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Friday, 01 March 2013 04:04

Patria in Vermont


Flanking a large jamb-less fireplace is a King’s County (Brooklyn, New York) kas. King’s County kasten are identifiable by their prominent cornice and applied brown mahogany insets that would have contrasted with the redder gumwood case when first constructed.1 Norman feels that kasten are the “grandest forms of furniture made along the Hudson River.” To its right is a late-seventeenth-century turned spindle-back cherry chair made in New York City and a high chest likely made in Wethersfield, Conn. A nearly identical high chest is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.2 Characteristic of Dutch barn architecture is the protruding tongue, seen here above the chair.

American antiques have been a passion for Norman and Mary Gronning since their introduction to them in Buffalo, New York, in the 1960s. As newlyweds just beginning their careers as teachers, the couple sought a way to supplement their income and decided to go into business with several friends selling second-hand furniture. In their excursions they met dealers in early American furniture and became aware of the potential value and historical importance of these objects. Intent on learning all they could, many weekends were spent visiting historic sites and museums throughout the northeast. The couple eventually began to buy and sell antiques instead of used furniture.

After living in Buffalo for several years, Norman and Mary decided to move to eastern New York State to raise a child. Several months later the Gronnings found the perfect house. It was an eighteenth-century Georgian homestead built by early resident John Allen in the small hamlet of White Creek. The house had been continually owned by family members since its construction in 1768 and still retained many of its original features. The house and barns were poorly tended to, however, and were in a dilapidated state. Thus in the summer of 1970 the Gronnings began the first of what has turned out to be several home and barn restorations, between teaching school, raising a family, and running a successful antiques business.

The great room provides picturesque views of the Green Mountains. To take advantage of these vistas Mary designed a dining area with a large Pennsylvania tiger maple work table as the focal point. “We have had this table since our time in Buffalo and I have always loved it. During the summer time we serve dinner here and watch the sunset reflect off the mountains.” On top of the table is a very rare tin finial. Made in either Pennsylvania or New York State, it was probably originally placed on a copula or doorway entrance.

The heavily turned seventeenth century spindle-back armchair originates from Virginia, North Carolina, or possibly southern New Jersey. The asymmetrical spindle arrangement illustrates a continental rather than English influence. A recent discovery of a nearly identical second example in southern New Jersey suggests a possible New Sweden connection.3 Further scholarship will be necessary to fully determine this chair’s place in the oeuvre of seventeenth-century turned seating furniture.
As the years progressed it became evident that the Allen homestead could not display all the wonderful objects the couple was collecting. After much investigation and travel, Norman and Mary decided that a Dutch barn would provide both the hand hewn timber frame and large space they desired. On a cool afternoon during the spring of 1984 they purchased the Garret Cornelius van Ness Dutch barn in North Hoosick, New York, saving it from demolition. Located below the site of the seventeenth-century Fort St. Croix along the Hoosick River, the barn had survived the Queen Anne’s War, the French and Indian War, and the encampment of Colonel Fredrick Baum of the Brunswick mercenaries on his way to an infamous end at the Battle of Bennington during the American Revolution. The barn was measured, catalogued, marked, and disassembled for removal.

With the barn frame in storage, architectural plans were drawn up and a search was begun for a proper site to erect the frame. A location was found in Shaftsbury, Vermont, and in 1987 construction began. From the outset it was decided that the interior space needed to be designed in such a way as to fully present the grandeur of the barn’s post and beam frame while providing the appearance of an early eighteenth-century Hudson River Valley home. This was accomplished by incorporating authentic eighteenth- century American woodwork and wrought iron hardware, and by lathing and plastering the walls. The rooms have an eighteenth-century appearance at eye level while the architectural structure is the focus overhead.

View of the van Ness Dutch barn with attached eighteenthcentury gambrel house from New Ashford, Mass. The overhang above the double barn doors is called a pentice, and is typical of eastern New York barn architecture.

Norman recollects they “wanted to keep the exterior as barnlike as possible.” So they installed functioning eighteenth century Dutch barn doors with their accompanying pentice overhang. “Beyond the roof line and shape,” he adds, “it’s the double doors and pentice that identify the barn’s Dutch influence.” The frame was insulated with specially crafted foam paneling, and then broad mill-sawn and beaded white pine clapboards were attached to the exterior. The extra attention was given to the clapboards because “early Hudson River Valley wooden homes were exteriorly sheathed with wide beaded boards,” notes Norman. “In addition,” he adds, “the corners were mitered, unlike contemporary homes constructed in New England that feature a corner or edge board.”

The windows were specially designed to mimic the style popular in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Individual panes of insulated glass were encased with wide muttons and the single hung frames were mortised and tenoned together. Norman says, “It’s attention to these small details that really enhances the early feel of the structure.”

A year after the house was completed, a breezeway and a mid-eighteenth century house frame from New Ashford, Massachusetts, were attached and converted into a garage and further living space. Again, as in the barn, eighteenth-century architectural elements were incorporated as often as possible. When period elements were not available, the couple improvised, as with the hand-painted walls in the formal dining room. “The decoration is copied directly from a wall we removed from the eighteenth-century Dutch van Wormer House in Fort Ann, New York, which is currently owned by the New York State Museum,” says Mary. This free-hand-painted design is the progenitor of stencils that nineteenth-century itinerant artists used to expedite the decorating process.

An early eighteenth-century kitchen is accessed from the dining area through a door to the left. The gate leg table in the center of the room is directly related to an example at the Richard Sparrow House in Plymouth, Mass.4 The repetitive ball turning is one of the earliest designs found on this form. To the right of the table is an unusual sackback Windsor made in New York City. While the legs may appear replaced due to their stark contrast to the heavily turned arm supports, the New- York Historical Society has a Windsor bench by the same chair maker that has the identical characteristics. The bench was made for Robert Fulton’s (1765–1815) 1807 boat, the Clermont, which was the first steamship to successfully navigate the Hudson River.5 On the wall to the right is a Pennsylvania hanging cupboard and Mary’s collection of nineteenthcentury sleigh bells.

The Gronning’s used early American architectural elements everywhere they could. The center hall stairway is from an early eighteenth-century Danvers, Mass., home and each rail had to be adjusted to fit the new plan. The comb-back Windsor originates from Connecticut and retains its original green paint under a nineteenth-century black paint. The rare Windsor foot stool is from Rhode Island. The cherry slant-front desk was owned by John Allen in White Creek, N.Y., and is branded several times with his name (a regular occurrence on New York State furniture).
In the center of the formal dining room is a New York accordion action table. New York patrons and craftsmen adopted the design (patented by the London cabinetmaker Richard Gillow in 1800) because of its versatility. This example is the only one known with ball-and-claw feet. Surrounding the table is an assembled set of six compass-seat Spanish foot Chippendale side chairs likely made in Essex County, Mass. The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., has a related set. The serpentine chest to the far right is from Boston, Mass.

Selection of brass and iron andirons.
The guest bedroom shows the diversity of the Gronning’s collection. At the foot of the New England field bed is a seventeenth century joined oak chest from central Massachusetts. It still retains its old gray-blue painted surface and the wonderfully decorative lock plate. In the far left is a very delicate federal candlestand from Salem, Mass. The tiger and bird’s-eye maple chest of drawers is signed by its maker Daniel Loomis (1798–1833) of Shaftsbury, VT.6 The relationship of this chest to ones made by Richard Allison of New York City are unmistakable and clearly illustrates the propagation of design.

Upon entering the home through the double front doors, one is greeted with an immense sense of history—of the building, of the objects, of the collection itself. For the Gronnings do not just collect early American furniture, they collect early American life. Feeling as if they are stewards of history, Mary says, “It’s a forty-year-old collection. Every object has a story and that’s the way we like it.”
The roof and wall architecture of the barn is on full display in the master bedroom, with original structural elements placed in their proper location. The mahogany Massachusetts bed is covered with a Pennsylvania Amish log cabin quilt made in the mid-nineteenth century. A Fitz Hugh Lane (1804–1865) and Mary Blood Mellen (1817–1882) painting, A View of Mount Desert, hangs above the bed’s headboard. Mellen, a student of Lane, collaborated with her teacher on a number of pictures. The painting, dated 1865 and typical of Lane’s later works such as Off Mount Desert, owned by the Brooklyn Museum, and Braces Rock, extols a sense of foreboding coupled with sublime hope.7

The serpentine chest to the left was constructed by Luther Metcalf (1756–1838) of Medway, Mass. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities owns a Metcalf chest with identical ogee bracket feet and serpentine curve.8 The New York tea table in the corner is flanked by a Rhode Island sack-back Windsor and by a Connecticut fan-back Windsor branded by chair maker Ebenezer Tracy, Sr. (1744–1803). Tracy lived and worked in Lisbon Township in New London County, and he and other family members produced thousands of chairs for the western Connecticut marketplace.9

Erik Gronning is a dealer, appraiser, and independent scholar. He recently contributed the article “Early New York Turned Chairs: A Stoelendraaier’s Conceit” to the 2001 issue of Chipstone’s American Furniture, and “The History of an Heirloom” to the Holiday 2002 issue of this magazine.

1 Through years of oxidation, the variation in colors is less significant. For extensive information on New York kasten, see Peter Kenny, Francis Gruber Safford, and Gilbert Vincent, American Kasten: The Dutch-Style Cupboards of New York and New Jersey, 1650–1800 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991).

2 Donald Peirce and Hope Alswang, American Interiors: New England & The South (New York: Universe Books, 1983), 16.

3 For additional information on the New Sweden colony see The New Sweden Colony (Trenton, N.J.: New Jersey State Museum, 1988).

4 Robert Blair St. George, The Wrought Covenant: Source Material for the Study of Craftsmen and Community in Southeastern New England, 1620–1700 (Brockton, Mass.: Brockton Art Center, 1979), 52, fig. 52.

5 For more information on Robert Fulton and the New-York Historical Society’s collection see Perspectives of the Collection of the New-York Historical Society (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2000), 79.

6 A very similar chest is at the Bennington Museum, see Kenneth Joel Zogry, The Best the Country Affords: Vermont Furniture, 1765–1850, (Bennington, VT: Bennington Museum, 1995) pp. 42–3. For more on Daniel Loomis see Charles A.. Robinson, Vermont Cabinetmakers & Chairmakers Before 1855: A Checklist, (Shelburne, VT: Shelburne Museum, 1994), 75.6 For more information on Fitz Hugh Lane and Mary Blood Mellen see John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1987), 122–3; and Wilmerding, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988).

7 For more information on Fitz Hugh Lane and Mary Blood Mellen see John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1987), 122–3; and Wilmerding, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988).

8 Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: Selections from the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984), 165–66.

9 For more information of Ebenezer Tracy, Sr., see Nancy Goyne Evans, American Windsor Chairs (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 1996), 285–302.