Sleeper's timeless attraction
The Beauport House features more than 40 rooms and collections of everything from hat pins to glass fishing lures.
Perched majestically on a rocky cliff in Gloucester, Mass., Beauport House towers above the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, a lasting testament to the expertise of its designer and a timeless memorial to his eccentric nature and love of color and light.
Henry Davis Sleeper, a prominent interior designer of the 1920s and 1930s, began building his summer retreat in 1907, probably never imagining that over the next 27 years his modest plans would evolve into a curiosity house as well as a treasure of American design.
Sleeper loved to entertain and throw lavish parties and was host to many rich and famous celebrities. His house became a showcase for his talents, and he often toured prospective clients through the home to inspire ideas for their homes.
Sometimes, when a client requested something special, Sleeper would simply add on a room to his home as a sample of the idea, thus ending up with a vast variety of techniques and styles throughout.
The turreted and gabled facade, featuring 19 intersecting roof lines, manicured courtyard and lush grounds, offers only a hint of the delightful discoveries awaiting the guest who ventures inside to tour the 40-plus rooms of the home.
A tour features rooms full of extravagant collections from all over the world: collections of perfume bottles, children's tea sets, hat pins, pewter spoons, china, glassware, bottles, lamps, glass fishing lures, curtain tie-backs, historical documents and books, just to name a few.
The weird and wonderful
A closer look reveals oddities, curiosities and great "finds" wherever you look. One of the more unusual items is a 19th-century reading wheel, a device used to maintain newspaper clippings for later reading.
A hand-carved Chinese wedding basket is one of the most beautiful items. However, the most dazzling item is the 4-foot-high Waterford Crystal chandelier that hangs center stage in the China Trade Room. The Trade Room, with its pagoda-style ceiling, hand-painted Chinese story wallpaper, two-story window dressing and a balcony where musicians used to entertain dinner guests, is a perfect example of the lavish lifestyle that Sleeper enjoyed.
Many of the rooms feature lush walls of hand-painted wallpaper that Sleeper took great care in duplicating from famous European homes. Other rooms, like The Octagon Room or the Norman Book Tower, have unusual features or shapes.
In the Octagon Room, just about everything reflects the number eight, including eight chairs, eight rugs, eight lamps, eight doorknobs, eight pictures and even eight sides to the pattern on the book jacket that sits on a large eight-sided table.
The Norman Book Tower, a two-story, towerlike round library, is packed full of books and antique items, some from the Revolutionary War, and has hand-carved and hand-painted wooden draperies on its gothic arched windows.
The Belfry Bed Chamber Room offers the most unusual room shape with its domed and gabled ceiling intersecting at odd angles and covered with a wallpaper featuring huge colorful birds and butterflies, somehow having the odd effect of being captured in an oversized bird cage.
This particular guest room features a narrow hidden stairway that Sleeper used to make a grand entrance, usually in full costume, at one of his many masquerade parties. One of the closets still overflows with extra costumes Sleeper kept for the "unprepared" party guest.
The Golden Step Room, perhaps the most breathtaking due to its room-length wall of windows overlooking the ocean, is named after The Golden Step and features a 5-foot replica of the China trade ship. Not only do the windows offer an awe-inspiring view, they actually slide completely down inside the wall for an open-porch feel to the dining room.
Sleeper appreciated great architecture and history, and often, in an effort to preserve the beauty of these treasures, he acquired old windows, doors and paneling from old homes in the New England area and incorporated them into his home, sometimes using them in the oddest of places. One such door is simply attached to the wall and goes nowhere and serves no purpose except to satisfy Sleepers desire to showcase its uniqueness.
Color and effect
In the Central Hall, where one can get to any area in the house, Sleeper chose to panel the room with old shutters from The Essex House, and he filled a large antique doorway acquired from a local home with a collection of amber-colored glass that includes candlesticks, bottles, fishing floats and lamps of all sizes and shapes and all spectacularly lit from a well-placed skylight.
Not all of the glassware is considered valuable, however, because Sleeper was more interested in color and effect and not the value of the objects he chose.
Sleeper's love of history comes through in many places throughout the house, including the Lord Nelson Room with its focus on the British Naval hero who died at the Battle of Trafalger. The entrance to its bathroom is unique, framed by "butterfly doors" named because their shape mimics the shape of butterfly wings.
Sleeper, a master at concealing functional items, installed a door to nowhere simply to disguise the full-length mirror behind it, a touch that adds the odd sensation of being able to step through into another room. In another room, a likeness of George Washington doubles as a radiator cover.
The Lord Byron Room offers a touch of English literature and includes a large four-poster sleigh bed with beautiful carved fish heads as its bedposts and rumored to belong to Byron himself.
Since Sleeper was a master at spinning tales, some of his claims of authenticity have been disputed. No one, however, can dispute the fact that Sleeper was a unique designer with a passion for beauty and history, and his Beauport House remains a timeless tourist attraction for visitors of all ages and interests.