If your house burned down tomorrow, what would you do?
On December 16, 2003, Thomas N. Armstrong III and his wife, Bunty, got the phone call that every absentee homeowner dreads. Fire had destroyed their summer place, known as Hoover Hall, on Fishers Island.
Year-round residents of the exclusive resort community adrift in Long Island Sound, a ferry ride from New London, Conn., retrieved the house’s most valuable contents.
“Get the Audubons out,” the matron marshalling the volunteer brigade commanded.
But the house †a rambling, 1926 Colonial Revival that the Armstrongs had meticulously renovated and furnished for themselves and their children †was irrevocably damaged.
Faced with the same situation, some would bank the insurance settlement and retreat. Others would attempt to recreate what had been lost.
A career museum director who over three decades headed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Andy Warhol Museum before becoming president of the Garden Conservancy, Armstrong saw the opportunity to start anew. You could call it accidental creative destruction of the artistic variety.
With his wife’s encouragement, the self-described frustrated architect, artist and farmer threw himself into designing Hooverness, a seamlessly envisioned house, collection and garden that implemented to perfection all that Armstrong had learned about art and life in the preceding decades.
“Bunty understood that the garden was my overwhelming interest. It was she who decided we should preserve it and that building a new house surrounded by the garden was to be exclusively my project,” he wrote.
Armstrong, who died suddenly in June 2011 not long after completing his project, recorded his journey with remarkable candor and some insight in A Singular Vision: Architecture Art Landscape. Published posthumously by Quantuck Lane Press and distributed by W.W. Norton & Company, the exquisitely illustrated volume is an arresting autobiographical account by a man whose lasting legacy may be the house and garden he left behind.
Recalled by Jennifer Russell †his good friend, fellow Fishers Island habitué and former Whitney Museum colleague †Armstrong was “ebullient and vivacious” with “an amazing sense of fun.” He was also a demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist who set high standards for himself and others. His dual persona is neatly illustrated by his two Fisher Island residences, Hoover Hall and Hooverness.
Hoover Hall was everything Hooverness is not: informal, playful, made for family and guests. Its haphazard architectural plan and gardens evolved over time. Hoover Hall acquired its name after a dinner guest, amused by an absurd conversation about the relative merits of vacuum cleaners, sent Armstrong a 45th birthday present: a “Super Vac” costume, complete with black tights, satin cape and a T-shirt appliquéd with a Hoover vacuum. A friend designed a coat-of-arms that consisted of two crossed vacuum cleaners. Armstrong was inspired to order stationery and gilt-edged Lenox china decorated with the Hoover Hall crest.
“Life with us has a certain edge,” he explained.
Armstrong threw himself into furnishing Hoover Hall, a chintz-strewn homage to Sister Parish that was vintage 1980s. A connoisseur with an eye for the best, he bought antique bamboo and wicker furniture from the dealer Margot Johnson, hand colored botanical and naturalist prints from Graham Arader and bronze sculptures of animals from Conner-Rosenkranz Gallery and James Graham & Sons.
“With total disregard for practical priorities, one of my first concerns was china for entertaining,” wrote Armstrong, who splurged on a second set of dinnerware, Limoges patterned with pink flamingos. He paired the surprisingly beautiful service with colorful Carder Steuben glass, one of the few things that he continued to collect for Hooverness.
Many of the salvaged contents of Hoover Hall were sent to Northeast Auctions in 2005. Bidding for a client, California dealer Brian Witherell purchased $70,000 worth of Aesthetic Movement décor. A Haviland & Co., porcelain ice cream platter made for Rutherford Hayes garnered $10,904. Faux bamboo did well. Miraculously, all of the bronze sculptures survived, as did many of the prints. Some were reused in the new house.
Armstrong covered Hoover Hall’s forlorn footprint with sod. It was then that he began to see the site’s true potential; to imagine what the ideal garden and house could and should be.
As he noted, “You could see the outline of the entire garden on the landside as well as a 180-degree view of Fishers Island Sound and the Connecticut shoreline on the waterside. As I pondered these features I decided to build a Modernist steel-and-glass house to capture continuous views of land and sea. It was to be a glass pavilion from which to enjoy the landscape constantly.”
Armstrong thought of his new project as artmaking.
He wrote, “There are few Modernist houses in the landscape; very few people see the life around them as an abstraction. I do, and so I decided to seek an architect who would understand juxtaposition of forms, flow of space, effects of light and the relationship between a Modernist plan, the surrounding landscape and the sea. I was determined to create an environment based on two of the greatest achievements of the Twentieth Century, Abstraction and Modernism.”
When a scheduling conflict prevented Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designers of the American Folk Art Museum, from taking the project, Armstrong instead hired Thomas Phifer and Partners. The New York architect had only one Modernist precedent to draw from on Fishers Island: Richard Neutra’s 1938 Windshield House for the John Nicholas Brown family. It, too, had burned, in 1973, and was ultimately demolished.
Construction on Hooverness (the name is a contraction of Hoover Hall and the Celtic word “ness” for place) began in August 2005 when Armstrong was 73. It neared completion by September 2008, when the final coat of Benjamin Moore’s “Simply White” paint was applied to interior walls. Landscaping continued for another year.
The resulting structure is a fanciful conceit, a house that is barely a house. From the front court, one looks through the structure to the sea beyond. Interior walls are set at right angles to the long, glass exterior walls, which in practical terms means that wherever one stands, inside or out, art and landscape are simultaneously visible. Every morning and evening, Armstrong inspected his gardens from the gray, granite pathway he installed around the perimeter of the house.
Aside from cherishing the view and incorporating glass furniture and objects into his interiors, Armstrong dispensed with the conventions of beach house design. To his delight, a generous insurance settlement allowed him to create a fund for purchasing art. For the first time, the former museum director was free to acquire abstract American art without professional conflict of interest. He was chiefly drawn to artists of about his age who produced examples of biomorphic, geometric and Second Generation Abstract Expressionism between 1948 and 1970.
“Assembling them was a rewarding extension of my professional life with art,” he noted.
Writing in Architectural Digest , Joseph Giovannini perceptively observed that the interior of Hooverness had something of a landscaped quality, as well, with “Modernist specimens” placed in striking sculptural arrangements that were visible from the grounds. Armstrong combined new, custom furniture with vintage pieces by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Arne Jacobsen, Dirk van Erp, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, Edward Wormley and Frank Gehry, among others. He selected sympathetic lighting devices by Isamu Noguchi, Harris Rubin, Cedric Hartman and Solis Betancourt. A 1937 piano fashioned by Donald Deskey for Steinway filled Hooverness with music.
For Christmas 2010, Bunty Armstrong gave her husband a cheerful, contemporary oil on canvas abstraction, “4960,” by Andrew Masullo. It was the final work of art included in A Singular Vision.
Tom Armstrong died six months later at 78.
“Many of my friends had warned early on of the disastrous mishaps and strained relationships I would suffer during construction of a house. If they occurred, the memory is overcome by my pleasure,” wrote Armstrong, who achieved his dream.
Hooverness is no home for untidy mortals, let alone grandchildren. Acknowledging as much, Armstrong said that he hoped that his offspring would come to appreciate his “self-indulgent project” and that the house, art and furnishings would introduce them to a “mysterious, unknown world,” which they would “learn to welcome as I do.”
For all the author’s candor, readers may wonder about Armstrong’s wife of nearly 50 years, the former Virginia Whitney Brewster. Her one request, that there be “somewhere cozy,” went unanswered. Seeing her husband’s fondest wish fulfilled seems to have been sufficient satisfaction. One marvels at her generosity of spirit.
Illustrating the complexity of this charming, much-loved man, the Tom Armstrong who built what is essentially a solitary, one-bedroom art gallery was just as eager to share his gardens with the multitudes. He joked that desperate hosts looking for activity on rainy weekends would suggest to guests, “Let’s go drive to the Armstrongs’ and see the glass house with the crazy art.” Kidding aside, he kept a sign up much of the time that read: “GARDEN IS OPEN. Hours 10:00 to 4:00 Tues. Thurs. Sat. Please park and walk in. House is private.”
No doubt visitors will continue flocking to the house and gardens on Fishers Island that recall so eloquently Tom Armstrong.
A Singular Vision: Architecture Art Landscape is available from Quantuck Lane Press for $85, hard bound. For information, 800-458-4830 or www.quantucklanepress.com .