Thursday, May 31, 2007

Scent of Lilies

I was walking down 82nd Street day before yesteday, late in the afternoon, and realized that I had missed this year's Kips Bay Show House, which was being dismantled. Volunteering there had been one of my favorite "rites" of Spring for longer than I care to admit, but it's been more than seven years since I turned my attention to another event that raises funds for the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club. The Show House I missed was hosted by the brilliant Janna Bullock and RIGroup. This was a very different undertaking from what it once was, when I was one of a band of perhaps twenty young women who took turns watching the rooms under the auspices of the original Show House Committee. The Committee never changed from year to year, but were always there from dawn till dusk, in Chanel suits and ropes of pearls, fresh as proverbial daisies, and well into their seventies-- or so it seemed to me. The air was always scented with Rigaud candles and flowers, which competed with paint and varnish that was not yet cured. There were fads for peonies one year, orchids the next, and air plants another. One had to know what the antiques and paint finishes were, to explain them to visitors, and and make sure nobody fainted from climbing the stairs, as all the terrible things that can happen on elevators weren't covered in the insurance contracts. Once, Mrs. Mazzola decided to climb to the top and work her way down, and had to sit down at the top floor landing, which called for procedures reserved for extreme emergencies, in terms of the arrangements of those days. Luckily, a Chinese garden stool came in handy until a proper chair could be brought.

Climbing the beautiful staircases two and three steps at a time was a special treat for me, and the main reason I always went back. I was new to New York, and missed staircases, especially those massive marble ones with low risers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses of my hometown, Calcutta, on which one could jump about and play games. Between chasing up and down these newer but equally generous staircases, I enjoyed the fact that the visitors were colorful, international, dressed up, and wore great shoes. My first happy moment of extra responsibility came one year in the first and grandest house, which was on 66th Street and belonged at the time to Imelda Marcos, who lent it every year for the Show House. In the main drawing room situated on the second floor, as in a piano nobile, Robert Metzger had set up an early multi-channel music system around the edges of the room which featured a lush, over-the-top eighties version of period decor, with plenty of silk damask and passementerie, the console being cleverly tucked away, iirc, in cabinet with Boulle marquetry or similar. I was required to stand by a massive flower arrangement on a round table in the center of the room under a magnificent Russian chandelier, smile at visitors and explain the rug, and I noticed that both speakers deployed to the west were playing the same channel, as were the ones to the east. To my enormous delight, RM allowed me to pull out the console after the House closed for the day, fiddle with the wiring and fix it. That would never be done today, as the firms who do the sound would, first of all, never make that kind of mistake, and the House would certainly never allow a volunteer to touch the wiring.

A few years later, at the first Show House at 603 Park, also the last chaired by the legendary Rella MacDougall, I got to be her right hand gal at the entrance, where she handled tickets herself every day, transforming that job into a subtle performance that required her great wit. That year, the pantry, with its green-shaded light, big silver safe and humongous ancient icebox, was just cleaned up, because the idea was still only to present a decorated house, and the pantry was a perfect relic. One day, during that run, Mrs. MacDougall was hurrying to the Show House when a bag lady. as we called them then, stopped her to ask for help. Rella, being as warm-hearted as she was elegant, asked what she could do for her. The bag lady said, "Could you hold up this mirror for me?"and while Rella did that, the bag lady rummaged about her shopping bag, drew out and carefully put on a set of big false lashes.

The house at 603 Park is one room deep but quite wide, with a long, long Park Avenue facade, and
commensurate taxes, so it stayed on the market for a long time, to become the default Show House for Kips Bay and other causes for some years. Thierry Dèspont created a memorable decor in the paneled room there, but I can't remember whether it was for Kips Bay or the American Hospital in Paris. Although pictures of rooms from recent years are available online now, rooms that came before live only in one's memories and in the old journals-- a stack of which were lost to me in a heist upstate, in which I lost about a thousand books as well. What remains in my head: Mark Hampton's cream, white and sisal drawing room on 66th Street, with the bureau plat placed like a sofa table, in which all the fine Georgian mahogany became beautifully abstracted; The grand yet hilarious dining room that Ruben de Saavedra created at 62nd Street, where the fabric hung walls were drawn aside at mirrored intervals, for busts of laughing moors to peek out; Richard Ridge's almost completely lavender bedroom, which a band of his friends left in a group, all crying out, "Nurse!"; the narrow room at 1 East 94th Street that J. Allen Murphy dressed in yellow and Benarasi gold brocade, including an unraveled paghri as a pelmet, hung with Mughal lanterns, which he dedicated to the Raj Mata of Jaipur. She came to look, and I was embarrassed to see her at Doubles while I was still wearing a dress from volunteering (so un-Indian and deeply frowned upon then, though pants were fine); Richard Ridge's dining room in which the Romney had been cleaned to within a micron of its life; the large bedroom that John Saladino turned into a frescoed bathroom with a brass punkhah, so insulted was he not to have gotten a drawing room, according to my friend who used to work for him. Recent memorable rooms include Odile de Schietere's Venetian drawing room with furniture from Ferrières, Michael Simon's dix-huitième in black, the cleanest stable in creation by Andrew Tedesco, Larry Laslo's black bedroom where the black Baccarat chandelier made its New York début,...

Diantha Nype was another reason I was there. Diantha had left Bryn Mawr to get married, which is like leaving Hogwarts to become a muggle, but then she out-Mawr-ed everybody by inventing the Show House-- it really was her idea to start with, although this will remain forever unsung, because it's totally not the credo to claim this kind of credit, considering how many other people have worked long and hard to make it happen. Nevertheless, start it she did, and so all show houses that exist, sprouting across the nation every spring and fall -- to Diantha we owe this most excellent concept. Of all the original Committee, it was she who was always second in command to Rella, she who addressed the robbery and she who created the public image of the Show House, as it is, was and ever shall be.

Anyway, having missed the new Show House, and missing the brio of the old days, it was a very happy touch of deja vue to see what Matthew Sudock of M Design has done at David Burke & Donatella, where I met C for lunch. The mix of Hicks in carpet and screens, with creamy walls, plain mirrors, backlit red dry arrangement, large and loopy chandeliers, cheery cherry leather seating and gigantic bouquets of red-and white striped trumpet lilies, all scaled for a nice tall New York brownstone, reminded me of the panache, the hint of improv and inventive flair of the old days. The food is great, and playful too, and the tuna and salmon tartare not to be missed

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home