Sunday, October 21, 2012

This is What They Did

Last July, "Big Old Houses" made a visit to the Fletcher-Sinclair house, a Fifth Avenue chateau owned since 1955 by the Ukrainian Institute. The place was in the middle of a restoration project, in the wake of a fancy party hosted the previous May by Prada. The Ukrainians and Prada had made a deal: Prada could decorate the 2nd and 3rd floors however outlandishly they wanted - including a couple of purple and blood-red paint jobs - if they would strip, refinish and repaint when they were done.
The Ukrainian Institute is about the best steward of vintage architecture I've ever seen. For years they've operated their chateau as a gallery and event venue, but it still must have taken courage to give Prada such a free hand. C.P.H. Gilbert designed the building in 1897 with all the heft and ornamentation typical of the popular chateau style. The first owner, Isaac Fletcher, left it to the Metropolitan Museum, together with his important collection of pictures. In 1920 the Museum sold it to oil man Harry F. Sinclair. How many of my readers, I wonder, remember the slogan, "Drive with Care, and Buy Sinclair, Power X Gasoline?" (Not many, I'll wager)
The image below shows the drawing room last July. Prada didn't do anything on the first floor, although Sinclair evidently did quite a bit to the entire house. Most of the principal rooms underwent extensive redecoration in the scaled down taste of the 1920s, a taste at odds with the gorgeously over the top exterior. The drawing room, a noble park view chamber almost 42 feet long by 26 feet wide, is an exception. It doesn't look to me like Sinclair's decorator/architect did anything to it at all. Over the years, however, the paint caked up on the moldings and the involved wall sconces got a little ratty.
Prada fixed all that. There is nothing caked or ratty in this room.
A decision was made, however, that I would not have made. The wooden dado, the pilasters in each corner, those flanking the fireplace, and the thin dark band below the cove of the ceiling have all been stripped and stained dark walnut. I'll give you three reasons why I wouldn't have done this. 1) The refinishing job (done by Wall 2 Wall Painting in Brooklyn) may be superb, but that wood ain't oak - or mahogany or chestnut or any other close grained hardwood. It's just pine, or maybe fir, and was always meant to be painted. 2) Big as it is, this room had a delicious delicacy that has been lost by all that heavy brown detailing. And 3) The proportions of the room may be excellent, but that brown dado is too heavy for the skinny brown element under the cove. It throws the room's excellent proportions out of whack. Admittedly, it's a beautiful job, but if it were my house I'd be getting out the white paint.
Here's what the dining room looked like last July. When the house was built, Gilbert undoubtedly gave the client a dining room with lots of dark woodwork, an enormous matching fireplace, and probably a coffered ceiling, all of which must have looked terminally passe to the Sinclairs. The redesigned dining room has a refined Georgian mantelpiece, simplified wall treatments, delicate plaster details above the doors and on the ceiling and a crystal chandelier. On the big night in May, Prada painted the whole thing blood red, the same color you see in the overdoors. The walls in the view below have been painted one of several test colors. The paint grade woodwork on the dado, logically this time, was painted white.
The dining room windows, however, presented a different problem. They are not made of crappy pine but rather beautiful Honduran mahogany, or something similarly magnificent. They are left over from the old dining room, before the Georgian makeover with which they clash. This is why the Sinclairs painted them white.
How many beautiful old New York shutters have I seen, nailed into boxes alongside the windows they were intended to cover and sealed with a slathering of paint. The ones below have been meticulously stripped, refinished and remounted.
I'm glad I didn't have to decide about those dining room windows, because the hard truth is, the room looked better when they were painted white.
They let Prada loose on the third floor too. Let's see what happened up there.
If this house is anything like the buzillion other old mansions I've been in - and likely as not, it is - then the third floor originally had "his and her" master bedroom suites with a boudoir in between. Sinclair and his wife moved their bedrooms to the fourth floor. According to the annunciator tabs downstairs, they billeted a certain Miss Farrell in this room, but it would originally have belonged to Mr. Fletcher. Typical of a man's bedroom, the woodwork is close grained hardwood, painted purple by Prada, then restored to its original dark stained appearance. Unlike the drawing room on the floor below, the dark elements on these walls are properly proportioned.
Nothing has happened to the bathroom, but neither did Prada do anything to it. Old kitchens and bathrooms make huge contributions to the historic and aesthetic statements of old houses. The Ukrainians deserve high praise for preserving the downstairs kitchen in almost original condition - and finding it perfectly usable as the Institute's office. If I owned this house, I'd be out shopping for vintage bathroom fixtures right now.
The oval boudoir beyond the sliding doors in the image below is one more reason to love big old houses.
What a beautiful job they've done to restore this lovely room. The notion in museum-think that you must either demolish an old room or cover it up with white plasterboard is such bunk. The experience of seeing pictures is only enhanced by the beauty of their surroundings.
Mr. Sinclair's bedroom on the fourth floor was a sort of storage depot during the renovations. The Institute's Jasper Santa Ana is trying to get out of the way.
On display at the Institute during my last visit was an exhibit of Socialist Realism from the former Soviet Union. I have to admit, it was kind of terrific. Here's cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin being greeted by Nikita Krushchev and mobs of flag waving well wishers whose faces mask a hurricane of suppressed opinions.
Mrs. Sinclair's bathroom has remained untouched since its ill-considered disassembly years ago. Well, there's a little less junk in it recently, but no restoration plans on deck. As anyone who's been to the Waldorf knows, the bones of this bathroom are worthy of the Towers. It would be a wonderful addition to the house were it put back to original condition. I do not doubt for one instant that visitors would be fascinated to see pictures hanging in a bathroom. In the words of my late father, "I said it, and I'm glad."


  1. I could not agree with you more about the stained woodwork in the principle rooms. It was the first thing that caught my attention, unhappily. That being said, it looks like the crew has done meticulous work in reconditioning these lovely spaces. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thank you for the follow-up visit to this beautiful New York City mansion. While every restoration or renovation job has its own unique issues, what is stupendous is the quality of the workmanship done here and the care taken to ensure that the museum spaces retained their glorious interior decoration. This all is ocurring while the Cooper-Hewitt museum in the former Carnegie mansion is proceeding with a renovation that is thoroughly gutting the second and third levels of the home, wiping away all traces of historic interior details. Two very different approaches to museum galleries. I prefer what was done here. Another great post.

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