Last week CFile Chief Editor Garth Clark penned a commentary regarding the troubles faced by the Crow House, home of painter and ceramist Henry Varnum Poor in New York. Clark, though regretful, argued that such “shrines” to the work of artists are best forgotten, instead it would be better for existing historical homes to reinvent themselves as multi-purpose art centers, places that can teach people and move the medium forward as well as memorializing the work of their former owners.
Above image: Henry Varnum Poor, Self Portrait with Small Statue (detail), 1911
The commentary generated a lot of discussion. We’re including some of these comments here. Some responses may be edited for length.
The following comes from Henry Poor’s son, Peter Poor, who related his understanding of the events:
“Garth’s final paragraph is exactly right, and is what we all dreamed Crow House could become at the large first meeting after the Town of Ramapo took it over. Town officials, the Friends of Crow House, people from the Art Students League, and others agreed that we did not want it to be a static shrine, but a living nucleus of artistic effort which radiated out to the community and fed it. The property had living and working quarters for three artists-in-residence. Space for exhibitions and classes. Room for groups to come from schools, and small groups to meet in the evenings. As organizations and individuals we all were eager to help achieve that.
“I volunteered to furnish and decorate the house as it was in my father’s time. But the Town then refused any aid or even consultation with any outside group, and beyond some emergency measures refused to spend even the small amount for routine maintenance, finally cutting off water, light, and heat, which is directly responsible for the present precarious condition of the house. In December 2011 I was promised a detailed plan for the future use and development of Crow House in six weeks. It has never arrived. Even when urged by the co-owners, the State Parks Department, Ramapo failed to reach out to the people who stood ready to raise money and find professional assistance. The situation of Crow House today is not failure of imagination, but failure of resolve by a group of politicians.”
Rather than seeing the home as a “static shrine,” Mark Simon argued that the home itself is an important piece of art which should be preserved.
“Too often historic houses are seen as just a shell containing the ghosts of the past. In this case the house itself is a remarkable, rare artifact that deserves just as much care as the artwork and pottery it once saw born within it. It is one of a kind, a mid-20th century Arts and Crafts gem. It has its own, unique palette of materials – log beams, wide board floors, stone walls and fireplace, and astonishing integrated ceramic tiles on sills and in bathrooms, plumbing fixtures, and lights. You can’t find anything like it anywhere. There are very few of residential buildings with integrated artwork from the period, and certainly fewer with work by an artist of Henry Poor’s stature.
“This is not an ‘historic house’. This is an IMPORTANT house.”
Jenni Sorkin suggested a film that could portray the issue in a wider context:
One of the best recent films on this exact subject–fictional–but completely relevant, is the Olivier Assayas film from 2008, L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours), which traces out the legacy of a minor Impressionist in the French countryside in the 3rd generation. And a good performance by Juliette Binoche to boot. Completely amazing textured reverie on objects, time, loss, materiality, stewardship, generational discord. I teach from it all time.
The commentary drew a detailed response from Caroline Hannah, a founding member of the Friends of Crow House. She filled CFile in on some of the efforts to inject “vigor” into the building.
“Thank you for drawing attention to the plight of Henry Varnum Poor’s Crow House in the wake of the August 15, 2015 article in the New York Times. Your editorial raises many valid points and I would like to try to address some of them here.
“While it’s true that historic houses are woefully underfunded in the United States, a historic house is only one of many possible outcomes for Crow House and has never been the exclusive goal of Friends of Crow House or Poor’s heir, Peter Varnum Poor. While we do wish to preserve the architectural fabric and as many of the artworks and artifacts as possible, no one wants a mausoleum to Poor. We recognize that the house could not survive as a traditional house museum and have long lobbied for alternative uses for the property that would bring it new “vigor,” as you say, and also reflect the vitality of the South Mountain Road “Colony” of which Poor was a central figure but also, as you know, included significant writers, composers, designers, as well as artists. As such, any workable plan for the property must reflect this rich history and connect with the present. It could, potentially, include artists-in-residency, workshops, performances and installations, a cultural and research center, and other, yet to be envisioned, uses.
“The Times did not report the full arc of the Friends’ attempts to establish a private-public partnership with the Town of Ramapo, the owner, but many of these alternative uses have been on the table. In the meantime, the Town has let the house fall into neglect. One of the worst problems is that the Town shut the water off two years ago and cannot have it turned back on without upgrading the sewage, a major expense. Without water, there is no heat. Without heat, mold creeps in. It is a bad situation but not an unresolvable one.
“Is it worth it to fix it? That is a difficult question to answer. Crow House’s hold on people, as with the work of any artist, is highly subjective and its long-term relevance is one that time will bear out. I do know that when I have taken young ceramic students through and they’ve seen for themselves a way of living as an artist and a craftsperson and have been inspired by it, that there is something worth saving. The significance or market value of his pottery matters little to them. I have seen similar responses from folks from many walks of life—involved in the arts and not.
“Friends of Crow House welcomes members of the CFile community to join the conversation and help bring new life to Crow House, which was in Henry Poor’s time, a very lively place—yes, with the occasional wildlife, invited and otherwise. It will take a consolidated group effort as well as resources to make it once again a vital part of the community in New York and beyond. It does not deserve a wrecking ball.”
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion about this complex issue. If you have any thoughts about the Poor house or the state of historic artist homes, let us know in the comments.