Archive for home decorating

The Bird’s Eye View From My Veranda

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

“The best part of the present house is the veranda,” the U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes journaled in 1873. “But I would enlarge it. I want a veranda with a house attached.”

I share the late president’s opinion. A wooden veranda measuring over 100 feet  wraps four sides of the Victorian summer cottage that is my year-round home. But that wasn’t enough for the home’s first owners. Our cottage has two second-floor sleeping porches that each connect to inside bedrooms. And on the third floor, there are the remnants of two tiny, unsheltered porches, the victims of almost 120 years of wind and rain.

It’s a pretty tall house, and I imagine the perils that faced the early porch builders. I’m so grateful for their efforts. The porches are the house’s defining feature from the exterior, and the center of happy, summer solitude.

My private writing and reading world

My private writing and reading world

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

In India and other warm countries, porches are usually called by the president’s chosen word: veranda. The etymology goes back to the Portuguese word “varanda,” meaning railing or balustrade. When the British followed the Portuguese in the colonization of India, they learned “verandaa” as a Hindi language word and added an ‘h’ when they fitted their own “verandahs” onto sprawling bungalows.

Of course, Indians were well acquainted with outdoor home design. In very old times, rajahs and nawabs sat in state on their elaborate courtyards when receiving visitors and addressing the concerns of their subjects. Rooftop sleeping is still common in India, and ground-floor verandas are a popular place for visiting with friends and dealing with merchants.

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Indian heritage hotels have great verandas, such as Brunton Boatyard, where I’ve stayed several times and always found it a treat to sit on the ground floor veranda reading the newspaper.

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

After seeing the photo above of a colonial hill station bungalow, I’ve become interested in visiting Verandah in the Forest, located in Mataran, a few hours from Mumbai. I’ve mostly walked verandas in India that are made of marble or red oxide. I’m intrigued by this encaustic tile floor and furniture that are often hallmarks of grand Bombay design. And what fancywork on the railings!

At the turning of the 19th to early 20th century, doctors from Europe to the Americas and Asia believed fresh air was believed a good counteraction to disease. Anyone who could afford it fled the heart of the city to expansive living in new colonies and suburbs.

Almost all the houses in North Baltimore were built in the 1890s through the 1950s. Almost all of them have a front or back porch. Insect screens on sleeping porches once kept residents safe from mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. In today’s world, they’re a barrier against Zika and Dengue.

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Great porches are the icons of many neighborhoods throughout Baltimore City. In my student days, I loved sitting on the porch of my Charles Village rowhouse and chatting with the neighbors the next house over.  Thirty years ago, most of the porches on North Calvert were painted a subdued forest green. Today, many of them follow a candy-box palette. The Charles Village porches explode with color, shouting out their engagement with city life.

Our downstairs wrap-around porch is a social place. We host a neighborhood happy hour party here every summer, and smaller gatherings, as long as the bugs aren’t too bad.  It’s hardly furnished at all; just some heavy Adirondack chairs. The porches are so expansive, I can’t figure out how to fill them.

But the upstairs sleeping porches are smaller, intimate spaces that I can deal with. The westward-facing sleeping porch belongs to my teenage daughter and is outfitted in a bright, modern style. When she had a pair of sugar gliders, they had the run of the place.

The other sleeping porch is my old-fashioned escape.

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend--just like its architecture

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend—just like its architecture

Our house’s former owners called it the Sunset Porch and loved the view in early evening. This porch, like our daughter’s, was open-air, but my husband spotted a system of wooden frames that must have once held mosquito screens. An Internet search led to an online store selling ten-foot-high rolls of nylon insect screening that could be cut to fit any space. Together, we unrolled the screening and fixed it into place. We polished the original brass lantern hanging from the ceiling. I dragged an old maple desk on the porch, added a small Ikea chair, and the summer writing office was in business. And that was it, for the first year or so.

Over the last few years, I’ve added ceiling fans, upholstered rattan and wicker furniture, outdoor rugs and pierced tin lanterns from India. There’s a long coffee table that can hold dessert and coffee for a small group of guests. They are allowed in at night, the porch’s most glamorous hours. I like to think my porch is the Mid-Atlantic, late Victorian version of an Indian veranda.

Although the children regard this place as their mother’s writing porch, one family member considers it his room. Charlie the beagle, rests in his daybed close to the writing desk, guarding me from distraction. Because our porch overlooks a small backyard lane and the neighbors’ gardens, it’s a serene environment where the loudest sounds come from nature. I can literally eavesdrop on birds and squirrels in the tall maple and black walnut trees.

charlie on sleeping porch

Ironically, my sleeping porch has so many places for sitting, I can’t find room for a bed larger than Charlie’s.

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Although, in my mind’s eye, I envision my porch one hundred and ten years ago. Four cots face eastward over the tops of young trees bordering the property. The view is mostly sky, and one can hear the bells of the long-gone streetcar on Roland Avenue, and the rolling sounds of the milkman’s wagon before the city awakens into summer heat.

Marjorie and Me

The other weekend, I was cranky and knew I needed a temporary getaway from my family. So I got in the car on a hot July morning and drove south to DC, savoring Saturday’s lack of traffic.

Ever since I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve longed to tour Hillwood, the 1920s Georgian mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress and businesswoman who parlayed her father’s Postum Cereal Company into the prepared food empire known today as General Mills. Right now, there’s a special exhibition at Hillwood called “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriiweather Post,” and what caught my interest is that

Mrs Marjorie Merriweather Post

this four-times divorced grande dame decided to fix up a mansion when she was 68.

This is where I feel a kinship, having bought an 1897 Victorian summer cottage in my late 40s, with my two children likely leaving the nest within a few years. Sometimes, the decision to invest in this 5000-square foot house with four porches battling carpenter bees does not seem practical. Mrs. Post’s decision wasn’t either–after all, she already owned a massive Park Avenue apartment, Mar-A-Lago in Florida and a luxurious camp in the Adirondacks. As I pulled in through the handsome gates, I imagined the pull of 25 acres of land, which, with the steamy DC/Baltimore climate, could support a lot of lovely flowers, trees and shrubs. I have a bit less than 1 acre–and the condition is currently very rough. However, I’m thrilled to have a struggling patch you could call cutting garden with some of the same plants (coneflowers, roses, rudbeckia) that are in the Hillwood cutting garden. Mrs. Post also stocked greenhouses with orchids and all manner of exotics so she would always be able to show off lovely arrangements at her glittering dinner parties.

Dinner is another enthusiasm that we share. Mrs. Post entertained regularly, and just last night I had a neighborhood gathering of around 40–a supposed “happy hour” that lasted until almost ten p.m.–and tonight Tony and I are cooking dinner for the family of one of our children’s friends, lively people we’ve been wanting to know better.

It sometimes seems impossible to get a chance to eat and drink with all the interesting people in this city, and our DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia friends, too. But there are ways to organize, Merriweather Post Style. Mrs. Post kept a book filled with names and contact information for hundreds of prominent people of her era, including designated bachelors (for me, it’s “all the single ladies”). For her, diversity of guests might mean that in addition to DC political and embassy friends, she might invite an Abell millionaire to drive in from Baltimore! At our house, we also seek a wide range of people, not just from the same neighborhood, and with many ages and cultural backgrounds. And I don’t keep a lovely book of typed names to hunt for guests, either. I click into my email and see who comes up.

Mrs. Post loved decorating and collecting, and her house is filled with Louis XVI furniture, Russian Faberge porcelain, and gorgeous parquet floors.

Grand entry at Hillwood House

For this reason, her butlers enforced a rule for any guests with high heels to wear plastic heel caps. Here I am in utter sympathy, having had to refinish our soft pine floors TWICE since moving in. I say, Leave Your Muddy Sneakers and Dusty Sports Cleats at the Door.

When it came to food, Hillwood’s talented cooks worked for days in a gigantic kitchen making elegant meals, but its owner made sure to always include some General Foods favorites, like Jell-O. Not even the kids will eat Jell-O at my house, but I am loyal to Bird’s Custard Powder, which is a component of whatever fruit trifle I’m making (my go-to dessert). I fear the biggest difference between our entertaining styles is most apparent after dinner. Mrs. Post’s staff (she was too polite to say ‘servants’) cleaned up. I believe the docent said more than 100 people worked at Hillwood. If I’m lucky, my clean-up crew will include a kid, a husband, and a very kind guest or two.

I drove home from Hillwood, my appetite for antiques, gardens and dreaming sated. I opened the ragged screened door leading to our half-renovated estate. My husband was slicing up my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, and shaping hamburgers for our son.

Our house will never be a Hillwood, but I am crazy about the weekend chef.