Read CHAPTER IV of The House in Good Taste, free online book, by Elsie de Wolfe, on


One walks the streets of New York and receives the fantastic impression that some giant architect has made for the city thousands of houses in replica. These dismal brownstone buildings are so like without, and alas! so like within, that one wonders how their owners know their homes from one another. I have had the pleasure of making over many of these gloomy barracks into homes for other people, and when we left the old Irving Place house we took one of these dreary houses for ourselves, and made it over into a semblance of what a city house should be.

You know the kind of house there are tens of thousands of them a four story and basement house of pinkish brownstone, with a long flight of ugly stairs from the street to the first floor. The common belief that all city houses of this type must be dark and dreary just because they always have been dark and dreary is an unnecessary superstition.

My object in taking this house was twofold: I wanted to prove to my friends that it was possible to take one of the darkest and grimiest of city houses and make it an abode of sunshine and light, and I wanted to furnish the whole house exactly as I pleased for once!

The remaking of the house was very interesting. I tore away the ugly stone steps and centered the entrance door in a little stone-paved fore-court on the level of the old area-way. The fore-court is just a step below the street level, giving you a pleasant feeling of invitation. Everyone hates to climb into a house, but there is a subtle allure in a garden or a court yard or a room into which you must step down. The fore-court is enclosed with a high iron railing banked with formal box-trees. Above the huge green entrance door there is a graceful iron balcony, filled with green things, that pulls the great door and the central window of the floor above into an impressive composition. The façade of the house, instead of being a commonplace rectangle of stone broken by windows, has this long connected break of the door and balcony and window. By such simple devices are happy results accomplished!

The door itself is noteworthy, with its great bronze knob set squarely in the center. On each side of it there are the low windows of the entrance hall, with window-boxes of evergreens. Compare this orderly arrangement of windows and entrance door with the badly balanced houses of the old type, and you will realize anew the value of balance and proportion.

From the fore-court you enter the hall. Once within the hall, the, house widens magically. Surely this cool black and white apartment cannot be a part of restless New York! Have you ever come suddenly upon an old Southern house, and thrilled at the classic purity of white columns in a black-green forest? This entrance hall gives you the same thrill; the elements of formality, of tranquillity, of coolness, are so evident. The walls and ceiling are a deep, flat cream, and the floor is laid in large black and white marble tiles. Exactly opposite you as you enter, there is a wall fountain with a background of mirrors. The water spills over from the fountain into ferns and flowers banked within a marble curb. The two wall spaces on your right and left are broken by graceful niches which hold old statues. An oval Chinese rug and the white and orange flowers of the fountain furnish the necessary color. The windows flanking the entrance doorway are hung with flat curtains of coarse white linen, with inserts of old filet lace, and there are side curtains of dead black silk with borderings of silver and gold threads.

In any house that I have anything to do with, there is some sort of desk or table for writing in the hall. How often I have been in other people’s houses when it was necessary to send a message, or to record an address, when the whole household began scurrying around trying to find a pencil and paper! This, to my mind, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and fundamental! lack of order.

In this hall there is a charming desk particularly adapted to its place. It is a standing desk which can be lowered or heightened at will, so that one who wishes to scribble a line or so may use it without sitting down. This desk is called a bureau d’architect. I found it in Biarritz. It would be quite easy to have one made by a good cabinet-maker, for the lines and method of construction are simple. My hall desk is so placed that it is lighted by the window by day and the wall lights by night, but it might be lighted by two tall candlesticks if a wall light were not available. There is a shallow drawer which contains surplus writing materials, but the only things permitted on the writing surface of the desk are the tray for cards, the pad and pencils.

The only other furniture in the hall is an old porter’s chair near the door, a chair that suggests the sedan of old France, but serves its purpose admirably.

A glass door leads to the inner hall and the stairway, which I consider the best thing in the house. Instead of the usual steep and gloomy stairs with which we are all familiar, here is a graceful spiral stairway which runs from this floor to the roof. The stair hall has two walls made up of mirrors in the French fashion, that is, cut in squares and held in place by small rosettes of gilt, and these mirrored walls seemingly double the spaciousness of what would be, under ordinary conditions, a gloomy inside hallway.

The house is narrow in the extreme, and the secret of its successful renaissance is plenty of windows and light color and mirrors mirrors mirrors! It has been called the “Little House of Many Mirrors,” for so much of its spaciousness and charm is the effect of skilfully managed reflections. The stair-landings are most ingeniously planned. There are landings that lead directly from the stairs into the rooms of each floor, and back of one of the mirrored stair walls there is a little balcony connecting the rooms on that floor, a private passageway.

The drawing-room and dining-room occupy the first floor. The drawing-room is a pleasant, friendly place, full of quiet color. The walls are a deep cream color and the floor is covered with a beautiful Savonnerie rug. There are many beautiful old chairs covered with Aubusson tapestry, and other chairs and sofas covered with rose colored brocade. This drawing-room is seemingly a huge place, this effect being given by the careful placing of mirrors and lights, and the skilful arrangement of the furniture. I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint, comfortable chairs with lights beside them, open fires on the hearth and flowers wherever they “belong,” mirrors and sunshine in all rooms.

But I think we can carry the white paint idea too far: I have grown a little tired of over-careful decorations, of plain white walls and white woodwork, of carefully matched furniture and over-cautious color-schemes. Somehow the feeling of homey-ness is lost when the decorator is too careful. In this drawing-room there is furniture of many woods, there are stuffs of many weaves, there are candles and chandeliers and reading-lamps, but there is harmony of purpose and therefore harmony of effect. The room was made for conversation, for hospitality.

A narrow landing connects the dining-room and the drawing-room. The color of the dining-room has grown of itself, from the superb Chinese rug on the floor and the rare old Mennoyer drawings inset in the walls. The woodwork and walls have been painted a soft dove-like gray. The walls are broken into panels by a narrow gray molding, and the Mennoyers are set in five of these panels. In one narrow panel a beautiful wall clock has been placed. Above the mantel there is a huge mirror with a panel in black and white relief above it. On the opposite wall there is another mirror, with a console table of carved wood painted gray beneath it. There is also a console table under one of the Mennoyers.

The two windows in this room are obviously windows by day, but at night two sliding doors of mirrors are drawn, just as a curtain would be drawn, to fill the window spaces. This is a little bit tricky, I admit, but it is a very good trick. The dining-table is of carved wood painted gray and covered with yellow damask, which in turn is covered with a sheet of plate glass. The chairs are covered with a blue and gold striped velvet. The rug has a gold ground with medallions and border of blue, ivory and rose. Near the door that leads to the service rooms there is a huge screen made of one piece of wondrous tapestry. No other furniture is needed in the room.

The third floor is given over to my sitting-room, bedroom, dressing-room, and so forth, and the fourth floor to Miss Marbury’s apartments. These rooms will be discussed in other chapters.

The servants’ quarters in this house are very well planned. In the back yard that always goes with a house of this type I had built a new wing, five stories high, connected with the floors of the house proper by window-lined passages. On the dining-room floor the passage becomes a butler’s pantry. On the bedroom floors the passages are large enough for dressing-rooms and baths, connecting with the bedrooms, and for outer halls and laundries connecting with the maids’ rooms and the back stairs. In this way, you see, the maids can reach the dressing-rooms without invading the bedrooms. The kitchen and its dependencies occupy the first floor of the new wing, the servants’ bedrooms the next three floors, and the top floor is made up of clothes closets, sewing-rooms, store rooms, etc.

I firmly believe that the whole question of household comfort evolves from the careful planning of the service portion of the house. My servants’ rooms are all attractive. The woodwork of these rooms is white, the walls are cream, the floors are waxed. They are all gay and sweet and cheerful, with white painted beds and chests of drawers and willow chairs, and chintz curtains and bed-coverings that are especially chosen, not handed down when they have become too faded to be used elsewhere!