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The Magic House That Chick Built

Commentary By TOM CONDON

October 14, 2007

He died 50 years ago, but such was the prescient power of his imagination that he is still spoken of as if he's coming over for cocktails at 9. How many people so long gone from this vale of tears are still called by their nicknames? Chick is.

Of course we speak of A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr., the city's one-man creative class, the brilliant and flamboyant director of the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1927 to 1944, he who brought Modern Art to America, the man who performed the seemingly impossible task of making Hartford - for those precious years - hip. And he did it with such magical style.

As evidence that he's still a strong part of the city's consciousness, two of our leading arts organizations - independent of each other, it turns out - have planned Austin celebrations that open this month.

"Chick, The Great Osram" by David Grimm was scheduled to open last night at the Hartford Stage Company. The play was commissioned by the theater and is directed by its artistic director, Michael Wilson.

At the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, an exhibit titled "Magic Facade: The Austin House" opens Saturday and will run through March.

I'm going to see the play in a couple of weeks. I was able to see the house last week. In a word, wow.

The Austin House on Scarborough Street in the West End is the subject of Hartford's other urban myth. The first is that Bushnell Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the correct answer is Jacob Weidenmann). The myth of the Austin House is that it's not a house at all, but a backdrop, a stage set for a movie.

But that's part of the magic facade, the artistic illusion, the fun. It is a real house - that is only 18 feet deep. An eclectic mix of Palladian, Art Deco and Bauhaus design, a thorough expression of the personality and taste of its owner, the house was the stage for some of the finest social gatherings of the 1930s. The parties went until dawn and the guest list at various times included Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, George Gershwin, Le Corbusier and Alexander Calder.

That the house has been saved and restored is a story in itself, and a tribute to Austin's indefatigable biographer, Gene Gaddis. In the early 1980s, Gaddis discovered Austin's papers in the Atheneum's sub-basement. Here were letters from Calder with sketches, a letter from Lincoln Kirstein about bringing Balanchine to America. Here was a trove, the proof that Austin was the maestro of Modern Art in America.

In 1984, Austin's friend Philip Johnson, the architect, spoke at the Atheneum and enthused about the magical qualities of Austin's house. Austin had modeled it after a villa designed by a student of Palladio's near Venice that he and his wife, Helen Goodwin Austin, had seen on their honeymoon in 1929. But Austin sacked his architect halfway through and finished it himself, adding Deco and Modern touches to create what Johnson called a Post-Modern house.

The Atheneum's trustees got interested. Could they get the house? Helen was still living there in 1984, but was in her 80s. The trustees opened discussions with Helen and the two Austin children, Sally and David (an architect who would be most helpful in the restoration). The family was agreeable. An endowment would be needed, but Helen's cousin Mrs. James L. Goodwin quietly saw to it.

The Wadsworth took title in 1985. After living there for 55 years, Helen left with a small amount of luggage for an assisted care facility. Now for the hard part.

Gaddis and restoration project manager Krystyn Hastings-Silver, fresh from the Hill-Stead Museum and in need of another challenge, along with a strong committee, set to work on what has been one of the most meticulous interior restorations ever done, anywhere.

Hastings-Silver called it "urban archeology." They blew up old photographs to study the weave in silk wallpaper, then found craftsmen to replicate it. They found the one company in Scandinavia that made linoleum as it was made in the 1930s. They looked in nooks and crannies, under stair runners and behind light switch plates to find original colors. Austin, also an accomplished artist, mixed his own colors. They had to do this; this was the one house in a million where every such detail mattered.

"His eye for matching colors and lines was remarkable. He had a brilliant sense of composition and space," said Gaddis, who showed me through the house.

In 1994 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. Gaddis' definitive 435-page biography, "Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America," was published by Knopf in 2000.

Now the "interior envelope" of the house is nearly complete and is stunning. I saw the house 20 years ago, and it was worn and a little drab. It's now as it was in the period from 1930 to 1943. The living room is entered through a proscenium arch and Baroque doors, a stage for the great parties. The dining room is a kind of green Venetian lagoon, with silk wall-covering that subtly changes color depending on the light. Helen's dressing room is a beautiful right-angled Bauhaus room.

The house seems much larger than its 3,000 square feet. In an age of wastefully large houses, here is perhaps something for architects to ponder.

Gaddis' exhibition is downtown at the museum because tours of the house are very limited, out of respect for the residential neighborhood. This fall, visits are offered by appointment to those who make a contribution to the Sarah Goodwin Austin Memorial Fund. The museum usually has a staffer living at the house as well. But try to see it. It is a performance.

It's exhilarating that Hartford will celebrate Chick this fall. As Gaddis said, it reminds us to be proud of our city's heritage, and it inspires us to keep trying to be ingenious.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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