It's much to be regretted, not being able to locate photograps of any of Harbor Hill's twenty or so bedrooms, except for Katherine Mackay's. Even with the private sanctum of the queen, nothing new has been uncovered, at least no so far as locating new images beyond the few which have been reprinted repeatedly.
Harbor Hill's superb oak staircase, occupied the entirety of the lower levels of the south-east pavilion. No more so than in the great hall, with its pendant ornamented molded plaster ceiling, did the staircase, with parapets of luxuriantly scrolling, pierced arabesque, remotely reference "Louis XIV and Henri II precedents." Instead, it had an English pedigree, derived from seventeenth century Sudbury Hall and Cassiobury Park.
Depicting King Herod's slaughter of the inocents, the large Flemish Tapestry seen in this image dated to the late sixteenth century. François Boucher, the celebrated French painter who lived from 1703 to 1770, as director of the Gobliens' factory, sometimes supplied cartoons for tapestries. No "Boucher tapestry", could possibly have been made, before his birth. That would be required, if this had been a "Boucher tapestry", as Wilson and Craven both say
Sudbury Hall's early seventeenth century staircase, along with the late seventeenth century stair from Cassiobury Park, were models for what was done at Harbor Hill. The latter stairway is today installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
January 28, 1906: The New York Times. Difficult to make out, the heraldic tapestry showing the Bourbon arms, was on the order of the one shown below. French and dating to the eighteenth century, it indeed might have been designed by Boucher. Whether it was or not, this must be the tapestry mentioned in a number of letters by the creators of Harbor Hill
French heraldic tapestry, 1760's
What's new then and rather exciting, is a fresh knowing look and analysis of what many have gazed on, seemingly, without seeing.
Our journey to this sacred precinct begins downstairs. How clever of Katherine to have so imposing a grand staircase erected. What a picture she must have made, in her graceful descent, dressed in some filmy silken stuff, flashing with jewels. Thanks to the upper windows, more than abundant light made the spot at the foot of the stairs, perfect as a place to grow plants. Ferns and palms were used mostly. The plain antique oak of the wainscot, undecorated except by a simple Virtruvian scroll, half-way up, was a wonderful foil for the virtuoso carving of the stair's parapet. Similarly, the velvet-weave, deep-pile carpet, with a damask pattern, running along the entrance and up the many treads, the same claret color as the curtains, related beautifully to the important tapestry always hung here. What trouble Katherine had caused, attempting to change the color to green after it had already been approved, woven and laid. Victor Twiss, who lived on 144th Street near Hamilton Terrace, saved Davenport & Co. through the careful paper trail of authorization he was able to produce. Such thorough record keeping, no doubt, he leaned was an essential strategy for surviving, when working for the Mackays.
Absent to begin with, by 1909 more and more armor was placed here abouts. Across from a formidable mounted suit of jousting armor, stationed at the start of the staircase, was the discreet door into the electric lift. Provided with a cushioned seat and lined in mauve silk with a large panel of mirrored glass, here heralded by Katherine's signature color, was ones initial intimation of some special destination above.
The armor of a jousting knight placed at the bottom of Harbor Hill's staircase
Executed by H. F. Davenport & Co. the Harbor Hill staircase was a tour de force of virtuoso carving. Where is it now, or was it destroyed?
Is anyone ever fully happy with their lot in life? Marie Antoinette, the anointed queen of France, in pursuit of the wholesome existence advocated by Rousseau, was only really following the folly of fashion. The cows she and her ladies milked, had been pre-washed, curried and combed in anticipation to royal ministrations. The dairy where they clotted cream, to eat with wild strawberries, were marble lined. The containers they used, were made from Sevres porcelain. Katherine Mackay, was in more ways than one, the tragic French consort, in reverse. She rellished the balls and social ritual that queen had disdained. Queen Marie Antoinette had a low-ceiling suite of private, intimate, cozy rooms in which to live. Even the king asked permision to visit her there. Returning daily to act out the public spectacle which ritualize each aspect of royal life, to apartments of state, she lived to momentarily escape the duty of decorum that was the destiny she was born to. By Contrast, Katherine reveled in reliving the games of her childhood come true. She'd happily taken her ease on a thrown-like divan, elevated on a dais, draped in regal ermine. She bathed in a sunken tub, carved from a single block of marble. Her's were all apartments of state. She slept on a bed raised on a platform and her chest of drawers were on platforms as well.
1902: The ante room into Katherine Mackay's suite
1903: Dressed in an ermine collared tea gown, Katherine Mackay assumes the affect of a queen, enthroned on a chaise, elevated on a dais in her orchid colored boudoir
Imported highly figured French walnut boiseries, with furniture supplied by Allard en-suite, were both upholstered with panels of mauve damask, woven with a custom pattern of cherubs disporting amongst flowers. Vessels as desperate as small steins, Chinese baluster vases and cut glass beakers, mounted in gold, all held bouquets of the orchids that Katherine adored.
Orchids and a photograph of a mother with her daughters. Katherine Mackay once ordered what a newspaper called the most expensive photographic ever made. Showing the two Katherine's, mother and baby daughter, framed, the photograph measured five x seven feet!
An orchid in a small vase and silken cherubs at play
Among photographs of friends, gold writing implements and potted ferns, were still more orchid
Besides the romantic games of girlhood, that Cinderella named Alva Vanderbilt must have encouraged Katherine's fascination with royal fantasy. At Marble House, Alva's palace by the sea in Newport, she had just the sort of bedroom Katherine dreamed of inhabiting. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, it was produced by Allard, who would construct Katherine's rooms at Harbor Hill. It boast the same sort of bed upon a dias and lavender-colored figured silk wall hangings Katherine would use. But, as to the French walnut furniture and the polar bear rug, one must search further afield for that precedent.
Visiting London in 1900, the Mackays had stayed mostly at Carlton House Terrace, with Clarie's mother. However, they were also entertained by and asked to stay with, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Examining the duchess' bedroom, imagining the ceiling height reduced, by half, how much Katherine's room at Harbor Hill resembles it. The fur rug, the 'royal' platforms, the dark shining rocco furniture, so many parallels, hardly seem coincidental. Then, quite suddenly, by 1905, it had all changed! Why?
Circa 1899: The room redone by the Ninth Duke of Marlborough for his rich American bride, prepared more in terms of his ideas of suitable surroundings for a future duke's birth, than a young bride's comfort
A glimpse of the bedroom mantelpiece
A dias for everything
Alva Vanderbilt's bedroom at Marble House in Newport, prefigured Katherine Mackay's at Harbor Hill also, in part, probably influenced its alterations
For just what reason was Kathrine's room completely changed, with new wall hangings, no daises and all that beautifully finished French walnut, walls and furniture alike, painted over, a cream color, in 1905? Most likely these drastic steps had been motivated by an article published by House Beautiful, early in the new year. The piece was the second in a series. The first had dealt with the Bradly Martins' eclectic townhouse, where it was complained that expensive and exquisite art works, sat side-by-side with gleanings from the junk shop. The scathing series, frankly described as "sermons", were entitled "The Poor Taste of the Rich ". Singled out for especial scorn, was the queenly suite of Katherine Mackay. Of her bed room the journalist concluded:
It is fussy and trifling. It shows that a room may be luxurious and yet lacking in comfort: that it may contain costly things, and yet be commonplace. There is nothing livable about the apartment and it is devoid of charm. Individuality, on the one hand is absent and historical accuracy on the other. It fails lamentably from both aspects...
1905: Transformation! If the fitting out of Katherine Mackay's room, had first been influenced by the Duchess of Malbrough's, Katherine's 1905 renovations, that scrapped exalting platforms and brightened her orchid-colored palette overall, seems to have been copied in turn, by the duchess! Please observe below
Circa 1910: The Duchess of Marlborough's bedroom at Blenheim
Grisaille painting of cherubs in overdoors similar to Katherine's at Harbor Hill
Katherine's bath drew even harsher disparagement:
If the bedroom is a notable example of poor taste what can be said of the bath and dressing room---rather what cannot be said of it! This astonishing room room must cause the presiding genius of house decoration hours of anguish...It is, properly speaking, not a bath-room, but an over-decorated and over-furnished room in which a bath-tub has been placed. Puzzel: Find the tub!
The bath-dressing room floor was covered in a carpet made from mountain sheep pelts. The space contained a fireplace, dressing table, chaise lounge, books potted palms and a sunken tub. Difficult for the House Beautiful writer to locate, the three-feet deep tub, carved from a single block of marble had alone cost of $6, 300,00
Cracked glass! Had this picture frame been thrown?
Clareie and Kitty
A bisquite clock is introduced
How many carved rosewood Chinese tables were there at Harbor Hill?
A reported commented on the gold toiletries arrayed on tables in Katherine's bath
She had prided herself so far as matters of the best taste were concerned. Yet, the artistic sensibility for which she was frequently complemented, had been questioned. All the lovliness of her queenly abode was belittled as "common place" So Katherine took action. In her bath, beyond a new paint job and new hangings, plants and books with fine bindings, were swept away. Still other alterations, substituting dark velvet walls, new carpets and old tapestries were to come later, until finally. Katherine had gone herself.
In terms of decoration at least, she would seem to have accomplished, all she'd set out to. Was this not enough? No, of course it had'nt been. Next we will consider the question of the inquiring: Why?
TO BE CONTINUED...