There was a lot of speculation as to who the decorator was for the amazing Bunny Mellon house in NYC which is on the market for an eye-watering $49 million, and the question has been definitively answered by no less an authority than Mitchell Owens of Architecture Digest.
Here’s what Mitch has to say…
The subject of painted floors happened to be crossing my mind recently when a real estate listing on the Sotheby’s website jolted me back in time. The property advertised is 125 East 70th Street, a New York City townhouse built by philanthropists Bunny and Paul Mellon. Its present owners—Irish target-marketing pioneer Tony White and his wife, Clare—have put the 14-room residence on the market for $46 million, after seven years’ ownership.
The price is astounding, but what's especially striking is how the Whites have preserved (and, in fact, substantially augmented, judging by the Sotheby's slide show) the stenciled wood floors created in the mid-1960s by artist-decorator Paul Leonard and his business partner, William Strom. The muted tones of gray, slate, and stony white that they used always reminded me of Scandinavian manors—but more on that later.
An amateur landscape designer and horticulturalist who co-created the Rose Garden at the White House, Mrs. Mellon, now 103, and her art-collecting banker husband built the French-inspired townhouse in 1966. Replacing two century-old brownstones that the couple owned and that Mr. Mellon said had become “sort of bedraggled,” the L-shaped, 40-foot-wide structure is effervescently pretty. A seven-level hôtel particulier conceived by the Mellons’ favored architect, the neoclassicist H. Page Cross, it incorporates three high-walled gardens (two small ones in front, one lot-spanning example at the rear), as well as a large third-floor terrace paneled with Sun King–style trelliswork. A little more than a decade after the building was completed, Paul Goldberger, then an architecture critic for The New York Times, declared his love for its “wedding-cake charm,” adding that Cross’s work “sets a tone of fantasy for the entire block.” The AIA Guide to New York City, on the other hand, is admiring but blunt, calling 125’s stage-set charm “anachronistic: a charming stuccoed confection of ‘French Provincial’ that France itself never experienced."
To furnish the interiors, Bunny Mellon called on one of the world’s most blue-chip duos, London decorators John Fowler and Imogen Taylor. Leonard and Strom, however, executed the airy, elegant schemes planned by the English team, working out of an on-site studio set up for their use. As Taylor explained to me in a telephone call a few days ago, the cofounder of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler “never wanted to leave England. He liked his own bed.” Thus his sole top-to-bottom American project was conducted entirely through the post, she said, working “from measurements taken out there and with photographs of empty rooms. It was an amazing thing to do—and not very satisfactory, really.”
Some 15 years ago I met Leonard, who died in 2002, and he showed me period snapshots of the Mellon floors, which, he explained, appeared aged even when they were brand-new. The multiple hand-applied glazes and careful sanding and scraping that revealed some of the underlying layers were techniques that Fowler and George Oakes—then a director at the firm and one of the 20th century’s most talented decorative artists—taught Leonard and Strom when they were flown to London for a tutorial. “The boys,” as Fowler called them, also employed a metal tool in their work, lightly scoring the wood planks to achieve a trompe l’oeil effect that suggested inlaid stone. (After purchasing the house, the Whites repainted several floors, employing similar patterns.)
Floors scored and painted in similar fashion ornamented Leonard’s house in Washington Depot, Connecticut, where I spent an afternoon deep in conversation about his under-the-radar career, which included several Mellon residences (he worked for them almost exclusively for many years) as well as Jacqueline Onassis’s Palladian-style villa on the Greek island of Skorpios. (Mrs. Mellon loaned him for the project after Billy Baldwin proved too costly and Renzo Mongiardino’s suggestions were deemed too ornate.) Other such floors were illustrated in Architectural Digest’s August 1981 cover story about the decorator’s previous home in Roxbury, Connecticut. “In Sweden at one time, a vogue developed among the upper classes for marble floors in the Italian manner,” Leonard told the magazine. “But marble was too expensive and too cold underfoot, so the practical Swedes did a painted checkerboard in imitation of marble.” So did Leonard, when Mrs. Mellon, she of the famously subtle taste (“very expensively simple,” Taylor says), came calling.
One oft-reported detail about Leonard and Strom’s work for the Mellons in Manhattan, however, doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny: The boys never painted shadows on floorboards to imitate eternal sunshine. That is absolutely false, Taylor says—but she agrees that it is a lovely idea.
You should check out the rest of Mitch’s columns for Architectural Digest. They’re always a treasure and an excellent way to learn new things. Here.