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Crow House Rising

Crow House Rising

Crow House Rising

June/July 2008 issue of American Craft magazine

An arresting mix of tools and inspiration-including an early sketch of Crow House-remains undisturbed in Poor's pottery studio.
Photos/Funded by Center for Craft, Creativity & Design.

Elizabeth Felicella

In the late winter of 2007, a remarkable rescue occurred in New York's Hudson River Valley. After nearly three years of existing on the precipice of demolition, Crow House, the hand-built home and studio of the once-renowned painter and potter Henry Varnum Poor (1887-1970) ultimately was saved by Christopher St. Lawrence, Town Supervisor of Ramapo, New York. And though St. Lawrence quietly acknowledges his role in this feat, he might also be tempted to tell you his mother made him do it. After all, it was his 88-year-old mother, Marguerite, who first read of the historic home's plight in the New York Times in June of 2006. The feature that prompted action told of the stalled efforts of an ad hoc preservation group (Friends of Crow House) to keep Henry's son, Peter Varnum Poor, from selling off the family home to a local businessman, ostensibly as a teardown. Fearing the worst, she showed the article to her son, telling him, as St. Lawrence recalls, "Christopher, this [house] is a piece of artwork and you have to do something to save it." As supervisor, St. Lawrence, aided by preservationists in Rockland County and New York City, found a way to do just that-despite the fact that the New City residence falls under neighboring Clarkstown's jurisdiction.

After visiting Crow House-named for the raucous black birds attending its construction in 1920-21-St. Lawrence became convinced of the house's value as a cultural asset beyond the site's more obvious appeal as open space in the highly developed county. With the support of his town's board, St. Lawrence sponsored an Environmental Protection Fund grant application with New York State's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to help purchase the property. Just after last Thanksgiving, former Governor Eliot Spitzer's office announced that $496,210 would go to Ramapo expressly for this purpose. The town matched the sum and a local businessman, Arthur Wagner, the obliging interim owner, sold the house to Ramapo in late February 2008. Most of the house's varied contents, including handmade furniture and ceramics, are still owned by Peter Poor and remain in place.

That a newspaper article kept Crow House from a less dignified fate seems fitting, given the significant publicity it has generated through the years. In 1924, International Studio magazine marveled that an artist could build his own home, "so much a part of the landscape that it belongs to the hillside." Many others have paid homage since. Most recently, World of Interiors staged the house for its own shoot, filling crockery vases and bowls with flowers and fruit, lighting candles and, in a strange way, almost transporting it to its earlier days of sociability, when neighbors like the screenwriter Ben Hecht, the composer Kurt Weill and his wife, the singer/actress Lotte Lenya, and the actor/director John Houseman would come to call. Poor, who became one of the most celebrated artists of his day, knew well the power of publicity. He undoubtedly understood that building a house might bring him fame, but could he have foreseen that his home might restore his artistic legacy?

As an "artist's house"-that is, a dwelling with an attached studio-Crow House stands out in that it not only survives as a self-made architectural expression, but several of its interiors, with their furnishings and ephemera, have survived intact as well. Experimental, inventive and yet of their time, Crow House's various architec-tural styles, building techniques and modes of living responded to modern conditions and human sensibilities, many of which are still relevant today. As a physical articulation of a creative life, the house provides a way to experience the past of not just an individual artist, but of his family and community. St. Lawrence and others see the house fitting into a potential artist-in-residency program as well as a place to be visited.

The enchantment for many with Crow House is entwined with the utopian tale of its making. At age 31, Poor and the young designer Marion Dorn, newlyweds and recent transplants from San Francisco, first journeyed 35 miles north up the west side of the Hudson River in the late summer of 1919 at the invitation of Mary Mowbray-Clarke, co-owner of Sunwise Turn, a radical bookshop in midtown Manhattan, and one of the organizers-along with her husband, the British sculptor John Mowbray-Clarke-of the 1913 New York Armory show. Weekly salons at her bookstore carried over to weekend gatherings at "The Brocken," her Rockland County farm that is now also owned by Ramapo. Soon, she convinced others to settle along South Mountain Road. The wooded hills, old Dutch houses, family farms and orchards attracted a number of artists, writers, directors and composers following the armistice. The seclusion and company of like-minded individuals fueled their work, while the proximity to the metropolis enabled their existence. For Poor, who had served on the French front in World War I, building a house in such an idyllic setting seems to have been a cathartic act, a means of creating order for the returning soldier and ambitious artist in a postlapsarian world.

Poor was able to purchase part of an old farm-bought jointly with Rollo Peters, a Shakespearean actor, and the textile designer Ruth Reeves and her then husband, the economist Leland Olds-for $500 (a sum, it should be said, impossible to raise without supportive parents back home in Kansas). With little left over for building supplies, the couple found much of what they needed on their modest acreage. A sandstone quarry, periodically tapped by local farmers for the builders of New York's brownstones, supplied the basic building material, hauled down the hill with his Model T: smallish cast-off stones for the walls and larger ones blasted and cut with which Poor constructed fireplaces, thresholds, staircases and a stone sink. American chestnuts, blighted five years prior, stripped of their bark but still standing and by then well-seasoned, provided ample timber, which Poor felled and adzed into the massive beams, lintels and posts.

In the early 1920s, building a house single-handedly was considered odd, the antithesis of the skyscrapers taking root to the south. The stone cottage that rose over the summer of 1920 took on the aspect of a performance, drawing onlookers to watch the sandy-haired artist at work. Aided by sketches and some experience with tools, Poor learned on the job. When an interior arch in the living room began to spread, he merely extended it through the wall, making a flying buttress in the process. Stone steps on the opposite side of this room end abruptly at a cantilevered landing, the resulting gap reinforcing its sculptural aspect. Ruled as much by pragmatism as aesthetics, Poor also embraced modern materials: concrete and metal lath formed the flat roof over the kitchen as well as the provisional, gently pitched one over the original painting studio; asbestos shingles covered the near-perfect geometry of the steeply pitched gables and main roof. In the later additions of 1931 and 1949, Poor hit other modern notes with cinder blocks, metal casement windows and flat concrete roofs, signature features of the later houses built for friends and neighbors such as the cartoonist Milton Caniff and the aforementioned actor/director Houseman.

A decade after the initial construction, Poor-by then a famous potter, now married to the writer and friend of the Dadaists Bessie Breuer, and on his way to reestablishing his painting career-rebuilt the attached painting studio and pottery, adding a second story of bedrooms as light-filled and modern as the 1921 house is dark and archaic. The new, double-height studio unites craft and modernism in its handmade detail and generous space. Minimalist, tiles abut the casements framing the dramatic studio window; hardwood planks laid diagonally lead from the window to a stone fireplace fit for a manor house. In between these features, a spiral oak and tulipwood staircase looms like a pulpit from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and overhead, concrete brackets support interlacing beams and a flat, unplastered ceiling. Alternating as workplace and party space, this extraordinary room both contrasts with and complements the Arts and Crafts living room below.

Poor imbued Crow House with a keenly felt connection to the landscape. Carefully sighted to track the morning sunlight, the main house steps up a gentle slope along a brook that forms part of the headwaters of the Hackensack River. Doors open from nearly every room onto the yard or a succession of roof terraces. Poor diverted the stream behind the house, damming it to create a swimming hole and channeling it through a sluice to turn a small waterwheel housed in a half-timbered and stone shed. This bit of whimsy powered a mill for grinding pottery glazes prior to electricity reaching the valley. With less fanfare, Poor also installed a hydraulic ram to pump spring water into the house. Not surprisingly, during the Great Depression, Crow House, the house Poor built for Ruth Reeves and Wharton Esherick's similar Valley Forge home and studio were all heralded as early models of sustainability.

Just as important to its maker was the fact that Crow House offered the chance to control the entire process and create a life devoted to craft. As Poor told the authors of The Personal House: Homes of Artists and Writers in 1961, "I have now and did have more strongly forty years ago, a young countryman's instinct to dig in against adversity and even against success... I, as an artist, was never just a recorder but always wanted to make a world of my own and to my own instinct for beauty and order and was not at all in love with the machine-made surroundings. In other words I found it necessary to make my own environment as much as possible."

In creating Crow House, Poor came to realize the value of the handmade and the experience led to experimentation in other areas. It was here that he taught himself to make his famous pottery, planned his murals and constructed furniture. Details of these efforts reveal themselves everywhere: in the ceramic doorknobs, carved thumb latches, joined tables, wardrobes and benches. Imbedded tiles reveal remnants of larger architectural projects, like that for the Union Dime Savings Bank in Manhattan, making the house, in more ways than one, an archive. The bathroom of hand-painted tiles embellished with abstract patterns and Matissean nudes documents almost completely an interior from the first exhibition of the American Designer's Gallery, an association of native and foreign-born artists, designers and craftsmen who endeavored to promote an American design identity by exhibiting modern interiors and decorative arts in Manhattan in the 1920s.

As architecture, the rambling house reflects shades of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Colonial Revival and even modernism. A seeming Cotswoldian cottage, with fairy-tale outbuildings to match, the homestead mainly drew from the French farmhouses sketched by Poor at the war's close. Yet the surprising home does not rank as historical pastiche. Instead, it can be viewed as an approach to modern living that drew freely from an eclectic range of sources. Stylistically, modernism aggressively asserts itself in the later additions of 1931 and 1949 and in the 1957 studio house, moored like a houseboat down the hill from the neighboring Contempora house. Viewed as a whole, Crow House marks the transition from Arts and Crafts into modernism.

Even in Poor's absence, Crow House continues to hold much fascination for the creative community. Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Eva Zeisel, the 101- year-old industrial designer, and countless others, from the World Monuments Fund to the National Trust's initiative for Artist's Homes and Studios, all wrote letters supporting its acquisition by Ramapo. That so many came together to see Crow House through its struggle for life demonstrates its enduring appeal as an evocation of a rich history and a testament to an artist's continual quest to live through his craft. Christopher St. Lawrence hopes to keep Crow House much the way it is now-as if Poor just stepped out.