Lenora Costa, curator of collections at Longue Vue House and Gardens, stood in the attic of the house museum holding a 19th-century creamware cup in her hand.
“You could learn about world history or about economics and trade or about chemistry, all from just this one cup,” she said.
The cup belongs to one of many collections of fine china tucked away from public view in the Bamboo Road manor house built in the early 1940s by Edgar and Edith Stern. Fine linens, tablecloths and lampshades are also hidden away in the home’s air-conditioned attic, awaiting a chance to cycle out of storage and into the public spaces.
Longue Vue celebrates its rich heritage of decorative arts each year with the “Essence of Style” design symposium, a package of events that begins Thursday, Nov. 2, with a reception on site for designers Richard Keith Langham and Rebecca Vizard, and continues Friday, Nov. 3 with a luncheon, talk and book signing at the Cannery at 3803 Toulouse St.
The pilgrimage to the behind-the-scenes rooms throughout Longue Vue was inspired by an offhand comment by Tony Chauveaux, the nonprofit’s most recent director, who left his post recently to assume the duties of deputy chairman of programs and partnerships at the National Endowment for the Arts.
“You should come by and poke around the attic one day,” he had said. “I’ll show you the lampshade closet.”
Who has a special place in their home just for lampshades? As it turns out, the Sterns did, in keeping with a tradition that continued into the 1950s of changing out lampshades with the seasons.
“In spring and summer, they’d be interested in having something lighter — maybe a perforated paper shade or a decoupaged shade, the kind Mrs. Stern liked so much,” Costa said. “In the winter, something heavier.”
The lampshade closet isn’t the only room of interest in the uppermost reaches of the house. One room — the rug and trunk room — holds objects that bring the Sterns to life.
“This is the room where all of the family steamer trunks were kept, the ones they used when they traveled,” said Costa. “It’s also where we keep the original rugs.”
In case you thought the rugs downstairs and throughout the house are the actual rugs the Sterns walked upon, you are in for a surprise. Costa said the originals were too precious to expose them to wear, so they retire upstairs while reproductions work overtime.
In the textile room, bolts of luxurious fabrics occupy rack upon rack, rolled inside out so that just a tantalizing edge is visible.
“The Sterns were wise enough to buy extra bolts of fabric when they upholstered or had curtains made, so in most cases, we have enough to be able to refresh objects at least once,” Costa said. “Even if we have just a small scrap, we have options.”
China and tableware occupy the spaces once reserved for the family’s out-of-season clothing. Costa said there are six full sets of china and innumerable bowls and teapots for special occasions. Table settings in the dining room change at least five times a year, so the odds are pretty good that a special piece will be displayed at some point.
Creamware makes up a significant part of the collection.
"It’s fascinating because of the processes used to make it,” she said. “The West envied China’s ability to make thin porcelain that was strong enough to use. To compete, the English began experimenting with adding calcium lead and other elements to the heavy clay their earthenware bowls were made of until they struck upon just the right formula.”
The intricate punch-outs in the creamware demonstrated the ability of late 18th-century china manufacturers in Leeds, England, to make their products stronger and lighter, giving them bragging rights.
“After the American Revolution, the British wanted to keep their U.S. market for creamware healthy, so they would add images to appeal to Americans,” said Costa. “We have a bowl with transferred images on it of George Washington and Ben Franklin, made in England.”
Like the upstairs rooms, the downstairs spaces played important and specific roles in the lives of the Sterns.
“The Friends of Longue Vue recently renovated the wine cellar into a meeting room, but they maintained its masonry walls and medieval-looking roughhewn doors,” said Costa. “We moved the wine racks out of there and into an antechamber. When the Sterns were in residence, the cellar held 4,500 bottles of wine, a bit more than the average person’s wine collection.
"We still have bottles with labels on them that indicate the import license the Sterns had to get to verify the wine was for personal consumption and not for sale.”
A “well-loved hobby” of Edgar Stern’s was photography and the basement was the ideal location for a darkroom. Because it is below grade, the room is not subject to light intrusion.
“Not only did Mr. Stern use the darkroom for his hobby, but so did his friend, Clarence John Laughlin,” said Costa., “We know that the prints Laughlin made for ‘Ghosts Along the Mississippi’ were made right here.”
If walls could talk ...
Essence of Style Design Symposium
Reception: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2
Longue Vue, 7 Bamboo Road
Luncheon, talks and book signings:
11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 3
The Cannery, 3803 Toulouse St.