The allure of Leeds House: An unparalleled private collection finds its ideal home in Philadelphia

Rachel Elizabeth Delphia

Rachel Elizabeth Delphia Exhibitions, Living with Antiques

Last winter, one of America’s great private collections slipped quietly from its urban home of nearly two decades in upper Manhattan to the splendor of a historic estate in Philadelphia. Preparing to move the peerless arts and crafts furniture, metalwork, glass, and ceramics, not to mention the sculptures, paintings, and works on paper, consumed the prior autumn months. Art handlers wielded twill tape, foam, and other museum-grade packing materials in New York, while the collectors laid detailed plans in Philadelphia. Equipped with a meticulous knowledge of their collection, they painstakingly envisioned each spacious room, using blue painter’s tape to denote the future placement of a Roycroft cellaret or a Byrdcliffe linen press. Both endurance and care were rewarded as truck after climate-controlled truck delivered all five hundred objects to Pennsylvania without a scratch. One year later, the collection is so beautifully and harmoniously arrayed that it seems to have been destined for its new setting.

Fig. 2. This vignette in the entrance hall includes sconce lanterns from Greene and Greene’s Blacker House, 1908, and a woodbox from their Laurabelle Robinson House, Pasadena, 1905 (see also Fig 5). The leaded-glass pendant lantern seen through the doorway is by Stickley, c. 1905. Fig. 3. The Stickley hall settle dates from c. 1901–1902.

In truth, it was the allure of this particular residence — designed by Philadelphia architects Mellor and Meigs and brimming with original ironwork by Samuel Yellin — that prompted the longtime New Yorkers to relocate. In the 1990s they settled into a Beaux-Arts gem overlooking Central Park where they began to nurture a shared passion for collecting. Like anyone bitten by that wonderful bug, they possessed an insatiable thirst for the hunt and for the acquisition; but they were among the few who unfailingly tempered that impulse with rigorous criteria and discernment. As a result, there are no minor works in their collection: every specimen is superlative. By 2000 the collectors had created a trust to shepherd objects to museums as loans and as gifts. In 2005 they formed the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, which furthered that mission while also sponsoring important primary research and publications, such as groundbreaking monographs on furniture maker Charles Rohlfs and metalworker Marie Zimmerman. Most recently, they have turned scholarly attention to Yellin, and promise to deliver another landmark project on his work.

Philadelphia and its environs offered such fertile ground for Yellin research that the area rose to the top of a short list for a potential move. Yet the collectors, who are as discriminating in architecture as in art, thought they had exhausted all possibilities until Leeds House became available. They were familiar with the architectural firm, Mellor and Meigs, which not only contracted Yellin ironwork on numerous occasions, but also designed the metalworker’s studio and forge at 5520 Arch Street in 1915. Also familiar was Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra who had commissioned a grand residence from Mellor and Meigs in 1929. Personal and professional issues forced the conductor to abandon the project, but, having invested considerably in land and a site-specific design, he petitioned the architects to recommend a buyer for both. Fortunately, Hadassah and Morris E. Leeds, who had engaged Mellor and Meigs for a rural complex more than a decade earlier, proved to be eager patrons. Morris Leeds was a founder of Leeds and Northrup, a flourishing electrical engineering firm, and Mrs. Leeds was a noted gardener and close friend of and horticultural advisor to Mrs. Albert Barnes in Merion. Weary of maintaining two residences — in Chester County and in the city — the Leedses eagerly assumed the Stokowski commission. The new house offered them the best of both worlds: it was a lushly landscaped estate not far from Center City. The Leedses made few modifications to the generous two-story Tudor revival design, and today the main rooms are either intact or impeccably restored.

Fig. 4. A copper and mica lamp by Elizabeth Eleanor D’Arcy Gaw (1860–1933) for Dirk Van Erp (1862–1933), c. 1910, stands on a double oval table by Charles P. Limbert (1854–1923), c. 1905. Visible in the entrance hall are an armchair from the Blacker House, 1908, and a corner china cabinet by Stickley, 1902. Yellin’s massive candelabra and andirons for the Arch Street Forge date from c. 1915.

A visit to Leeds House begins with an unassuming entry into a small gravel court. Assorted stone-faced gables and half-timbering add charm to the single-story southeast facades, which mask the actual height of the structure. Behind, on the north and west, the land drops precipitously, providing the terrain for terraced patios and gardens. Guests are ushered through the front door into an austere stone vestibule before crossing another threshold onto a landing in an immense, light-filled hall. The collectors jest about their “split-level” residence, but this is no quotidian cul-de-sac model. The two-and-a-half-story stair hall measures twenty-one-feet square and is capped with a soaring timbered ceiling. Nine concrete steps with the original Yellin handrail lead down to the hall and to passageways forming the main axis of the house. To the southwest are the dining room and covered porch; to the northeast, the library and study. The living room lies perpendicular to the axis, jutting out to the northwest above the dramatic landscape. To the south, an extensive two-story ell houses the kitchen and other original service quarters. Guests heading up from the front landing climb thirteen steps to the second story, where the Yellin railing continues along the balcony. The upper hall grants access to four en suite bedrooms, a sewing room, and, beyond the master bedroom, a sitting room that is one of the most majestic spaces in the house. Everywhere, towering cast-stone-cased windows with thick lead muntins shed natural light onto floors of local Enfield tile or oak and onto paneled or plaster walls. Robust mantels anchor each room, and original hardware proliferates. The house exudes character, yet offers generous potential for reinterpretation. Both were assets to the new owners: oversized fireboxes provided sufficient height for even the most grandiose Yellin andirons, and adding a cross beam to the high-pitched timbered ceiling of the sitting room allowed them to suspend rare lighting fixtures of about 1908 from the Roycroft Inn with delightful verisimilitude (see Fig. 32). The house proved to be such an inspiration that the collectors renamed their foundation to honor its builders, adopting the name Leeds Art Foundation in 2013.

Fig. 7. Among the furnishings in the living room are, along the back wall, a standing desk by Rohlfs, 1902/1904; a Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) Mandarin (Lotus) lamp made by Tiffany Studios, c. 1900; and a bow-arm Morris chair by Stickley, 1901. Above the mantel hangs Phantom by William Baziotes, 1953; at the left is Wheel by Dean Byington, 2006.

Although the house is, in the words of its owners, “architecturally assertive,” the art takes ultimate precedence. The collectors gladly sacrifice some livability for the enjoyment of displaying great art and for their commitment to its preservation. Vintage Steiff animals perched on many a chair act as sweet and silent wardens, guarding fragile joints or original upholstery. This is the level of care afforded to each of the hundreds of objects brought to Leeds House: objects acquired one by one over several decades in accordance with high standards and astutely selected areas of focus. The collection boasts an astonishing array of art pottery with marquee names–Grueby Faience, Newcomb, George E. Ohr, Teco, Marblehead Pottery, Saturday Evening Girls–rounded out with lesser-known talents like Frederick Walrath, Susan Frackelton, and the Overbeck Pottery.

The collectors push themselves, and others, to learn about the creative individuals behind the face of the studios. Scores of remarkable and under-recognized artists, many of them women, receive accolades here: Marie de Hoa LeBlanc and Leona Nicholson at Newcomb, Ruth Erickson and Gertrude Priest at Grueby, and Elizabeth Gray Overbeck and Mary Frances Overbeck. In metal, the collectors champion the silver, copper, and enamel work of Rebecca Cauman and Elizabeth E. Copeland, the bronze candlesticks of Jessie Preston, and the lamps of Elizabeth Eleanor D’Arcy Gaw made with Dirk van Erp. From their seminal research on Rohlfs and Yellin, they amassed unparalleled collections of both artists’ work, much of which they have promised or given to museums. Where the fields of collecting are large and well-established, they have honed in on critically important niches: their Stickley furniture is invariably early, tracing back to the artist’s first catalogues, and often dating to the year in which a work was designed. In Van Briggle pottery–which batch-produced pots well into mid-century–they collect only up until 1904, the year of Artus Van Briggle’s death. For other artists, Grueby and Newcomb, for example, the collectors have committed to unusual depth and breadth. They have also gathered the rarest arts and crafts lighting across numerous makers including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stickley, Roycroft, Greene and Greene, and Yellin. Cumulatively, these various dedicated strategies have built one of the best arts and crafts collections ever assembled.

Fig. 5. The ceramics displayed on the woodbox from Greene and Greene’s Laurabelle Robinson House are, left to right: Hosta vase by the Overbeck Pottery, c. 1910–1915; large vase with red patina by van Erp, c. 1910; and vase by Charles Fergus Binns (1857–1934), 1915. The candle stand is by Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936), 1905. The pair of Basket chandeliers in the room beyond are from the living room of the Blacker House, 1908.

Arranging so many masterworks within a new residence is a challenging task, accomplished with apparent ease at Leeds House. Strong visual associations abound and reward the astute observer with a series of little “aha” moments. In the stair hall, a rare matte-glazed Overbeck Pottery vase of 1910-1915–an organization run by remarkable sisters in Cambridge City, Indiana–features an abstracted leaf pattern that bears a striking resemblance to the bracket motif on a nearby armchair of 1907 from the Robert R. Blacker House in Pasadena, by designer-architects Henry Mather and Charles Sumner Greene. Such stylized motifs were in the ether when both works were created, yet placing them in juxtaposition now reveals the collectors’ clever and spirited approach. Another example occurs in Mr. Leeds’s study, where an early Gustav Stickley library table, of 1901, stands in front of original wainscoting (Fig. 5). Shimmering rays in the grain practically leap from both table and wall, each reinforcing the arts and crafts love affair with quarter-sawn oak. Even the landscape provides opportunities for correlation, with the estate’s tulip poplars, cherry trees, and clematis vines echoing botanical motifs in the collection.

The play here is not only visual but academic as well. The informed visitor derives great pleasure from the plethora of carefully curated connections. Master Yellin is omnipresent at Leeds House thanks to original fixtures, yet the collectors have gone to great lengths to reassemble works from the blacksmith’s personal collection including andirons, a giant floor candelabra, a coat rack, and two massive doors. Their most recent acquisition is a jaw-dropping Gothic chest, circa 1910-1912, engraved with Zodiac motifs, one of the artist’s most treasured creations (Fig. 23). Only one of his greatest patrons, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, could have pried it from Yellin’s grasp (which she did in 1926 in a somewhat futile effort to reconcile with her husband Edward Bok). One imagines that Yellin would rejoice to see it again amid so many of his creations. Greene and Greene furnishings also enjoy a reunion in Philadelphia. With a settee, chairs, wall sconces, and numerous ceiling lighting fixtures, Leeds House presents the largest reassembled group from the Blacker House. The one-of-a-kind settee warmly greets visitors at the foot of the main stair (see Fig. 1), and the aforementioned armchair sits across the hall, facing the fireplace (see Fig. 4). Sconces flank the living room doorway, while the great hanging basket lamps are visible in the room beyond. Down the passage and within the covered porch hangs the incomparable Blacker House exterior lantern.

Fig. 22. Yellin made the Gothic andirons (1910–1915) and log holder (c. 1915) for his personal use. The copper vase at the left of the fireplace is by Robert Riddle Jarvie, c. 1902. On the mantel are (at the left) a Newcomb corseted vase, 1897, and a Grueby Faience vase with fiddlehead handles, c. 1900; at far right is a Teco handled vase, c. 1900. Above hangs Boy by Hannah van Bart, 2010.

Leeds House also brings into focus some of the relationships between artists, including friends, rivals, and masters/pupils. The sitting room features a polychromatic, stenciled wall covering by Louis Sullivan from the Chicago Stock Exchange of 1894. A few feet away, centered on an immense bay window stands a table of 1908 by Milwaukee architect George Mann Niedecken, a mentee of Frank Lloyd Wright, who in turn began his career with Sullivan. The Niedecken table currently holds a monumental Teco vase of 1902 (see Fig. 32), but in the collectors’ minds, this place of honor would belong to their great copper urn of circa 1899 by Wright, were it not on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robert Riddle Jarvie and Jessie M.Preston’s bronze candlesticks tacitly compete for attention throughout the house, as do occasional works by L. and J.G. Stickley, Gustav’s younger brothers, who mostly “borrowed” his designs but hit upon a few masterworks of their own, like a spindle settle of 1902. The extensive Stickley and Rohlfs collections are bound together in one bedroom by the presence of the Bellworth tabourette of about 1900. It was Gustav Stickley’s first design from his first catalogue, and, remarkably, one for which he acknowledged his indebtedness to Charles Rohlfs. In other instances, the simple arrangement of works tells the whole story, as in the case of Hugh Robertson, whose career at both Chelsea Keramic Art Works and the Dedham Pottery is quietly chronicled by a row of pots across a mantel (see cover).

Fig. 25. The leather-topped library table (1901) and lamps (c. 1905) are by Stickley. The vases are by the Marblehead Pottery and Frederick Walrath (second and fifth from left), c. 1907–1914. Fig. 6. Lamp made by the Roycroft Shops, East Aurora, New York,c. 1910. Copper with leaded-glass shade; height 20 ¾ inches. Fig. 23. This Gothic chest was also made by Yellin for his own use, c. 1910–1912. Fig. 24. Yellin designed these gates for the residence of Gustav Oberlaender in Reading, Pennsylvania, 1925.

Though less plentiful than the decorative art objects at Leeds House, the contemporary fine art deserves attention, both in its own right, and because it offers broad insights. Themes concerning construction, deconstruction, truth, memory, and imagination unite visually disparate paintings, works on paper, and sculpture and resonate thoughtfully with arts and crafts movement philosophies. Paintings in the living and dining rooms by Rudolf de Crignis and Michael Toenges convey obsessions with the processes and materiality of painting. De Crignis laid down pure pigment, destructively painted over it, and then battled his way back to his memory of the original color. Toenges slathers paint on top of paint in small canvases that appear to be gestural but are in fact labored and meticulous (see Fig. 10). In a so-called “de-threaded” textile, mounted in one of the bedrooms, Stephen Sollins has unstitched the embroidery on a vintage table linen and re-sewn each hue into a rectangular block to visually assess the proportion of each color from the original needlework. Jonathan Callan’s sculptures, in the living room and dining room, feature old books overcome, mutilated, or buried by globs of black silicone or piles of concrete. Painter Hannah van Bart, whose work hangs in the living room, library, and master bedroom, pores over vintage photographs and portrays her imagined relationships with the long-deceased individuals. David Klamen’s haunting and ethereal landscape, hung in the living room above a Gothic Rose Valley table, depicts an interpretation of his memory of the day on which he first attended a funeral (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. A chair from Wyntoon, the Phoebe Apperson Hearst mansion, by Bernard Maybeck (1862–1957) and A. Page Brown, 1902, is drawn up to a Gothic revival table from the Rose Valley Colony, c. 1902. The lamp is by Charles Limbert, c. 1905. David Klamen’s Untitled dates from 2005. Fig. 9. On top of an inlaid fall-front desk by Stickley, c. 1903, is a ceramic bowl by Sara Galner (1894–1982) for the Saturday Evening Girls, 1915; on the lower shelf is a Stickley humidor of c. 1905.

These images and sculptures lead the viewer back to the arts and crafts objects, each of them relics of an age devoted to beauty, truth, handcraftsmanship, and honest materials and concerned with the corrupting forces of technology, the loss of contact with nature, and the abandonment of artistic traditions. Of course these are not identical to the themes of the contemporary collection at Leeds House, but they are sympathetic impulses. It is no accident that the contemporary works fixate on discovery through careful study, rigorous classification, or preserving stories and memories: these are shared passions of the collectors who have assembled it all.

By any measure this collection is unique in depth, breadth, and quality. It is also brilliantly reimagined and freshly inspired by its move to Leeds House. Through the work of their foundation, and its research and generosity, the collectors have already made a major mark in the field, and they plan a lasting legacy through continued loans and gifts to museums. In the meantime, Leeds House and its residents will surely keep up the good work: gathering, studying, preserving, and sharing these remarkable artistic furnishings and the long-lost stories of how they came into being.

Fig. 31. The cast ceramic and leaded glass lamp is by the Fulper Pottery, c. 1910. The vases are by Van Briggle, including (at far left) Despondency of 1902 along with other examples from 1902, 1903, and 1904.

RACHEL ELIZABETH DELPHIA is the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.