Country Home of Electra Havemeyer Webb

Built in 1847 as a farmhouse on the shores of Lake Champlain, The Brick House was a wedding gift to James Watson Webb and Electra Havemeyer Webb from his parents, Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb in 1913. Mrs. Webb expanded the house in 1913 and again in 1919, using the New York architectural firm, Cross & Cross, to encompass some 40 rooms.

Mrs. Webb was already a passionate collector of Americana. Henry Joyce, Chief Curator of the Shelburne Museum comments that “Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collection was in a sense a proto-museum that evolved into the Shelburne Museum. Her home illustrates her vision for arrangement of the collection.”

In July the museum which Mrs. Webb founded opens her very special house to visitors for limited tours. Located two miles from the Shelburne Museum, visitors are transported 12 at a time via mini-bus, and treated to staggering views of Lake Champlain and the surrounding Adirondack Mountains. The house is set on 40 acres landscaped by Ellen Biddle Shipman, who created several of the property’s stately terraces and gardens, as well as its brilliant peony garden featuring over 1,000 plants. The landscaping takes advantage of sweeping views of both the lake and environs. While on board the bus, the attendees can view a ten-minute video presentation about Mrs. Webb and her collections of Americana. Each tour takes about an hour and a half and will be scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.

The house tour

The tour starts in the main hall with its recently reproduced blue Nancy McClelland wall covering. Wall sconces light the room, dominated by a sweeping cantilevered staircase, which curves up to the second floor. The den is to the left and was the main reception area and largest room of the house. As in Mrs. Webb’s day, sporting motifs and chintz fabrics dominate this comfortable room.

Just beyond is the dining room, which occupies part of the original structure. Its carved woodwork came from a house in the South. The 20 x 25-foot room is decorated with sporting paintings and is bathed in east light. Notable among the pictures is Coursing the Fox by Philip Reinagle (1830). The furniture in this space is figured maple, which is in marvelous contrast to the collection of witch balls arranged in large blown glass bowls. The wonderfully showy objects catch the sunlight beautifully and sparkle against the warmth of the tiger maple table.

In the corridor next to the dining room is the cigar store figure she called ‘Mary O’Connor’ after her nanny. She purchased the figure in 1907 when she was 18 years old. It was the start of her collection of Americana and is on permanent exhibit for the first time. The south hall leads to the main living room, one of her favorite spaces in the house. Some of her best furniture is featured here, including a fine 18th century wing chair and a strong collection of silhouettes. This room offers a selection of winter landscapes, both Currier and Ives prints and paintings that include at least one George Henry Durrie.

Throughout the house, the colors are muted natural tones and off-whites intended to showcase the colors of the collections. The woods, the paintings, the ceramics, and fabrics glow and resonate in this atmosphere. Chief Curator, Henry Joyce, comments that Mrs. Webb is known to have worked on this room with Nancy McClelland. Surviving letters between the two describe the paintings here. One of Mr. Joyce’s favorite rooms is Mrs. Webb’s large bedroom suite. Her bathroom is dominated by a folk art fireboard above the fireplace that features a brick illusionist painting of a hearth with a vase of flowers, a dog, and faux-painted tiles with pine trees. This is a magical room with decorative elements from the fireboard echoed throughout the space. The original bathtub has been re-installed for this exhibition space.

A collector emerges

Born in 1888, the daughter of H.O. Havemeyer and Louisine Havemeyer, prolific collectors of Impressionist and Asian art, Electra grew up in an environment with an enormous respect for artistic merit. However, her mother had little sympathy for the fact that Electra was collecting primitive Americana. She was quite dismissive of her taste in collecting.

Electra Havemeyer Webb was a handsome lady, larger than life and very social. She was a great hunter and often stuffed her prey. A ten-foot bear that she shot in Alaska is still in the collection. She was an intensely organized person and ran the New York blood bank during World War II. In many ways, she was more conventional that her mother, who was a suffragette and was jailed on at least one occasion for her demonstrations. But Elektra was ahead of her time, and a real leader in terms of collecting.

Henry Frances du Pont came to the Webb house in 1923, and as you will be told when visiting Winterthur, a first look at her collection of pink Staffordshire in a country cupboard was his personal epiphany. “Here we can pinpoint the birth of this great collector, who ended up with completely different sensibilities than Mrs. Webb,” comments Hope Alswang. “He was more academic, symmetrical, with a Georgian sense of order, while she was less of a scholar, and far more emotional about her collections. Her response was first and foremost aesthetic.”

Among Mrs. Webb’s friends were the Flynts of Historic Deerfield and Katherine Prentice Murphy, a seminal collector who gave period rooms to the New Hampshire Historical Society. She preferred collecting early things such as William and Mary furniture and Dutch ceramics. Alice Winchester, founder of The Magazine Antiques was another friend, as were Nancy McClelland, the Clarks at Cooperstown, and Mr. Chorley at Colonial Williamsburg.

She enjoyed the camaraderie of collecting, but was quite competitive. She loved winning and was always vying for the best things for her collection. She was one of the major museum makers of her time. Electra approached things from a visual point of view. She cared about heritage and she loved history. But she wanted to collect beautiful objects and put them in great settings. Her impulses essentially resulted in visual harmony. The collection is exciting to look at.

Hope Alswang, President of the Shelburne Museum sees her direction as strongly Colonial Revival in the sense that she offers a reinterpretation that is essentially a-historical. Just as Neo-Classicism isn’t really Classicism, it is the same with the Colonial Revival. This movement was a spectacular achievement, yet it is not colonial at all. It is these collectors’ visions of the Colonial Period.

Multi-functional

“The house will have vibrant life in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century,” Henry Joyce forecasts. The Brick House is multi-functional. Rather than just a house museum, it will be used to house visiting curators, interns in the conservation and education departments will live in the north service wing, and the annual Symposium for 40 people will be held in the house. Additionally, it will be used for Connoisseurship Weekends, Dinners, Meetings, and lectures.

The Brick House, Shelburne Museum, U.S. Route 7, Shelburne, VT 05482, (802) 985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org, Tours are scheduled at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in July and August. Tours are guided and open to ages 13 and over. Tour size is limited to 12; tickets cost $20.

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal