We went to a museum in Lenox the other day, the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio. It was a place I hadn’t heard of, but my friend Margie had read in The Times that the museum had recently unearthed some home movies, which piqued her interest in the place. My life is different from yours.
We pulled into the driveway in the woods, near an entrance to Tanglewood, and were met by a guide, who pointed the way through the woods, up the dirt drive, across a few marble bridges, past the gate house and the old house, to a gleaming white modern cube of a building. I left my cameraphone in the car, along with my sunglasses, because I didn’t want to carry anything and my pockets were full of keys and wallet. I wore a 1950s abstract dress for the occasion.
The museum is both a historic house museum and an art museum. This is an unusual place. I really appreciate the melding of art and home life – how we live, what we make, where the art happens, and what home looks like at the time.
A married couple, the artists George Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen, designed the summerhouse, on family land, and had it built in 1942. It’s very Bauhaus, simple, well proportioned and nicely laid out. It was a house we wanted to move into, frankly. The artists were cubists, known as the Park Avenue Cubists, in fact, and she was also an opera singer; a wealthy couple who could work as artists during the depression and still build a house with rooms for servants in the Berkshires.
We entered the house next to an abstract mural, a fresco, the servants’ entrance. The admissions / gift shop is in the house’s kitchen, which is basically my dream kitchen, mostly original 1940s, stove and all.
The house is accessed via guided tour only, on the hour. Once the gang was assembled, the woman who had met us in the drive led us first back out to the mural, where we thankfully assembled in the shade while she talked about the history of the house and the family. After interpreting the painting, then learning more about it, we donned booties and entered through the main entrance, into a small foyer with a view of the yard.
Our group numbered about 10, and our guide was a real peach. She talked about everything from the unusual light fixtures, to the stair’s rail and Morris’ fresco beyond, to the paintings (one by each of them) on the walls. She led us to the sunken living room, with unusual leather(!) flooring, past an enviable tiny wet bar off the stair. I will dream about that bar forever. Works by Morris, built into the walls, adorn the walls and there is a small Miro over by the door and a Leger by the window.
Suzy in the bar!
Next, the dining room, walls by the Suzy. Very simple, spare furnishings, made for someone of my own small stature. Our guide pointed out the lack of chandeliers in this and all the rooms, a Bauhaus standard. Like the other 2 rooms we’d seen so far (kitchen doesn’t count!), sliding glass doors opened directly onto the yard. The final room on this floor was a small reading room – too small for more than two, with art by a few notable characters, some books, a nice deco reading chair and lamp. Slava & I were sorry to see the original sunken, reflecting florescent lamps, were disabled in favor of some track lighting that shone on the art.
Most of the first floor rooms include art painted directly on the walls – it was great to see an artists’ house that was made permanently so – not just a rented space. Not all owners treat their homes as canvas. It made the mix of art and house museum make so much sense.
Up to the second floor and the bedrooms. Unfortunately, the servants’ rooms are now staff spaces, so we didn’t get to see them, but we did see the dumb waiter, which we were not allowed to ride. The guest room was nice – its connecting bathroom was a dream. Suzy’s bedroom was great, another room with art painted directly on the walls, and another room with a door that opened onto the yard – a patio this time. The bathroom/closet is the best thing about this space – the bathtub has a wall of block glass, and a great closet beyond.
There’s a small study with some great art – to my delight, a Gleaners painting by Matisse included. George’s room had some more good art by himself, a door to the patio, and a charming bath with a great toilet lid! From his room, a door leads directly to his studio (she worked in a space near the house). Her nephew was in residence, and led us on an exercise in art appreciation, which was perfectly charming. The studio, which is excellent – large and naturally well-lit, included some monitors showing home movies of the family. I was, of course, with 2 other home movie enthusiasts, so we chatted up the nephew about the films. He said he’s put the woman who was in charge of the films in touch with us.
There were some paintings up by other artists, including a funny little Picasso that I really liked of some people in stripey suits at the shore. The couple collected art, much of it as inspiration for their own work, and that included this Picasso, an artist I don’t usually care for.
This ended our formal tour of the house. We purchased a few postcards (see photos), and moved on to the gatehouse, where a documentary about the couple was screening. A woman staff member was on her way there in a golf cart – she turned out to be the one we were waiting to talk to about the films, so we just launched into it, no doubt boring poor Slava.
She let us into a conservation space, including a statue and some paintings I found hilarious. Of course Slava loved being behind-the-scenes, which, I agree, is always fantastic. I felt he was paid off for that boring film talk.
We went into the DVD screening room, which included some more art, and where some of our tour-mates were already enmeshed in the doc. I was delighted to see not just footage from the home movies, but footage from an art film they made, which was both rare and fun. I’m looking forward to talking to their archivist about it!
Whilst watching the doc, I found myself thinking that the wife Suzy may have been a lesbian. She definitely sent some signals in her dress, in any case. They didn’t have any kids. Speaking as a (fairly) straight married woman I don’t think the separate bedrooms of the house implies lesbianism, nor does the lack of kids. It truly is good to have one’s own room, no matter where you actually spend your evening hours, and I know I’m never having kids (by choice).
Something of the story that came out in the doc that hadn’t been mentioned during the tour, perhaps for obvious reasons, was that the couple became a threesome of some sort – a close woman friend became part of their household, Sophie De Enden. Was she girlfriend to one or both of them, or neither? In any case, the bohemian nature of the couple/triad is undeniable. The mystery of personal lives of olden days is so intriguing. We’ll never know the truth of these three; George and Sophie (the other woman) were killed in a car crash – Suzy, who was also in the car, lived on, perhaps miserably, for another ten years.
We meandered back to the cars, pretty thrilled by our experience. Slava & I will return. The house is beautiful, the art is good enough, and the story is intriguing. Who was Sophie?