Monday

The Beauty of Beauport (The Sleeper-McCann House) Is Not to Be Missed When Visiting Massachusetts' North Shore


Behind the stonewall and beneath the various peaks and pitches of the roofline pictured above with its assortment of turrets and gables and chimneys, sits one of the most beautiful and intriguing historic homes on the North Shore which can be found a mere 19 miles from Salem when guests of the Hawthorne Hotel head towards Cape Ann and picturesque Eastern Point on Gloucester Harbor.

Beauport, also known as the Sleeper-McCann House, is one of thirty-six properties owned and operated by Historic New England. As the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Historic New England's mission is to preserve and present the cultural and architectural heritage of New England. Located within the Essex National Heritage Area, the 1907 former home of Henry Davis Sleeper is a must-see if you're interested in old New England homes and the uniqueness that they contain as you really can't get much more unique than this 40-room "summer cottage" designed using a mixture of imaginative creation and historical re-creation along with a combination of French, English, Colonial American, and Oriental motifs that took twenty years to complete.

Henry Davis Sleeper      Image Credit
 Major Jacob Henry Sleeper     Image Credit
Henry Davis Sleeper was born on March 27, 1878 in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sons of Major Jacob Henry Sleeper and Maria (Westcott) Sleeper. His father, Jacob Henry Sleeper, served with distinction in the Civil War where he won praise from his superiors for coolness and bravery in the first battle of Bull Run while his grandfather, the Honorable Jacob Sleeper, was one of the three original founders of Boston University and a State-appointed overseer of Harvard College for twelve years.

During his youth, Henry would spend the summers with his family on Marblehead Neck, just south of Salem, in a home that his father had built in 1888. Three years later, Major Sleeper passed away while summering at the home and in 1902 his mother sold the house. Henry (known as Harry to his friends) decided that it would be up to him to build a new summer home for his family in order to escape the heat of Boston and in 1906 he set his sights upon Gloucester's Eastern Point which he first visited in the spring of that year when he accepted a dinner invitation at Red Roof, the home of Harvard economist Abram Piatt Andrew who became a lifelong friend.

On August 13, 1907, Henry purchased Lot #101 on Eastern Point from Cape Ann hotel builder George O. Stacey who owned the nearby 300-room Colonial Arms Hotel which opened in 1904 and burned to the ground just a few short years later on New Year's Day 1908. Naming his new home "Little Beauport" in honor of French explorer Samuel de Champlain's exclamation upon seeing Gloucester Harbor in 1604 as "le beau port" or "beautiful port", construction began in the fall of that year on what was a relatively "small" 22-room Queen Anne country cottage situated on a modestly-sized lot. On May 12, 1908, Henry began occupying the house with his neighbor Andrew as his first houseguest.

Shortly after Henry had moved in for the summer, he and Andrew discovered the house of William Cogswell in Ipswich while on their way to visit another friend. The old eighteenth-century farmhouse had fallen into disrepair and was set to be demolished but before it was, Henry rescued the beautiful pine paneling and used it to form Cogswell’s Hall and the Green Dining Room, both of which were on the original 1908 floor plan. It was this first purchase that sparked Henry's interest in architectural salvage, an interest that went on to be used throughout his summer home as he made his new house appear old.

From 1908 until 1921, Henry worked with Gloucester architect Halfdan M. Hanson who was born in Norway in 1884 and moved to the United States as a child. Hanson had no formal education as an architect, just training from correspondence courses that he took, but he went on to design summer houses and residences for wealthy families in the Cape Ann area - his most famous being Beauport. Over the years, the two worked on expanding Beauport with many of the additions coming from not only Henry's interests but also from his experiences such as his mother's death in 1917 and his work with the American Field Service in France during World War I where he was honored with the Legion of Honor in 1918, the Medal of Honor in 1919, and the Croix de Guerre in 1921.

Over the years, Henry became a nationally-noted antiquarian, collector, and interior decorator while Beauport, the house which became Henry’s showroom containing his lifetime collections of redware, tole ware, hooked rugs, paintings, watercolors, silhouettes, folk art, majolica, ceramics, furniture, American glass and so much more, also became widely known. Mary Landergan Wonson, Henry's housekeeper, oftentimes received upwards of five visitors a day who came to see the seaside house situated on the rocks overlooking Gloucester Harbor with its dozens of rooms decorated to evoke different historical and literary themes.

Beauport as seen from Gloucester Harbor    Image Credit
In May of 1934, Henry Davis Sleeper who is today known as one of America's first professional interior designers, received a prestigious honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects for his outstanding contribution to the advancement of architecture and applied arts as “a collector of Americana and protector of the culture of early America” just four months before he died from leukemia in Boston on September 22, 1934. As he was a gay man who never married and had no children to inherit the house, Beauport, along with the debt that building it over the years had incurred, passed to his brother Stephen who sold the house on October 21, 1935 to Mrs. Helena Woolworth McCann, wife of Charles E. F. McCann of Oyster Bay, Long Island. Mrs. McCann, the eldest daughter of Frank Winfield Woolworth, the founder of F. W. Woolworth Company (now Foot Locker), understood the charm and historical significance of her new home and wished to preserve it unchanged with the exception of the China Trade Room which she remodeled in 1936 as a Chippendale parlor; she also brought her holdings of Chinese export porcelain to the house but otherwise left the rooms and their contents intact.

Beauport, circa 1935     Image Credit
Though she had plans to leave the house as a bequest to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Mrs. McCann died in 1938 before the bequest was completed.  Her husband Charles being deceased also, the house was left to her three daughters Constance Betts McMullan, Helena Guest, and Fraiser McCann who continued to occupy the house for several years before ownership of Beauport was transferred to Historic New England as a permanent memorial to Helena Woolworth McCann on December 21, 1942. Since that time, Beauport has been open to the public as a museum annually welcoming over 5,500 guests to a house that was built by a man who loved to entertain and show off the the uniqueness of his "summer cottage".

In May of 2003, Beauport was designated as a National Historic Landmark and in December 2007, Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, along with Congressman John Tierney, awarded Beauport a $500,000 Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service which funded much-needed preservation work of the houses's 249 windows, 6 chimneys, and roof of the house, all of which was completed recently. In addition to the house restoration, Beauport's gardens were also restored to a late 1920’s - early 1930’s appearance which was selected because it was felt that it best represents the integrity of Henry Davis Sleeper’s original intentions while at the same time presenting the landscape at the time Helena Woolworth McCann was proprietress of Beauport.

Beauport, located at 75 Eastern Point Boulevard just past Niles Beach in Gloucester, is a little tricky to get to as when you're passing the beach, you'll come to a fork in the road with the left going towards Atlantic Avenue (and some truly beautiful views) and the right leading towards a sign that tells you you're entering a private neighborhood along with stone pillars standing guard as sentinels on either side of the road.  If you look closely you will see a sign for the house but you've got to be looking for it (I managed to miss it three times during my travels and mini-Nathaniel was beginning to despair of us ever finding the house!) so pointedly ignore the "private neighborhood" signs, soldier on, and soon you'll be there!


Free parking for visitors is located in a lot across from the main entrance of the house which is open Tuesday through Saturday, June 1 to October 15 (with the exception of July 4) from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours leave on the hour with the last tour stepping off at 4:00 p.m. Current admission to the house is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students, and free for Historic New England members and Gloucester residents. As Nathaniel and I were visiting that day with a friend, we also found that you can get a two-for-one admission with a AAA card which is a pretty sweet deal!

After paying your admission and chatting a bit with the nice folks working there who tell you what time the next tour is and where to meet your guide at, you'll walk out the door and into the yard of a house that can only be described as magical as that's exactly what it is.


Looking more like something you might find in the European countryside rather than overlooking a New England harbor, Beauport has more bends, turns, and angles than four teenagers playing a game of Twister! But it works, it doesn't look like it's been slapped together willy-nilly and without thought for the final product but rather like each addition that was made to the house over the years appeared on the original blueprints and is right where it was meant to be. The words "enchanting" and "charming" and "romantic" immediately sprung to mind as I looked at the house that Henry built and immediately fell in love.

Nathaniel was rather enamored of the house himself as apparently this was the look that he was going for when he came back from England and remodeled The Wayside, his own home in Concord. Unfortunately it didn't work quite as well for him as it did for Henry but he told me that was because he had obviously hired the wrong craftsmen to do the job. Ah, I see ...

While we waited for our tour to start, we took a walk around the back of the house to the Garden Terrace which was even more beautiful than the front gardens if no other reason than for the view which was gorgeous!  What a place to sit and have that first cup of morning coffee or glass of evening wine as you watched the boats on the harbor and listened to the water lapping against the rocks below. Henry Davis Sleeper most definitely knew what he was doing when he choose that spot to build his showplace of a house.

Photo Courtesy of Barb Mills Gretter
Walking around the grounds we found a lot of little touches that Henry had added to the house that made it even more whimsical - scenes carved out of wood framed by brick, wooden statutes that appeared to hold up parts of the house, grinning gargoyles who seemed to crawl out from under the eaves, and more carvings adorning the windows of the rooms above. There were little touches of whimsy and fun everywhere you looked but again it all worked to make Beauport even more enchanting - and we hadn't even walked through the front door yet!


When it was time for our tour, we went back around to the front of the house and gathered with the others who would be going through the house with us. Due to the narrow passageways and small doors, tours are limited to twelve in size which - not counting Nathaniel - I'm quite sure there were.  As we waited for the tour previous to ours to exit the house, Nancy, our guide, told us a bit about Henry Davis Sleeper and the McCann family, showing us their pictures, as well as explaining how the house came to be part of Historic New England.  

As visitors started to trickle out the door ... 


... Nancy gave us some final instructions before entering the house - things like no photography inside the house (no surprise there, I've yet to find too many historic houses that do allow it) and no picking up and fondling any of the more than 10,000 objects that we were going to see no matter how tempted we might be!

After entering the foyer, we all stopped to put on shoe covers which is required in all Historic New England houses to help cut down on the dirt and debris that is brought into the house but which is especially important at Beauport due to the many hooked rugs and original floors that the house contains. I wonder if wearing them also helps to polish the floors a little bit as we shuffle along?

Honestly, it's a good thing that no photography is allowed inside the house as I'm sure I'd still be there trying to photograph everything I saw! To say that the interior of Beauport is amazing is a major understatement as it's beyond amazing - it's stunning. Not stunning in a Newport, Rhode Island "more-money-than-Croesus-summer home" kind of way but stunning in that Henry's eclectic collections of so many different things are perfect in the house that he built for them.  Even though the rooms are all vastly different, they flow together seamlessly in a way that is just downright impossible to explain.  It's easy to see that Henry Sleeper was a man of good taste and that he appreciated objects not for what they cost but for what they looked like and what they meant to him as a collector.

Fortunately, for those hankering to take at least a glimpse into "the house that Henry built", the site manager of the house was nice enough to email me some images that I am able to use with permission. Pilar Garro, who holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wheaton College and a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, has held her position at Beauport for over six years and is very enthusiastic about the house and its history so she was quite happy to share. Thank you again, Pilar, for the images and helping me to tell Beauport's story!

Now for that glimpse into Beauport which will hopefully whet your appetite to go to Gloucester and take the entire tour!

Image Courtesy of Historic New England
The Pembroke Room, also known as the Pine Kitchen, got its name from the antique doors comprising the paneling which Henry salvaged from his mother’s ancestral home that was built in Pembroke, Massachusetts in 1628.  The room was added on in 1917 as the house's third dining room and is "an artistic recreation of homespun family values." The largest room in Beauport, it was designed to evoke the feeling of an early colonial kitchen with traditional New England meals served to those guests who were entertained there.

Kitchen, Beauport, Gloucester, Mass.
Image Courtesy of Historic New England
Located just behind the colonial pine kitchen in the Pembroke Room is the actual working kitchen of the house complete with a 1935 patented Viking stove and linoleum checkerboard floor. The kitchen was housekeeper Mary Wonson's domain where she created her culinary masterpieces including lobster curry and pastries which Henry would enjoy hot from the oven. Mary, along with her husband George and sons Jack and Tom of East Gloucester began their employment at Beauport in 1919 moving to Beauport each March to open the house and staying through November, or until Henry returned to Boston. Mary Wonson stayed at Beauport through the McCann ownership and eventually became the first site administrator and keeper of Henry’s vision for the house.

Image Courtesy of Historic New England
The Octagon Room, or Souvenir de France, is on the other side of the central kitchen, but in terms of design is a world away with its European flavor displaying Henry’s collection of red tole that he acquired during his stay in France while working for the American Field Service.  Three of the room's eight walls have ocean views as well as from the doorway located on a fourth wall.  The theme of eight is extensively repeated in this room from the eight sides of the room to the eight-sided table, eight-sided rug beneath the table, eight scatter rugs around the room, eight lamps, and even eight-sided glass doorknobs.

Amethyst glass window in Historic New England's Beauport Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, MA
Image Courtesy of Historic New England
Connecting the Golden Step Room and the Octagon Room is the Amethyst Passage in which a Gothic window filled with amethyst glass is another good example of the innovative displays that Henry created to best accentuate his collections.

Interior view of Golden Step Room dining table with model ship over fireplace, Beauport, Gloucester, Mass.
Image Courtesy of Historic New England
The fifth dining room of Beauport is named the Golden Step Dining Room where one whole wall is a window looking out onto Gloucester Harbor. The pale green and white tones of this room induce a notion of sea foam while Majolica and Wedgwood grace the trestle tables and aquamarine glass fisherman’s floats glint in the covered crystal compotes. The room which is very open and airy, also contains an eight-foot ship model for which the room is named displayed on a Chinese funeral table with grinning dragons that pick up the serpentine element in the room's canvas window treatment. It's a really cool room!

Image Courtesy of Historic New England
Prior to World War I, Medieval stone towers had become the rage so in 1911, Henry added the Book Tower, a cylindrical Norman room with a banistered balcony featuring two floors of books and arched leaded Gothic windows draped by a set of carved wooden curtains which legend says once decorated a horse-drawn hearse. The drapes - which you have to look at more than once to believe they're made of carved wood - are said to have been what inspired Henry to build the room which rises two stories and balances the turret containing the secret staircase on the other side of the entryway. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the shoe covers that visitors wear when touring the house!

Tours through Beauport take approximately one hour but it seems to go by in a flash as there is just so much to see.  Guaranteed you are not going to see everything on just one tour (I know that I sure didn't!) so if you've got the time and inclination you might be interested in taking one of the "Nooks and Crannies" tours that Beauport offers several times throughout the season. These three-hour behind-the-scene tours give visitors a chance to view rooms and spaces that are not typically offered during the standard tours including passageways and closets as well as more time to linger and take in more of the house as guides highlight their favorite objects and share stories about Henry, his friends, and his staff. Light refreshments are included and reservations are required. The cost of the "Nooks and Crannies" tour is $15 for Historic New England members and $22 for nonmembers. Be sure to check the Events Calendar on Beauport's website for more information on this tour and others.

Following our tour of the marvelous interior of Beauport, we spent some more time walking around the grounds which are just fabulous. To be honest, I think that my friend and I were both a bit hesitant to leave as we knew that Beauport was definitely someplace special.

Photo Courtesy of Barb Mills Gretter
Photo Courtesy of Barb Mills Gretter

To try to explain just how wonderful of a house Beauport is would be impossible so it is my hope that Nathaniel and I have piqued your interest in finding the time to visit yourself and see in person what the house that has been called "a fanciful combination of Gothic mansion and English cottage" by New England Antiques Journal and "... a dream that a house might have if it dreamed" by The Magazine Antiques who also described the end of a visit to the house as:
"Coming out of Beauport is not like emerging from other historic houses besotted with talk of highboys or the family's hardships. Rather it is like emerging from the movies. You come out into the grounds—outdoor rooms with framed views—blinking, smiling, and remembering your favorite parts."
I am most definitely inclined to agree and I bet you would also!


Copyright © - Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel is strictly prohibited.

7 comments:

  1. And you didn't even mention Henry's mother's sitting room or her bedroom with THE best porch and sea breezes coming in from the harbor. evah! 40 rooms, yes, but all I'd need would be that bedroom and porch! You'd know where to find me, for sure!

    When I come back up I would LOVE to do the nooks and crannies tour! srsly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True, I didn't mention the Red Indian Room or the Red Indian Porch which were most definitely my favorite rooms of the house along with the Mariner's Room and the Golden Step Dining Room and the ... well, pretty much all of them! I figure that some things folks just need to see for themselves to really appreciate and the rooms that Henry built for his mother - whom he obviously loved very, very much - are two of them.

      I'd definitely like to do the Nooks and Crannies tour myself someday; there are a couple of other tours that sound wonderful also like the Brilliant Beauport tour where you can visit the house lit up in the evenings. How cool would that be?!?

      Delete
  2. You're very welcome, Elisa - it was totally my pleasure!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Boy, did you ever have a picture-perfect sun/sky!

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's no wonder that you spend quality time writing. You have such wonderful places to write about it would be impossible to do a quickie with such an amazing place and bio. And I love the Amethyst Passage!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Gracie! And yes, it's quite impossible to keep it short with a place this beautiful and with such an interesting history!

      Delete

Thank you for your feedback; it is greatly appreciated!
~ Nathaniel and Linda