Monday, April 30, 2007

wisteria and lilacs

Ahhhh, this weekend was gorgeous in Washington! And my favorite flowers are in bloom ~ lilacs and wisteria. The local farmer's market was full of spring things ~ asparagus, tender fresh greens, and the most gorgeous flowers. I couldn't resist bringing home an armful of lilacs.

Friday, April 27, 2007

trouvée: parasols

Yesterday I came home to find a small, thin, ivory-colored envelope waiting in my mailbox. When I opened it, out fluttered the most beautiful snapshot ~ these ladies with parasols. My friend Justin had found it and said it made him think of me ~ how nice to be thought of in such a lovely way! It reminds me a little of a Lartigue photograph, but it has a stillness not characteristic of his work. Anyway, I think a parasol and a head scarf should be my new look for summer.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


One of my favorite things about spring is the appearance of asparagus and rhubarb in the markets. Lately, I have been cooking up vats of rhubarb sauce ~ I just eat it plain, bowls of it! I can’t seem to get enough! Here’s my recipe:

1 pound rhubarb stalks
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

Combine and cook over low heat until the rhubarb is tender and you can stir it into a puree. Chill and eat! I know a lot of people add fancy things like corn starch (makes it goopy), lemon (rhubarb’s not tart enough?!?!), port, or red food coloring ~ but I think the simpler the better.

Anyway, my current rhubarb craze led me to do a little research. Rhubarb has its origins in Asia as a medicinal plant ~ its roots valued for their cathartic properties. It most likely came to Europe as a result of the silk and spice trade, and by the 18th century was being cultivated for culinary purposes. However, the plant we now use for sauces and pies is probably a hybrid of its Asian ancestor (see above). The plant was brought to America some time between 1780 and 1800 by a gardener from Maine (!) who apparently procured seeds or root stock from Europe. And generations of Maine women have been cooking it up ever since.

(image: François-Pierre Chaumeton, Flore Médicale [Paris, 1814], plate 297)

many happy returns!

Sending lots of love to my favorite brother ~ happy birthday! Wishing you all the best as you wing your way from Michigan to Connecticut. A little package of goodies (including the perfect birthday card!) will be awaiting your arrival.

P.S. This card is by the talented Alicia Peck of Bellamuse, whose wonderful work I discovered on West Broadway in SoHo several years ago. I am a huge fan of her clever notecards and silkscreen prints!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

last of the cherry blossoms

No history lessons today! Just something beautiful I saw on the way home from work the other day. The sun was low in the sky, and the light on these blossoms was simply golden. Someone (I can't remember who ~ sorry!) asked me recently what kind of tree this is and I didn't know ~ but thanks to google, I discovered that it's a Kwanzan cherry tree.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

roses and acorns

I mentioned yesterday about how impressed I was by the carvings on the White House. Intrigued, I decided to look into the history behind the construction of the building and in particular its carved ornamentation. It was George Washington who decided that the mansion be built from stone. The foundation stones are all Aquia sandstone (quarried in Virginia), which was also used by the first president at Mount Vernon, and is now infamously known for its inferior quality. According to the White House Historical Association the building was coated in a lime-based whitewash in 1798 in order to protect the porous stone from the weather, incidentally lending the house its name. When the mansion was destroyed by fire in the War of 1812, only its outer walls remained. However, most of the carvings were saved and reused when the house was rebuilt beginning in 1815. Over the years the house was painted repeatedly (not lime-washed) in an effort to keep it looking clean and white. This eventually obscured and dulled the carvings, and in 1978 during a major restoration, up to 30 layers of paint had to be removed.

The original 18th-century carvings were made by skilled Scottish stonemasons and include guilloches, griffins (a Washington family symbol), bows and swags. The garland of roses and acorns over the north portal (see above) is now partially hidden from view by the portico added in 1829. The roses that I admired on the columns of South Portico were added in 1824.

I am fascinated by the history of buildings ~ I love learning about how they evolve over time, how materials are reused, and the symbolism behind the decorative elements. So, I apologize for the history lesson ~ it’s the curator in me I suppose! For those who would like to know more, see Lee H. Nelson, White House Stone Carving: Builders and Restorers (National Park Service, 1992), a fascinating history of construction of the Executive Mansion

(image: White House Historical Asociation)

Monday, April 23, 2007

white house in bloom

With a beautiful blue sky overhead and tulips in full bloom, the Spring 2007 White House Garden Tour couldn't have been more glorious. This was my first time on the White House grounds (and I have lived in Washington for 14 years!). Anyway, I was delighted and snapped photographs like a madwoman. It is really hard to describe how elegant the building and grounds are. And the carved details are beautiful ~ not something you normally take note of in the news reports. Unfortunately my camera batteries were dying, so I couldn't zoom in on the fantastic roses that top each Corinthian column on the South Portico. There are trees planted by presidents from Andrew Jackson to John F. Kennedy to the current President Bush. And of course, Jackie's and Lady Bird's touch is everywhere. The garden tours, which are only held once each Spring and Fall, give the general public a chance to stroll the grounds and enjoy the "peoples' house" as it truly should be enjoyed.

North Facade.

Wisteria on the South Portico.

The Rose Garden.

Friday, April 20, 2007

trouvée: the pool

Inscribed: "In the pool. I had several good swims here. Water is light blue and very warm."

I found this cyanotype with a group of photographs taken in Idaho Springs (hot sulphur springs), most likely in the 1880s. The blue tone, typical of a cyanotype, adds a certain aura to this already strange photograph ~ I love it!

For a great collection of odd photographs like this see Accidental Mysteries.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

parakeets and pearls

Remember how enamored I was by the fabulous green flocked wallpaper at Kenmore? It was made by Adelphi Paper Hangings, which specializes in accurately reproducing historic wallpapers by hand using traditional methods. The Kenmore paper, Everard Damask (English, circa 1760) is based on a paper fragment in the collections at Colonial Williamsburg. I think it is amazing how wonderfully these old designs can work in a contemporary setting. They are so bright and clear ~ and show how much our ancestors loved color! If you are interested in seeing more historic wall coverings, Historic New England has an amazing online database of their collections (which I love to browse).
Everard Damask, English, circa 1760

Parakeets and Pearls, French , circa 1780

Arabesque Pigeons, American, circa 1790

Ada Harris, American, circa 1810-1820

Vine and Paisley, French, circa 1820

(images: Adelphi Paper Hangings)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

geometry 101

Although I live below the Mason-Dixon Line, I am still a New Englander at heart, so I thought I would treat you to something wonderful from up north.

Tucked away in the little hamlet of Blue Hill, Maine, is a historic gem ~ the Jonathan Fisher House. Parson Fisher was a fascinating man: an artist, carpenter, scholar, farmer, and Congregational minister (among other things). A real renaissance man! His home, which is filled with wonderful 18th and 19th-century vernacular furniture (some made by his own hand), is open to the public for part of the year ~ and I promise a historic house tour when I visit this summer. The memorial foundation still owns many of Jonathan Fisher’s woodcuts and journals. As a lover of old manuscripts, I was enthralled by his geometry notebook from 1790 (see above), and the transcriptions from his journals. And what was Jonathan Fisher doing on this day in 1803? He “killed and skinned a couple of cats. Turned several chair rounds. Drew and painted a slate colored snow bird.” All in a day’s work!

(images via Jonathan Fisher Memorial)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


My heart is in Blacksburg, Virginia today ~ may all those touched by the horrible violence there find peace.

(image: Andrea del Sarto, Head of a Woman, c. 1515, chalk on paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Armand Hammer Collection)

Monday, April 16, 2007

historic house tour: montpelier

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these [curators] from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

The same could be said for our hearty historic house group. Despite a nor’easter ravaging the mid-Atlantic seaboard, we set out (armed with two umbrellas and plenty of Starbucks) for Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. The house, which overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains was once the home of James and Dolley Madison. It remained in the Madison family until 1844, and after changing hands several times, it was purchased by the duPont family in 1900 and converted into an impressive country estate. When Marion duPont passed away in 1983 she left the mansion to the Historic Trust with the express wish that it be preserved as a monument to James Madison.

And there begins the controversy. Over the years the duPonts had transformed the original Georgian and Federal structure into a massive stuccoed mansion, doubling its size, and making it into something quite different from the house James and Dolley Madison had known (for more see here). In 2003 the Montpelier Foundation, under the auspices of the Trust, embarked on an ambitious project to bring the house back to the time of the Madisons, which meant (among other things) removing the stucco from the exterior, dismantling the DuPont additions, reconfiguring the front portico, and completely restoring the interior. There has been great debate among preservationists about this restoration ~ how much of it would be accurate? original? authentic? Should they really try to erase 100 years of history? I must admit that I myself was dubious. But, as it turns out a great deal of original structure and material remains. Using historical records and photographs, and conducting a meticulous architectural study, the Foundation was able to put together an amazingly truthful restoration plan. The house is still partially covered in scaffolding and the interior is stripped down to the bear bones ~ but it is all so fascinating!

I also loved the walled and stepped garden, which retains some elements of the Madison era, but is more typical of an early 20th-century formal garden.

Friday, April 13, 2007

catalogue card

For the past several weeks I have noticed these cards popping up on many of my favorite blogs. Imagine my surprise when I clicked on the source!

trouvée: touring

This Friday's found photo puts me in mind of our historic house groups ~ all of these ladies so chic and ready for anything with their linen dresses and straw hats. Check out the one young man (third from left), who reminds me a little of someone I know. I found this on eBay and unfortunately have no idea where it came from ~ it looks like Venice, or Florence, or Rome maybe.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend! We are off to Montpelier (the home of James Madison) on Saturday, so I will be back Monday with tales of its controversial renovations (intrigue!).

dream room

The May 2007 issue of Country Home arrived last night and there it was ~ my dream room! Okay, it's not mine, it's Caroline Vershoor's home in Leesburg, Virginia. But this is exactly how I envision my little dining nook ~ built-in bookcases, French chairs covered in vintage linen, comfy little desk, and lots and lots of books. Some day maybe...

(image from Country Home, May 2007)

Thursday, April 12, 2007


"...For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
~ William Wordsworth (1804)

The daffodils ~ those harbingers of Spring ~ have almost gone by here, which seems strange as the weather is so cold. Funny how we mark the progress of the season with each crop of flowers ~ the cherry blossoms succeeded by the red bud, the red bud by the dogwood. The daffodils by the tulips...and each one welcomed in its turn and lamented in its passing. For some reason Wordsworth's poem popped into my head today ~ particularly that last verse. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

new york inspirations

Just off the train from a research trip to New York ~ and so full of inspiration from that great city! In addition to accomplishing a great deal of work, I got to see several wonderful exhibitions including Jeff Wall and Armando Reverón at MoMA, and a fantastic show of Martin Ramirez drawings at the American Folk Art Museum. I had no idea that I would like the Reverón show as much as I did ~ beautiful, ethereal paintings that seem as if they were gently breathed onto canvas, or burlap, or an old flour sack. I perused the catalogue, but did not buy it (didn't want to lug it home on the train), but will order it this week for sure.

(image via Amazon)

Monday, April 9, 2007

dear mr. saunders

In Fredericksburg this past weekend we stopped into Riverby Books ~ a fabulous second-hand bookstore. We poked around for hours (as we are wont to do) and I picked up a couple of old Victoria & Albert books on Adams and Regency silver (published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office), and second-hand copies of The Virgin Blue and Perfume. On our way out I noticed a sign in the window about a letter from the ill-fated Princess Charlotte Augusta to a Mr. Saunders (?). The letter was written in 1811 by the then 15-year old Charlotte ~ about what, it is unclear. The bookstore has acquired the letter, but it seems is that no one can read the handwriting. Having done my fair share of transcription of historic documents, I was immediately intrigued. If you are interested in taking a stab at it, the letter is posted on the Riverby Books website. You know I will be driving myself insane with it...!

historic house tour: kenmore

Despite an inch of snow and 30-degree temperatures on Saturday morning, I was determined to enjoy the Easter weekend and took a jaunt down to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with a couple friends. Lured by the promise of green flocked wallpaper and some of the finest plasterwork in the country, we decided to take a peek at Kenmore ~ thus a *surprise* historic house tour!

Built in the 1770s by Fielding Lewis and his wife Betty (sister to George Washington), Kenmore is a handsome Georgian mansion set in the heart of Fredericksburg. The house is currently undergoing a lengthy and detailed restoration, and though the interior is swathed in plastic sheeting and full of scaffolding, the tour was fascinating. Meticulous research has been done to determine paint types, reconstruct missing plaster molding fragments, and to determine appropriate wallpapers (using miniscule fragments of the original papers). Interesting side note: the house miraculously survived heavy bombardment during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 with only a few war wounds, including a canon ball that is still lodged in the facade (though I was told the original was recently removed for preservation reasons and replaced with a reproduction).

(bottom image via Kenmore website)

Friday, April 6, 2007

trouvée: who is she?

I loved this photograph when I found it ~ it is so gorgeous! The scan really does not do it justice ~ the details in the print are unreal. I have no information about it at all, but am profoundly curious about this woman. I am convinced there is a story....

Happy Passover and/or Easter to all!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

english gardens

Fabulous William Morris textile and wallpaper designs ~ these from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Top to Bottom: Single Stem, Oak Tree, and Chrysanthemum. For more Morris inspiration search the extensive online collections at the V&A (yet anther reason to adore that museum!).

(images via Victoria & Albert Museum)

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

spring rain and cameos

Well, Spring decided to take a break ~ at about 4:30 this morning a fierce thunder and hail storm woke up the residents of the greater Washington area and ushered in cold damp air. Time for a warm cup of tea.

Have been thinking about cameos lately ~ maybe because I found my own as I was rummaging through my jewelry box the other day, or because I had been looking at Classical architecture all weekend, and dreaming of ladies in white linen dresses (spring fever does strange things to one's brain). This is an Italian cameo, Nessus and Deianira by Giuseppe Girometti, dated 1815-1820. It was included in a beautiful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Cameo Appearances. Love, love, love!

(image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Gift of Assunta Sommella Peluso, Ada Peluso and Romano I. Peluso, in memory of Ignazio Peluso, 2004)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


The Japanese call it hana-mi (flower watching). I recently heard it referred to as a relaxation sport ~ that rush to enjoy those delicate pink cherry blossoms as they bloom for a few short days each spring. Today is THE peak day for hana-mi here in Washington, and though we have only been practicing this “sport” since 1912 (the Japanese have been at it for more than a 1000 years), we have gotten quite good at it. I myself will be heading down to the Tidal Basin after work today, because as they say “if you blink, you might miss them.”

Monday, April 2, 2007

french gardens

Feeling inspired by French fabrics ~ these from Braquenié (a division of Pierre Frey). Top and bottom: Saintonge and Le Grand Corail Camaieux.

historic house tour: oatlands

A quiet Sunday afternoon found our hardy "historic house" group at Oatlands Plantation, a beautiful National Trust property near Leesburg, Virginia. Oatlands was established in 1802 by George Carver, a descendant of the famous Virginia colonist Robert “King” Carter. Originally designed as a classic Federal-style home, the house was transformed by Carter over the years into the magnificent Greek-revival mansion we see today. The house survived the Civil War, however the fortunes of the Carter family did not, and in 1897 the Carters sold the property to Stilson Hutchins, founder of the Washington Post. Hutchins sold the property a mere five years later to William and Edith Eustis, prominent Washingtonians who used the house as a country retreat. Their daughters gave the house, its furnishings, and some 260 surrounding acres to the Trust in the 1960s. The furnishings are a wonderful mix of 18th, 19th, and 20th-century antiques, however for me the real highlights were the amazing gardens and grounds. The peak season for the gardens is May, but I loved seeing all the little green things beginning to unfurl their leaves and poke their heads out of the winter brush.