CHAPTER IV

HILL-STEAD

Theodate's choice for the site of her parent's future country house was the top of a knoll that ascended gradually behind her own house on High Street. This site presides over an extensive view towards the west of Farmington Valley and the distant hills beyond. Yet the knoll itself is partly sheltered by hills. Theodate, it is said, so ardently desired to please her parents that, when showing her mother the site, covered a rattlesnake with her skirt to prevent her mother from seeing it. Although it may be apocryphal, the story is nevertheless in keeping with Theodate's persistent nature.

Apart from the fact that their only child lived there, the Popes would have found the village of Farmington, with its stately Main Street of grand Georgian and Federal houses and its shady lanes, a felicitous choice for a summer house. Sarah Porter, after having moved her school to Main Street, had formed a Village Improvement Society that saw to the lighting of the streets, maintenance of sidewalks, and planting of trees. A country club with tennis courts and a golf course was organized in 1896. And, after 1894 when a trolley service between Hartford, Farmington, and Unionville was opened, Farmington's inhabitants were no longer isolated from the state capital's cultural events. Partly because Miss Porter's School attracted them, artists, musicians, and lecturers came, some remaining as permanent residents, like Theodate's neighbor, the painter Robert Brandegee.1

For Alfred Pope, perhaps a more compelling reason for a Farmington country house was the just completed country estate of John H. Whittemore. Designed by Stanford White, the estate stood nearby on a large tract of farm land west of Middlebury on the east shore of Lake Quassapaug.2 Tranquility Lodge, as the large shingle style house encircled by porches was called, stood on a ridge overlooking dramatic views of the lake and hills. It became a depository for Whittemore's growing collection of French paintings by the same Impressionist artists and their contemporaries that Alfred Pope collected. Obviously a healthy rivalry existed between the two men. If John Whittemore erected a country house then Alfred Pope must have one too. If Whittemore put in a golf course, Alfred Pope would follow suit.

Having picked a site, the next thing Theodate wanted was a landscape architect. Through the Whittemores she met Warren Manning (1860-1938), who had succeeded Charles Eliot (1859- 1897) as Whittemore's landscape architect. Charles Eliot had planned the site of Tranquility Farm before dying, unexpectedly, from pneumonia.3 Manning, who had worked with Frederick Law Olmstead on such prestigious projects as George W. Vanderbilt's Biltmore estate in North Carolina and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, had opened his own office in Boston in 1896. Theodate consulted Manning first on August 27, 1896, a day after he had seen John H. Whittemore in Waterbury. But it wasn't until the following year, after visiting Tranquility Farm, that Manning met Theodate in Farmington. They walked the site she had chosen, and at that time probably planned the western orientation of the house towards High Street, with the drive to the south side from Mountain Road.4

The next step was the choice of an architectural firm. Theodate, as the driving force behind the creation of her father's country estate, turned to McKim, Mead & White, the firm favored by her father's close business associate. Their first commission for Whittemore had been his house in Naugatuck, Connecticut, built in 1888-1890. Whittemore subsequently had become a major client, commissioning from the firm a group of public buildings, in the Beaux-Arts style, around the Naugatuck green.5 In addition, McKim, Mead & White designed two houses for Harris Whittemore: one next to his father's on Naugatuck's Church Street (1901-03), the other, a summer house on the end of a hillside slope at Tranquility Farm (1901).6

Theodate wrote McKim, Mead & White requesting plans before departing on a European trip in June, 1898 with her parents, three Brooks cousins and Mary Hillard. The tone of her letter was nothing less than autocratic. As an inducement to accepting the commission, she mentioned that it was her father who had persuaded John Whittemore to go to the firm for his first house in Naugatuck, which had led to other commissions there. She described the site and the orientation of the house and drive, and specified a frame house with very large living and dining rooms, a study, and a bedroom with a sitting room. Behind these were to be pantries, a kitchen ,and a laundry - all on the ground floor. Upstairs were to be bedrooms, bathrooms, and servants rooms. Above all, it was to be "a beautifully planned house in thoroughly good style and self-contained and dignified." The plans, not an elevation, were requested with a formidable coda, "And please - what time you have spent on this preliminary plan have the man spend in thought and not in lines with fancy lead coloring. We know all that."7

Theodate and Mary Hillard left the group in Europe, returning in August to join their friends at a New Hampshire camp at Squam Lake. But obviously there had been a lot of intoxicating discussion about the new project, for on August 3rd Mr. Pope cabled Theodate to act freely with Harris Whittemore, in purchasing land around the chosen site.8 Within the next two months she purchased approximately 150 acres. Then on September 5th her father wrote Theodate from Innsbruck, advising her to approach McKim, Mead & White with her own plan.9

This signal was all Theodate needed to summon up her own plans for a country house which had begun to take shape on the grand tour ten years earlier. On September 17th she wrote directly to William Rutherford Mead what must have seemed a startling proposal:

... I am writing for and in the interests of my father. We have now decided instead of having you submit sketches to us, to send you the plans that I have been working over at intervals for some years to draw to scale and make an elevation of in the event of our coming to a mutual agreement. Consequently, as it is my plan, I expect to decide in all the details as well as all more important questions of plan that may arise. This must be clearly understood at the outset, so as to save unnecessary friction in the future. In other words, it will be a Pope house instead of a McKim, Mead and White [sic].

In conclusion, I will say that I am not nearly as difficult to deal with as this would seem, for I am very tolerant of advice and always open to suggestions and good reasoning ...10

With the letter she enclosed a roll of plans which unfortunately have not yet surfaced.

In the meantime her father had written her from Venice on September 11th to go ahead with road making, wall building, and tree planting in the fall, taking the advice of Mr. Manning.11 She lost no time in having the property surveyed and in enquiring about obtaining some large trees. The topographical survey, dated September 30, 1898, shows the house superimposed as she planned it - a main block flanked by wings. The butler's pantry, kitchen, and laundry were strung out behind and then connected to a carriage shed and barn. The effect of her plan is typical of an old New England farmhouse added on to over time. She jotted notes in the margin and marked the spot from which she wished a perspective drawing to be made (Fig.12).12

McKim, Mead & White delayed. That Whittemore was such a good client was undoubtedly a major reason that the firm acceded to unheard of terms, and also agreed to place their services at the disposal of a client they must have seen as a headstrong young woman. October 3rd found Theodate in New York, meeting with Mr. Mead who promptly turned the project over to a young associate - Egerton Swartwout. Letting no time elapse, she wrote on that same day to Swartwout requesting his presence in Farmington to make changes in the plans. In mid-October she informed him that she was ready to excavate for the cellar and would visit him in New York "with a view to having the plans drawn off with the changes she had made while she waited."

She was also working on the barn that was started first so that it could serve as a temporary carpentry shop and storage area while the house was being built. Two sheets of heavy brown paper, of the type that a carpenter would use, contain the earliest, but undated, plan and elevations for the barn and its adjacent buildings.13 One sheet shows the ground plan of the carriage shed, barn, carriage house, tool house, and barnyard on a scale of 1/8" = 1'. The other shows the front and southwest, or end, elevations of this group on the same scale (Fig.13). Judging from correspondence between Theodate, McKim, Mead & White and the local master carpenter, Hal Mason, it is clear that these sheets were drawn by the latter who stepped in to redo the barn plans when Theodate discovered errors made by a McKim, Mead & White draftsman. Earlier, Mason had made alterations at the O'Rourkery, and, although he was designing Farmington's Episcopal Church in 1898, he would continue to work with Theodate throughout the construction of Hill-Stead.14

The importance of these drawings should not be underestimated. They are covered with Theodate's notes and corrections and consequently shed light on her working method. She would describe what she wanted and furnish rudimentary sketches to a draftsman who would draw up plans and elevations, often only to see them covered with her corrections to be redrawn. She would continue to work in this way throughout her career.15 While planning and supervising the building of Hill-Stead, she continuously sent instructions, sometimes with a sketch of some detail, to the McKim, Mead & White associate in charge who remained for the most part in New York.

Her notes on the sheet with the two barn elevations indicate the picturesque effect she desired of structures added as they were needed. Opposite the asymmetrically pitched roof of the carriage shed, which stood between the laundry and barn, she wrote, "This pitch looks queer but it is just the way I want it." Of the erased and redrawn lines of the roofs on the southwest end of the barn complex she noted, "[I] Have intentionally drawn these roofs at different pitches." Above all, what she insisted upon was that the barn complex must not only look old-fashioned but must be built in the traditional way with pegging and open lofts. The clapboards were to be more or less seven inches wide and spaced unevenly; the doors to have long, hand wrought hinges; and the roof of the shed was to be lapped to that of the barn in the old-time way. Dove holes in the apex of the barn roof, and hand forged nails with prominent heads would also add the touch of rusticity so coveted by Theodate.16

At the same time that Theodate was working on the barn she was concentrating on the house. She begged Swartwout to finish the house floor plan and a watercolor perspective of the southwest elevation to show her parents when they docked in New York on November 7, 1898. They were to continue to Cleveland, and she wanted one good day to spend on the plans with them. When informed that the house plans would not be ready, she requested that her corrections on the old plans be drawn over neatly and that they would do.

The watercolor perspective conveys exactly the effect she desired - a grand version of the traditional New England house in the country (Fig.14). The facade imposes a sense of authority with its centered porch. The main block is flanked by two wings with porches, effectively concealing the service rooms and barn area behind. Two dormers, each backed by a chimney, light the attic. Two dormers again pierce the long overhanging roofs of each porch. That Theodate pushed the left or northwest wing forward to give ample space to her father's office and recessed the right or southwest wing, which contained the ell continuation of the living room, negated the frontal symmetry that the house might otherwise have had. Yet a charming sense of rambling informality was gained, the effect being quite unlike that of the more symmetrically planned houses by McKim, Mead & White. Clearly it was the floor plan that determined the exterior frame; the rooms were not stuffed into a preconceived format.

However, the house began to change its character. By the time Swartwout finished the first floor plan and front elevation in early February 1899, Theodate had already destroyed any semblance of symmetry by the addition of a large bay window to the living room (Figs.15, 16,17). She paid particular attention to the windows. In the front elevation, the second floor windows were narrower than those on the first, which resulted in the shutters being different widths. She wanted the shutters the same width with the end result that the windows were standardized. And although she had wanted twenty-four panes in the lower windows in keeping with the old New England fenestration, the number of panes was reduced to a more modern twelve.

The most drastic change to the facade occurred four months after the Popes had taken up residence. At the end of October 1901, Theodate wrote in her diary that Mr. Mead came up to "help us with suggestions about the porch we are going to put across the front of the house." This porch was influenced by the Georgian two-story portico of Mount Vernon, with its Chippendale balustrade and square piers with sunken panels.17 Did the Popes want a stately portico to imbue their house with the kind of self-importance proclaimed by the porches attached to the Georgian and Federal houses of the most socially prominent citizens on Main Street? And was the reference to Mount Vernon's portico, which would inspire so many Colonial Revival houses, a conscious attempt to confer dignity to Hill-Stead and to its owners by this association? This was undoubtedly the case. With her mother's arrival, Theodate became more involved with the upper echelon of Farmington society, and she joined the Colonial Dames. Also, about this time, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, Theodore Roosevelt's socially dynamic sister, and a recent Main Street arrival, became one of Theodate's close friends.18

Was McKim, Mead & White or Theodate responsible for the style of the porch and for the large central dormer that was added to provide more light for the billiard table in the third floor attic (Fig.4)? Certainly McKim, Mead & White had Mount Vernon in mind when they designed James L. Breese's Southampton house "The Orchard" (1898-1907). This Colonial Revival house also has a two-story portico that recalls Mount Vernon, although columns were substituted for Mount Vernon's piers. Yet there are no plans or record of payment to the firm for this addition to Hill-Stead. Once again it would seem clear that Theodate determined the style, at least, of the Hill-Stead porch. Indeed, the idea may have come to her in March, prior to Mead's arrival, when she and Mary Hillard had taken a ten-day trip to Virginia, visiting Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, and Mount Vernon where Theodate was photographed in front of the Potomac facade of Washington's country house.

 

One last major addition that affected the facade took place in the winter of 1906-7. Here McKim, Mead & White took charge, Theodate having started a new architectural project in nearby Middlebury. The northwest porch and office behind it became a second library with a bay window matching that to the right. Off of this a new office, or den, was created with its own Greek Revival pedimented porch, which looked out over Alfred Pope's six-hole golf course (Figs.18, 19).19

The south side of the house also saw changes, and these were undertaken without the advice of McKim, Mead & White. Theodate's diary entry on August 9, 1901, states that, "We have been planning an arbor at south porch with Mr. Jones [the young, local contractor responsible for building Hill-Stead] today" (Figs.20, 21, 22). At this time the south porch, which was used as an alternative dining area, was broadened. Theodate attempted to capture some of the rusticity of the barn in the porches. The boards on the inside walls are of varying widths, as are the boards of the oak floors; and the heads of the hand forged nails are prominently exposed.

The interior of the house itself has the same casual formality in its layout that is exhibited on the west facade. The graciously proportioned hall leads on the right through a wide arched entrance into the L-shaped living room. The use of hot air forced through heating vents made possible the spacious, low-ceilinged rooms and open flowing spaces that appealed to Mrs. Pope. On the left of the hall is the first library and, beyond the stairs, a bedroom. The hall leads into a large dining room. One of the problems of the plan was the drive, which approached the south side of the house instead of the portico that sheltered the main entrance. This meant that, except for formal occasions, one ordinarily entered the house from the south porch, approaching the dining room through a service hall that passed the butler's pantry. This casual approach to a visitor's arrival is hardly a solution which McKim, Mead & White would have chosen.

Before deciding on the decor of the interior, Theodate ordered books on colonial architecture and went to look at old houses to help determine the amount of wood paneling and the type of details to use.20 She decided to panel the library, the office that later became the second library, and much of the dining room. Pine was used but grained in a dull yellow to look like a more expensive hard wood, a practice not uncommon in the nineteenth century.21 She seemed to be guided mostly by what would make her parents and their guests feel comfortable. Her father had asked for fireplaces in the main bedrooms, which she then also equipped with bathrooms and ample closets. She included a huge walk-in closet for her mother's room and window sashes that would not meet at her father's eye level to obscure his view. She wanted a decor in which her mother would feel at home and which, above all else, would show off her father's paintings to their best advantage.

Mr. and Mrs. Pope decided where their paintings would hang so that Theodate could plan the height of the mantelpieces to correspond to the size of the paintings. Whistler's Blue Wave fits perfectly into the space above the mantel in the second library (originally Alfred Pope's office), and the brilliant colors of Degas's pastel, The Jockeys, dominate the dining room from a planned position above the fireplace. Muted wall colors were chosen as a foil for the paintings in their gilt frames. Brown wallpaper covered the walls not paneled in the dining room, complementing the chairs upholstered in black figured horse hair and the brown velvet curtains. In the living room the prized Monets and Manet were displayed against wallpaper striped in two tones of olive. The hall was papered with old-fashioned blocks of ornament in brown on a white ground. Here the Popes hung their many prints by Whistler and other artists.22

While Theodate managed, with the aid of McKim, Mead & White, to create a house which evokes both the period's concept of gracious living as well as a sense of the traditional New England farmhouse, the effect of total harmony is also due to the work of the landscape architect, Warren Manning. His rejection of a formal driveway in favor of an approach to the side gave privacy to the front rooms. From the entrance on Mountain Road, this shady drive, abutted by stone walls, wound past a rustic, or wild, walking garden and then a walled sunken garden before reaching the south side of the house. The magisterial west facade and the magnificent view it commanded remained as a surprise for the visitor to discover on rounding the corner on foot.

The sunken garden, which was surrounded by stone walls, was created from a natural declivity and could be seen from Mrs. Pope's bedroom windows (Fig.23). Ada Pope loved her flower beds with the same amount of passion that her husband prized his golf course. A boxwood hedge within the garden, which formed a central asymmetrical octagon, created a peaceful inner sanctum filled with colors and scents provided by carefully ordered flower beds, shaded here and there by flowering crab apples. At the center an open trellised summer house was shaded by the foliage and purple blossoms of a Judas tree.23 It was here that Mrs. Pope and Theodate liked to read, the passage of their hours marked by a sundial bearing Theodate's monogram JIL and an inscription "ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS" (Fig.24).24

Gertrude Kasebier's photograph of the Popes, taken around 1902, shows them before the southwest view of Hill-Stead (Fig.25). The photograph, which may have been intended to look spontaneous, is very revealing. Alfred Pope and his wife are formally dressed, with the grand portico of the house behind them and their carriage just in view. Theodate approaches them from the side, as a more marginal figure. Hill-Stead was Theodate's way of coming to terms with her parents. By creating a house that pleased them, she felt she had demonstrated both her worth and her affection. In his American Scene of 1907, Henry James singled out Hill-Stead as proof of the sovereign power of art. For James, only a subtle combination could merit such praise. It was not only the dignity of Hill-Stead's Mount Vernon appearance presiding over "the most composed of communities" from its hilltop perch, but also the refinement of the collection of Impressionist paintings within. Today Hill-Stead is recognized as one of the finest of Colonial Revival houses in America.25

Theodate also achieved her own goal in the creation of a farm. In buying up neighboring property to form the Hill-Stead estate, Alfred Pope had acquired an early eighteenth-century farm house and barn.26 Richard Jones, Hill-Stead's contractor, built a large gambrel roofed hay barn, to which a low cow barn was attached, a shed, and a shop. A Guernsey herd was started with three cows as foundation stock. By 1925 Theodate had bred a heifer, Anesthesia's Faith, which produced a world record quantity of milk and butterfat.27 When Anesthesia's Faith died, she was duly buried with all of Theodate's other beloved pets in a shady corner at the end of the O'Rourkery garden.

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