Retro Renovation Goddess of the Berkshires

Lovely feature in the new issue of Yankee Magazine about Pam Kueber, who runs the very popular website Retrorenovation.com.  Didn’t realize that she lives close to the Capital Region in Lenox, Mass.  Here’s her famous kitchen…

There’s many avenues to explore on Pam’s constantly updated site, which is geared toward preserving and updating in styles appropriate to the original vintage of the home. Rather than pushing a high modern style, Kueber emphasizes “Mid-Century Modest,” a delightful term she seems to have coined. Listen to her explain it all for you in this video, then review The Mid-Century Modest Manifesto.

Coming to Troy: Modern on the Hudson

As recently reported in The Troy Record and the Times Union, three new retail businesses are coming to the historic Frear Building in downtown Troy: Trojan Horse, an antique shop that’s moving and expanding from its location on River Street; the clothing manufacturer Ekologic, which uses recycled fabrics, and… a mid-century furniture shop, Modern on the Hudson!

Local mod fans will remember the proprietors of Modern on the Hudson, Judy Engel and Frank Daley.  Their previous retail venture, Vintage Vogue, started in Saratoga Springs and relocated to River Street.  While the retail portion of their business closed some 10 years ago, they’ve remained active vendors of mid-century furniture, selling wholesale to retail accounts, primarily in New York City.

In a brief recent phone conversation, Engel said that business is flourishing and the new store-front will simply mean that their inventory is on public display.  “When we started this 20 years ago,” said Engel, “nobody understood what we were doing.”  Businesses in the Frear are expected to open in October.  

 

Almost history: A Wright house for Albany

By Joseph Dalton

In the cityscape of Albany, many great American architects are represented, yet perhaps the greatest of them all – Frank Lloyd Wright – is sadly missing.

Wright did, however, design a home for a prominent Albany family. The year was 1913 and the client was industrialist Jerome Mendleson, owner of the B.T. Babbitt Co., which manufactured a variety of household cleaners, including those marketed under the popular brand name Bab-O.

The home was planned for 8 Thurlow Terrace, one of the short streets that jut into the northern side of Washington Park just across Western Avenue from the University at Albany downtown campus. The drawings show an L-shaped structure with a large central music room opening onto terraces facing the front and back of the property. Above the library, dining room and kitchen, which extended toward the back, are five bedrooms and three baths. A three-car garage and servants’ quarters were to be located at the rear of the lot with an “arbored walk” connecting them to the main home. The exterior of brick and stucco was in the Prairie style, characteristic of Wright’s early years, with low-pitched roofs and extended eaves.

The unrealized commission came at a transitional time for Wright. It was toward the end of his Prairie-style period, although residential work would continue unabated throughout his long career. Wright was also on the verge of his largest projects. The following year saw the completion of the Midway Gardens, a grand public recreation area in Chicago, and in 1916 came the celebrated Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Alas for Albany, Wright’s potential client went in a different direction. Mendleson instead hired Lewis Colt Albro, formerly of McKim, Mead and White in New York, who delivered a much more traditional three-story brick structure, with a slate roof and dormer windows, that still stands.

According to the 1993 guidebook “Albany Architecture,” the house served as the residence for Catholic bishops for about 30 years until 1957, when it became the official home of the president of the University at Albany. Today it is used as offices by the law firm Deily, Mooney & Glastetter, whose principal partner Jonathan D. Deily purchased it in 1996.

“Wright was well ahead of his time and his architecture was what might be called modern,” says Ira Mendleson, a local attorney and descendent of Jerome Mendleson. “But we could have had a Wright. That’s part of the family lore.”

“The story was that Jerome’s wife didn’t like the house,” recalls Ben Mendel, another local family member.

If the judgment of history proves to be a bit harsh on the Mendlesons’ architectural tastes, the family legacy in design is nevertheless strong.

Ben Mendel is himself a retired architect who specialized in institutional buildings and historic preservation and contributed to the restoration of Blair House in Washington, D.C. And Jerome’s niece Elizabeth was married to the architect Henry L. Blatner. According to John Mesick’s essay in the book “Architects in Albany,” Blatner, who died in 1978, was “the most prominent practitioner of contemporary architectural design in Albany during the middle decades of the 20th century.” Among Batner’s many projects are the Albany Academy for Girls, the Jewish Community Center on Whitehall Road and the South Mall Tower Apartments. Blatner’s daughter, Mary Valentis, a professor at the University at Albany, is at work on a family memoir.

Though the three-quarter-acre parcel at 8 Thurlow Terrace is otherwise taken, some ambitious and deep-pocketed local architecture buff could still realize Wright’s home for Albany from the existing plans. It wouldn’t be the first time that a Wright design has been built in the post-Wright era. At the online discussion group known as “Save Wright” there’s a list of two dozen such projects completed since the 1970s, in locations as far-flung as Dublin, Maui and Buffalo.

Whether Wright left behind sufficient plans might be another question. Sadly, no correspondence between architect and client remain, probably due to the notorious fires that plagued Wright’s Taliesin headquarters during his lifetime. But the Wright archives do contain 17 drawings related to the Mendleson house. The most fully realized are a plan for the ground level and a rendering of the front facade. These have been published a few times, most recently in the first volume of “Frank Lloyd Wright: Complete Works,” released by Taschen in 2011.

The Wright archives, by the way, are on the move to New York. This past fall, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., reached an agreement for the long-term care of his drawings and models with the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University. The models will be transferred to the museum and the drawings and other papers to the university, where they should be available to researchers by the end of the year. Press reports at the time of the announcement stated that the collection includes more than 23,000 drawings and 300,000 pieces of professional and personal correspondence.

In the vast legacy of Wright, Albany remains a small part. But in the continuing evolution of Albany, perhaps something Wright might still happen.

Originally published 2/17/13 in the Times Union, Albany NY.
Note: Wright’s drawings use the spelling Mendelson,
though the family spelling is Mendleson.

Winchester Gables in Albany

Okay, so these homes aren’t modernist in any strict sense. But they’re still darned cool.

The Spanish theme – with stucco walls inside and out, tile roofs and trim, and vaulted ceilings – is played out in 26 homes on South Main, Woodlawn and Hansen Avenues. They were built by Dan Winchester between 1928 and 1930.  Read more about the history in this 2009 piece in the Times Union.

By the way, these photos were taken in August. Enjoy the sunshine!

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013)

According to her obituary in the New York Times (the paper she wrote for most often), Huxtable virtually created the role of architecture critic.  She observed modernism with a discerning eye, elegant craft and sharp wit.  On the Kennedy Center, she wrote:  “It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

Ada Louise Huxtable, Champion of Livable Architecture, Dies at 91

More gift ideas: Eames and Harper books

Chic Union Square loft in the Times

Would love to tour this high end renovated loft, featured in the Times’ Home & Garden section (“The Loft That Mediabistro Built”).  Not sure I’d want to hang out with the owners though. They seem as hard edged as their decor, even if they did once work as freelancers.

The wall with the painting rotates and has a TV on the other side.

Also appearing is an interview with the author a new coffee table book of photos of mid-century California residences, “A Wide-Angle Lens on the Midcentury American Home.”

University at Albany’s Uptown Campus

Second only to the Empire State Plaza as a prominent modern landmark in the Capital Region is SUNY Albany, now known as the University at Albany Uptown Campus.  It dates from the early 1960s and was designed by Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978).

These are some photos taken on a blustery day in late afternoon, with the few students in sight apparently returning to their dorms.

The campus is on a raised platform and covers some 360 acres.  It’s laid out on a grid with four 22-story dormitories at its corners.

Architect Edward Durell Stone had a long and productive career.  He was also responsible for designing the interior of Radio City Music Hall, the original Museum of Modern Art, 2 Columbus Circle and the Kennedy Center, among many other international projects.  Working during the modernist era, his use of decorative elements was often scorned.  But with this practice he actually foreshadowed the post-modern movement typified by Michael Graves.

I learned a lot about Stone from a talk last spring sponsored by Historic Albany Foundation and given by the architect’s son and biographer, Hicks Stone.  After his father’s death, Hicks also became an architect and has his own firm in New York.

The following photo shows a view from the campus’ central plaza looking outward toward Washington Avenue. You can see a newer glass “welcoming center” in the distance.  (Is it welcoming?)  That’s followed by a shot of the gallery of the University Art Museum, showing how the campus’ signature colonnades continue into the interior spaces.

 

Finding community

The Times Union story has generated a wonderful response.  Among the people who have gotten in touch is a collector of mid-century furniture.  Like most collectors, he has too much stuff, certainly more than can fit into his Troy apartment.  So we’re making plans to use some of his pieces in staging future listings.  Here’s a small sampling of some of his inventory.

Laudelina Martinez (photo: Michael P. Farrell/Times Union)

I’ve also begun working with Laudelina Martinez, proprietor of the wonderful Martinez Gallery on Troy’s monument square.  She provides consultation on stagings and also leases contemporary art for my listings.