Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This bouquet is my annual spring tribute to the two artists whose spirits permeate my Howard Street property.

If you’ve ever been to my home, you have heard the gist of the story. The “great room” was originally the barn of the house next door, built as a Victorian transitioning into Craftsman around 1900 by noted artist Alfred Cornelius Howland. A Mayflower descendant born in 1838 in Walpole, New Hampshire, Howland was part of the Barbizon School of landscape and figure painting in Paris in the 1860s, the Camille Corot crowd. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1865, he became known as the “Corot of America” for his New England landscapes and traveled in the circles of Winslow Homer and landscape painter Homer D. Martin. He maintained his primary residence in New York City and summered in Williamstown, Massachusetts, eventually retiring in what was then a fashionable part of Pasadena known as the “Monk Hill” neighborhood. He died here in Pasadena in 1909. Today his paintings are included in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Naval Academy, and Yale University.

Another artist, Geraldine Birch Duncan, subsequently lived in the Howland house for nearly fifty years, from the 1920s to her death in 1972. Born in 1883 in Forest Row, Sussex, England, Duncan was a portrait painter and etcher who, like Howland, also studied in Paris. She also did landscapes and opened a workshop in Pasadena in 1924. What became the structure of our “great room” with its high ceiling, brick fireplace, and north-facing windows was her studio built around this time. A fire in 1932 destroyed some fifty of her paintings right before a planned exhibition of her work, and the studio was rebuilt. When Bing opened up the west interior wall once to do some repairs, we saw charred studs that were not replaced. She won an award at the Provincial Exposition in Victoria, British Columbia in 1932 and also exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Just before we bought this house in the fall of 1989, the two bedrooms and baths had been added and kitchen facilities installed in the “great room” to make it a single family detached house for the first time. At that time, a brick pathway encircled our house, connecting it to its Howland “mother ship” house next door. During our first spring here in 1990, Bing was on the roof to fix a leak (yes, we have a 20-year “This Old House” theme here). The front yard at that time had remnants of a series of concrete ponds and what we called “mystery bulbs” were starting to appear. That morning, Bing called to me, “You’ve got to come up here and see this.” Mind you, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy with what would become Akemi, but I was very careful climbing up the ladder, and always will remember what I saw from the roof.

Looking down, we could see the patterns of bulbs planted in Impressionist swirls around the ponds and the brick pathway. How I wished I had a time machine and could go back to see what the garden looked like in its heyday. A landscape architect historian told us that the stampings on the old brick are from the 1920s and 1930s, so on that basis I have assumed that Geraldine was the gardener. I identified the first wave of bulbs that come forth in January as leucojum vernum or “snowflakes,” reminiscent of lilies of the valley with their sprays of small white bells. Then in March came pure white irises. And finally in April white freesia, a particular favorite of mine. I started to really connect with Geraldine’s floral aesthetic.

Later that spring and summer, Bing and I (increasingly larger in pregnancy) dug out and saved all that brick, which he later used to make the front courtyard. I also dug up and saved as many of the bulbs as I could. The snowflakes now have propagated throughout the front yard. Geraldine’s freesias didn’t survive the transfer, but Bing later bought me those bulbs, which now are planted next to the irises by my David Austin “Heritage” rose.

After a week of steady storms (which put a literal damper on Akemi’s spring break week home), I walked outside this morning in between the concluding drizzles to appreciate the irises and freesias in their glory. I have come to love all-white, fragrant flowers generally, and gathering these flowers each spring in honor of Geraldine.

I always have thought it appropriate with the history of this property that our great room has continued to function as a studio, albeit for music. And have hoped that Alfred and Geraldine would consider this family to be good stewards of the artistic spirit in this corner of Howard Street.

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