Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grey Craig, entering the landscape

While Grey Craig has not been the sole focus of my work as a professional designer during 2011 it certainly has been an overwhelming one. This description of the site and my involvement with it will give me an opportunity to explain what it is I do in this odd practice I have, it will be a good and useful exercise for me. When people ask "what I do" I am often at a loss. I don't fit very neatly into any category. The standard answer is that I am an "Interior Designer" which is a useful but suspicious phrase. My academic background was in painting and education. My thesis for the education program at the National College of Art in Dublin, Ireland was the development of a course focused on the history of the Irish craftsmen who built Georgian Dublin. At the time, the late 1960's, the average Irish person considered the 18th century culture of Ireland to be a manifestation of English domination. While there is validity to that view, it is also the case that Irish culture at the time had a very distinct personality, and people creating the material culture were Irish and expressed their distinct Irishness through their art. I was trying, with some success, to document and promulgate this understanding.

My mentor at the time was a man who was in the business of saving the interiors from buildings being demolished so that they could be conserved. In working with him I learned how to dismantle these buildings. Note that one can not simply tear these things out of a building, a great deal of detective work is involved. One must reconstruct the process of construction- find the last peg put in and take it out first. I little expected that this training would be enormously useful to my later career, but it turns out to be the case. The term "interior designer" seems a little off the mark to me because what I do very often involves a great deal of research, both of history and of my clients needs, a great deal of detective work, a certain amout of drawing, sometimes more, sometimes less, a sense of structure and systems, and all this not only inside but often outside as well. At Grey Craig I have been able to exercise all these skills. This is a good opportunity to explain them.

Grey Craig, spelt various ways, has a particularly interesting history. I recommend a book called "Newport Villas" by Michael Kathryns for a well researched relation of it. As Mr. Kathryns states the property came into being when Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and Cornelius Vanderbuilt along with others purchased 100 acres in Middletown, overlooking Sachusetts (Second) Beach and Paradise Rock. This was a farming area, and the property eventually became a model, or "gentleman's" farm under Belmont's ownership. Belmont sold to J. Mitchell Clark who built the first house. You can read it's history here. This is the area that Newland Archer rides through in Edith Warton's "The Age of Innocence" the horse farm being used as his alibi when he visits Ellen in Portsmouth. John LaFarge lived on the other side of Paradise Avenue, and it remains a rural, agricultural area. The Norman Bird Sanctuary borders the property, and despite having being divided, the original estate has been preserved through the foresight of the Grey Craig owners association.

The house was sold to J. Lawrence Mott III in 1917, but was destroyed by fire in 1919. In the mid 1920's the property was sold to Michael Murray Van Beuren and his wife Mary L. Archbold, whose father was one of the founders of Standard Oil.

I must acknowledge that I become very impatient when I am reading about a building because I am interested in the building and all I get is the trials and tribulations of the very rich. I include the "social" part of the history here because it actually will be useful in understanding some facets of this site as a design statement. I will now add two more names. The Van Beurens built the existing house, I should say houses, there are, I think 5, functioning as separate residences and their architect was a man I am ashamed to say I had never heard of: Harrie T. Lindeberg. I have, over the last year developed a rather intimate relationship with Mr. Lindeberg, or at least with his work, and the more I learn the more respect I have for him, and for this building. Let me say, that like most truly great designers he knew when to get out of the way. Never was this more apparent to me than the day before Thanksgiving when my sister and I were guests at the house for cocktails, sitting by the fire in the enormous living room, in this enormous and beautiful house which was yet warm and comfortable and imitate. I can not pay Mr. lindeberg and the his clients any greater compliment than the comfort and family intimacy that this staggering house affords.

I love stories, and there is a story about Lord Kitchener being driven past the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. He asked, rather surprised, where did that building come from? He had never noticed it before, but now, there it was huge and beautiful! His companion told him that it had been built by Christopher Wren 200 years before, how had he not noticed it going past as frequently as he did? Kitchener responded that architect must have been a true gentleman. Amusing story, but the fact is that Wren knew how to get out of the way. Lindeberg did also.

The other name I want to share with you is Ferruccio Vitale. He designed the landscape at Grey Craig. Like Lindeberg, he is not exactly a household name, despite being one of the most import landscape architects in the history of American landscape architecture. He is often compared with the Olmstead brothers, his contemporaries and to some extent main competition, however Vitale was very involved in the formation of the profession of landscape architecture, developing awards and postgraduate education for landscape architects, including the Landscape Architecture prize of the American Academy in Rome and the Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture. His work includes the planning of the National Mall in Washington, The site of the National Gallery of Art, parts of Longwood Gardens, and of course Grey Craig. I have not been able to trace any documentation for his work at Grey Craig and would be very grateful for information. There is now a very fine monograph on Vitale, by R.Terry Schnadelbach.

It happens that the Grey Craig is almost exactly contemporary with Emmanuel Church's Leslie Lindsey Chapel. It has been most interesting to for me to come to this project after the intense research done on the restoration of the altar screen at Lindsey Chapel. On the one hand the structural and systems issues are very similar, in some cases identical, on the other, it is clear that Lindeberg and Vitale, Allens and Collins with Ninian Comper, were thinking about the tradition of western architecture and it's continuing relevance to modern life in a way that was new and intelligent. It is easy to get tied into the romance of luxury, the nostalgia for history, a jaded view of ones own time that leads to a deadening desire for things as they were in the past. That is not what was happening with these buildings from the early 20th century. Understanding their modernity requires a knowledge of the tradition, and that is a vantage point from which they are seldom viewed. In addition to "style" the engineering of these buildings is remarkable. It is to me rather ironic that if one takes the rhetoric of the International School and applies it to these buildings they hold up very well. Yes, Grey Craig is a big grand house, built for big grand people, but the engineers house, and the gate house, both equally beautiful and rather modest in size both function as family houses equally well. Form does follow function here, structure is rigorously expressed, the systems and engineering were state of the art. This is the surprise of these buildings.

So in March I found myself in the position of having to advise my client While he struggled with structural problems, reversing years of neglect of the roof and drainage systems, the need to make changes to parts of the landscape and to paint and furnish the interior working with and advising his wife. The first step was understanding. It is clear that the VanBeurens were intelligent and sensitive people. No other sort would have spent such vast sums in such subtle ways, and fortunately my clients are intelligent and sensitive people who appreciate and are willing to support a rather thoughtful process.

I have never worked at this scale before, and I have no staff. Fortunately the client's wife was eager to be involved in the gritty details- in fact she handled all the paperwork which was daunting, and many of the structural and mechanical issues were urgent. Despite the pressures we all read, researched and came to understand this wonderful and subtle place. I should add that my client had been following the trials and tribulations of this building for 30 years, and had tried to buy it twice before. Their love for it was the prime motivating factor, and the house has worked a spell over everyone involved. It has been pure pleasure from the start.

The approach to Grey Craig.

The house and landscape are a unified experience. Lindeberg and Vitale work together on this and the result is so right and so subtle that it is easy to take it entirely for granted. I have learned over the years of looking, learning, and practicing, that beauty and harmony never "just happen" and the greatest and most unified experience of place is usually the result of great discipline, and its success turns on small and subtle points. I am showing you a sequence of photographs that depict the experience of approaching this place. They start at the inner gate, beside the gate house from which one proceeds down the drive through woods and meadow, finally around a bend one sees the front of the house and then the entrance arch comes into view. The experience is pastoral and quite. The trees are magnificent. At one point there is a marshy place to the left that in spring is carpeted with primroses, to the right one can glimpse an open area beyond the trees, then to left again is an orchard, then on the right the front of the house with a background of trees and an open lawn. The single most important element of this is what you can't see, the water. These pictures were taken in March and May. Also, ignore the dragon lamps on the gate posts, the originals are in the basemet and will be replaced.

In Japan, or maybe it was China, I no longer have my books and notebooks so I can not find the correct citation, there was a garden built by a very wise philosopher, built on the edge of the sea. Perhaps someone can remind me of the source of this. The story is that when people came to visit they were amazed that he had built hedges and walls to block out the very beautiful view, but when the reached the tea house, and only when they sat down, was the view revealed through a carefully placed opening in a hedge; only after gaining the location of repose was the view revealed in all its beauty. This story appears in many works on landscape design, and I am tempted to think that it is not a coincidence that Vitale and Lindeberg did the same thing at Grey Craig. It is also an instance of how well they worked together. When going through the gate, and along the drive, and into the arch the view, which is amazing, is deliberately screened. One enters the house in a very dark and compressed vestibule which is inside the arch, this gives onto an entrance corridor which runs into the main section of the house past an enclosed courtyard, then into the stair hall, then the center hallway, both of which look to the back of the house. One then enters the main reception rooms and it is only then, after this long and complex series of views and spaces that the view down the lawn past the rocks and over the beach to the ocean is revealed. The view is held until the last minute as a complete surprise, and one feels like one has entered a different world, a magical world. It is a total tour de force, and depends on having the discipline to deny one of the East Coast's most expensive views when the visitor enters the property.

When I first looked at the plan of the house I could not make head nor tail of this entrance sequence. It seemed odd, and round about to have the entrance in a side wing, to have a small inner courtyard right beside it, why not drive up to center of the house? It is only in experiencing the way the house and the landscape interact with the location that one can understand this master stroke.

It is said that the arch is built on the location of the entrance arch of the previous house. The old foundations are indeed down there, I saw them one day crawling through the foundations tracing some wetness that was creeping into the walls. It is also said that the previous house was built of stone from the site, and that also appears to be true of the present house, which makes it fit in the setting in a most remarkable way. The grey outcroppings of Pudding Stone are everywhere and the walls blend right into them, accented by sandstone from Ohio, and that massive red clay roof.

This may seem like an awful lot of space to give to an aspect of this project that I had nothing to do with, but I am very committed to that idea that good design can proceed only from a very delicate understanding of the site. Further, when working with a creation of considerable worth it is important to come to an understanding of the original designers intentions; to get inside their head, to use a phrase. I have had to make a rather large intervention in this landscape, which I will talk about later, and so I feel that understanding, research and appreciation are required if one is to proceed responsibly.

These are my own photographs. On the website of Windigo Architects, who did some renovations some years ago there is a very nice wide angle photo that shows the relationship of the entrance arch to the main body of the building very nicely.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mike. I feel I learned quite a lot from this blog, which reads like the prelude to a novel. What an exciting project! It seems you are well fitted for it. Thanks for sharing Grey Craig with us.