America’s Most Beautiful Living Room
November 6, 2008
Stanford White is too often remembered as a man of excess and scandal, and too little valued as one of the geniuses of American architecture. Today’s New York Times home section provides a prudent reminder of why his work should be treasured and preserved.
The Ferncliff Casino, sometimes known as Astor Courts, in Rhinebeck, New York, is one of White’s most idiosyncratic buildings. Among cognoscenti it was long admired but thought lost to the ravages of time and neglect. Designed as an elaborate playhouse for John Jacob Astor IV, it suffered badly following his death on the Titanic in 1912, mainly as a result of the confused life of his son, Vincent, and his late wife, Brooke. A miraculous restoration by Kathleen Hammer and Arthur Seelbinder, who bought the building just six years ago, proves that beauty can inspire and motivate humans to do extraordinary things. It helped that the architect’s great grandson, Sam White, was brought in to design the restoration. Together, they revived one of the country’s most unique classical buildings.
Though there is much to admire in the many spaces that White designed for his athletic client, like the indoor swimming pool in a Mediterranean vein and a spectacular top-lit tennis court, the centerpiece of the pavilion is a “living room” measuring 35 by 60 feet, with 14 1/2 foot tall ceilings and an exquisite stained glass ceiling medallion. Sam White calls this space “one of the most beautiful rooms in America” and it is hard to disagree, even when viewing photographs of it. His great grandfather’s unerring eye for decorative detail, balanced by a feeling for proportion and scale, make this room a masterpiece of interior design.
Sam White has just published a new book specifically devoted to the work of this great genius, and the Ferncliff Casino living room is on the cover. I am going to buy it and study its details assiduously. I suggest that anyone with an interest in classical design and traditional interiors do the same. And when I get a chance to visit, I’ll no doubt have even more to say about this “living room” for the gods.