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Pastoral Poetry

Andrew Solomon on grandeur and simplicity in his renovated countryside manor

Marienruh, with crocuses. Photo: Andrew Solomon.

We wanted the country to be the country: oxygenated and relaxed, long walks and the option of solitude, woodlands and hedgerows, proximate farms, amnesiac to urban stressors. John, my husband, who hails from the Midwest, thought that meant living simply; he had visions of a sweet cottage with a view. I saw no contradiction between casual living and pretensions to grandeur. Since being built for Alice Astor on her marriage to Sergei Obolensky, to designs by 1920s society architect Mott B. Schmidt, Marienruh had been variously a home for unwed mothers; a teenage drug rehab facility; and the central gathering place for a trailer park near what is now the tennis court.

Someone tried making Marienruh an events venue by introducing gold spray paint and an assortment of dubious Danish figural chandeliers; for a while, it was occupied by a woman who wore white lipstick and old Courrèges, and lived in the servants’ quarters. The trunks of poison ivy were thick as an athlete’s thighs; dead branches hung so precariously that the arborist called them widow-makers. There were no chimney breasts, no doorknobs, no gutters; the roof and windows leaked; the plumbing did not work; the kitchen looked like the service wing of a failing psychiatric hospital. The plank floors glistened and the staircase was fetchingly carved, but everything was askew and where the paint was peeling, a greenish underlayer glowed with the winning patina of industrial waste.

John wanted comfort; I wanted splendour; Robert managed to meld the two.

The only modern touch was a subterranean bomb shelter with cabinetry so hideous it would have driven anyone out into nuclear winter. I knew at once that it was home. John transformed the dark, cluttered attic, devising four guest rooms and a playroom. I wanted to remake the guest wing, with its closed-in upper floor, into a double-height library. Robert Couturier, a friend since the 1980s who had already helped us with two other houses and my immediate family with four of theirs, negotiated Schmidt’s false symmetries (nothing is as centred as it looks) and brought unity to the design (and, in some instances, to our marriage, which threatened to founder over panelling in the living room, why hallways matter, or what belonged in a mudroom).

Marienruh library with Christmas tree. Photo: Andrew Solomon.

John wanted comfort; I wanted splendour; Robert managed to meld the two. His impeccable French eye turned out to be just what we needed to live an American life in a faux-English house. He opened walls with elegantly detailed arches, installed dormers and oeils-de-boeuf, and made the spaces flow so naturally that no-one now can guess what was added. The living room curtains were commissioned through a Kashmiri friend after dinner in Delhi; the library shades were produced by someone I met on my first night in Antananarivo. My bathroom has tiles I bought in Kabul while covering the invasion of Afghanistan; we picked up the library table in Sri Lanka; the astrolabe came from Morocco. The shaman’s costume in the back hall I found in Myanmar. Bibelots and pictures were inherited from my object-happy family.

The works were mostly gifts from the artists I’ve written about: Ilya Kabakov, William Kentridge, Yayoi Kusama, Annie Leibovitz, Yoko Ono, Sally Mann, Xu Bing, Tina Barney. Neither of us anticipated 12 years of renovation, entailing five contractors and two lawsuits. When we finally moved in late in 2019, I hated it: the house was too labyrinthine, none of the furniture seemed to belong anywhere, all the colours looked wrong, and what remained unfinished seemed insurmountable. When the virus hit a few months later, we settled in for a brief few weeks, grateful not to be in the confining, infectious city.

We did not leave again for eight months. That is when we fell in love with the house and the life it enabled; despite the time’s crowding horrors, it was marked with a sweet, extended intimacy. I was researching an article about polygamy and John and I were hashing out the remaining decorating challenges. Our son George, then nine, grew exasperated one evening. ‘Daddy,’ he said. ‘Can’t you talk about anything besides Mormons and curtains?’ Up the river a few miles is a famous house refurnished entirely in material produced during the years of its construction. I prefer eclecticism; our various sudden impulses and Robert’s blessed rage for order have made Marienruh into a place where people elude the modern imperative to focus on integration, expand beyond those with whom they have something obvious in common and escape the poisonous uniformity of algorithmically reinforced political bubbles.

Marienruh became to us as we are to each other: sometimes grouchy, terribly demanding, but hard not to love.

Like the furniture, so the throng. The house is a milestone of freedom for us: though it was a wedding gift from my father in 2007, moving there meant leaving our rooms at the top of his house, something to which he conceded only when I pointed out that his part of Westchester County had no gay families and would leave his grandchildren feeling marooned. In the city, we had thought about having children; by the time the Rhinebeck project was under way, we had them, and dogs. We reified our affection with those rooms and their contents. Marienruh became to us as we are to each other: sometimes grouchy, terribly demanding, but hard not to love.

The week my mother died, I remarked that we had lived beautifully, and she said, ‘Have you just noticed?’ I swore to live beautifully for the rest of my life insofar as I could. Gay men and their mothers; gay men and their bodies; gay men and their houses: if you have grown up knowing that you will always be at the margins despite all appearances to the contrary, you learn to cling to appearances. If your family or the larger society found who you are disgusting, you may focus on beauty to compensate. The abundance of our houses is a proof of validity. It is impossible to control the outside world; it is not a winning strategy to control other people; but to take a wrecked house and fill it with celebration feels like unmitigated triumph.

A boy with his dogs in winter, at Marienruh. Photo: Andrew Solomon.

(Read the original article, illustrated with photography
by Ngoc Minh Ngo, at The World of Interiors.)