Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Owners' Suite

The name of this house is Daheim, and I've lived in it for 33 years. Had it been mine, I would have been deprived of it long ago, but that's another story. Until 1889, it was just another boring post Civil War balloon frame farmhouse of no particular merit. Then a German Horatio Alger type named Charles F. Dieterich (1836-1927) came along and enlarged the house (on three separate occasions) and the property on which it stands (by purchasing fifty - yes 50 - adjacent farms) until both reached their present gratifying proportions.

A feature of civilized living in a big house is the owners' bedroom suite. Mr. & Mrs. Dieterich's is a particularly good one, although its appeal is more the result of chance than planning. The original alterations to the house - indoor plumbing, a better kitchen, more bedrooms - were designed by James E. Ware (1846-1918) and intended to make the place more livable until something grander could be built. Instead, Dieterich became unexpectedly fond of it. Having initially erected one tower on the west in 1889, he added another on the east in 1896, then capped off his sprawling wooden wedding cake in 1912 with a third floor between the towers (supported by invisible steel beams) and a stone service wing in the back.

Daheim has more than a few design shortcomings, but the owners' suite isn't one of them. So let's get out of the cold and have a look at it.

With neither hall nor foyer to mediate the transition, it is very awkward to walk directly from the out of doors into the drawing room. It's also hard to call this a drawing room, or even a living room. We've always just called it the Front Room. The beautiful quartered oak paneling has darkened with age. The original golden color is preserved on the sliding door, protected for decades within the walls.

The library is beyond the Front Room, spang in the middle of a sort of express lane that runs from the front door to the dining room beyond that door in the distance. In the summer, when we keep everything open, there's a 115-foot enfilade from front door to dining room fireplace. The view has impact, even though the fireplace is annoyingly off axis. You can't count on much privacy in the library, however, what with people traipsing back and forth between the stair hall and the front door. Before the east tower was built, the library was the dining room which, from the standpoint of sophisticated planning, made even less sense.

We'll skip the library and jump ahead to the main hall, where you can admire my General Grant-ish staircase. Daheim's official front door is in this room, behind the camera. Like modern subdivision ranch houses, the front door here is so inaccessible that using it never occurs to anybody. Instead of three concrete steps to an unused lawn, mine opens onto a wrap porch supported by 52 columns. It is a walk of several minutes from the door to the porte cochere, so of course nobody comes in this way. There are 4 other stairways in the house, but this one is the flagship. It's been jiggered around repeatedly; I'm pretty sure the newels at the bottom were salvaged from some earlier version.

Like the paneling in the Front Room, the woodwork on the main stair used to be a lot brighter and I could probably refinish it with spectacular results. (Not going to happen). The carpenters who built this house were very good, but they did so without benefit of a French decorateur. Daheim's woodwork was all mass produced, all from builders' catalogs.

Those double doors are the entrance to the owners' suite. Of note on the second floor landing: vintage Lincrusta on the walls; gilded canvas on the ceiling; brass finials on the newels; and an endearing, if surpassingly ugly, chandelier

Daheim may lack a proper main floor entrance, but it does have a very excellent lobby at the center of the owners' suite. To the east of this lobby was Mrs. Dieterich's room, with small dressing room and bath attached. To the west was her husband's dressing room, bedroom and bath. These rooms occupy the entire southern facade of the house, with views of broad lawns and (before the trees grew) an elaborate formal garden (now maintained as a walled orchard) and a distant lake.

Painted canvas ceilings, stenciled burlap wall coverings and catalog woodwork were all chosen in order to save money in the temporary house. Age has conferred upon them a new respectability. The (probably garish) original colors of the ceiling have faded deliciously. The former fire engine red of the burlap has oxidized to a tasteful brown. Most houses like Daheim have either burned down or been demolished. The elaborate interiors that offended aesthetes of the past now look interesting.

Mrs. Dieterich's bedroom is immediately east of the lobby in the tower addition of 1896. During our first summer here, back in 1982, I went to Surrogate's Court in Poughkeepsie to look up Dieterich's will. Among the documents on file was a 1927 inventory that itemized all the furniture and paintings in the house (including an unexpectedly good collection of Impressionists) and indicated who slept where.

My former wife and I, being disinclined to sleep in separate bedrooms, thought long and hard about which to make our own. We decided eventually on his, not hers. Since Mrs. D's had an additional door to the second floor landing, we made it into a guestroom, and as a gag called it the Imperial Suite. The name stuck for 30 years. Occasional Imperial guests turned into permanent guests, until the last of them left last fall. At that point I reunited the owners' suite as it was meant to be, and made this room into my study. I am writing these words at that big mahogany desk right now.

A fireplace identical to this one sits in various dining rooms on Manhattan's West Side, rooming houses in Buffalo, restorations in Back Bay, etc., etc. It is very, very 1890s, and straight from a catalog.

How can you not love a house with light fixtures like these?

The door to the left of the fireplace goes to Mrs. D's bathroom.

Built in stages between the 1880s and the First World War, Daheim is a museum of American bathroom technology. This one is almost, but not quite, the most modern in the house.

Shortly after moving here from Tuxedo, my friend Christopher Gray gave me the Rotogravure section of a vintage New York Tribune. Covering a third of the front page was a photo of Daheim, and above it the headline: "Charles F. Dieterich is Making Daheim, his Country Home, a Delight to the Eye of Architect and Gardener." The caption under the photo reads, "The Italian Garden..."(which, believe me, was a stretch) "...and Temporary Dwelling House of Mr. Dieterich. The house will soon be replaced by a new one." The date was November 16, 1902, six years after Mrs. D's bedroom was built.

Since restoring the original owners' suite, I've left the sliding door between the lobby and my study open. For the last 30-plus years, however, we kept it closed, referring to the former lobby as the Plant Room. The only plant still there has grown so huge and pot-bound that I've decided to just leave it alone. The architecture of the Plant Room - cozier, smaller, busier, pathologically inventive - clearly predates that of Mrs. Dieterich's bedroom, where comparative restraint prevails.

In the other direction from the lobby are Mr. Dieterich's dressing room and bedroom, which my former wife and I once shared, and which I now share with my cat (see photo above). Before the east tower was built, Mr. & Mrs. D also shared this bedroom. The dressing room may have been her boudoir. After '96 it may have become his study, or maybe not.

My dressing room is one of the few surviving farmhouse rooms from the 1860s. The corner fireplace is an obvious Queen Anne addition, although the mantel doesn't look very Queen Anne to me. Perhaps it was salvaged from elsewhere in the house.

The ceilings in the towers are higher than those in the farmhouse, which requires a step up to get to each of the owners' bedrooms.

This is a wonderful bedroom, not just because of its generous size, bow front, picturesque solid cherry woodwork, and masses of all-day sunshine, but because of the striking contrast between its design and finishes and those in the rest of the suite. Three distinct periods of American architecture are contained within one (admittedly accidentally) well planned series of rooms - 1890s Victorian with hints of classical revivals to come; domestic rural 19th century farmhouse; and fashionable Queen Anne from the 1880s.

I brought the sink with me from Tuxedo. To my mind it is a work of industrial art. The toilet is clearly new(ish). The tiled walls and floors and borders are to those in Mrs. D's bathroom, as the phone you were carrying around with you ten years ago is to the one you've got today.

Let's exit the bedroom and retrace our steps across the dressing room. The 5-panel 19th century door with rosettes in the corners of the surround is of a type one sees in zillions of old American buildings.

I'm pretty sure there used to be a painted canvas ceiling in my bedroom too, though heaven only knows what happened to it. The one in the lobby is worth a second look.

At various times during the last 150 years, my house has been pampered by servants, trampled by hippies, allowed to freeze up by a woman whose life was falling apart, and locked up by a heavy handed estate manager who wanted to tear it down. The first time I saw it, the rooms were piled with storage and secured with padlocks hung on anchor plates nailed directly into the woodwork.

What do I really know of Mr Dieterich? He made his millions by himself; his son called him "gov'nor"; his daughter-in-law ran away with Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's coachman; he was friendly with a forgotten cartoonist named Bert Cobb; and according to the head gardener's son, an elderly man who dropped in on us one afternoon 25 years ago, he hated cats. This must explain the Bert Cobb cartoon below, found in a barn on the estate.