10,000 Square Feet of History
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
At an Edward Durrell Stone and Donald Deskey landmark in suburban New York, it's 1934 all over again
Soon after their successful collaboration at Radio City Music Hall, architect Edward Durrell Stone and industrial designer Donald Deskey teamed up again. The new commission was a private one: a residence for Deskey's business partner, Richard Mandel, in Bedford Hills, New York. Completed in 1934, at the height of America's fascination with the machine age, this pure expression of International Style architecture became an icon of sleek functionalism—the "House That Works," according to a 1935 feature in Fortune magazine.
Unfortunately, the House That Works wasn't working very well when the Brills bought it 10 years ago. A serious fan of serious modern architecture, Eric Brill had discovered the Mandel House in a design book when he was a college student; he never forgot. He and his wife, Nannette, endured a four-year negotiation just to make the purchase and, more tellingly, were willing to spend 10 years restoring the house to streamlined splendor.
"The house was in poor condition, but luckily it was in original condition. It hadn't been chopped up or altered in any major way, which was important to us," recalls Eric Brill. An oil trader now youthfully retired, he and his wife embarked on several months of major repairs before even moving in. The couple called in contractors to patch gaping holes in the plaster walls; to sand, prime, and paint 200 steel-framed casement windows; and to reroof the interconnected volumes that make up the structure. (At 10,000 square feet, sprawling over three levels and multiple wings, the Mandel House is huge.)
All the repairs have been mindful of original materials and finishes. When in doubt, the Brills consulted stacks of blueprints and period photos to make sure that restorations matched Stone and Deskey's designs. As a result, the house now looks pretty much as it did in the pages of Fortune. Illumination designed by Kurt Versen remains intact, and the kitchen needed almost no work. Other rooms required sprucing up. In the dining room, glass blocks installed during a previous restoration were replaced by better reproductions. In the swank ground-floor lounge, the Brills reinstalled an original Deskey banquette, weathered from years in storage, and re-created a plastic-laminate bar with stools covered in lemon-yellow leather. Behind the banquette, a mural by Witold Gordon was entirely repainted from vintage photos.
There are rooms that the Brills and their three children rarely enter: the squash court adjoining the three-car garage, the servants' dining room, and the cactus-filled "plant room" near the front entrance. Other spaces have been adapted to more practical uses. The Brills combined three maid's rooms into a rec room centered on an enormous pool table (designed by Deskey, of course). A chauffeur's bedroom is now Nannette Brill's ceramics studio.
The public areas remain mostly as they were in 1934, with Deskey's elegant furniture anchoring vast spaces with broad views of the outdoors. The fact that the house came with about 60 Deskey originals—some production items and some custom pieces, including a Steinway grand piano, a Bakelite-and-chrome dining table, and built-in wooden cabinets and shelving—keeps the period look authentic. The owners hired William Louché, who has restored furniture for major art museums, to repair Deskey pieces including the piano, dining table, sideboard, and shelving.
When Louché arrived on the scene, the finishes on some of the wood furniture were "like powder," he says. "You'd touch them, and they'd flake off. And they were so opaque you couldn't see through them." Several wooden pieces had lost entire swaths of finish; other pieces had even lost veneers. Louché applied rejuvenator to clear up the cloudy finishes, always being careful not to alter patina, and replaced missing sections of veneer with new ones. "As much as possible, everything we did had to be reversible," he explains, in case original elements someday turned up. He cleaned the chrome legs of the dining table and various chairs with acetone, alcohol, and calcium carbonate, none abrasive to the original metal.
When furniture to match missing originals couldn't be found, the Brills combed auction catalogs and antiques shops for items of similar vintage, mostly by Deskey. The couple also added collections of Soviet constructivist posters and machine-age artifacts to the ensemble. A Walter Dorwin Teague camera posed at the bottom of the spare, towering staircase is one of the family's favorites. A perfect analogy to the house, the sleek and aggressively modern camera is aristocratic in its self-conscious sophistication.
With a listing on the National Register of Historic Places officially secured, some people might rest on their laurels or at least relax in their landmarked masterpiece. The Brills, however, are already contemplating the next improvement project in the unending series: the admittedly monumental task of waxing the original cork and terrazzo floors. Louché is planning to return to touch up some furniture finishes that have clouded again, probably from sun exposure. Then there's the possibility of re-creating Stone and Deskey's paint scheme, in which different colors articulated the planar composition of interior walls, like a cubist canvas. For the moment, however, the walls of this high-maintenance home are staying white. As Nannette Brill says, "White is just so easy."