, details of ambience gleaned from the family memories and, in one miraculous case, petit point renderings of the original rooms done by the owner to celebrate their completion!
Essentially, interior design is like a dance … and Horace Trumbauer is a gifted partner. Subtly but clearly, he leads you to all the clues you need to move gracefully and seemingly effortlessly through these rooms. Staying open and responsive is the key so that as the dance changes, the renewed interiors can match his range and mastery. These are complex aesthetic undertakings characterized by myriad variables and vagaries– a non-lineal path, to be sure. So ultimately, as renowned designer Renzo Mongiardino advises “faith must be stronger than understanding…only faith can reward the client.” 1 Happily, the intrepid souls who embark upon inspired restoration of significant houses such as these do indeed have faith in the power of beauty.
1 Renzo Mongiardino, Roomscapes: May 11, 2001 (Rizzoli International Publications)