A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 1, 2008

A couple of years ago, I drove out to Lenox, Massachusetts, in our neighboring Berkshires, to visit The Mount, the magnificent summer mansion and gardens of Edith Wharton. Wharton, who lived from the 1860s to the 1930s, was a major American writer, the author of over a dozen novels, including The House of Mirth, a great book, and The Age of Innocence, an important novel that, 15 years ago, was turned into a big movie by director Martin Scorsese.
I was surprised to discover that this writer of fiction chronicling the lives of the wealthy old-money society families of 19th-century New York got her start in interior decoration. Wharton’s first book was The Decoration of Houses, a book that argued for simplicity, balance and architectural harmony in interior design, a break from the heavy-handed over-dressed rooms of the Victorian Age. Her design ideas seemed fresh and modern at the beginning of a new century and Wharton used interior design to help usher in a more modern age.
It turns out that Edith Wharton was not alone among wealthy society women who turned to the decoration of homes as a way to achieve social and cultural change. Another was Candace Wheeler.
Candace Wheeler was born on a farm in Delhi in 1827, one of eight children of a Delaware County farmer and cap-maker named Thurber. It is said she learned the arts of the home-spun age at home: spinning thread, weaving cloth, sewing and knitting clothes and household linens in domestic manufacture. By the age of 17 she was married to Thomas Wheeler and living in New York City. Wheeler must have been pretty successful because, by 1854, the couple had a house out in Jamaica, Queens, a house named Nestledown (if a house has a name, it must be quite a place.)
They also had two children, and Candace Thurber Wheeler devoted much of her considerable energy to motherhood. By the 1860s, though, she had time to take art lessons from George Henry Hall, a prominent American painter of the romantic Pre-Raphaelite school. After the Civil War, the Wheelers traveled widely in Europe, and Candace may have taken more art classes in Germany.
Her story sounds familiar: a talented, ambitious, and energetic woman seeking an opening to express her energy to the world. Almost. Almost. Then, at age 49, Candace Wheeler’s life was changed by an exhibit at the 1876 American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The English Royal School of Art Needlework presented an exhibition of artistic needlework done by underemployed, economically strapped, middle-class English women who had been taught how to turn the arts of domestic manufacture into cold, hard cash.
Candace Wheeler saw the opportunity to help American women in the same way, to provide an economic outlet for the creative energies of women, and seek commercial value for “women’s work.” In 1877, she founded the Society of Decorative Art of New York to “encourage profitable industries among women who possess artistic talent and to furnish…a market for their work.”
Within a couple of years, the Society was something of a rage, having mounted a very successful, and well-connected, exhibition of the decorative arts in New York and having spawned related societies in Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Charleston, SC, and Troy.
In 1879, Candace Wheeler went into business with Louis Comfort Tiffany, founding one of America’s first firms in interior design: Louis C. Tiffany and Company Associated Artists. When the partnership dissolved in 1883, Wheeler took Associated Artists as the name of her firm, designing and producing denims, silks, velveteens, embroideries and tapestries, as well as providing interior design services.
She became not only a successful social reformer and business person, but an important textile artist, as well, important enough to get her own show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Of course, that didn’t come until years after her death in 1923. In October 2001, the Met mounted the exhibit Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design 1875-1900.
In 1887, Candace Thurber Wheeler of Delhi returned to the Catskills when she and her brother bought 2,000 acres just north of Tannersville for the summer retreat and artists’ colony that became Onteora Park. Her privately printed 1914 book Annals of Onteora is posted on-line – you can read it on your computer screen. Readers will enjoy her description of looking for and finding the perfect mountain location on which to build her dream mountain house.
The Catskills had always had a place in Candace’s imagination. As a child, the blue mountains in the distance “between our valley and the Hudson” were a place of romance, her “Delectable Mountains,” named for a fictitious range in the only romance allowed in her father’s austere puritan library. Her Delawares, as she called her native Delhi-area hills, were a western spur of the Catskills, and, building Onteora, she was going home.
Take a ride to Tannersville and turn left at the red light, up Route 23C. The road will wind up the hill, carrying you up the ridge to Onteora Park, a community of private homes where architecture, history, and great views merge. The park’s stone church is particularly impressive.