With a resolution to do and see more of New England, my latest exploration was historic Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester MA last week. Three friends and I made a day of it, touring the summer home of interior designer, Henry Davis Sleeper, a National Historic Landmark and a member of Historic New England. He began building Beauport in 1907, eventually adding and expanding the home to over 40 rooms that accommodated his lifetime collection of furniture, books, rugs, glassware, ceramics, pewter, silver, textiles, folk art, and numerous, colorful and whimsical objets d’art.
We arrived in Gloucester on a classic New England summer morning ….cool and overcast… and were happy to have a bit of time before our tour to wander the gardens, check out the unique architecture from different angles, and admire the dramatic view across the harbor to the town.
We followed fern-lined and winding flagged pathways bordered by stone walls and formal brick to small but inviting courtyard spaces featuring whimsical art and interesting flora.
Sleeper’s summer retreat is magical and eccentric. For 27 years, the owner collected colonial era art and more, then continually expanded with new rooms to house it all. Talk about nooks and crannies! With only one hour to walk through a labyrinth of 26 rooms, we had a couple of minutes or so per room. However, the home is unique enough to spend an hour in just a room or two. I must return someday for a longer tour!
Our tour guide was excellent, giving us history of rooms, objects, and made it fun with tidbits of information about life in the home. Most rooms were small and dark… made even darker by the overcast skies that day but fascinating indeed… fabrics, wallpaper, doors, windows, paint colors, antiques, hooked rugs, and George! He collected George Washington in numerous forms, a popular interest at the time the guide said. I stopped counting at 15 Georges but there were certainly more.
Windows and doors intrigued me. There are doors that are arched, doors that don’t meet, doors that are extremely narrow or short… and windows that overlook nothing but beautiful ones that emphasize harbor views in a variety of designs featuring small panes in different patterns.
I think the best window is the first window below… a massive one in the Golden Step dining room that can be lowered with ropes to allow diners exposure to the sea and open air.
Doors, doors, and more doors. We didn’t open them all but one small door opened to a floor length mirror and another was a wall panel that opened to a secret staircase. Quelle surprise!
Each room is themed by a color, a historic figure or writer, a shape, an object.. but there hardly seemed any logic exiting one themed room and entering the next. It didn’t matter. I loved every inch of what I saw. Not only revolutionary for its time, it’s a valuable piece of history and just plain fun. I really like Henry Davis Sleeper. Can you imagine what it was like being a guest at one of his many parties?
My favorite room was the large Octagon Room with the theme of eights from the eight-sided ceiling to the eight-sided table to the eight-sided rug and the eight-sided walls. The idea formed for Sleeper from red toleware he brought back from France. Although our guide didn’t identify the portrait, I’m guessing it’s America’s beloved Marquis de Lafayette.
Our guide introduced the last room on the tour as ‘the best for last,’ the China Trade Room. And it was a treasure with its dramatic high ceilings and hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. Woolworth heiress Helena McCann and her husband bought the property in 1935 after Sleeper’s death and changed just this one room by adding furniture for entertaining. Following Helena’s death, the McCann family donated the property to the Historic New England preservation organization in 1942. How lucky for us!
Our day did not end there. After enjoying a late lunch in Gloucester, our tour continued by winding our way slowly back to Exeter through colorful and charming New England waterfront towns.
Getting to know New England is certainly an amazing insight into America’s past… and great fun as well. I wonder what will be next on the list for me to explore…