Interior Inspirations, Part IV: Reggie Darling

Editor's Note: When Reggie Darling first commented on EEE, I was instantly intrigued - who is this man with the P.G. Wodehouse name and the waspish WASP wit to accompany it. While searching for a way to contact him, I was delighted to discover that he had just launched his own blog which is now one of my must-places to visit.

When contacted by the inestimable Emily Evans Eerdmans with the request to write a guest piece about an interior that has inspired or influenced me the most, it was both a great honor and a predicament. Which to choose?

After a great deal of deliberation, I narrowed the list down to two that have most inspired and influenced the restoration and decoration I and my spouse have undertaken at Darlington House, our Federal-era country place in the Hudson River Valley.

The Grange and Hamilton House:
Jewels of the Early-Period Colonial Revival

The Grange today

Hamilton House today

The rooms I have selected are found in “The Grange” in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and in “Hamilton House” in South Berwick, Maine. Both houses were owned by and sympathetically re-decorated at the turn of the last century in high-style early-period Colonial Revival style by owners of rigorous taste and elevated sophistication. Miraculously much of their interiors remain largely intact to this day. Both of these properties are today owned by Historic New England and are open to the public as house museums. I encourage you to visit them, as they are both handsome and beautifully-situated.

What distinguishes The Grange’s and Hamilton House’s interiors from later Colonial Revival interpretations is that their owners did not seek to create slavish museum-type period interiors in their rooms, but rather ones that were informed by history, and where the contents are arranged for modern-day use and comfort. I call them period-ish. They are emblematic of the early-period Colonial Revival, when interiors were designed to recreate a period mood while still retaining elements that were not, by definition, of the American Colonial period.

Such interiors often would include a mix of furnishings from differing eras and countries of origin, not just from America but also from France and England. Successful practitioners of this early-period Colonial Revival style included Elsie de Wolfe, notably in her decorations of the original Colony Club in New York, and McKim, Mead, and White, as seen in their “restoration” of the White House’s principal rooms under Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

It is important to distinguish this early period of the Colonial Revival from the later-period Colonial Revival, which evolved to become more strictly-focused on creating period-consistent interiors heavily influenced by the restorations at Colonial Williamsburg. All ball and claw.

The Grange
Lincoln, Massachusetts

The Grange in the 1890s

Ogden Codman, co-author with Edith Wharton of The Decoration of Houses, is one of the greatest architects of the early-period Colonial Revival, along with McKim, Mead, and White. Codman’s work is thoroughly discussed in Pauline Metcalf’s able monograph Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses, a book that should be in every student of interior design’s reference library and takes pride of place in mine.

Grange sitting room 1890s

Grange sitting room today

The Grange was built by the architect’s ancestors in 1740 as a country seat outside of Boston and substantially enlarged and updated around 1800 in the Federal style. By the time Ogden Codman assumed influence over its interiors in the late 1890s the Grange’s rooms were largely populated with furniture and decorative objects from the 1860s and 1870s. He didn’t care for their dated look, which he considered to be at odds with the house’s architecture, and redecorated several of the rooms with a lighter and sophisticated mix of 18th-century American, English, and French furnishings.

The most iconic of these rooms, a sitting room, features its original paneling installed in 1740, painted white, and mostly (although not-exclusively) furnished with Louis XVI furniture and Chinese porcelain lamps. The same toile de Jouy is used throughout the room to upholster or slipcover the seating, and also as curtains.

Grange Sitting Room 1980s

Over 100 years later this room still appears fresh, light, and comfortable to me, and an ideal place to wile away a summer’s evening. It has had a profound influence on the decoration of our drawing room at Darlington House, where we have sought to capture a similar atmosphere with a mix of American Federal, Louis XVI, and English Regency furniture, along with Chinese and English porcelains.

Hamilton House
South Berwick, Maine

Hamilton House in the 1890s

Built circa 1785, Hamilton House was acquired by the comfortably-circumstanced Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter, Elise, in the 1890s as a summer retreat. They bought the house at the urging of their friend Sarah Orne Jewett, the author of The Country of Pointed Firs, who lived nearby. The Tysons embarked on a major restoration and renovation of the house and in so doing created one of the gems of the early-period Colonial Revival. The house sits in an idyllic setting, overlooking the Salmon Falls River, and it is noteworthy for the beauty of its situation, gardens, house, and interiors.

The Tysons in the Hamilton House dining room

The decoration of the rooms of Hamilton House, in particular its dining room, have influenced our work at Darlington. The dining room is noteworthy for its asperity.

Hamilton House dining room

It is simply furnished with painted fancy chairs, plain mahogany furniture, and gilt mirrors. The floors are covered with rush matting. One of the most delightful aspects of the room is its walls, painted with classical Italian views in 1905 after the Tysons returned from a tour of Europe. Prettily-painted wood window pelmets add a pleasing and decorative touch, from which hang (in certain photographs) plain white dimity curtains.

These are rooms that I come back to again and again, both for their simplicity and their integrity, and I believe that there remains much to be learned from them today -- whether one is seeking to create interiors informed by the past or more modern ones rooted in contemporary living.

For more information on the Grange and Hamilton House: http://www.historicnewengland.org/

Reggie Darling’s updates on the progress at Darlington House can be found on his quite charming blog: http://www.reggiedarling.blogspot.com/