Circa 1914: 'Babs,' Irene Gibson, (1899-1973), the daughter of famous illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and the renowned beauty Irene Langhorne, she became Mrs. John J. Emery in 1926
Circa 1922: John J. Emery, (1898-1976)
Based on his commissions to modern artist, Alexander Calder, Saul Steinberg and Jean Miro, for embellishments for the eighth floor lobby of his Terrace Plaza Hotel in downtown Cincinnati, John J. Emery’s, (1898-1976), residence might come as a surprise. For Peterloon, his 1,200 acre estate at Indian Hill, had beyond question, the handsomest, most commanding Georgian revival house ever built in Ohio. It was completed after two years, at the start of the Great Depression, in 1930. During construction, the Emerys occupied a specially built smaller Delano & Aldrich house nearby.
Circa 1929: Peterloon
Restrained but hardly severe, in terms of an imposing scale and outstanding craftsmanship, Peterloon easily rivals earlier, more ornate examples of this acclaimed firm’s better known country houses on the East Coast.
At least two certainly figured in their selection as architects by the Emery’s in the first place. Ultimately becoming a close family friend, in 1924, William Adams Delano had designed a unique, partially moated house. Chelsea, on Long Island, was built for John Emery’s sister, Alexandra Emery Moore. Mirador, in Virginia was an extensive remodeling done three years earlier. The girlhood home of Mrs. Emery’s mother, who was also named Irene, it had been transformed by her cousin, Nancy. Nancy Tree, as Nancy Lancaster, from 1944-1994, while a silent partner in the design firm Colfax & Fowler, would help to establish the classic English Country House style of decoration.
Orphaned in 1914, then, Nancy Perkins, she had been taken in by her aunt Irene, who was married to Charles Danna Gibson, the famous illustrator. Thereafter Nancy and her young cousin Irene Gibson became like sisters: with all of the emotional complexity that this entailed. Bowing to society together each subsequently served as the maid and matron of honor in, what proved to be the other’s first marriage. Newly-wed Irene had built a grand country house far larger than Nancy‘s. But the house that Nancy lived in, the ancestral family place, gave her higher standing in a lifelong contest as to who could have the best clothes, jewels, horses, children, cars, servants and houses.
First married to the stockbroker grandson of architect George B. Post, George B. Post, Jr., as a divorced mother of two, in 1926, Irene Gibson Post, wed John Emery, a First World War veteran educated at Groton, Harvard and Oxford. Although both had partly grown up in New York, two years previous to their wedding, Emory moved to Cincinnati.
Almost a century before, emigrating from England, his family had established a candle making concern here that evolved into Emory Industries and a real estate development firm. Here too, Delano & Aldrich played a part, as the designers of two innovative commercial projects undertaken by young Emery, that still add distinction to the city‘s skyline.
Abandoning Virginia in 1924 for England, where her second husband entered parliament, Nancy soon acquired a country seat that only helped to fuel the "sibling rivalry" with Babs, as cousin Irene was known. Surely, the involvement of William Delano at Kelmarsh Hall had only helped to make him all the more attractive as a designer for Peterloon.
Embellished by a dolphin on a shell, the finial of the broken scrolled pediment of Peterloon's baroque style stone door-case, is a reoccurring motif. So are the crossed arrows of the transom light. Illusions to hunting and love, inside arrows support the curving staircase railing.
U-shaped, Peterloon has a rectangular main pavilion of seven bays. Five levels are artfully disguised as two and one-half stories. Holland brick, stone quoins, a projecting, three-bay, pedimented center block and attenuated chimneys, are all reminiscent of Kelmarsh, strongly suggesting a comparison that was neither accidental nor unconscious. So too, do twin, two-storey service and guest wings. Bordering the deep, graveled fore court, they are connected to the principal section of the house by arcaded, one-storey hyphens. All and all, the house boast 36 rooms, 21 bathrooms and 19 fireplaces.
Matching pavilions and arcaded wings flank Peterloon's dignified forecourt
Planned by Albert Taylor of Cleveland who had started his career at Stan Hywet Hall, the undulating setting at Peterloon was as carefully balanced as a symphonic orchestration. Architectural organization and hauteur, wilderness and soaring, surprise vistas, all have a place.
Positioned along a shallow, formally paved terrace, the garden front sits atop a broad, semi-elliptical, grassed plateau. Both house and lawn overlook a lower balustraded terrace with a round swimming pool. The woodland landscape beyond, surrounds a seven acre lake.
September 1980: Emery-style entertaining on the terrace
Peterloon's broad grass terrace
Peterloon's round terrace pool
In fenestration, Peterloon’s front and this elevation are nearly identical. The most significant departure occurs above the high, first floor French doors. Corresponding windows on the façade are surmounted by aligned octagonal openings. At the rear, these unusual windows, which light a service-mezzanine, are substituted with sandstone tablets, modernistic bas reliefs that portray farm animals.
An exception is the double-height stair hall. To the right of the main entrance, its gracefully winding flight has spare iron and brass arrows that support the curved railings.
The stone mantelpiece in the entrance hall at Peterloon is a rare Renaissance example
The reception room
Peterloon's service stair and a mezzanine window
Located facing the garden, the principal reception rooms, the dining room, library, and drawing room, each occupy a story and a half, measuring 16 feet. This extra height eliminates the space that’s devoted on the front to the mezzanine. One reason for the exceptional height of these spaces, devoted to entertaining, was the reuse at Peterloon of antique, English paneled rooms.
Complete with an arcaded over mantle, the oak gunroom dates to the end of the 1500’s. Adorned with floral festoons, gamboling putti, and crossed palm fronds, the drawing room, which measures nearly 30x40 feet, dates to the 1680’s. Salvaged from Lord Bath’s demolished Carolean style mansion, Stowe, in Cornwall, it was moved to Cross, at Little Torrington near Devon, around 1739. Like the somewhat latter dining room, it’s carved from Scandinavian pine. In accordance with a widespread fashion established at the beginning of the 20th century, when installed here, the originally painted paneling was left stripped and waxed.
The Tudor gun room
A'dressing room', the washroom reserved for lady guests
Peterloon's notable English drawingroom dates from the 1680's
Peterloon's drawing room is hung with portraits of the Emery's children by their grandfather, famed illustrator Charles Dana Gibson
Peterloon's dining room
A portrait of Irene Emery painted by her father graces the dining room
If Irene Emery was keenly competitive with her cousin in nearly every other regard, concerning décor she deferred to Nancy’s more developed and grandiose sense of style. Adhering to Mirador’s example, of an elegant semi-asceticism, she decorated Peterloon in a way that seemed deliberately undecorated. Well-pedigreed but largely unexceptional antiques, comfortably overstuffed sofas and chairs with floral chintz covers, family portraits by her father and John Singer Sargent and a profusion of flowers from the garden and greenhouses, were all elements of her creation. Not-with-standing such orthodox ingredients; she was not above employing a long outmoded Victorian bedstead for her own use.
In as much as, in addition to the children from her earlier marriage, she and Emery had had four more, for a total of six, making Peterloon a child, animal, family and friend-friendly place ,was a priority given precedence over cultivating an environment of great élan.
Peterloon's quixotic French Provincial Louis XV library is most unexpected
The bedroom passage
The master bedroom
Yet, still, given the Emery’s prominence as horse breeders, patrons of the Scouts, and of the Cincinnati Art Museum, which now houses the Terrace Plaza’s modern masterpieces, this was but one aspect of the life lived here. Thanks especially to illustrious visiting relations, like Irene Emery’s aunt, Lady Astor and John Emery’s sister Audrey, who wed the Russian Prince, Grand Duke Dmitri, a glittering, cosmopolitan existence also flourished at Peterloon amidst an aura of idyllic domesticity
In a way, this uncommon duality is best symbolized by Delano’s whimsical detailing. What, from a distance, appear to be conservative, wholly predictable, elements of Neo-Classical ornament, on closer inspection turn out to be highly-personal flights of fantasy, utilized to articulate the familiar in an extraordinary way. S- Scrolled volutes, utilized as brackets, emerge as giant snails, while a basket of flowers surmounting the garden-entrance to the guest wing, up a pair of curving stairs, is in fact a basket of beautifully carved limestone, Spaniel puppies.
Long before their Ohio home has passed the century mark; John and Irene Emery are each dead. But thanks to their family’s generosity, open to the public, with 82 acres, as the Peterloon Foundation, this remnant of a gracious, vanished way of life, endures much as they envisioned it.
Circa 196o: John and Irene Emery