Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Sleeper House Garden

The Sleeper-McCann House, known as Beauport, is on Rocky Neck, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It's considered an historic landmark even though it's not nearly so old as the colonial houses I've recently featured in these pages. The work of designer Henry Davis Sleeper (my distant cousin) and architect Halfdan M. Hanson, the house is a showcase of art and objects primarily from the colonial era.

It's a living fantasy, really, obviously made up by Sleeper as he went along—now inspired by colonial New England, now by medieval England, now by the Italian Renaissance. It's beautiful location on a sheltered bay, with the open Atlantic Ocean visible in the center distance, moved Henry Sleeper to rousing dreams.

Sleeper became well known for his unique design talents, and subsequently did houses for Joan Crawford and Henry Francis du Pont. From 1907 until 1934, he built and expanded this house, decorating many of its 40 rooms to illustrate literary and historical themes. The entertaining tour offered to visitors concentrates more on the gorgeous house and rooms in general than on the countless objects on display, which remain pretty much as Sleeper left them. And unfortunately little is said about the garden.

It's now beautifully cared for, a fine example of a 20th century New England cottage garden. Large old yew shrubs are shaped as if the icy oceanic wind had formed them. Rocks are respectfully left where they were and flowerbeds emerge with a "gardenesque" curiosity wherever things might have looked a little dull.

This is the old garage of the property, now used as a welcoming center. Visitors come in the summer months to admire architectural features rescued from old buildings, magnificent arrangements of colored glassware, secret staircases, the "Red Indian Room" (with a majestic view of the harbor), the "Master Mariner's Room" (overflowing with nautical items), and even the kitchen and servants' quarters. After Henry Sleeper's death, Charles and Helena McCann bought Beauport, and added their Chinese porcelain objects to his collections; it was the McCann family who later donated Beauport to Historic New England as a museum.

These two old ceder trees, Thuja occidentalis (Eastern Arborvitae, Northern Whitecedar) have taken on an almost Japanese look in their years of exposure to sea winds. The wood has a delicious perfume.

It's a garden made to enjoy and use fully, with lots of hidden spots for sitting and for gazing at the sea. The elegant wooden balustrade on the right is freshly painted each spring.

Henry Sleeper's collectibles turned up even in the garden. Here, he created a kind of double bell tower, having found the antique bells first. I would guess that the piece of sculpture seen below long preceded the idea for its Beauport use.

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