The Austin House
Published: May 2009
By Michael Z. Wise
When maverick curator Chick Austin added an International Style building to Hartford's stodgy art museum, it set off a Modernist invasion. Now Austin's own house, with its Bauhaus bathroom and Rococo ballroom, has been meticulously restored
After Le Corbusier visited Hartford in 1935, the Modernist architect proclaimed that a man named A. Everett Austin Jr. was turning the "little town in upper Connecticut" into "a place where burns the lamp of the mind." Philip Johnson went even further, remarking that Austin had, for a moment, transformed Hartford into "the navel of the world."
Hartford rarely inspires such feverish praise nowadays. Yet its art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, retains much of the luster that Austin brought to it when he served as its director from 1927 to 1944. While the artistic and social frenzy that Austin set in motion is but a distant echo, the museum has recently returned to prominence under the energetic directorship of Old Masters expert Peter Sutton. And it has kept faith with Austin's memory by undertaking an extensive restoration of his landmark house and its original furnishings. Work was completed last month.
Before Austin arrived in Hartford, the museum's exhibition program was decidedly low-key: displays of Scottish tartans, valentines, linen damasks, and solo shows of now forgotten artists. Austin changed all that.
Auspiciously, he assumed the directorship at about the same time that the museum obtained its largest single gift—a bequest of nearly $2 million. That windfall enabled Austin to acquire works by Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Strozzi, and Longhi, many of which were then relatively undervalued. Austin, known to nearly everyone by his prep school nickname of "Chick," proved to be a dynamic impresario, turning what had been a stuffy institution into a fashionable temple of Modernism. He not only promoted artists such as Picasso, Balthus, and Mondrian when they were little known in the United States, but also presented dance performances by the likes of Martha Graham, screened Surrealist films, and threw lavish balls.
As if to mirror this provocative eclecticism, the house he built for himself and his wife, Helen, was a Palladian villa with Bauhaus and Rococo interiors. The residence became a gathering place for artists—among them Alexander Calder, Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland—who exhibited their work, staged plays, or gave concerts at the museum.
Something of a showman himself, Austin frequently dressed in costume, appearing variously as a sea god, a pharaoh, a hussar, or a character from a Watteau painting. For the "Paper Ball," he had Surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew cover the white cantilevered balconies of the new museum wing with brightly colored and painted newspapers. In a series of magic shows that he put on at the museum for his two children and other kids, he proclaimed, "I am the Great Osram" as he pulled rabbits from hats and conjured brilliantly colored chiffon handkerchiefs from thin air.
Austin's house itself was one of his finest tricks. A mere 18 feet deep, the two-story residence resembled a stage set. Not far from the Connecticut governor's mansion, it stands out among its less inspired neo-Georgian and Tudor Revival neighbors. The exterior was modeled on the 16th-century Villa Ferretti outside Venice, which the Austins had seen on their honeymoon. When they returned to the States, they asked New York architect Leigh H. French Jr. to copy it from their snapshots. French, according to historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, "practically withdrew from the job as construction proceeded. [He] was the first to say that the house was largely of Chick's design and hardly at all of his." When the pilastered building was completed, 400 people streamed in to see what lay behind the shallow gray-and-white exterior. Many Hartford burghers, dismayed by the interiors, derided the place as a "pasteboard palace." Austin himself delighted in its power to provoke, declaring: "The house is just like me—all façade."
From the domed foyer rises a sweeping spiral staircase. On the first floor, the rooms are decorated with elaborately carved woodwork and painted silk panels. Gilded Venetian armchairs, a Rococo settee, and Meissen figurines fill the living room. The dining room, its walls covered in a blue-green silk brocatelle, has a Bavarian Baroque bed niche at one end. Among the ornamental bric-a-brac are the boxes that Austin used in his magic acts.
The upper floor presents an ultra-modern contrast. Helen Austin's dressing room was modeled on the dressing room in the Dessau home of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Tubular chrome furniture designed by Marcel Breuer is set against walls painted solid beige, cream, blue, and cocoa. Chick Austin's dressing room and bath have been restored to their original state, with streamlined stainless-steel fixtures, a black floor, and walls painted in pink, blue, and beige. A nearby guest room once featured pieces designed by German architect Bruno Paul, and the basement, which currently serves as a storage area, used to have furniture by French Modernist Pierre Chareau—including an upholstered "hanging bed" suspended from the ceiling. Unfortunately, the Paul and Chareau furniture is no longer on hand, so these rooms cannot be fully replicated.
A number of Austin's endeavors were every bit as memorable as his residence. In 1933, together with his former Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein, Austin sponsored choreographer George Balanchine's emigration to America. Provincial Hartford wasn't to Balanchine's liking, however. He stayed only about a week before leaving for New York, where he felt his School of American Ballet would have a better chance of survival. But Austin was undeterred in his bid to turn the Connecticut capital into what devotees called a "New Athens."
To this end, he oversaw construction of a major extension to the Wadsworth Atheneum. It was this country's first International Style building. The opening of the Avery Memorial Wing in 1934 preceded the completion of New York's Museum of Modern Art by five years. ("You did everything sooner and more brilliantly than any of us," wrote MOMA's founding director, Alfred Barr, in a 1944 letter to Austin.) The addition contained a 300-seat theater where Austin staged the world premiere of the Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts with a libretto by Gertrude Stein and an all-black cast. During the opera's run, the first major Picasso retrospective in the United States, curated by Austin, opened at the museum.
Austin asked Stein to lend him Picasso's famous portrait of her for that exhibition. Although she declined to let the painting cross the Atlantic, she made the trip herself a few months later. When Stein came to Hartford in 1935, she joined a long list of fabled 20th-century figures who lectured at the museum's new wing. Yet many of these talks on modern art, like the daring exhibitions Austin curated, baffled Hartford residents. By the early 1940's, museum trustees had wearied of their director's experimental approach. With America at war, Austin's frivolity was increasingly out of step with the times. Frustrated, he resigned his post and spent the rest of his career as director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum in, of all places, Sarasota.
After Austin died of cancer in 1957 at age 56, his widow lived on in the Hartford house, which she donated to the museum only in 1985. Rescued from decay, this landmark house recalls an era when the combination of personal flair and an expert eye first changed the American museum from a serene repository into a stage for public spectacle.
Michael Z. Wise contributes frequently to Travel + Leisure.
For information about the Austin house, contact curator Eugene R. Gaddis at the Wadsworth Atheneum (860/278-2670). Gaddis's book, Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America, will be published by Knopf in November.