I attended an auction in Asheville, North Carolina in about 2001. The auction featured the estate of Samuel Evans of Riverside, CA, and featured many high-quality items from his iconic Arts and Crafts home. I bought 10 oak and black leather nail-head-trimmed dining chairs. There was also a set of oversized leather ledgers with marbled covers. I could see them stacked beside a club chair with a glass top on them. I spent many hours polishing the leather and looking through the ledgers. Several of them were scrapbooks of the time that Samuel Evans served as the first mayor of Riverside from 1907 – 1912 and again from 1922-1926. Another of the ledgers was an accounting of the waterworks for the county. The last entry of the newspaper scrapbook was an article reporting Evan’s indictment for fraud relating to the waterworks.
Obviously, my curiosity was aroused. Before I had time to research the fate of Samuel Evans, I received a phone call. The gentleman was given my name by Brunk Auction House and was a collector of Southern California’s ephemera and history. He had been following the fate of the estate items and somehow missed the notification of the auction. He called hoping that I would sell the items to him. My basic wish for all estate items is for them to go to their best place, hopefully back home where the items would be most appreciated. But I needed to drive a hard bargain. When I was asked if I would sell them to him, I told him that I would on two conditions: (1) That I could make a profit, and (2) that he would tell me the story.
For those of you that saw the movie Chinatown, that storyline was about town officials who diverted the water of the town to irrigate the orange groves. It was loosely based on the story of Samuel Evans, who was also given credit for bringing the citrus orchards to Southern California. He was acquitted and elected to a fifth term as mayor but died before he could be sworn in.
Some stories are stranger than fiction!
I have many of what I call “Evergreen” clients – ones I transition from home to office, children’s nurseries to their own assisting living spaces. I even find myself performing estate sales for long-term customers and finding new homes for the classics I sold over the years.
I am often asked to move their favorite possessions from one home to another while giving their surroundings a fresh spin. A classic is a classic whether it is from 1850 or 2022. I truly believe that innate talent and studied experience give one the ability to spot a classic in the making. The principles of good design don’t vary tremendously – balance, scale, repetition, rhythm, “the golden mean”. All of these elements are made to be bent through creativity but not broken.
I have written a course on American Antiques that I am in the process of transitioning to an online course. The one thing that stood out to me in the process of compiling the course was the pendulum of fashion in design. That pendulum swings from vertical spaces (Classicism) to horizontal ones (Mid-Century); busy highly detailed interiors (Victorian age) to simple quiet spaces where ornamentation was sparse and the beauty was in the materials (Arts and Crafts Movement). Our current waning trend of quiet monochromatic interiors of white and gray was calming in a post Recession/ Pandemic time but is moving back to color and pattern.
I traveled to the coast recently to stay with a client while attending a wedding. I hung my wedding attire on a door in the bedroom. When I looked up, I noticed a painting that she had commissioned from Gregg Howard. The hula-hoop of design is still swinging!
I always hate to see fall and winter go. As lovely as spring is, the hot sticky summer is not far behind. And yet I remember loving summer as a kid when school got out, and we lived in swimsuits and spent our evenings chasing fireflies.
But late winter and early spring are when the wood ducks nest on our pond. My husband David put a nesting box (just the right specifications) barely in view of the kitchen window. We clean it out every year and fill it with cedar shavings, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the outlandishly colored males trailing their gently colored ladies, hoping to be the chosen one.
Once they mate, she spends an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to get into the box; sometimes standing on the roof and trying to climb in upside down; sometimes hanging at the opening. Once she realizes the runway principle of flying from at least 40 feet out, she begins laying an egg a day for 8-10 days. Then comes the hard part, sitting on them for 30 days, only leaving for short times to feed in the swamp, then back on duty. When she flies off, she calls to her mate with a sharp lilting “who-week” to follow her. When she is in residence, the male sails around underneath the box, patiently guarding his family.
On the 31st day, we notice the female circling around the box looking upward. I call into the office and tell my staff I will be late coming in that day. The babies stand at the opening momentarily and jump to her, falling like dandelion fluff. They immediately imprint on their mother and follow her wherever she goes while the rest take the plunge. Somehow she can count and leads them single file, in circles until everyone hatches. The mother swims to the far bank, with all in tow, climbs and crosses the dam, and heads down the spillway to the safety of the swamp.
With the loss of the hardwood forests and the growth of the Georgia pine monoculture, there is little natural nesting for these creatures. Since we choose to move into their habitat, it only seems fair to help preserve theirs. What a privilege it is to live amongst them, if only for a short time.
I work 50- 60 hours a week as an Interior Designer and handle estate liquidations on the side. I figure it is better than wasting time watching TV. Besides, if you are having fun, it doesn’t feel like work!
Several years ago, I was liquidating a living estate for a widow whose sons had moved her close to them during her beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. The day I met her was a good day, and she was bright and present. Because she was moving certain furniture items to an apartment in North Carolina, the dining room table was full of displaced items. There was a pair of silver and ivory tongs on the table that were particularly intriguing. I called the son and asked if his mother or he remembered anything about this item, because I felt it might be significant. They did not know what I was speaking of and told me it must have been some of her late husbands’ family items. (She loved her things and thought his things were just stuff!) I asked permission to pull them from the sale and do some research when time allowed.
After the sale was conducted, I looked up the mark “M. Price S. F.” I found that the item was made by Michael Price, a well known knife-maker during the gold rush in San Francisco. There was a push dagger that had brought $13,000 in 2008, but Price was known for knives, and the economy has crashed in the meantime. I spent months contacting people who knew people in the San Francisco antiques market looking for a potential buyer. After several months of trying to get a call back from Bonhams auction house in San Francisco, they answered and agreed to consign the item into their November armament auction, with an estimate of $3000 to $5000.
Having felt that I had done the best for the client, I worked in a nearby town the day of the auction. When I returned to the office, I logged onto the Bonhams website to check the results. Anyone within three miles heard me hoop and holler that day when the “lime squeezer” fetched $29,000! When someone asked me how often this happened to me, I answered, “once in a lifetime” and I had my turn. I hope I am wrong. I am out there looking for lightning to strike twice!
We, as a nation, are a classless society. We follow the British royal tabloids for vicarious pleasure, but embrace the ideal that all men are created equal. The Windsor chair as we know it was developed somewhere in England, possibly Windsor, around 1725. America embraced this form, as we are less about formality and more about comfort.
You can almost imagine George and Martha Washington sitting in these chairs in the afternoon with the family watching the Potomac flow by. They were our first royal family, receiving dignitaries and guests on their 8000 acre estate.
I have been to Mount Vernon twice and continue to be amazed at the colors used in the interiors. The moneyed public at the time was traveling to Herculaneum and Pompeii and reviving the colors found in the renovated ruins. They were influenced by the latest fashion, just as we pickup fashions from our travels. When I teach my continuing education course for Interior Designers on American Antiques, one of my true/false test questions states that “George Washington furnished his home with priceless antiques.” About 50% of the students find the statement true. The home was actually furnished with the latest in fashion at the time – cutting edge materials and styles. And they ordered most of it from catalogs, such as Thomas Chippendale’s “Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director”. Local cabinetmakers clustered on the coast where mahogany came in as ballast on the ships. They used Chippendale’s catalogs to inspire their clients to commission the latest “contemporary furnishings”.
Our delivery of style has changed over time, but this classic chair has retained its original form. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
I was born a city girl raised by city parents. My mother did not want to live with old furniture or carry a stick of firewood, because she grew up in the depression. My father considered “roughing it” carrying his own golf bag. But we must be born with certain affinities because I am happiest in the wide open with my critters.
When I established my interior design firm, Laurie McRae Interiors, I wanted a timeless brand. I chose a rising whippoorwill as my logo, a symbol of the hope of spring. When I developed a line of clothing embellished with antique and vintage linens, I wanted to continue the brand but with a twist. So, I named the venture “Chuck Wills Widow”. The name started as many conversations as the clothing ever did. A chuck will’s widow is a closely related bird to the whippoorwill, both in the family of night hawks. There is a week or two of time in the south when you can hear both birds call their own name. The whippoorwill call is fast and constant, while the chuck is slower and lilting. So, listen late next May for the hope of spring and the promise of summer during that short time when their migrations overlap.
Link to Whippoorwill Sound from American Bird Conservancy
Link to Whippoorwill and Chuck Will’s Widow Sound from cdavidfloyd